“A Final Word”
February 17, 2019
The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Rayburn
As you might imagine, I spent some time thinking about the last sermon I would preach as the pastor of this congregation. Such sermons are not as frequent as you might think. When a minister’s tenure has been only several years in duration – now commonplace – a “final” sermon may strike both the preacher and the congregation as pretentious. On the other hand, a long-serving minister’s service is often unexpectedly interrupted by ill-health and he is in that way prevented from delivering his final sermon. Think of Charles Spurgeon or our own James Kennedy of Fort Lauderdale. I did some digging trying to find important examples of sermons delivered at the end of long ministries but was able to find nothing very helpful. After some thought I settled on what seemed to me to be an appropriate subject for my final sermon. It is so not only because of the fitness of the theme – that will be obvious – but because I am returning in this sermon to Hebrews, a book of the Bible that has had a special influence on my thinking since I spent a year of my life studying the book during my doctoral research in Scotland in 1977 and 1978. It thus came to have an important influence on my preaching through the years. It was subsequently a focus of the doctoral research of my son-in-law, Joshua Moon, now published as a book, and then of my son Rob, whose doctoral dissertation on the interpretation of Hebrews is being published as we speak. Hebrews, in other words, is both a personal and a family preoccupation.
One thing always to remember about Hebrews is that it is a sermon, what the author in the final chapter calls a “word of exhortation,” and like any good sermon, it has a main point, a proposition, a theme which the sermon derives, explains, and applies from Holy Scripture. Hebrews is a sermon on the absolute necessity of a persevering faith. Some in this Jewish Christian community had abandoned the faith to return to Judaism. The author is exhorting his readers not to do the same thing lest at last they fail to receive God’s promised salvation. What we are reading in chapter 3 is a specimen of the argument and application we get repeatedly throughout Hebrews: “hold fast…do not fall away; only then will you reach the city with foundations, the heavenly country.”
v.1 Remember, Hebrews is all about getting to heaven. It’s not about the blessings you may enjoy in your life in this world as a follower of Jesus Christ. There are many of those, but Hebrews is concerned about a person getting to heaven. So, the heavenly calling is likewise a reflection of the concentration of this preacher on a single theme.
v.3 This author has already compared Jesus to the prophets and to the angels. For the Jews Moses was the great man, the prophet, the leader and law-giver. But Jesus was greater still!
v.6 It is often alleged that these verses amount to a contrast between the inferior Mosaic order and administration and the superior administration introduced by Christ and his apostles. But, that is not what the author says. You can see that clearly enough yourself. There is but one house of God; Moses served in that house; but Christ built it. Moses was never anything more than a servant in the house over which Christ rules as the Son of God.
As we will soon read, believers today belong to the same house in which Moses served. The continuity of the church in all ages of the history of salvation is a fundamental assumption of Hebrews! He refers repeatedly to the people of God, but never once does he distinguish eras or epochs or generations. What is more, several times in this sermon he will refer to Christ’s presence and work in the ancient epoch. It was not only the Lord Jesus for whom Moses suffered, as he will say in 11:26, it was Christ who delivered the law at Sinai, as he will say in chapter 12, and so on. Jesus Christ, as he will say at the end of his sermon, is the same yesterday, today, and forever. In this, of course, he agrees with the general teaching of the NT. It was Christ Jesus who led the people of God out of Egypt and through the wilderness as both Paul and Jude tell us. It was Christ who talked to Moses in the Tent of Meeting and, later, the Tabernacle, and it was Christ’s glory that shone on his face when he came out. The Israelites did not know him by his incarnate name, Jesus, of course; but the one with whom they had to do was the Son of God. All of that is assumed here in 3:2-6.
v.6 Now begins a long hortatory section, or section of application mixed with exposition, that stretches to 4:13, in which the danger of apostasy and the necessity of an enduring faith are illustrated from Israel’s history.
v.7 Here, by the way, is our doctrine of Holy Scripture: what David said, or Isaiah, or John, or Paul, God the Holy Spirit himself says!
v.12 Now, by way of anticipation, let me simply take note of two points: 1) this author uses psalm 95, written a thousand years before his day, to address his own audience; this ancient word of God is a message of perennial relevance. These folk can make precisely the same error that Israel made in the wilderness and, if they do, they will suffer precisely the same fate; 2) in chapter 4 he will prove that “the rest of God” referred to in the psalm and in the citation of it in v. 11 is not the land of Canaan but, much more, heaven itself. This is the futuristic perspective characteristic of Hebrews. Failure to enter God’s rest means nothing less than failure to obtain eternal life, of which entrance into the Promised Land was only a figure, an anticipation, a foretaste, a sign.
v.13 The “today” of Psalm 95 is still with us! We live in that “today.”
v.14 The thesis of the entire sermon, once again.
