P. G. Mathew | Sunday, September 23, 2007
Copyright © 2007, P. G. Mathew
This last chapter of Hebrews has an epistolary ending, exhorting the readers to apply what the author has been teaching. If we want blessing, we must not only hear but also do the word of God. Jesus spoke about people hearing but not hearing, and seeing yet not seeing, lest they turn and be healed (Matt. 13:13-15). If we are under the power of the Holy Spirit, we will carefully hear and apply what God speaks to us.
In the previous chapter we are told that these Hebrew believers were receiving an unshakable kingdom, and, therefore, they were to "be thankful and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our "God is a consuming fire" (Heb. 12:29). They were to make every effort to pursue peace with all men, and unlike Esau, pursue holiness.
God wants his people be holy. I heard a woman on the radio recently say that while Judaism had a moral code, Christianity has none because after Jesus died on the cross, we only need to believe to be saved. Sadly, the vast majority of people who say they believe the Bible would say the same thing. Some even say that because Jesus kept all God's laws, we do not have to keep any. But the Bible tells us, "Without holiness no one will see the Lord" (Heb. 12:14).
By grace the Hebrews had come, not to the terrifying Mount Sinai, but to Mount Zion, the city of the living God; to Jesus, the mediator of the new covenant; and to his sprinkled blood that justifies us, forgives all our sins, cleanses our consciences, and makes us able to draw near to God with great confidence. God enabled them to draw near to him as priests to offer acceptable sacrifices, which includes a lifestyle that pleases God, for true worship is not just what we do Sunday morning for an hour or two. True worship is living our whole life in a way that is pleasing to God. We are to offer our bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God (Rom. 12:1), and glorify God in our bodies because we have been bought with a price, the blood of Christ. We are not our own! (1 Cor. 6:19-20).
This last chapter, then, has ten commands for believers (Heb. 13:1, 2, 3, 7 (2), 9, 16, 17 (2), 18). In the Greek these imperatives are in the present tense, meaning we must keep on doing them. In this study we shall consider the first three commands. How shall we live as Christians? First, we must live in brotherly love (philadelphia), showing our love in deeds to our local community; second, we must demonstrate a love for strangers (philoxenia), especially believers who come to us from afar; and, third, we must have a love for prisoners (philosdesmia), God's people who lost their freedom and are in prison because of Christ.
1. Philadelphia: Brotherly Love
"Keep on loving each other as brothers" (v. 1). Loving our brothers is not merely a New Testament idea; it is also found throughout the Old Testament. For example, in Leviticus 19:18 we read, "Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord." In this context, neighbor means God's people. Only those who receive God's grace-only true believers-can love one another.
We are asked here to let brotherly love continue. Brotherly love necessarily exists in a believing community because it is the fruit of the Spirit. We love one another because we belong to the family of God: God is our Father and Jesus Christ is our older brother. In Hebrews 2 we are told that we are brothers of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ: "Both the one who makes men holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers" (v. 11; see also vv. 12, 17). Hebrews 3:6 tells us we belong to the same family: "But Christ is faithful as a son over God's house. And we are his house, if we hold on to our courage and the hope of which we boast" (see also Heb. 10:21). Jesus himself said that God is our Father and we are all brothers (Matt. 23:8-9). The Hebrews writer calls us "holy brothers" (Heb. 3:1). As believers, we are filled with the Holy Spirit; therefore, we are holy brothers and sisters.
This love we are to have for all people is not self-generated; it is a gift of God. Paul writes that God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit in abundance that we may love God, our brothers, and even our enemies with it (Rom. 5:5). It is the love God demonstrated in sending his Son into the world to die on the cross for us (John 3:16). It is the love Christ showed for the church by giving himself up for her (Eph.5:25). The Holy Spirit fills our hearts with this divine, sacrificial, abundant love so that we may love God and others, not only in word, but also in sacrificial deeds.
In light of God sending his Son to die on the cross in our place, John writes, "Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us" (1 John 4:11-12). Therefore, this philadelphia is not an option, but an obligation, albeit a delightful one, for believers. This is the new commandment Jesus gave to his disciples. It is the manifestation of such brotherly love that causes the world to recognize us as Christians. John also says it is the proof that we have passed from eternal death to eternal life (1 John 3:14).
We are to love one another, not according to our subjective standards, but according to the objective standard of God. Jesus tells us, "As I have loved you, so you must love one another" (John 13:34). John says, "This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words and tongue, but with actions and in truth" (1 John 3:16-18).
We must lay down our lives-our time, our money, our presence-for our brothers. The early church practiced such love spontaneously by the Spirit's direction: "All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. . . All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possession was his own, but they shared everything they had . . . There were no needy persons among them, for from time to time those who owned lands and houses sold them and brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need" (Acts 2:44-45; 4:32, 34). Such unity exists because of philadelphia.
