In the summer of 1962, a famous Swiss theologian named Karl Barth (1886–1968) made a celebrated seven-week trip to the United States. While here, he came in contact at a Chicago Q&A session with another Carl — Carl Henry (1913–2003), who was editor of Christianity Today.
Henry stood up, introduced himself, and asked Barth about “the historical factuality of the resurrection of Jesus.” Barth didn’t appreciate the question. He seemed to become angry, remembers Henry, and pointed at the editor and said, “Did you say Christianity Today or Christianity Yesterday?” “The audience — largely nonevangelical professors and clergy — roared with delight.” Then, once the room was quiet, Henry answered, in the words of Hebrews 13:8, “Yesterday, today, and forever.”
Verse 8 on the sameness of Jesus — his constancy, his immutability — is such a precious truth, and right at the heart of this final chapter of Hebrews.
Last week, we saw that chapter 12 culminated with verse 28:
Let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe.
Chapter 13 then follows under this banner of “acceptable worship.” And that word “acceptable” appears again in 13:15–16 as “pleasing” (same root in the Greek, euarest-):
Let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.
This section, from the end of chapter 12 through 13:16, is knit together as a vision for practical life that is pleasing to God. We might think of this sketch in chapter 13 as glimpses of how to please him.
But before we spend the rest of the message under this banner of pleasing God, let’s first put chapter 13 in the context of chapters 1–12. What has been the repeated refrain from the beginning of Hebrews? Jesus is better. Better than the angels. Better than Moses. Better than Joshua. Better than Aaron. And better than the first covenant and its place and priests and sacrifices. Jesus makes better promises and gives us better hope and a better country, and he is the better possession over all worldly possessions.
So, in saying, again and again, that Jesus is better, the message of the first 12 chapters has been: Jesus is pleasing. He is gain; he is better; he makes our souls happy with the very joy of the eternal God.
Jesus, as the second person of the triune God, shares in the infinite happiness and unshakable bliss of the Godhead. As we say in the Cities Church leadership affirmation:
God is supremely joyful in the fellowship of the Trinity, each Person beholding and expressing His eternal and unsurpassed delight in the all-satisfying perfections of the triune God.
This God is so blessed, so infinitely happy, so satisfied in himself, so full in his joy that he overflows in pleasure to create the world, and then, even more wondrously, to redeem his people from sin and death, by coming himself in the person of Christ as the true High Priest (chapters 5–7) and as the true sacrifice (chapters 8–10).
So, to this point, for 12 chapters, the refrain, in one sense, has been the pleasantness of Jesus — the very joy and blessedness of God himself, in himself, shared with us in and through Jesus and by his Spirit. And when our souls come to taste and enjoy the pleasantness and joy of God, and that Jesus is better than any standard of comparison, what do we want to do?
Well, for one, we want our lives to be pleasing to God. It pleases us to please him. Which does not mean that he’s a sad God whom we make happy. There is no sad God. To be God is to be infinitely happy, infinitely pleased, quite apart from us or anything else outside of him. But amazingly, he gives us the dignity of pleasing him, in some modest measures, as echoes of his own pleasantness. As C.S. Lewis says at the end of his sermon “The Weight of Glory,”
To please God . . . to be a real ingredient in the divine happiness . . . to be loved by God, not merely pitied, but delighted in as an artist delights in his work or a father in a son — it seems impossible, a weight or burden of glory which our thoughts can hardly sustain. But so it is. (39)
Hebrews 13 gives us a vision for this pleasing life — the Christian life, a life that is first pleased with God and then, in a real way, pleases God. So then, what does it look like to live such a life, pleased in God, believing that and enjoying that Jesus is better?
It’s captured here in six glimpses.
1. We express our joy out loud.
That is, we praise him. Lips of praise are an aspect of lives of worship. God is pleased by heartfelt words of praise. Verse 15:
Through him [that is, through Jesus] let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name.
So, the God-pleasing life includes praise. We “acknowledge his name” with our mouths. We say out loud, “I’m a Christian. I love Jesus. I worship him. He is my Lord. He saved me. He is my Treasure. Jesus is better.” And we gather here weekly to “acknowledge his name” together.
We express our joy in Jesus both in professing our faith and in corporate praise. We clearly, publicly, unashamedly identify with and commend Jesus, and we make a habit of corporate worship, beginning each new week together, setting the tone, and re-consecrating ourselves to him with joyful praise. And lips that praise him lead to lives that please him.
2. We fight to free our hearts from money.
Even twenty centuries ago, Christians could not free their hands from money. Even Jesus was asked about the temple tax and miraculously produced a coin for himself and Peter.
We live in a physical world, with physical needs, served by coins and bills and credit cards that represent and transact value for the betterment of our lives and society. In this age, there’s no going without money. But what Hebrews warns about here is not money itself but “love of money.” Verses 5–6:
Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” So we can confidently say, “The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?”
