Hebrews 13

David H. Linden,  University Presbyterian Church, Las Cruces, NM  USA   (October, 2011)

 

Chapter 12 was the end of the Hebrews sermon as a unified sermon. In chapter 13, it is more like a regular letter now. A few important exhortations appear in this postscript, some of which could appear in any letter. Yet even here there is a unity with the rest of the book. Jesus makes people holy through His blood (13:13); this must still be Hebrews.

 

The close of this letter is an example of gracious Christian speech. It has prayer and asks for prayer. It has greetings, blessings, and encouragements. The strong warnings have been given; they are not repeated, but the encouragement is. The clear evidence is that the writer knows the readers. In some way, he speaks of leaders past and present. This is a word from a churchman; the interest is not just spiritual, evangelistic, moral, and theological; the well being of an established church is evident. 

 

Even though this is postscript, it is very far from being untheological. Doctrine flows naturally from his pen, and his great interest in the priestly role of Christ comes to expression again. Hebrews 13 would not fit as well on the end of any other epistle. 

 

 

13:1-3   The love commanded for others is shown by the writer himself. Like the Lord, he again calls them “brothers,” (2:11,12).  His next appeal is worded in such a way in Greek that it reveals that the grace of hospitality was in decline among them, even though they continued to help others (6:10). They had become dull (5:11). When 10:32-34 speaks of their fervor to serve others in prison, it is stated in the past tense, so they needed to be stimulated in this way. 13:1,2 does not avoid that there is a need for this virtue, yet it urges to keep loving in a way that recognizes that they have this virtue. It follows with an example of a surprise blessing for a person who is a model for us. They would all recognize that the good example here is Abraham again. Three “strangers” approached; before Abraham knew it was the Son of God and two angels, he had decided to serve them (Genesis 19).  He found himself blessed by their presence. This exhortation fits what has gone before in Hebrews. Faith is manifest in persistent confession and also in mutual care for each other. The diligence of 6:11 (vs. laziness) is inseparable from genuine faith.

 

The matter of prison is quite specific. Some of their number had been (10:34), or may yet be in prison (13:3). A saint famous for his attention to Paul in prison was Onesiphorus (2 Timothy 1:16-18). In Hebrews, Christians are identified not only by their profession with words, but also by the pattern of their deeds. The sacrifice of praise to God is side by side with good works, which are also a sacrifice to the Lord (13:15) and pleasing to Him. (In writing these notes, I have had proof-reading help from a number of Christians I have never met!). The NIV unfortunately omits the word “body” in v.3. We may suffer in the body. Christian sympathy for this kind of trial is very important. We pay attention to our own pains; we are commanded to remember the physical pain of others.

 

13:4   Sexual Impurity   The most forceful way to state a commandment in the Hebrew language was used in the Ten Commandments in the form “not you shall …” Here in 13:4, the high standard begins with a positive. It is not just that adultery and fornication are horrible, but that marriage should be properly honored! This is a strong corrective to the monastic movements that depreciated marriage as somewhat sub-Christian. Some later texts deliberately omitted the words “among all.” Their notion was that marriage is a concession for those less spiritual people who cannot contain their lust – a demeaning appraisal of marriage as a gift of God. This low view of the goodness of the Creator’s work continues to infect the Roman Catholic Church to this day, and leads to an increase of sexual sin! They deny marriage to the clergy even though St. Peter had a wife (Matthew 8:14).

 

There are different ways to disparage marriage. One is given above, i.e., to demean it, and the other is to ignore it. The marriage bed should be kept pure from slander. It is good and beautiful; the Song of Songs [maybe that means the best one Solomon wrote, the song above all his others!], an entire book of the Bible is dedicated to the full-orbed love of married persons including erotic love. The other dishonor to marriage is to ignore it as the confined and required context for sexual fulfillment. This sin may be adultery, the breaking of covenant by a married person, as in Proverbs 2:16-19. It may be fornication, the ignoring of the marriage covenant by a single person. Such sin often happens far from the eyes of others. Perhaps this is why we are often reminded that God is the Judge of what others may never see. (See 1 Thessalonians 4:3-8; Hebrews 4:13.)