God delights when his people love one another and live in unity. The psalmist exclaims, "How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity! . . . For there the Lord bestows his blessing, even life forevermore" (Ps. 133:1, 3). There God presides to bless, save, heal, comfort, and teach his people.
Sinners, however, are self-centered, incapable of truly loving others sacrificially. Paul tells us the nature of all unbelievers: "At one time we too were foolish, being hated and hating one another" (Titus 3:3). By nature unbelievers are hateful and so they hate others. And, sadly, a backslidden believer is like an unbeliever. We read about such people in Proverbs: "The leech has two daughters. They cry, 'Gimme! Gimme!'" (Prov. 30:15, author's translation). An unbeliever and a backslider can be likened to black holes that swallow up everything near them. They are always gloomy, miserable, and depressed. They live in wintertime. There is no sunshine in them. They drain the energies of all who are around them.
Jesus warned about such lack of love in the church: "Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold" (Matt. 24:12). Self-centeredness is sin. A selfish person loves only himself; he cannot love anyone else. Jesus rebuked the church of Ephesus: "Yet I hold this against you: you have forsaken your first love," meaning love toward God and God's people. They had fallen from the height of their first love, and the resurrected Lord warns them that they must remember from where they had fallen, repent, and come back to their first love, lest they experience his divine judgment (Rev. 2:4-5). However, Christ had no criticism for the the church of Philadelphia because they kept his word and commandments. The church of Philadelphia is approved by the Lord, the head of the church (Rev. 3:7-13).
The church of the Hebrews had manifested brotherly love in the past: "God is not unjust; he will not forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped his people and continue to help them" (Heb. 6:10). In Hebrews 10 the author exhorts them to remember, indicating that their first love had cooled: "Remember those earlier days after you had received the light when you had stood your ground in a great contest in the face of suffering. Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution; at other times, you stood side by side with those who were so treated. You sympathized with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions," the unshakable kingdom of God (Heb. 10:32-34).
The author, then, is diagnosing the problem of a certain lack of brotherly love in the Hebrew church. Earlier he wrote, "Let us consider how we may spur one another toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing. But let us encourage one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching" (Heb. 10:24-25). They had a certain leaking of first love. Because a certain coldness had entered the church, the author was now commanding, "Let philadelphia continue."
Some of these believers were not in the habit of assembling together. But how can we love one another when we do not get together? When we come together, we get to know others' needs so that we may respond to them. If we love, we will come together. When people do not go to church, it is due to a lack of love for God and his people. Love always seeks the presence of the other.
The church of the Hebrews was urged to do everything to promote brotherly love. They must strive to maintain the love and unity of the Spirit. They did not create it, but they must maintain it. Calvin said that nothing evaporates more easily than love when everyone looks after himself more than his wife or others.
As a young boy, I saw true brotherly love manifested in our church in South India. When the Holy Spirit was poured out, all racial and class distinctions disappeared. All were seen as members of the same family. There is nothing more beautiful than Christians love one another sacrificially.
We also practice this brotherly love in this church every day. Let me give one illustration: Recently the Holy Spirit directed a white wife and mother of three children to give one of her kidneys to a young black brother. This young man, who was about to die, now lives and thrives because of the love of God practiced in the church. There is no racial discrimination. Brotherly love transcends race, nationality, color, sex, or rank because we all are brothers and sisters, an international group of people belonging to the one family of God, redeemed by the same blood of Jesus Christ.
This brotherly love is shown to all true people of God, for God's church is local as well as universal. We have small groups in the church so that we can more easily know one another's needs and meet them more quickly.
Paul says we are to consider others better than ourselves (Phil. 2:3-4) and honor one another above ourselves (Rom. 12:10). And to the Thessalonian church he writes, "Now about brotherly love, we do not need to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love each other. "And in fact, you do love all brothers throughout Macedonia. Yet we urge you, brothers, to do so more and more" (1 Thess. 4:9-10). This is the nature of the new covenant. The Holy Spirit teaches us to love one another. It is progressive sanctification (see Rom. 12:10, 2 Pet. 1:7). Where the Spirit of God is, there is love and unity. If there is no brotherly love in a church, it has ceased being a church of Jesus Christ and is a synagogue of Satan.
2. Philoxenia: Love of Strangers
Next, the author exhorts, "Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it" (Heb. 13:2). "Strangers" especially refers to believers visiting us from far places.
