COMMENTARY ON THE EPISTLE TO THE HEBREWS
A Word of Warning and of Comfort
by Rev. Bassam M. Madany
Hebrews 11: 1 - 12
Due to the difficulties which stand in the way of believers, the author pleaded with them to lead a life of faith reminding them of what the prophet Habakkuk had said: Now the just shall live by faith; but if anyone draws back, my soul has no pleasure in him. As he reached the end of the tenth chapter he said: But we are not of those who draw back to perdition, but of those who believe to the saving of the soul.
The inspired author now gives us this timeless description of faith: Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. A living faith which overcomes the difficulties of life is that faith which trusts in that which is hoped for. The expression hoped for does not mean what human beings hope for, but what God had promised in His Holy Scriptures. The Word of God is the object of a believer's hope.
The author began to describe true faith by giving us an account of the life of the heroes of faith from the days of Abel, the son of Adam and Eve. Abel differed from his brother Cain in this important matter: he was a true believer, he placed his complete trust in his God and in his unlimited mercy. He offered his sacrifice in a spirit of faith. So God accepted his sacrifice but rejected Cain's offering as it was not brought from a truthful and believing heart.
We come to reflect on the life of Enoch who belonged to the generation which preceded the flood. Enoch's life pleased God. He lived in the presence of God and his walk was radically different from that of the majority of his contemporaries. So God translated him from this world to the life of paradise without seeing death. But without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him.
Noah lived a life of trust in the Word of God. God revealed to him that the deluge was coming to destroy the evil world. He commanded him to build an ark for the saving of his family. While people used to laugh at him and at his work which had begun and ended in faith, Noah kept on looking to his God, being assured that he was going to be saved from death which was to engulf the entire world.
Let us also contemplate the life of Abraham. He lived by faith and died in faith without seeing all of God's promises fulfilled in his days. Had he not armed himself with faith, he would not have obeyed God who called him to leave Ur of the Chaldees and become a migrant, traveling in foreign lands. He obeyed the Divine command and lived in tents with his sons Isaac and Jacob. While God had promised to give him the land of promise, yet he did not run ahead of God's timing and he never tried to go back to Ur, when his difficulties multiplied. Furthermore, Abraham had received a promise from the Lord that through his descendants all the families of the earth would be blessed. But how was that going to be accomplished when Sarah, his wife, was unable to bear? They were both very old. Had Abraham been living according to what can be seen and forecast by human wisdom, he would have ceased to continue his journey with God. But Abraham was a man of faith, not in the sense that he lived a life based on human dreams, but the object of his faith was God's promises which were going to be realized even though they appeared impossible. Sarah also believed what her husband believed that she was going to bear a son in her old age. Therefore from one man, and him as good as dead, were born as many as the stars of the sky in multitude -- innumerable as the sand which is by the seashore.
Hebrews 11: 13 - 40
The author of Hebrews has taught us that the life of believers is as a life of faith in the promises of God. All those who pleased God during the OT times walked on the path of faith.
1. Not all of God's promises are fulfilled in this life. This is a fundamental teaching which we derive from the life of the heroes of faith as described in God's sacred history (in the Bible). Should we think that all of God's promises do get fulfilled in this life, we will be very disappointed. Our final victory over evil, the devil, and all his accomplices, will not take place until we leave this life and enter heaven. Our perfect and ultimate happiness will not take place until our own resurrection at the return of Jesus the Messiah on the Last Day. We must not forget this great truth: our lasting home is in heaven.
2. A believer can accomplish great works that the unbeliever cannot understand. God asked his servant Abraham to offer Isaac as a sacrifice, this son through whom all the families of the earth were to be blessed. Abraham could not harmonize between the promise of God and the command of God to offer his son as a sacrifice. But he believed that God was able to bring his son back from the dead; so Abraham came victoriously out of his ordeal. This happened to Moses from the day of his birth until the last day of his life. He was a son of faith and a man of faith. Every step of the life of Moses was a step of faith in God and in his promises to his fathers. When Moses looked upon his life from the eye of flesh, he saw himself as a son of Pharaoh's daughter, a candidate to become one of the great rulers of Egypt. But when he looked upon himself by the eye of faith, he saw himself as an individual living among the persecuted people of God. Moses preferred to be humiliated among his people rather than enjoy the pleasures of sin for a time. The life of Moses was a series of the victories of faith over human wisdom.
2. The heroes of faith during the OT times did not receive the fulfillment of all of God's promises in their life, but that did not keep them from remaining faithful to the One who had called them from death to life eternal. Many suffered for the sake of God. They were made homeless and many were killed by the heathens or the apostates among the children of Israel. They did not receive the promises, in the sense that they did not have the privilege of living in the age of the Messiah, which was predicted during the OT times. They preferred to die as believers rather than live as apostates. Is it not then expected that NT believers manifest a similar devotion to God by leading a life based firmly on faith?
