Today’s message is the last in our study of Hebrews. It’s been about 7 months since we began the study of this tremendous book which is so rich in doctrine, and in some ways, I feel that today’s message is sort of anti-climatic. It’s sort of ironic that it took us 7 months to exegete this epistle, and yet if you sat down and read it in one sitting, you could read it in an hour. The author, who we have not tried to conclusively identify, says in vs 22, that we should bear with this exhortation, because he had written to you briefly. Exhortation is another word for preaching. So, as I’ve said before, this book was really a written sermon, which was intended to be read to the churches.
I must say that the audiences of yore had a much longer attention span than audiences today. Today we live in the age of twitter, where if you don’t get it said in 240 characters, which I believe is the limit, (though I don’t tweet) then the implication is that it doesn’t need to be said. Well, though I don’t twitter, though I do however exhort, and my messages tend to be around 40 minutes long. I don’t think that God twitters either, so I believe I’m in good company on that score.
It’s also interesting that at the conclusion of this book, we finally see the author mention himself. For thirteen chapters he has not mentioned himself that I am aware of, but now he refers to himself in the plural in vs 18. And he mentions himself in regards to asking the readers to pray for him. That’s a very telling indication of his humility, something that is sorely lacking in a lot of preaching today. Far too often in the church today we end up with a personality cult, of which the pastor is the star, and much which is said on his part is intended to glorify himself in that regard. It’s a seductive thing that all pastors need to be on guard against. Preaching should always glorify Christ.
So though we are starting at vs 18, we must remember that this is a continuation of a sermon, and even more to the point, it’s part of a greater context which includes vs 17. And if you notice in vs17 the idea he was expressing was that you should obey and submit to your leaders, that is your leaders in the church. And I believe that context of leadership is important in understanding this desire he has for the readers to pray for him. He was a leader, an elder, a pastor who had written to this church over which he had oversight.
And my take on this verse is that in some way or another he had suffered some sort of extradition or even incarceration on behalf of the gospel and had been taken away from them. There is no indication that he was now incarcerated, as he later says that they had heard that Timothy had been released, probably from prison. And if he comes soon, then he would come to see them with Timothy. That would indicate that he was not incarcerated at that point. But he obviously was estranged from them, and it seems to be against his wishes as he indicates as the reason for asking them to pray for him. He wants them to pray that he might be restored to them the sooner. And I think that the word restored there indicates that his former position was at this church and he was hopeful that he would be restored there soon.
I think there is another point that needs to be emphasized here about not only the humility of the author but the humanity of the author as well. We sometimes idealize the apostles and early church fathers and envision them as some sort of pious super saints who were above the trials and tribulations of normal people. Perhaps we might even imagine some church leaders today in the same degree. What comes across in this last couple of paragraphs in this text is the humanity of the author, the pathos of his situation, his yearning for his Christian family.
And it’s a reminder that the great men of the Bible were all men of like passions as we are. Even Jesus became a man, suffering in all points as we do, yet without sin. Men like Peter, or Paul, got sick, fell into depression, were lonely, afflicted, persecuted. Paul said in 2Cor. 11:24-28 “Five times I received from the Jews thirty-nine [lashes.] Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, a night and a day I have spent in the deep. [I have been] on frequent journeys, in dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from [my] countrymen, dangers from the Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers on the sea, dangers among false brethren; [I have been] in labor and hardship, through many sleepless nights, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. Apart from [such] external things, there is the daily pressure on me [of] concern for all the churches.”
I guess we can all appreciate the fact that Paul and the other apostles suffered persecution, but the part which we tend to gloss over is when he said, “[I have been] in labor and hardship, through many sleepless nights, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure.” Those are things that are common to many of us, aren’t they? And church leaders, especially this author, suffer such things as well.
I appreciate the fact that God uses common men for uncommon purposes. Not many noble, not many mighty are called. But God calls men who are beset with weaknesses, that the glory might go to God and not to men. And because they are weak, they are in need of prayer support from the saints. I know I need prayer, because I know I am weak, and the devil knows my weaknesses.
Prayer is such an important aspect of the Christian life. I could have said such an important doctrine. And yes it is. But it is also so important for our spiritual survival. It’s essential to our spiritual life. Did you know that the spiritual aspect is just as important to the body as food, water and shelter? I used to have a series of handbooks when I was a young boy on wilderness camping. I was really into hunting and camping from a very early age. And in this one series of booklets on surviving in the wilderness it identified the essential things that you needed to survive in the wild. And in addition to listing food, water and shelter was spiritual. There is a need in the human soul for a spiritual connection to God which is essential for well being. And I think one of the reasons that society today is so despondent is that society has tried to tell them that God isn’t important. That life can be perfectly fulfilling without God. Well, every society that has removed religion has not fared so well in the long run. I think history proves that the societies which held to religion and particularly to Christianity have made more progress in regards to the advancement of civilization than those cultures which have been agnostic or pagan.