 

13:5,6   The Love of Money   In some Scriptures sexual sin has a close association with greed (Ephesians 5:3; 1 Corinthians 5:11; Colossians 3:5).  Sexuality immorality is an obvious form of greed, because it disregards the true welfare of the other. Longing for the needs of self applies also to money. It is easy to magnify what we believe we need. We may work for money but we may not steal it. We must not love it. A fair test whether we love our money is our willingness to part with it so that others benefit. The rich farmer was rich in goods but not rich to God (Luke 12:13-21). Another test is given here – contentment with what we have. This is immediately joined a promise in Deuteronomy 31:6.  This promise however says nothing about money or the supply of our physical needs, yet the Holy Spirit joins contentment to the promise that we will not be forsaken. This shows that a statement of God’s provision in defeating their enemies (Deuteronomy 31:3-6) may be applied legitimately to another provision. Even though the quotation in v.6 refers to danger from an enemy, the same point can be made from the way 13:6 quotes Psalm 118:6,7. It is a good rule: “The meaning is one, but applications are many.”  Thus we are not to love money but be contented with what the Lord has allotted us. He has committed Himself to our care.” We have been delivered from the big fear (2:15). His continued presence (v.5) and help (v.6) give reason to remove all the other fears, including the fear of man (Luke 12:4-7; 1 Peter 3:14).

 

13:7,8   A Look into the Past   To remember leaders is quite different from obeying and greeting them (13:17, 24). They are to remember esteemed leaders who have died, perhaps those who led them to Christ and baptized them. But they have passed away. The writer has repeatedly pointed to good models beginning in 6:12, and maybe hinting at their legacy of godly evangelists in 2:3. Then there is all of chapter 11, followed by the example of Christ. We see the grace of God in others and learn from it. In 13:7, the emphasis is on the message they had received. The clear intent is that they should not turn from such a heritage. The matter of incipient apostasy is never far from the writer’s mind. He does not want them to throw away their confidence (10:35) nor their own heritage in hearing and responding to the gospel. It is not possible to remember the leaders who have passed away the way the writer wants them to, if they drift from the message learned from them. The human touch here is valuable. The readers of this letter had observed the lives of those teachers, obviously persons faithful to the end. The gospel did them much good and produced admirable fruit in their conduct. He does not want this to fade from their memory. It is another way to suggest, “Be careful what you turn away from!”  Apostasy is rejection of Christ (6:6). Now 13:7 makes it out also to be a repudiation of tender friendships and good memories.

 

It is in this context that the famous motto and confession appears: “Jesus Christ, the same, yesterday, today and forever.” This brief word shows how propositional truth grabs the heart!  It is a statement which cannot be true unless Christ is the eternal Son of God (1:11). Yet its appearance here probably ties in with their good memory of earlier days (10:32). They were urged to remember their former leaders. That is a close association with the Jesus Christ proclaimed to them then. That message has not changed; the Lord of that gospel has not changed, and they must not change either! What was true always will be, including the faith their evangelists and pastors had in Christ.  

 

13:9-11   Ceremonial Foods   The writer moves from the old faith of old teachers, to the danger of new doctrines. The proverb has much truth: “If it is new, it is not true; if it is true, it is not new.” The devil’s storehouse of error is quite sparse; his dull stock lacks the richness of truth eternity cannot exhaust (Ephesians 2:7). The devil is left with recycling old errors with a new coating on them to make them appear novel and exciting. We do not simply hold our doctrines; they also hold us. This is so with God’s truth (Romans 6:17; John 8:32), and since error deceives and takes its victims to hell, we must conclude that what we believe determines life and death. One new doctrine mentioned here in Hebrews had to do with food. This cannot be a benign issue because it carries people away. This is further evidence that, just as we do not control our sin, because sin controls whoever indulges it; these doctrines are not carried by those who adopt them; rather the new doctrines carry them, and carry them away – away from Christ.  

 

Some food issue is being discussed. Other Scriptures deal with food issues, such as food offered to idols in Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8, and a form of spirituality by asceticism in Colossians 2. The issue here is ceremonial food. One wonders why this is called a new doctrine, since food laws were part of the law. It could have been a new challenge these Christians were facing for the first time.

 

My conjecture on this follows. Perhaps the new doctrine related to food was a retort from Jews resisting Christian Jews, and it was having some success. Hebrews was written while the Temple was still functioning. The Temple had for many a powerful emotive effect. When the disciples pointed to it (Matthew 24:1,2) they may have had in mind its grandeur. The Jews would naturally think of it as God’s Temple with a sense of pride. The writer of Hebrews had to work hard to show the obsolescence of the priesthood, animal sacrifices and the most holy place. New objections still arise. The Christians ate a sacramental meal. (My point here is really speculation.) This would be a well-known matter among all Jews. The response might have been that the priests of Israel often had as their portion meat from the altar. Those priests were privileged to eat holy food from God’s holy altar. That was indeed the high privilege of the priests of Levi. However, believing in Christ meant abandoning ineffective offerings in every respect. This meant no food from that altar for any Christian. They had left their privilege when they confessed Christ as the final offering. Those who were converted priests, and there were many according to Acts 6:7, might feel a sense of loss because of Christ.