Hebrews 12: 1 - 17
Having finished his description of the lives of the heroes of faith, the author of the letter encouraged its recipients to cast aside all things which stood in the way of their progress in the faith. They should focus their eyes on Jesus the Messiah, the author and perfecter of their faith. Since the believers who were to read this letter were the object of severe persecutions, the author emphasized the fact that none of these hard things happened to them without the knowledge of God or his plan for their lives. God has not surrendered his throne and he remains the Lord of the universe. God uses all these difficulties which fall upon the believers for their own instruction. Is there any father who truly loves his children and yet neglects their discipline? Why should we try to escape from God's discipline? Should we not be rather thankful to God who disciplines us for our own spiritual welfare so that we may become partakers of his holiness?
The author exhorted the believers to apply his words in their life and straighten their walk since they were tempted to go back on their true faith. He reminded them of their duties towards their brothers and sisters in the faith, some of whom had entertained the idea of going back to Judaism. He reminded them of the life of Esau the brother of Jacob who was brought up in the house of his father Isaac. But unlike Jacob, he despised the promises of God and was cast him away. Let every person examine his or her heart, and learn from the life of Esau about the danger of unbelief.
Hebrews 12: 18 - 29
The writer of Hebrews dealt with the privileges of the believers both in the OT and NT times as well as their responsibilities. It pleased God to reveal himself in the OT times in some very tangible ways such as happened during the days of Moses when the children of Israel were at Sinai. The revelation of God at that time was so fearful that the people asked Moses to request the Lord not to speak to them directly but rather indirectly through Moses. But at the dawn of the NT age, God revealed himself in a superior way which did not frighten the people. This happened through Jesus the Messiah, and so all believers got this wonderful privilege of coming directly to God without any recourse to a human priesthood. Believers in this NT age may approach heaven itself, i.e., the City of God, the Heavenly Jerusalem. All this is based on the shed blood of the Messiah which took place on the cross as an atonement for the sins of mankind. Thus, the blood of Christ pointed to something better than the blood of Abel. For while the blood of Abel cried out to God for vengeance from his murderer, the blood of the Savior asked for forgiveness. Actually everyone who takes refuge in the Messiah will receive his forgiveness.
It follows from this basic teaching that it is the duty of every human being to rush to the Messiah asking him for pardon and forgiveness. Now if the children of Israel, during the OT times, did not obey the requirements of the books of the OT became the objects of God's fearful judgment --- even though the OT regime was temporary --- what would be the end of those who refuse to respond in faith, to God's final word in Jesus the Messiah? And what would be the end of those who welcomed the NT regime and then went back on it at the beginning of the first winds of persecution?
This does not mean that true believers forsake their Christian faith. The author of the letter was aiming his strong words of warning at those who were not progressing in their spiritual life. They were not going forward enthusiastically on the way of faith, and neither were they going back in a final way to Judaism. Such an attitude is not good at all. God is not pleased with those who are wavering in their trust in Jesus the Messiah. For anyone who does not go forward in his spiritual life is actually going backward and is not far from forsaking the faith. The author ended this chapter by saying that For our God is a consuming fire. While these words are very strong, yet they express the truth. God is a God of grace and salvation to all those who receive freely his salvation. But those who refuse God and his free offer of salvation have to face God on the Day of Reckoning without any mediator or savior! Who will then save them from the fire and wrath of God?
When the author reached the final part of his epistle he dealt with the following subjects:
1. The believers' mutual responsibilities. Believers show the vitality of their faith in their attitude to believers who are from other backgrounds and who used to go from place to place on account of their work or in the service of the spread of the Injeel of salvation. Is there any true love if believers fail to be hospitable to other believers? Did not Abraham show hospitality to angels while he thought they were merely strangers en route to some other place? Equally, it is the duty of believers to be on guard and never participate in the lifestyle of unbelievers who lead impure lives as they committed sexual sins. Such sins were prevalent in the Mediterranean world in the First Century as well as in our times. Sexual sins destroy marriage. Believers should refrain also from the love of money. Rather they should place their trust in God saying: The Lord is my helper; I will not fear. What can man do to me?
2. The believers' responsibilities towards the church and the only Lord of the Church: Jesus the Messiah. The author had mentioned that some whose faith had been shaken ceased to attend the meetings (worship services) of the church. So he pleaded with those whose faith was strong to remember their duties to the church and to those who had founded it, i.e., the apostles of Jesus the Messiah. They should remember that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.
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