In our very text the author told us how sacrifices of thanksgiving and praise can now be offered continually by acknowledging Jesus as the Christ before all men and by doing good to our brothers. But there is maybe no greater display of this heavenly mindset in the author than this final command: pray for us. We find prayer so difficult precisely because it is spiritual work that can only be done by faith. Yet because prayer is appealing directly to God and calling upon the Almighty Creator of heaven and earth, who is also our Father through Jesus our Lord, to act on our behalf, what can be more important?
Through him then 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.
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.
Pray for us, for we are sure that we have a clear conscience, desiring to act honorably in all things. I urge you the more earnestly to do this in order that I may be restored to you the sooner.
Hebrews 13:15-19 ESV
As we have been observing, this final chapter of Hebrews is largely a series of quick closing exhortations. Of course, these commands do not stand in a vacuum but are predicated upon everything that the author has labored to explain over the previous twelve chapters. Indeed, although the rest of the book also contains plenty of pointed exhortation, the purpose of this chapter can be captured in the question: How then shall we live?
The first verse, which I believe to be thesis of the entire chapter, called for us to continue in brotherly love. Such love for our brothers and sisters in Christ will be shown through our hospitality, our caring for the imprisoned and mistreated, our honoring of marriage, and our contentment with our earthly possessions. Such love cannot grow up out of strange and diverse doctrines but can only be rooted in our faith in Jesus Christ, who is the same yesterday, today, and forever. We concluded our previous passage with the author reminding us of the reproach that Christ bore to deliver us from our sins and calling us to also bear the reproach of marking ourselves as His disciples.
In the passage before us, the author explicitly binds the public confession of our faith in Christ to the love that we ought to show to one another, calling these pleasing sacrifices of praise to God. We will then see how submission to godly leadership is a safeguard against being led astray into strange and diverse doctrines and the importance of prayer as the greatest good that we can show to one another.
Pleasing Sacrifices // Verses 15-16
Particularly in the center of the book, the author of Hebrews labored to show that Christ is the absolute, perfect, and final fulfillment of all sacrifices for sins, according to the Old Testament law. Indeed, he noted that the chief benefit of the sacrificial system under the old covenant was to constantly remind God’s people of their sins and of their need for a perfect Redeemer.
Yet we should also remember that sin offerings were not the only kind of sacrifice that could be given. “Others were required as acts of worship denoting praise and thanksgiving to God and denoting the consecration of the worshiper to God. Of such kind were the burnt-offerings and the thank-offerings. The question naturally arises: The sin-offerings of the old covenant have been set aside by the offering of the reality to which they pointed. Have the offerings of praise and thanksgiving to God and denoting the consecration also been set aside? Does God still require his people to appear at the temple to perform sacrifices of worship and consecration as under the old covenant? Or with the superseding of the old covenant system is this also done away with?”
Indeed, we can easily imagine that becoming a line of argument from some Jewish Christians: “We aren’t making sin offerings; we know that Jesus did that once for all. We’re only making sacrifices of thanksgiving.” What then is the answer? Have such offerings ceased, or are they still required of God’s people? The answer is yes and no. Yes, God’s people are still to bring to Him freewill offerings of thanksgiving and praise. We read that explicitly in verse 15: let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God.
However, making physical animal sacrifices has ceased. Just as the blood of animals in the sin offerings pointed toward their perfect fulfillment in the sacrifice of Christ, so the blood of animals in thanksgiving offerings also pointed toward something greater to come through Christ. You see, as long as these offerings of praise were bound to the animal sacrifices, they were severely limited. They were limited to being made only the temple. They were limited by the availability of the priests. They were limited by the resources that each person had.
Our sacrifices of praise no longer have such limitations under the new covenant. We are able to offer them continually… to God because they are no longer being made through the blood of bulls and goats but through him, that is Christ. All of our freewill offerings of praise and thanksgiving to God are now made through Christ, who forever sits interceding for us in prayer before the Father. Therefore, we can give continual sacrifices of praise to God because Christ is continually interceding for us and we have continual access to Him as our Mediator and great High Priest.
But what exactly do such sacrifices of praise look like today? The author himself clarifies what that ought to look like: that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name. Continually acknowledging (or confessing) the name of Jesus is the sacrifice of praise that God now desires from His people. We certainly confess Christ’s name each Lord’s Day as we sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to Him. But since author just commanded us to go to Christ outside the camp and bear His reproach, we should think of this more in terms of not being ashamed of Christ before those who would mock Him or (as is more common with us today) who we fear may mock us because of Him.
Of course, even within the Old Testament, there were explicit declarations that confessing lips were more pleasing to God than the blood of animals. Consider David’s great prayer of repentance in Psalm 51:12-17:
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and uphold me with a willing spirit.
Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
and sinners will return to you.
Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God,
O God of my salvation,
and my tongue will sing aloud of your righteousness.
O Lord, open my lips,
and my mouth will declare your praise.
For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it.
you will not be pleased with a burnt offering.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit,
a broken and contrite heart,
O God, you will not despise.
With David’s prayer in mind, Richard Phillips is right to note:
Far more valuable to God than any outward religious display we offer, is that we should sacrificially devote our speech to him. This is something we should seek in prayer and cultivate as a Christian duty. Ask God to sanctify your lips, that they would be servants of his will and a source of pleasure to him. Of course, this will require the sanctification of your heart, which is the whole point. In large part we measure our heart sanctification by the sanctity of our speech, as gossip and coarse joking and cursing and complaining give way to encouraging, edifying, wise, and God-praising words.
Such sacrifices of praise imitate the faith of those who have finished their race before us and glorify Christ as our altogether lovely Savior. Verse 16 presents another means: Do not neglect to do good and share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God. Just as acknowledging Jesus’ name has cost many Christians their lives and has heaped scorn upon many others, so too is doing good and sharing what we have with others always sacrificial. Because we live in a world that is still broken under the curse of sin, sinning is always easier (at first) than obedience. More specifically to the author’s point, it is also always easier to neglect doing good to others, just as it is always easier to neglect hospitality (v. 2). Yet in doing so, especially to the household of faith, we are also doing for our Lord (Matthew 25).
I think it is worth pointing out again that the author specifically has doing good to and sharing with our fellow believers. Although this may make me sound rather Scrooge-y, I believe that the general emphasis in many churches upon large mercy ministries is often not worth the time or financial commitment given to them. Like large outreach events, I certainly acknowledge that good and even salvations have come through them. However, mercy ministries often (again, a large generality that does not apply everywhere) seem to bear the fruit of Christians feeling good about serving the poor and perhaps the poor who were served thinking, “What nice people.” If our focus was primarily upon radically doing good and sharing with one another and with those connected to us, we would better present a community that people would actually desire to be a part of. Remember that the world (that is, non-Christians) will know that we are disciples of Christ (Christians) by our love for one another. If would do the best good for the world, we must give a glimpse of Jerusalem to those who have only ever known Babylon.
such sacrifices are pleasing to God. Recall from Hebrews 11 that this idea of having please God is connected to our being commended by God, which is the highest joy that can ever be known. As Lewis called it, it is the joy that the inferior takes in pleasing the superior. And what greater delight can there be for any creature than to know that the Creator is pleased with it. It amazes me to see my seven-month-old already trying to impress with whatever she is doing, but that is the natural inclination of a child to its father. A mother’s love is a child’s security, but a father’s approval is their confidence. If that is true of flawed, earthly fathers, how much more with our heavenly Father?