How do we use money without loving money? Through being content with what you have. Do you have modest food and clothing? Then, in an important sense, you can be content, as Paul says in 1 Timothy 6:8: “If we have food and clothing, with these we will be content.” That’s enough; it’s sufficient.
But then Hebrews gives us this remarkable personal reason to be content in the last part of verse 5: “For he has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.’” In other words, don’t just be content with what you have, but with whom you have! Have another Love — a bigger one, a deeper one, a love that relativizes the pull of money on your heart. In Jesus Christ, we have God. If you have Jesus, you have God himself as your great possession. And he says he will never leave nor forsake you. If you have God, what more could you need? To have God is to have everything you ultimately need. The clock is ticking on every material possession and dollar.
Verse 5 gets right to the bottom of this chapter, to the joy and pleasantness and blessedness that upholds and energizes this whole practical vision: in Jesus, God will never leave us nor forsake us. As long as you don’t abandon Jesus, God will not abandon you (and he works in us so that we won’t abandon Jesus, Hebrews 13:21). “So we can confidently say, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?’” Which relates not only to verse 5 but also to verses 1–3.
3. We love and serve others.
We could say so much under this heading about these verses. For now, let me just address this in sum.
Joy in Jesus does not lead to turning in on ourselves, to isolating ourselves and neglecting the needs of others, or to just sitting around endlessly by ourselves enjoying the glory of Christ. Rather, being pleased with his pleasantness leads to our wanting to please others with his pleasantness. Or, we might say, from our fullness of joy in Jesus, we do good for others; we share; we love. Verses 1–3 and 16:
Let brotherly love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body. . . . Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.
4. We prize marriage.
So, there are four kinds of love in verses 1–4: brother-love, stranger-love, sympathy (or compassion), and marital love. And let me just say, verse 4 is for all of us. It says, “among all.” This is relevant for all, married and single, old and young. And so, ask yourself, What does this mean for me? How do I hold marriage in honor? Are there ways in which I’m tempted to not hold marriage in honor? What’s your heart’s default perspective on marriage? Salvation? Fear of commitment? Pain? Annoyance? Verse 4:
Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled, for God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous.
First, let’s be clear about the second half of verse 4 — in case what was once obvious for all Christians may no longer be so among some. Earlier this year, a congresswoman from South Carolina, who professes to be a Christian, made a few comments from the podium, at a Christian prayer breakfast, about her live-in fiancé that made it clear they were sexually immoral. She was joking about it, totally clueless about verse 4.
So, let there be no confusion here about verse 4. If there was any confusion about it, be confused no more. We have come to verse 4. And it’s not the first time we’ve seen this Hebrews. In 12:15–16, we are given several “see to its.” The third one is, “See to it . . . that no one is sexually immoral” (same word, pornos).
But I want to linger over the first part of verse 4, which is an even higher bar of application for each of us. The first part includes the second part and more: “Let marriage be held in honor among all.” So, ask yourself, What would it mean for me to hold marriage in honor?
And to get even more specific, the word translated honor here is typically understood in a more affectionate way: highly valued, or prized, or precious. Like 1 Peter 1:19: “the precious blood of Christ.” Or 2 Peter 1:4: “He has granted to us his precious and very great promises.”
So, hear verse 4 like this: “Let marriage be precious among all.” Let it be highly valued. Let it be prized. Among husbands and wives. Among unmarried and widows. Among children and teens. And this doesn’t entail any devaluing of singles or widows or children. So, consider how you talk about marriage. Is it the butt of jokes? The old ball and chain? Most comedy routines have a section on marriage, and men and women. I get it. Some of it can be funny, and a way of enjoying God’s plainly different design in men and women. And some of it reveals a heart that does not highly value marriage and does not shape us, as we laugh, to highly value marriage.
We honor marriage and God’s idea and design by prizing it in our minds and hearts and words and obedience.
5. We seek the better city.
This may be the most countercultural of all, especially in a day when our world is so focused on “the immanent frame” — that is, what we can see and hear and touch and smell and taste.
Verse 14 is not the first mention of city in chapters 11 and 12. We have already heard about looking to the city to come:
- 11:10: Abraham “was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God.”
- 11:14–16: “People who speak thus [acknowledging they are strangers and exiles] make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. . . . They desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one.”
- Then the seven glories of Mount Zion that are not only to come but also already ours, in some sense, by faith — 12:22: “You have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem.”
- Then 13:14: “Here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come.”
There is, in Christianity, a principled liberation from the immanent frame, from this world. Clearly that doesn’t mean we don’t love each other and love strangers and show sympathy to the mistreated and prize marriage. We don’t neglect to do good or share what we have — such sacrifices are pleasing to God. But in it all, above it all, beneath it all, we are not finally at home here — which frees us to love and serve our earthly city and neighbors. We seek the city that is to come. “Our citizenship is in heaven,” Paul says in Philippians 3:20.