What should a minister say to his congregation after being their pastor for more than 40 years? No doubt many things would be appropriate. My heart is full of thanksgiving for the happy pastorate that I have enjoyed among you. I could sing your praises for the next thirty or forty minutes and in that way seek to discharge my very real debt to you. I could recollect the ups and downs of our life together and draw some lessons from the experiences we shared. I did not at any time suppose that I could say what Paul said when he bade farewell to the Ephesian elders, as we read in Acts 20. He could say that he had discharged his calling among them tirelessly and faithfully, with humility and with tears. I wouldn’t dare to say that about myself! Still less would I say what the faithful apostle said: that he was innocent of the blood of all men. But if this is to be a final sermon, it ought to be an exposition of a text Holy Scripture and which among the thousands that might be chosen would be most appropriate? Who could say, but surely this one is without question suitable to the occasion.
As I said, the text we read is a specimen of the argument of the entire sermon that is our Letter to the Hebrews. The proposition of that sermon is stated early, in chapter 2 verse 3: “how shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation!” Here is a man with a pastor’s heart urging his Christian friends to stand fast. There was an urgency to his exhortation because some – perhaps even some friends of his – had already succumbed to the temptation to return to the old ways, more comfortable, less demanding. It was not easy for a Jew in the first century to live a Christian life. Many of his friends, even members of his or her family, felt betrayed by his confession of Jesus as the Messiah. The Apostle Paul tells us that on becoming a Christian he suffered the loss of everything. Constant pressure was applied. More than that, while the Greco-Roman world was at least used to Judaism, however unreconciled to it remained, Christianity was a new thing and newly controversial. So the Jewish Christian got it from both sides. To be a Christian in the first century was to identify oneself as neither Jew nor Gentile, a third race, as it were. Human beings crave to belong and to be a Christian then was, in many ways, to give up belonging to anyone or anything except Christians, few as they were, and the Christian church, small and controversial as it was.
I suppose it was predictable that the enthusiasm of some Christians, here at the beginning of only the second generation of Christian life after Pentecost, should flag and some should give it up and go back. But, as the preacher of Hebrews explains, whatever the particular reasons that may have motivated these Jewish Christian apostates, flagging and failing faith was nothing new in the history of the people of God. Anyone with a Bible in hand should know what happens to people who give up the faith!
The particular example of the failure of faith to persevere to which the New Testament returns repeatedly and which is front and center in Hebrews is the wilderness generation, the people of Israel whom Moses led and the Lord Jesus delivered from bondage in Egypt. However tremendous their experience as witnesses of the ten plagues and passing through the parted waters of the Yam Suph, the Sea of Reeds, their faith was tried in the dry wasteland of the Sinai and found wanting. They complained, they disobeyed, and then openly rebelled at Kadesh and were rejected by the Lord, refused entrance into the Promised Land, not only the literal Promised Land, but as the New Testament makes clear, heaven itself. They are the Bible’s principal example of covenant members, we would say church members – indeed Stephen refers to them as “the church in the wilderness” – who failed to obtain the salvation of God. In 1 Corinthians 10 Paul too warns us not to be like them; not to put Christ to the test as they did. He draws from that history the same warning: “let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.”
Now, to be sure, there is a great difference between such apostasy against which we are warned in Hebrews and the ordinary weakness, frailty, and frequent failure of a genuine Christian life. The preacher here is not talking about people who struggle to remain as faithful to the Lord as they know they ought to be and want to be. He is as aware as Paul was that the finest Christians, the most devoted, the most faithful, the most determined to hold fast to Christ remain weak and sinful.
But what we are to take away from our text this morning is that the danger to which we must always be alert is not so much the sudden collapse of our faith, but the gradual dulling and hardening of our hearts, the slow, even unrecognized slipping away from true and living faith and the life of such faith. What he is warning us against, he says, is the hardening of our hearts by the deceitfulness of sin. Christians don’t ordinarily turn their backs on Christ in one fell swoop; they drift away without at first even knowing what they are doing; perhaps even hotly denying that their faith is disintegrating, even when warned by others that they seem to be losing interest in the Lord and the life of faith in him.
