Warnings in Hebrews

illuminated manuscript in Hebrew

The book of Hebrews was written to people who are likely second-generation Christians still struggling with the tensions between the traditions of Judaism and the teachings of Christianity. Many had, currently or at one time, relatives who would have seen Jesus as a false teacher. They would have had family and friends reject them, and the temptation would have been great to slip back into the traditions of their past. In this light, the Hebrew writer includes five warnings in his epistle to these struggling Christians.

Neglect

Hebrews 2:1 encourages them and us to give earnest heed to the teachings of Jesus and His inspired apostles, confirmed by signs and wonders from God, lest we drift away in neglect. Hebrews challenges us to ask ourselves how we plan to escape judgment if we neglect and reject so great a salvation, a salvation planned from the foundations of the world.

John 20:30-31 concludes that the miracles and signs recorded in that gospel are for confirming our faith. Like those steps reviewed every time we get on a plane, have we heard God’s word so much that we filter it out? Ephesians 2:8 reminds us of the role grace plays in our salvation. While we were disobedient, God sent His Son as an unmerited gift of propitiation. God has given us a gift in salvation and eternal life in His Son, and the Hebrew writer makes sure we understand that we should not neglect so great a gift.

A Hardened Heart

In Hebrews 3, the author repeatedly quotes the 95th Psalm, saying, “Today, if you hear His voice…” He calls on us, in verse 12, to take care we do not develop an unbelieving heart, and he uses the next several verses to help us overcome unbelief – exhort each other, share in Christ, hold confidence, even fear of failure. We need to be aware that it is possible to harden our hearts and miss salvation.

We may simply choose unbelief, but I Corinthians 10:6-13 warns us to learn from the mistakes of those who came before us, lest we be overconfident in our faith and slip into disobedience. This is why the Hebrew writer warns us against becoming hardened to God’s word, for it can happen without us realizing it.

Immaturity

No one likes being called immature, but when we most dislike it is when we are often most guilty of it. In Hebrews 5:11-14, the author does just this. He admonishes his readers for being too spiritually immature to understand some things they should. He goes on in chapter 6 to then encourage growth, so they and we do not fall away despite having known the heavenly gift.

When we are not growing spiritually, skepticism, indifference, and apostasy may find room to creep in. An arm kept in a cast for several weeks quickly becomes smaller and weaker than the arm being used every day. Growth takes effort on our part, and it is something we should be working toward every day.

Falling Away

In Hebrews 10:26-31, the author addresses the dangers of deliberate sin, specifically quoting from Deuteronomy 32. Again, these are things his readers are familiar with from Moses’ teachings, but now it is being applied to rejecting Christ’s sacrifice, a sacrifice sealing a covenant greater than the one brought by Moses.

Refusal

The author uses the illustration of Esau in Hebrews 12:16-17, who refused to acknowledge the worth of his family birthright. This is compared to our own spiritual birthright, standing before the holy mountain, and we are warned, in verse 25, to not refuse the one who speaks to us now — Jesus Christ according to chapter 1:1.

Conclusion

In Jeremiah 44, after God calls on His people time and again to listen to His word, the prophet makes a final appeal. In verse 16, though, the people state they will not listen. Rather than refusing the word of grace like they did, we should receive it gratefully, knowing the promises and gifts that come from our God who delivered Him.

God’s word can work in our lives if we avoid turning our back, hardening our heart, and closing our hearts to it. His word can change us from sinful creatures without hope into sanctified children with the hope of eternity. No one can force us to soften ourselves to His word, though. It has to come from within. We need to heed these warnings just as much as those second-generation Christians, holding to our faith despite anything that might try to take it from us.

A Giving Heart

Carl Bloch's painting depicting Jesus sitting before a crowd and delivering the Sermon on the Mount
The Sermon on the Mount
Carl Bloch, 1890

Matthew 6:1 – 4:

“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.

“Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

In these words, Jesus is asking us to look into the heart of giving. Here, Jesus assumes we are going to be gracious and generous. He doesn’t command that we give. He shouldn’t need to. If we are putting Christ on in our lives, we will be a people who give. Rather than focusing on the act, then, here Jesus focuses on the motivation behind giving.

Giving for the Right Reasons

We understand the joy of giving. We see this joy in giving in several places in the New Testament. When the church is striving to form, we see the early Christians gladly sharing with one another. We know the praise Paul gives the churches in Macedonia for their generosity in his labors. And we also know that we are supposed to help both Christian and non-Christian alike. What really matters is what leads us to give.