Abraham was a stranger in a strange land (Heb. 11:13). Yet we see his love for strangers in Genesis 18. Notice, he invited the three visitors even before they sought any help: "Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby. When he saw them, he hurried from the entrance to his tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground. He said, 'If I have found favor in your eyes, my lord, do not pass your servant by. Let a little water be brought, and then you may all wash your feet and rest under this tree. Let me get you something to eat, so that you can be refreshed and then go on your way-now that you have come to your servant" (Gen. 18:2-5). Abraham gave these strangers lodging, food, fellowship, water, milk, bread, curds, and meat. While they ate, he stood and served them. He did not know two were angels and one was the Son of God in human form. He entertained angels unawares, and, in turn, received a blessing, the promise of a son (Isaac) to come through Sarah.
Lot also entertained angels unawares. When two of them visited Sodom, Lot sought them out and gave them food and lodging. In turn, the angels blessed him and his family by delivering them from the destruction of Sodom (Gen. 19:1-29). In Judges 13, Manoah entertained a heavenly visitor unawares, the Son of God in human form, and God blessed him with a deliverer, Samson. (PGM) Rahab entertained the two spies who came to Jericho, giving them lodging and providing for their needs. As a result, she and her family experienced divine deliverance from the destruction of Jericho (Josh. 2; 6:22-25).
Entertaining strangers played an important role in the spread of Christianity in the first centuries of the church. Jesus himself was entertained by Peter (Mark 1:29), Levi (Mark 2:15), Simon the leper (Mark 14:1), and Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38). When Jesus sent the apostles and disciples to declare the gospel, he told them, "Do not take any silver, any bag, any extra clothing or sandals, or a staff. Stay in homes that are open to you, eating and drinking what they give you" (see Matt. 10:9-12; Mark 6:8-11; Luke 10:4-8). In fact, the New Testament uses the terms "receive" and "send on his way" as technical terms for receiving and sending missionaries.
In the Old Testament God sent Elijah to Sidon to the widow of Zarephath, who received him, gave him lodging and food and, in turn, received the blessing of Elijah raising her son from the dead (1 Kings 17:8-24).
Elisha met a Shunammite woman whose rich husband built and furnished an upper room so that Elisha could stay there. In turn, God blessed this barren woman with a child (2 Kings 4:8-37).
In his letter to Philemon, Paul writes, "Prepare a room for me" (v. 22). He expected to visit him and stay in his home. In Acts 21 we see Paul staying with disciples at Tyre, Ptolemais, and Jerusalem. After Paul's shipwreck, the pagan Publius, the governor of Malta, entertained Paul and those with him (Acts 28:7).
There is always a blessing when we open our homes for believers who come to us from far and near. Paul's words to the Romans give us a principle to inspire us to entertain strangers: "I long to see you so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong-that is, that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other's faith" (Rom. 1:11-12). Oh, the beauty, the wonder, and the strength of mutual fellowship! We are built up and edified by God's gifts given to each other. In the same letter Paul writes, "I know that when I come to you, I will come in the fullness of the blessing of the gospel of Christ" (Rom. 15:29).
It was also important for believers to show hospitality to strangers because the inns of those days were not suited for believers to lodge in as they traveled. They were expensive, dangerous, filled with immorality, unhygienic, and uncomfortable. So Christians would offer their own homes to traveling believers. Professor Lane comments about such philoxenia: "For Christians, a delight in the guest/host relationship reflects the expectation that God will play a significant role in the ordinary exchange between guests and hosts. This lends to hospitality a sacramental quality."1 God's people getting together is a sacrament. The Didache instructed believers to "invite the traveler into the family and provide whatever was necessary, even to the extent of making provision for the next leg of the journey."2
The New Testament is full of exhortations about the care of visitors. Paul writes, "I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church in Cenchrea. I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been a great help to many people including me" (Rom. 16:1-2). Paul gives similar instructions about Timothy (1 Cor. 16:10-11) and the lawyer Zenas and Apollos (Titus 3:13). He commends the household of Stephanas for giving such care to him: "You know that the household were the first converts in Achaia and they have devoted themselves to the service of the saints. I urge you, brothers, to submit to such as these and to everyone who joins in the work and labors in it. I was glad when Stephanas, Fortunatus and Achaiacus arrived because they have supplied what was lacking from you. For they refreshed my spirit and yours also. Such men deserve recognition" (1 Cor. 16:15-18).
Hospitality should be characteristic of every leader in the church. If you are a pastor, you should be known as a lover of hospitality (1 Tim. 3:2). Paul urges us all to pursue hospitality (Rom. 12:13) and Peter says we must practice it without murmuring (1 Pet. 4:9). Hospitality ought to be a delight.