That is what happened to Israel in the wilderness it seems. Read that story once again. These people thrilled to the triumphs of the exodus. They had seen extraordinary things. They had promised their allegiance to the Lord more than once. Even when rebuked and punished for their disobedience, they seemed several times to repent, seemed perhaps even finally to have learned their lesson. They had the pillar of fire and the cloud as constant reminders of God’s powerful presence with them. If ever there were a people, or so we think, who were beyond doubting the love or the power of God, surely it was this generation. But, no, their hearts were hardening all the while, being deceived by sin. And here is the author of this sermon warning his hearers that the same thing was happening again as it had happened before. They were repeating the error of their ancestors, forgetting altogether what had happened to them as a result. In other words the temptation to permit our faith, as it were, to wither on the vine is perpetual and can be found in Christian experience in all times and in all manner of circumstances. And the temptation is so real, so powerful, so relentless that to counteract it, he says, we must encourage one another daily. Paul says the same thing to his Gentile churches; so this was not a problem peculiar to Jewish believers. It is the perpetual danger to which Christian faith is exposed in the Devil’s world. Sin deceives all people and much of the time. We can be so deceived, so beguiled by sin that we not only forget what we have learned and were once persuaded of, not only come to accept as true things that are patently false, but become impervious to being convinced of our error until we are, as John Owen put it, sermon-proof and sickness-proof.
Such is sin’s power to deceive. We see that power at work around us every day. We live in a culture that is sin-deceived. People believe all manner of things that in order to believe require the murder of multitudes of facts. They are happy to believe what they want to be true counter-evidence notwithstanding. Why do they entertain convictions that they contradict in their own thoughts and words time and time again every day, but never give way to question or to doubt? Sin has deceived them. We see it everywhere we look, sin’s deceitfulness. It is the explanation of the world as we know it. But you and I have been put on notice not to allow this to happen to us! We are to be alert to sin’s deceitfulness; on guard against it. We are to see through its lies. I love the wise way Simone Weil put it, the French Jewess communist who later became a Christian:
“Nothing is so beautiful, nothing is so continually fresh and surprising, so full of sweet and perpetual ecstasy, as the good; no desert is so dreary, monotonous and boring as evil. But with fantasy it’s the other way round. Fictional good is boring and flat, while fictional evil is varied, intriguing, attractive and full of charm.” [Cited in Muggeridge, Christ and the Media, 46]
Or consider this from Malcolm Muggeridge reflecting on his life in his autobiography, The Chronicles of Wasted Time [407-408].
“The saddest thing to me, in looking back on my life, has been to recall, not so much the wickedness I have been involved in, the cruel and selfish and egotistic things I have done, the hurt I have inflicted on those I loved – although all that’s painful enough. What hurts most is the preference I have so often shown for what is inferior, tenth-rate, when the first-rate was there for the having. Like a man who goes shopping, and comes back with cardboard shoes when he might have had leather, with dried fruit when he might have had fresh, with processed cheese when he might have had cheddar, with paper flowers when the primroses were out. … Alas, so much of my life has been spent pursuing this fictional good, and forgetful of the other, the real good, that is ever inspiring, ever renewed…”
We are to be equally thoughtful about the deceitfulness of sin and about how sin must inevitably, finally, and absolutely disappoint us, ruin us, and leave us without hope. In other words we’re to be sharp-sighted and thoughtful about why we are and remain and why we must remain followers of Jesus Christ. C.S. Lewis was asked once: “Which of the religions of the world gives to its followers the greatest happiness?” He answered:
“While it lasts, the religion of worshipping oneself is the best. I have an elderly acquaintance of about eighty, who has lived a life of unbroken selfishness and self-admiration from the earliest years, and is, I regret to say, one of the happiest men I know. From the moral point of view it is very difficult! I am not approaching the question from that angle. As you perhaps know, I haven’t always been a Christian. I didn’t go to religion to make me happy. I always knew that a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.” [God in the Dock, 58]
As G.K. Chesterton famously observed: “Christianity hasn’t been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.” Not for us, brothers and sisters. Difficulties notwithstanding, it is the way, the only way, to eternal life.
After all, we are not helpless before the deceitfulness of sin. We have been armed with powerful arguments and, as a matter of simple fact, the arguments get better and stronger and more convincing as time goes on. I have been struck by this over the past forty years. As unbelief has increased in our culture, as it has come more and more to dominate our public life – the media, the academy, the political class – the arguments for faith in God, for confidence in the Bible, for the truth of the Christian understanding of the world and of human life increase apace. There has never been a time in the history of the world when it has been easier to make the case for the Christian faith! No one has ever turned his back on Jesus Christ because it was the intelligent thing to do; the reasonable thing to do! But the argument here is not that the Christian faith is reasonable. This preacher didn’t have to make that argument. He was speaking to people who already believed the OT to be the Word of God. His argument is that we must not fail to reckon with the consequences of a flagging or failing faith.