At the end of Matthew 5, Jesus directs us to love those who would harm us and then to be perfect as our God is perfect. This heart of giving is part of that perfection. He warns us against giving for attention or praise. If we do so, Jesus says we receive a reward in this life. It’s an immediate reward, but it negates a better reward. Instead, Jesus directs us to be generous in humble secrecy. Then will our God praise us.

The Humble Christian

True Christianity does not seek praise or attention. True Christianity does not boast or call attention to self. Christianity instead points attention to God through humble conduct, through grace, and through self-sacrifice. This goes beyond our generosity. As we’re going to see when we examine the following verses, it goes to all acts of righteousness. Whether we are preaching, giving, leading a prayer, or studying our Bibles — we can do all of these things in a way that draws attention away from God and to ourselves.

When was the last time you gave something anonymously? We live in a one-up culture, and it’s a temptation to carry this over to our giving and other acts of service. Our pride wants to give voice to our accomplishments. As Christians, we should be willing to lay aside that pride and conduct ourselves in all humility, even to the point of anonymity.

I might not be able to keep secrets from my own hands, but I can keep my pride in check. Rather than impressing others with my generosity, I should be honoring God in giving. We’re not seeking to impress God with our humility, but our humble conduct honors God. This takes focus off of self and places the credit entirely on God, for, if the recipient has no credit to give for their blessing, then who else can they praise but God? By taking self out of the equation, we become God’s hands. We become His arms, and we see the work that we do as His rather than ours.

I Peter 4:10 – 11:

As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace: whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies–in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.

Putting Others first in Christ

Carl Bloch's painting depicting Jesus sitting before a crowd and delivering the Sermon on the Mount
The Sermon on the Mount
Carl Bloch, 1890

The Sermon on the Mount is easy to understand but challenging to live. We have to really open our hearts to the message being taught by our Savior so that we may walk the way He would have us. James 1:22 – 25 encourages us to see ourselves in comparison to God’s word, to take that comparison to heart, and then do something about it. So as we’re looking through Christ’s teaching in Matthew 5 and 6, let’s do so in a way that allows each of us to become more spiritually complete.

Matthew 5: 33 – 48:

“Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.’ But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?

“You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

These words continue the theme set up earlier in the chapter that Jesus wants something deeper than outward compliance. He wants us to change our hearts and the attitudes that motivate us. This is a fundamental shift in thinking.

Let Your Yes Be Yes

In Numbers 30:2, God’s law talks about taking pledges and making oaths. This was part of their culture, and it’s still part of ours in some situations. Jesus, however, says that oaths and pledges are unnecessary if we are fundamentally honest people. Jesus addresses this again in Matthew 23, when Jesus talks about the Pharisees placing oaths on various sacred relics and then giving different weights to those different oaths. Jesus goes on to say not to make any oaths at all. Just be a person of your word.

This shifts from a legalistic approach to our word and toward a more spiritual approach. This is not about external signs. It is a way of life and a reflection of your spirituality and your character. Our honesty then gives credibility to the message we bring. It reinforces the changing power of God’s word in a simple, immediately evident way. By our honest word, we show that we mean what we preach.

Others Before Self

Jesus then addresses the nature of personal vindication. Again, the law lays down fundamentals of equitable recompense when wronged. Jesus says instead to get over it and move on, for by this time, God’s people had taken rules that were meant to be applied to a legal system and made it personal. See Leviticus 19:17 – 18 for an example of how God’s people were supposed to keep personal feelings out of legal resolutions.

These concepts are not new, but Jesus is ensuring we understand the importance of love — even for those who don’t love us. Be generous; avoid vengeance; go the extra mile; bless those who hate you. This takes a major shift in our own concept of fairness. It means avoiding the easy way out and doing right by others, even when we don’t feel they deserve it. It’s not our place to dole out punishments to everyone we don’t like. Instead, we should be living peaceably and without animosity toward others anywhere.

Perfect As God Is Perfect

All of this leads us to spiritual wholeness. These teachings and others in the Sermon on the Mount lay down the template for what godly living truly looks like. That template abandons worldly reason and secular justice. It demands a complete self-sacrifice and a change in heart. Let your words and your actions agree. Let go of all resentment or anger you might have toward others, and be ready to do good toward all. In these ways, we grow closer to Christ and show Him to others through the way we live.

lesson by Don Larsen