Hospitality and brotherly love are aspects of true worship. Look at Hebrews 13:16: "And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased." We are the New Testament royal priests and these are acceptable sacrifices we have to offer.
Do you want to receive a blessing by entertaining angels unawares? Then practice hospitality. Let us open our houses to those in need, especially to believers who come to worship with us, yet are strangers to us. Let us invite university students, who are here from far places, to eat and fellowship with us for the spiritual benefit of both guest and host. We knew a student who went to a church that preached the word of God faithfully. At one point the preacher preached on the subject of hospitality for several weeks, yet no one invited this stranger in their midst. What is the use of preaching without practicing it? Let us practice love for strangers by practicing hospitality in the name of the Lord, for brotherly love demonstrated in sacrificial hospitality is acceptable worship of God.
3. Philodesmia: Love for Prisoners
"Remember the prisoners as if you were their fellow prisoners, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering" (Heb. 13:3). This is speaking about people who lost their freedom because of their faith in Jesus. They cannot visit the church, so we must remember them by doing helpful things for them.
First-century prisons were cold, terrible places. Prisoners were dependent on friends and family for food, drink, medicine, and clothing. They needed reading materials, the ministry of the word, and the fellowship of God's people. The writer is saying that we who are not confined in prison are to sympathize with prisoners by imagining ourselves being in prison, thus realizing their needs to minister to them.
The Bible says that when one suffers, all suffer; when one rejoices, all rejoice (1 Cor. 12:26). We are brothers and sisters in the family of God, and this spiritual relationship is greater than all other relationships and loyalties. Thus, the Hebrews writer speaks of "our brother Timothy" being released from prison (Heb. 13:23). And our elder brother Jesus Christ is a sympathizing high priest. He sympathizes with us in all our sufferings and comes to our aid. Hebrews 10:34 spoke about how these people sympathized with prisoners before and took care of them. Now the author is admonishing them to remember the prisoners, feel their pain, and do something about it.
We see many examples of philodesmia in the New Testament. When Peter was in prison, the church was praying for him. The Lord heard the prayer and sent an angel to deliver Peter from that prison (Acts 12:5-19). When Paul was in prison, the Philippian church sent gifts with Epaphroditus to help him (Phil. 4:18). Paul said their gifts were "a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God." Elsewhere, Paul writes as a prisoner of the Lord to request the prayers of the Ephesian church (Eph. 6:19-20). Onesiphorus was not afraid to identify with Paul when he was imprisoned in Rome. As he was about to die, Paul remembers how Onesiphorus helped him: "May the Lord show mercy to the household of Onesiphorus, because he often refreshed me and was not ashamed of my chains. On the contrary, when he was in Rome, he searched hard for me until he found me. May the Lord grant that he will find mercy from the Lord on that day! You know very well in how many ways he helped me in Ephesus" (2 Tim. 1:16-18). The imprisoned Paul ended his letter to the Colossian church: "Remember my chains" (Col. 4:18). In Acts 16 we see the Philippian jailer ministering to Paul and Silas by washing their wounds and feeding them.
Like the Hebrew Christians, we also must remember all who are ill-treated for Jesus' sake and help them. There are not too many believers in prisons in the Western world today. We will see them if the Western world turns against Christians and sees them worse than terrorists. And even now there are thousands of Christian prisoners in other parts of the world who need our prayers and material help. In Western countries we can also minister to prisoners especially through evangelism. We also need to minister to those in hospitals and convalescent homes.
The author says to remember "those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering" (Heb. 13:3). We live in bodies that are subject to pain and suffering. We may not be suffering now, but our time shall come when we need help. Sow love now so that you may receive a rich harvest when your time of need comes. The body of Christ will remember us, and, above all, the Lord shall not forsake us. He will, through his church, meet our needs. This does not mean the church is to be gullible. We must bear others' burdens when they are too heavy for them. But all of us must also bear our own burdens.
We were like leeches and parasites. But now we are God's people, transformed by grace and delivered from the kingdom of self into the unshakable kingdom of God. Now we work hard to help all people, especially the household of faith. Therefore, may we help those in need, especially fellow believers in Christ, so that on the last day we will hear from our Lord, "Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me" (Matt. 25:34-36).
If you are an unbeliever, may God transform you even this day into a saint, a shining star, and a servant of God's people, seeking to please God in all you do. And may all who are people of God rejoice in this great salvation and love one another ever more deeply. Love gives, love serves, and love joyfully lays down its life for its brothers. Let us, therefore, love one another as Christ loved us and gave himself in death for our eternal salvation.
1 William L. Lane, Hebrews 9-13, Vol. 47B, Word Biblical Commentary, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1991), 512.
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Copyright © 2007, P. G. Mathew
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