This is such an important reminder as 2023 draws to a close, because next year is 2024. And 2024 is an election year in this country. And in an election year, some otherwise seemingly sober-minded people lose their heads. But as we orient on our here-and-now city (the polis, and its politics), Christians, in principle, are those who say, “Here we have no lasting city. We seek the better city, the heavenly city that is to come” — which frees us to love and serve here, and not “get ours” here and now.
Which leaves verses 7 and 17.
6. We thank God and pray for our leaders.
Again, we find a very different approach than what’s on offer and assumed in the world regarding leaders. First, verse 17:
Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.
So, we might say, the pursuit of joy is critical in a healthy dynamic between church leaders and their people.
Here’s how it works: first, Christian leaders aspire to the office and desire good work (1 Timothy 3:1). They want to do it. From joy, they set out in joy, to work for the people’s joy in Jesus. So, they seek to persuade the people, convince them, and win their hearts with the word of God. They do not demand raw obedience.
“Obey” here comes from a word (Greek pethō) that typically means to convince, or persuade, or make confident, or win trust. This is essentially what it means in its three other uses in Hebrews, including the next verse: “Pray for us, for we are sure [convinced, confident, persuaded] that we have a clear conscience” (Hebrews 13:18; also 2:13 and 6:9).
Second, then, the people, if they are spiritually healthy, want to be led by worthy leaders. They’re eager to be taught, eager to be persuaded from the word, eager to be convinced. They have a disposition to yield to and receive worthy leadership, and being so won, they gladly submit — that is, congregants to the leaders (plural, together; we are not here talking about the gathered body in a congregational meeting, or congregants to individual elders in informal contexts). And in this disposition, wise Christians know that it will be to their own advantage and gain if their leaders labor with joy and not with groaning. This doesn’t mean that it’s the church’s job to make the pastors happy. And it also means it’s not the church’s job to make the pastors miserable.
The healthiest dynamic in the church is leaders that don’t presume submission but seek to persuade and win the congregation from the heart, and a congregation that isn’t just willing, but eager, to be led and persuaded by the leadership.
Yesterday and Today
Verse 17 relates to present leaders; verse 7 to past leaders. We finish with verse 7:
Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.
He says “your leaders” spoke to you God’s word. In Christianity, good leaders teach, and good teachers, in time, come to lead. The authority for Christian leadership comes from the Word — from Jesus, his gospel, the Scriptures — not ourselves or elsewhere. We are people of the Book; our leaders are to be men of the Book, who teach and lead from the Book.
And their words and their way of life go together: they not only speak the word but model a way of life, and a way of finishing their course, that validates their words. Words and way belong together. Words give meaning to way of life. And way of life models and confirms words.
But Hebrews doesn’t say to imitate their “way of life.” Rather, “imitate their faith.” Remember that these are past leaders, not present. A new generation has come, with its own challenges. The new generation encounters (slightly) different circumstances and contexts than those before them (times do change, though it’s easy to over-anticipate this and overstate it). Situations change, and the particular expressions of love required may vary, but imitate their faith. Why? Because faith focuses on its object — who is the same yesterday and today.
So above all, imitate this about your leaders: they followed Jesus. They leaned on him, trusted him, looked to him, and staked everything on him. And Jesus proved himself reliable and steady and trustworthy to them. And so he will be to us. From one generation to the next to the next. He is the same yesterday (for those who came before us) and today (for us).
On its own, sameness is not glorious. Satan is the father of lies and has always been the father of lies. That sameness is a disgrace, not glorious. But if someone tells the truth, and is the Truth, then his enduring “sameness” accentuates and sweetens the glory of truth-telling.
And when someone — namely, Jesus — is better than any standard of comparison, the question remains, Will that change? He may have proven himself to be enough for the generation before us. But will he be enough for us? To that, Hebrews says he is the same yesterday and today — gloriously the same, constant, steady, immutable, unchangeable. And then he adds, and forever. To the ages. In every generation to come.
What’s underneath this whole chapter is that Jesus is better (as Hebrews has argued) and that will not change. He is not only better right now. He will always be better. He will not lose his better-ness, and so we will not lose our grounds for joy, for being pleased in God, and living to please him.
And so we come to the Table.
Feed at the Altar
Verse 10 mentions an altar: “We have an altar from which those who serve the tent [the priests of the old covenant] have no right to eat.” This altar is not first and foremost the Lord’s Table, as if Hebrews is saying, the Jews have their food, and we have ours.
When verse 10 says, “We have an altar,” it means the sacrifice and blood of Jesus. He is our altar. He died to make us holy and happy. We are not strengthened by ritual foods, but our hearts are strengthened by grace (Hebrews 13:9). And this Table is an expression and application of the true altar that is the cross of Christ and his body and blood.