So why pray? That’s the question I found myself asking God the other day. Ironically, I had to pray to ask Him that question. But the point I was inferring was why pray if we don’t or can’t expect an answer? Why pray if we shouldn’t expect help? Psalm 46:1 tells us that “God is our refuge and strength, A very present help in trouble.” In the scriptures we are told to pray at all times, to pray without ceasing, to be devoted to prayer. To seek the Lord while He may be found and call upon Him while He is near. And we are promised that He hears our prayers. That our Great High Priest stands at the throne of God interceding for us, and that the Holy Spirit within us prays for us with groanings to deep for words. We should pray, expecting help, because God has promised to hear us, and to help us in time of need.
This author says in Heb. 4:16 “Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” The unqualified assurance he gives is that we may receive mercy and grace to help in time of need. It is a benefit of being a child of God that our heavenly Father is interested and wants to help us. In fact, the Lord desires that we live in a dependent mode, always looking to Him to supply every need.
So the author is asking the church to pray for him, and he indicates that there is some difficulty which has prevented him from being with them. But as to this difficulty, he professes his innocence. Notice, “for we are sure that we have a good conscience, desiring to conduct ourselves honorably in all things.” That doesn’t mean that he has never done anything wrong, but that in regards to what he has been accused of, he is confident that he has a good conscience.
I suspect his situation is similar to what Peter referred to in 1Peter 3:16-17 saying “and keep a good conscience so that in the thing in which you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ will be put to shame. For it is better, if God should will it so, that you suffer for doing what is right rather than for doing what is wrong.”
Well, whatever the author of Hebrews was suffering for, he is saying that his conscience is clear and that he has acted honorably in all things. That should be the confession of all who claim Christ. Our conscience is clear because we act honorably in all things. There is a standard of conduct that is to be expected of a Christian. Just ask your unsaved friends. Unfortunately, we tend to judge others more strictly than we judge ourselves. We tend to presume too much upon the grace and mercy of God and act more like the devil than we act like Christ. But being a Christian we should imitate Christ in our behavior. We should be holy because He is holy.
But notice that he fully expects God to answer their prayers saying in vs19 “And I urge [you] all the more to do this, so that I may be restored to you the sooner.” We can expect a result to prayer. Prayer changes things. We may not understand how, and we may not dictate to God the terms or the timing, but the effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man accomplishes much as James assures us in his epistle. And this author fully expects God to respond to their prayers and speed his return the sooner.
So having asked for prayer for himself, the author in turn then prays for the church starting in vs 20. He is actually giving a blessing, or a benediction to the church through this prayer. I was telling someone just last night that sometimes in the Bible we learn more by examples than by commandment. In other words, God doesn’t always speak explicitly concerning every thing, but offers through the scripture examples which we are to follow. And I think that this prayer offered by this writer is a worthy example that we can learn from and imitate.
Notice that there are several things that are stated here before he gets to his petitions. He starts off, as would be expected, by addressing the Lord. And his address is a little different than we hear today. He invokes God as the God of peace. Particularly at Christmas we hear the term peace being frequently used. It was used in the address of the angels to the shepherds. They said “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”
What is this peace that is being spoken of? I think most people in the world today when hearing this phrase would associate it with the absence of war. Or the hope that everyone would just get along. But I would suggest that is not the type of peace which the angels spoke of, nor is it what this author is speaking of either in addressing God as the God of peace. The angels and the author are both speaking of the same thing, incidentally. And that is the peace which is offered to man through the good will of God by the redemption purchased by the blood of Jesus Christ.
In other words, man is by nature in rebellion against God, even, the Bible says, at enmity with God. Man was created to live in righteous fellowship with God, but instead he choses to live in the rebellion of sin. That rebellion has caused a breach with God, resulting in enmity with God. But God so loved the world, that He sent His Son to die on the cross and pay the penalty for our sins, that we might be redeemed, so that we might be reconciled to God. That’s the good will towards men the angels spoke of. We who were far off, have been brought near. Eph. 2:13 “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.”
So the origin of this peace comes from God and is offered to man. God has sent His Son, the Prince of Peace to offer peace to those who will believe in Him and receive Him, so that we are no longer estranged from God, but we have peace with God, and may be transferred into His kingdom.
Notice also how this peace was procured. “Now the God of peace, who brought up from the dead the great Shepherd of the sheep through the blood of the eternal covenant, even Jesus our Lord.” This peace comes through the blood of our Great Shepherd Jesus Christ as He died on the cross for the lost sheep, was buried and resurrected to the right hand of the Father.
The author of Hebrews said back in chapter 9:22 “And according to the Law, [one may] almost [say,] all things are cleansed with blood, and without shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.” Now that may offend 21st century sensibilities to say that there must be a shedding of blood, that someone must die for the penalty of sin. But that is the law of God. That was established at creation, that if they ate of the fruit of the tree they would surely die. Romans tells us in the New Covenant that the wages of sin is death. This is God’s law, irregardless of man’s sensibilities.
