Hebrews 12:1-17: Having spoken of faith of the history of faith from which the Jewish Christians to which he is writing draw their strength and inspiration, the author again encourages perseverance and endurance. “The race easily lent itself as a metaphor for moral and ethical struggle, involving as it did rigorous training, self-discipline, intense effort, and laying aside anything that encumbered the contestant” (People’s New Testament Commentary). This metaphor as explained in the commentary seems an encouragement to a life of spiritual discipline, spiritual practice. We trust that God’s grace, love and forgiveness are given to us as we are, and require nothing from us. At the same time, if we are to grow in grace and love, if we are really to know the Christian life at its deepest and best, this requires effort. It asks of us self-discipline and effort. It asks that we leave behind those things that hinder us in running the race – sin is defined as such a hindrance. There is a cloud of witnesses cheering us on, and Jesus himself is a prime example of running the race to the finish, against difficult odds. Jesus endured, and so should those reading this letter (then and now). Jesus endured “so that you may not grow weary or lose heart.”
The writer notes that others have endured to the point of shedding blood, beyond what the readers have endured to date. The readers are invited to consider their sufferings and difficulties as a form of discipline, a form of guidance in love. Does this mean that people should interpret all suffering as some kind of lesson given from God? I don’t think that is a very adequate theology. Rather than say, “God never gives us more than we can endure” – which some may argue from verses 5-6 and following, and which implies that God is responsible for causing all human suffering; I prefer to say, “Nothing ever happens that we cannot with help from God and others, endure, and even learn and grow from.” This latter statement also fits this Scripture, I think, without making God directly responsible for suffering. When we can ask about learning from all our experience, even our difficult ones, then we open ourselves to growth in the Spirit. It is about growth and training, not punishment. The writer seems to suggest that the alternative to seeing difficulty and suffering as an opportunity for growth and learning is to see it as something completely outside of God’s redeeming possibility. Our goal is to nurture “the peaceful fruit of righteousness” – when things are easy and when things are difficult. “Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees – be healed.” “Pursue peace with everyone.” This is a communal project as well as an individual one – “see to it… that no root of bitterness springs up and causes trouble.” Don’t give up long term benefit for short-term gain, like Esau.
Hebrews 12:18-29: The writer now moves to another comparison of Christian faith as an outgrowth of Judaism with the Judaism that has been left behind. Again, this is not a final word about Judaism from a Christian perspective, but part of a letter encouraging Jewish Christians to keep the faith in Jesus. In contrast to Mount Sinai, those to whom the author is writing are said to have come to Mount Zion – “the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem.” While a fuller realization of all that God promises remains in the future, much of it can be experienced even now, according to these words.
Positive words of encouragement are followed by rather harsh words of warning. You have all this, don’t turn away, don’t refuse “the one who is speaking.” This is quickly followed by a more positive word – “since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks, by which we offer to God an acceptable worship with awe and reverence” – and a more challenging word – “for our God is a consuming fire.”
Hebrews 13:1-19: From challenging words and more difficult images to more practical advice on life in Christian community. In the New Testament, theology seems always wed to advice on how to live the faith.
“Let mutual love continue” – another great short verse in the New Testament. “Show hospitality to strangers.” “Remember those who are in prison – those who are being tortured.” How do we hear such words in our day and time, when our prison population has skyrocketed and we debate torture as a means of fighting terrorism. Such words don’t give us simple answers to these complex questions, but they invite deep reflection. They won’t let us ignore the difficult issues of our day. The marriage covenant should be honored and the marriage bed “undefiled.” Seeking to live the faith does not mean an asexual existence as some have insisted, viewing healthy sexuality as somehow inappropriate for the pure. It does mean a self-discipline and self-control. “The Christian community continued Judaism’s high regard for marriage and its strong prohibition against adultery” (People’s New Testament Commentary). “Keep your lives free from love of money.” How we relate to our possessions remains an important spiritual issue, and a measure of contentment with what we have is part of a healthy spirituality. This does not preclude a hope for people to better the circumstances of their lives, but focusing too strongly on such a thing can harm one, can warp one’s spirit.
Apparently the community possessed some good leaders. They are held up for esteem and imitation. Of course, the person most to be imitated is Jesus Christ – whose enduring character is proclaimed here. What the writer is commenting upon is the character of Jesus as the Christ, his faithfulness to the end of his life. He is not dismissing the possibility that theological understandings of the meaning of Jesus may undergo revision over time so that they speak to people in new circumstances. The letter writer himself has been quite creative in using elements of the Jewish tradition and story to understand Jesus and the Jesus way of life.
At the same time, understandings of Christian faith and life are not infinitely elastic. Some strange teachings carry one away from Christ and are to be avoided – teachings about food. “It is well for the heart to be strengthened by grace.” With such strength we can endure some of the same abuse that Jesus suffered while we wait “for the city that is to come” – for that time when God’s dream for the world will be fully realized. The writer seems, in places here, to again be comparing the new faith with the old and arguing for the superiority of the new using imagery from the old. In our life in Jesus we praise God, do good and share what we have.
Leaders are to be followed. There are limits to this, to be sure, but communities seem to require leaders of some kind, people whose task it is to remind the entire community of the story, of what is important, of where we need to be going. Good leaders are empowering and listening leaders, but leaders nonetheless. Good leaders can’t make people go where they are unwilling to go, but good leaders can open up possibilities so that people might go places they never thought possible. When community is working well, leaders do their work with joy and not with sighing. Too much sighing indicates a community that may be less than healthy.
Hebrews 13:20-25: Verses 20-21 are a prayer-benediction, asking the God of peace to make the readers “complete in everything good.” What a nice prayer to pray for our lives and our communities of faith. The God of peace is also the God who brought back Jesus from the dead – this is the only overt reference to the resurrection in the New Testament. In the early church, different parts of the Jesus story received different emphases. Hebrews seems much more focused on trying to understand Jesus’ death, and trying to understand it in various ways – as sacrifice, as a priestly act, as a model for endurance in faith.
The final verses complete this sermon in the form of a letter. It has been a word of exhortation. The reference to Timothy seems to indicate that the letter was written within the Pauline circle of early Christianity.