In the days of the Inquisition in Spain there was a diabolical instrument known as the strappado. It worked in this way. The victim was hoisted far above the ground by a system of ropes and pulleys and then, suddenly, allowed to drop all the way to the earth. The body was, by this means, broken and battered in the most cruel and painful way. The word made its way into the language of English spiritual writing in respect to just this deceitfulness of sin. Here is Thomas Goodwin, the 17th century English Puritan.
“…[a man’s] lusts, both of body and mind, do strappado a sinner’s expectations.”
“That is to say: his sinful imaginations hoist up his expectations of pleasure to a great height; and then, suddenly, he is let fall. For, when the sinner comes to enjoy his high expectations, they always prove themselves to be such flat and empty things, that his soul, being completely cheated, says to itself – And this is all!” [In Whyte, With Mercy and with Judgment, 35-36] There is something for us to remember and bring to mind; to tell one another day by day. Sin will always disappoint and disappoint terribly! And vast multitudes will only fully realize that when it is too late! How shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation!
But more important still, as this preacher reminds us, Christ is building his house and is faithful in that work. If we will trust in him and look to him and rely on him, our faith shall prevail no matter the deceitfulness of sin, no matter the alluring temptations of this world, no matter the wiles of the Evil One. As this author will say in the peroration of his sermon, the Lord’s message to us in a time of temptation is: “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” It is a citation of Joshua 1:5 – good sermons are always full of biblical citations – and he goes on to draw from that promise this application:
“So we can confidently say, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?’”
When we think seriously about the subtlety of the Devil, about the attractions of the world, and still more about the weakness of our flesh, we can perhaps be forgiven for wondering how any of us remains a faithful Christian to the end. But the Lord is both faithful and powerful and he will keep us as we look to him. Horatius Bonar put this as beautifully as anyone I have ever read.
“It is strange perhaps to find a Joseph in Egypt, or a Rahab in Jericho, or an Obadiah in the house of Ahab, but it is more amazing to find saints in the world at all. Yet they are here. In spite of everything uncongenial in soil and air, they are here. They never seem to become acclimatized, yet they do not die out, but are ever renewed. The enemy labors to uproot them, but they are ineradicable. Nay, they thrive and bear fruit. It is a miracle, but yet so it is. Here the great husbandman is rearing his plants from generation to generation. Here the great potter fashions his vessels. Here the great master-builder hews and polishes the stones for his eternal temple. [The Morning of Joy]
I have hopes for you all. I believe you will hold fast your confidence and your hope. I believe you will stand firm to the end. I believe you will continue to dwell in the house of our Lord. I believe you now intend to be and remain faithful followers, servants, and soldiers of the Lord Christ and that you will so remain. That confidence gives me great pleasure.
Ministers read a great deal about other ministers; at least I certainly have. And since I first read about the 17th century Scottish minister, William Castlelaw of Stewarton, I have thought many times about him. Indeed, though I know very little about him or about his ministry, he came to be something of a hero of mine. He wasn’t much of a preacher himself and so he encouraged his congregation to go as often as they could to the next parish and hear David Dickson who was a much better preacher than he was. You would have to be a preacher yourself to know what spiritual heroism that required. He would often bring Robert Blair to Stewarton to preach to his people and would accompany him to and from his parish singing psalms all the way. A pastor like that, I believe, may count for little in this world, but his name will be written in letters of gold in heaven!
But of that man, of that minister you can be sure that since he crossed the Jordan and entered the Promised Land, he did not forget his congregation. Indeed it is very likely that he stood somewhere near the entrance of the City of God waiting for folk from Stewarton to come in, so that he might be the first to greet them and welcome them and rejoice with them when they arrived. I haven’t Samuel Rutherford’s pastoral heart, alas, but I know something of his pastoral feeling.
Oh! If one soul from Anwoth
Meet me at God’s Right Hand,
My heaven will be two heavens
In Immanuel’s land.
But I expect far more than one soul from Faith Presbyterian Church, Tacoma, WA to meet me there! Stand firm, hold fast, brothers and sisters, and let us, you and I, grinning from ear to ear, find one another again somewhere near the Right Hand. I love you!