As we conclude the book of Hebrews, the writer ends his letter with a potpourri of ethical admonitions and instruction. A common theme is “living in a certain way,” but the subject matter changes radically from passage to passage. “Let brotherly love continue . . .” (Heb. 13:1-25).
We begin with friends,strangers and prisoners. These believers are exhorted, as we are, to remember three classes of people. The first is made up of our brothers and sisters in the faith. The second is strangers—showing hospitality. The third is made up of prisoners who have been mistreated for the faith (v. 1-3). Of course these prisoners are also members of the first category mentioned, but mentioning them particularly is still important. Many are attracted to the koinonia-love of vibrant Christian communities, and do not mind joining up and joining in with the general pleasantness. But when trouble arises, and some members of that community run afoul of “respectable” authority, the situation changes. The apostle Paul even had to deal with this — visiting a subversive in prison is a good way to get your own name on the list. So, our writer tells us, don’t back away from Christians who get in trouble with the law for their faith.
He then turns to discuss the marriage bed. The Christian faith is not at all an ascetic religion (v. 4). We are told in the plainest terms that marriage is honorable (this means, by the way, that it is to be honored), and the bed is undefiled. We should be far more concerned with sexual morality than with Victorian propriety. The two phrases robust and lawful and prim and proper are not interchangeable.
Keeping the marriage bed undefiled is closely related to the question of contentment. Discontent begins with wanting other people’s stuff—whether car, house, wife, children, money, etc. Obedience to the tenth commandment is the fountainhead of contentment. Be content with what you have (v. 5). Whatever it is you are missing, God is there with you (vv. 5-6). While discontent is a problem in every area, it is discontent on fire (lust) that really causes trouble. God will judge adulterers and whoremongers, as we have just learned, and the key to staying out of that trouble is to learn the secret of content.
We then come to the important subject of church government. We see in these verses the New Testament requirement of church membership (vv. 7, 17, 24). Notice what the members of the church must do with regard to their elders—remember their teaching, imitate their faith, reflect on their behavior, obey them, and be a joy to them. The rulers must render an account. This cannot happen with the haphazard approach we have to church membership that is so common in our day. At the same time, the letter is not written to the rulers (v. 24). The saints are not simply ciphers, needing to be moved around by their elders.
This exhortation presupposes a knowledge of the rulers on the part of the members, and a knowledge of the members on the part of the rulers. It is not possible for an accountant to give an accounting unless he knows what he is dealing with. It is not possible for the elders of the church to give an accounting without church membership. Neither is it possible for the saints in the congregation to do what is required of them here without them knowing the names of the elders they are required to obey. Just try to imagine (for example) children being required to obey their parents without any knowledge of who their parents are. It is the same here. In order for Christians to obey their rulers, they must identify their rulers, and this means they need to know their names. In order for rulers to give an account for the congregation, they need to know their names. And if you have any situation where there are two groups of people, known to each other, bound together by the covenantal obligations described here. you have a system of church membership. You do not have the free and breezy approach to church hopping that is so characteristic of our times. And this is because church membership is biblical, and flitting from fellowship to fellowship is not.
We then are reminded of the constancy of Christ. Christ never changes. Because He never changes, we should not be blown about by weird doctrines. We are to be built up by grace—we eat from God’s altar by faith (vv. 8-10). This is an altar from which the Jews have no right to partake. As we gather around the Lord’s Table weekly, we are nourished and strengthened. This does not place superstitious value on bread and wine any more than gathered to hear the word of Christ preached places superstitious faith in the paper and ink on the page of the Bible, or in the vocal chords of the preacher. God uses means, and these means are no blessing to us whatever unless we approach them in evangelical faith.
As we partake of Christ in this altar, we come to bear His reproach. The sacrificial animals of the Old Covenant were taken outside the camp. When Christ came, He died outside the city. In the same way, we should be willing to take our place with Him, outside the camp (vv. 11-14). If God wills, we must be willing to share the contempt placed upon Him. Returning to the earlier exhortation, this is part of the reason we should remember those Christians who were imprisoned for their faith. All those who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted. This is God’s pattern, and we should never identify godliness with a mere middle class respectability.
The Christian faith consists of offering up sacrifices. We don’t offer animals any more for the ultimate Sacrifice has come, and offered Himself up once for all. But our worship is still sacrificial worship, and follows the patterns of sacrificial worship set down in the Old Testament. Two sacrifices form part of our life before God. The first is the sacrifice of praise—this is to be a continuous sacrifice (v. 15). This is only possible when rendered as fruit (v. 15). The second sacrifice is that of good works and sharing (v. 16). God is pleased when we share our lives with one another. New Covenant worship is sacrificial worship that overflows as gratitude.
Then we come to a personal request. The author of Hebrews requests prayer, and does so on the basis of a good conscience (vv. 18-19). Never let the fact you cannot be absolutely faultless in God’s sight make room for allowances with regard to honorable living. If God were to mark iniquities, no one could stand. It does not follow from this that blameless and honorable living is an impossibility. Much confusion is caused by confounding what our lives would look like in the sight of God (apart from Christ) and what they look like as we walk by faith in Christ in the sight of all men.
Another personal note comes in at vv. 22-23. He begs their patience for the “few words” he has written, and he mentions the news about Timothy (v. 23).
We then come to the benediction and greeting. The God who did one thing (raise Jesus from the dead) can do another. He can make us complete in every good work to do His will—doing, again, what pleases Him (vv. 20-25).