It’s essential that we are unequivocal in our explanation of the gospel. There is no gospel without the blood. And there is no need for the cross if there is no sinner to be saved. The gospel is not negotiable, or redefinable. It is a declaration from God. It’s not a social gospel. It’s the gospel of salvation from sin which has condemned men to death.
There is an attempt in liberal Christianity to redefine the gospel. To take away the blood. To not speak of sin or judgment. The co founder of Westminster Theological Seminary, a man named J. Gresham Machen wrote a book called Christianity and Liberalism back in the 1920’s. And he had this to say: “Here is found the most fundamental difference between liberalism and Christianity–liberalism is altogether in the imperative mood, while Christianity begins with a triumphant indicative; liberalism appeals to man’s will, while Christianity announces, first, a gracious act of God. It is no wonder, then, that liberalism is totally different from Christianity, for the foundation is different. Christianity is founded upon the Bible. It bases upon the Bible both its thinking and its life. Liberalism on the other hand is founded upon the shifting emotions of sinful men.”
You might say to that, well I’m not a liberal. Well, I would say a liberal is someone who defines reality according to his own opinions. That fits our modern culture pretty well. We want to define God, define sexuality, define morality according to what we think. And as a result we end up worshipping a god made in our image. The problem of course is that sinful men don’t want to think of themselves as sinful, and so they use religion to try to make themselves seem good enough or better than others. But the fact is that the Bible says “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” And the only way sinners are reconciled to God is through the blood of Jesus Christ.
I find another interesting title in the author’s prayer, and that is that he calls Jesus the Great Shepherd of the sheep. Psalm 23 says the Lord is my Shepherd. And then goes on to give a long list of the blessings that come upon his life because of that relationship. A shepherd in the Near East was responsible for watching out for enemies trying to attack the sheep, protecting the sheep from attackers, caring for the wounded and sick sheep, finding and saving lost or trapped sheep, loving them, tending the sheep and feeding the sheep.
It’s an amazing thing that the Great Shepherd laid down his life for his sheep. Jesus said concerning Himself in John 10:11 “I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep.”
Shepherd is the word we get the title pastor from. I referred last week to pastors as being under shepherds. Now we see that the Great Shepherd is Jesus our Lord. To be an under shepherd then is to take your orders and relay the will of the Great Shepherd. That’s the job of the pastor, to faithfully explain and convey the word of the Great Shepherd. And then the congregation may submit to the word of the pastor, knowing that it is the word of Christ.
Just a word about the eternal covenant which he mentions in his prayer. A covenant is a binding agreement. And so he is speaking of the binding agreement between the members of the trinity. It is a unilateral agreement that God has made. The promise of God is not contingent upon man, but it is contingent upon God to fulfill it. And so we take comfort in that, knowing that God is the author and finisher of our faith. What he has begun, he will bring to completion. And He will complete His covenant concerning our redemption because He cannot deny Himself. So the author in His prayer calls upon that covenant as the basis for his petition.
Now as to the petition; vs21, “[may He] equip you in every good thing to do His will…” The word that is translated equip is used in the original language to speak of mending nets. God is not only able to use that which is perfect, but He is able to fix that which is broken. That’s really the good news. He is able to take this sinner, saved by grace, this selfish, weak, sometimes mean spirited person and equip me to do His will.
And even more good news, He will give you what is necessary so that you can do His will. God will provide what we need to do His will. There is no excuse for not doing the will of God. God has promised to provide all our needs according to His riches in glory. He has given us the Spirit of God to empower us to do His will. He has given us a new heart that we might desire to do His will. In Ezekiel 36:26-27 God says, ”Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances.” God equips us to do His will.
So when we have this new heart, and a new spirit within us, then according to his prayer, God is able to work in us His will which is that which is pleasing in His sight. His will is not necessarily that we be happy, but to be holy. Notice that working in us comes through Jesus Christ. How? Through the Spirit of Christ and through His word He leads us and guides us into righteousness. Thinking again about Psalm 23 we read “He leads us in paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.” To follow Him, to be like Him, to please Him, to serve Him and live for His glory. That is how he concludes his prayer; “to Him be the glory for ever and ever.”
It’s practically counter intuitive to think that I can be happiest, I can be most fulfilled, I can be most blessed, I can find my best possible life, not in living out my dreams, or in fulfilling my ambitions, not in doing my will, but in living my life for the glory of my King. In living for the glory of God I will find my the greatest expression of my life, I will gain the greatest use of my life. But that’s the opposite of what the world is seeking. It goes against the grain of what psychologists and therapists will tell you. But the source of all truth, the eternal word of God declares that in dying to yourself and living for God you gain the greatest blessing possible in this life. You gain nothing less than life with God, both now and forever.
I hope and pray like this author prayed, that our Great God and Lord Jesus Christ, would equip you to walk in such a way as to be pleasing to God. And if you are here today and you have never accepted Jesus as your redeemer, for forgiveness of your sins, then I pray that today is the day of your salvation. Jesus has purchased your redemption that you might have peace with God and receive the life of Christ and the Spirit of Christ in you. I pray that you do not reject so great a gift and believe in Him as your Savior and Lord today.