Meditations in Hebrews 13: 70. A Final Encouragement? (1)
Heb 13:22 Brothers, I urge you to bear with my word of exhortation, for I have written you only a short letter.
Purpose of his writing: And so we come to the final verses of this thirteen-chapter book. At first glimpse verse 22 looks like a further encouragement, “I urge you to bear with my word of exhortation,” but then when we read the whole verse we see it is not about this particular verse, but about the entire book: “for I have written you only a short letter.” He calls this book a short letter; I wonder what a long one would be, for this is one of the longer letters of the New Testament?
Theology to launch exhortations: As I have looked up a couple of overviews of Hebrews I note that both place the emphasis on Christ’s superiority – over angels (chapters 1 & 2), over Moses (chapters 3 & 4), over the Old Covenant Priesthood (chapters 5-10) – and I can accept that this is true, and yet our writer calls this book his “word of exhortation” and so we find that those examples are, in context, used as platforms on which to urge faithfulness. Each theological platform launches an exhortation. I will underline each exhortation as we work through the book to catch the reason why he has described his writing like this.
Christ’s superiority over angels: Chapter 1 serves as a platform from which he then launches his first exhortation: “We must pay more careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away. For if the message spoken by angels was binding, and every violation and disobedience received its just punishment, how shall we escape if we ignore such a great salvation?” (2:1-3) i.e. what we have seen of Christ shows us that this salvation is vastly superior to anything seen elsewhere in the world so we need to make sure we hang on to the truths of it. Chapter 2 expands on this concluding with, “fix your thoughts on Jesus, the apostle and high priest whom we confess… we are his house, if we hold on to our courage and the hope of which we boast.” (3:1,6)
The Desert Failures: In Chapter 3 he then presses it on even further with a reference to the Old Testament failures in the desert, “See to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness. We have come to share in Christ if we hold firmly till the end the confidence we had at first.” (3:12-14) i.e. what we have today is so much better than that which the Old Testaments saints experienced so we have a greater responsibility to hold to what we now have.
The Rest of God: in Chapter 4 he builds on this idea of comparisons with the Old Testament experience: “Therefore, since the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us be careful that none of you be found to have fallen short of it.” (4:1) Still developing the superiority of Christ and his work we next find, “since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are–yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” (4:14-16) Twice we have the formula, a) because of this, b) then let’s do that, c) so this will follow. Let’s take it in more fully:
- because of this: “since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God,
- then let’s do that: let us hold firmly to the faith we profess
- so this will follow: we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses,
- because of this: we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are–yet was without sin.
- then let’s do that: Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence
- so this will follow: so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.”
In Chapter 5 he opens up the idea of the Old Covenant Priesthood and mentions Melchizedek and in so doing launches, first a challenge – “it is hard to explain because you are slow to learn. In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food!” (5:11,12) and then the preliminary exhortation: “Therefore let us leave the elementary teachings about Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again the foundation….” (6:1) which in Chapter 6 he follows with a warning about the impossibility of a second repentance, which then is followed by the main exhortation: “We want each of you to show this same diligence to the very end, in order to make your hope sure. We do not want you to become lazy, but to imitate those who through faith and patience inherit what has been promised.” (6:11,12)
Theology leads to Exhortation: Now we are only part way through the book in this listing so we will continue with the rest in the next study. The point we are making is that this ‘letter’ came to the early church that was almost comprised initially of only converted Jews, and although the writer was extensively using what we call the Old Testament, he was using it to reveal Jesus more fully for who he was and what he had done, particularly contrasting him with the ministry of the Old Covenant. He did this to strengthen the believers in the face of persecutions and heresies arising in that century, and all of these exhortations, specific and implied, primary or secondary, were to stir the church and challenge them not only to hold on to what they had received but to go deeper with it in terms of understanding and experience. He faced the problems confronting the early church and used his theological explanations to launch salvo after salvo of these exhortations to stand firm for Christ. That was their need and it is still our need today.