 

Whatever was really behind the matter of ceremonial food, we do know priests and their families had the right to eat of the offerings (Leviticus 7 & 22). A converted priest, who rejected obsolete offerings and refused to eat them, declared himself by that act no longer a priest. He lost more than food; he lost his position, community respect, and gained scorn. There must have been some kind of magnetic pull back to these ceremonial foods (v.10). Someone could say, “Look what I am losing!” My conjecture is that they may have heard arguments about the simplicity of the Lord’s Supper with mere bread and wine, which would be eaten by all not a select few. The Jews could argue that the Lord had appointed these Levitical priests. The activity tied to the altar was established by God and signified a relation to the Lord God of Israel. They could argue that giving up that altar (and the ceremonial food from it) was spurning their God. Perhaps some were being convinced by this kind of reaction to Christian teaching and simple worship.

 

In making its reply, the Book of Hebrews, does not repeat all its arguments about the sacrifice of Christ. The writer does remind them that foods alone are of no spiritual value. What went on the altar and what came off it, did not cleanse the conscience (9:9,10). What does affect us is receiving grace. Grace does for the heart what food does for the body. The grace of God is His decision to send us Christ (10:10).

 

In my opinion, 13:10 reverses the argument something like this:

 

You argue that those foods signify that that altar is forever associated with the Lord, and that not eating from it is the loss of a God-given right. But there is one condition that prohibits your priests from eating of the sin offering. “Any sin offering whose blood is brought into the Tent of Meeting to make atonement in the Holy Place must not be eaten; it must be burned,” (Leviticus 6:30). Under the law you are the ones denied something that is a right granted to all of us. Our sin offering is Jesus Christ (Isaiah 53:10) Who was offered on a different altar. We derive from the altar of His sacrifice forgiveness and the grace that strengthens our hearts. We have not lost; we have gained. If you refuse Him you have no right to the altar we have. You cannot have your altar and ours. If the blood of a sin offering was taken into the Most Holy Place you must burn the body offered; you cannot eat of it. Jesus our Priest in the order of Melchizedek has entered the Most Holy Place in heaven after shedding His blood for us. Jesus died outside the camp. By faith we partake of His flesh and blood and receive from Him eternal life (John 6:48-58). And this is an altar from which your priests have no right to eat.

 

13:11,12   Outside the Camp   After pointing out that there was food the priest could not eat, the writer tells what happened to the bodies of animals whose blood had been taken into the Most Holy Place. This has reference to the Day of Atonement in Leviticus 16, the only day the high priest went into the most holy place. Those carcasses were burned, so no priest could eat that meat. They were burned outside the camp, i.e., outside the perimeter of where the children of Israel camped in the wilderness around the tabernacle. To go in one must be ceremonially clean; if ceremonially unclean, one must remain outside. Leviticus 16:28 required the man who burned the animals to wash so that he could return to the community.

 

The sacrifice of Christ was a sin offering. The writer points out not just what is done with those bodies but where they were burned – outside the camp. So it was with Jesus that He was crucified outside the city gate of Jerusalem. This is another way the sin offering anticipated Christ’s offering. 

 

A major surprise occurs here; the Jews understood that taking anything outside the camp made it unclean. Jesus suffered outside the city gate (i.e., outside the camp). The paradox is that He did this to make the people holy.  To so many Jews this would be preposterous! Christians say Jesus, Whom we claim is holy, died as an offering to God in an unholy place where a sin offering would be burned! Jesus, the Holy One, became ceremonially unclean to die for us who are morally unclean. We could never go to Him in His holy place, so He came down to us (Romans 10:6) on our unholy ground. Here He was made to be sin for us (2 Corinthians 5:21), when our sins were imputed to Him. By Christ as our sin offering, taking on our unholiness, our sin was judged and removed. In this way Jesus makes the sinners He died for holy.

 

He bore disgrace. The point here is not just that Jesus died a disgraceful death, He carried the disgrace of our sin.  He took the shame that was ours. Now the writer makes a powerful appeal. A number in the Christian community endured derision because of their confession of Christ. The were demeaned as members of a despised group who seemed to be without priest, sacrifice, ceremonial foods, religious festivals, tradition, and authenticity. For a devout Jew, this was a weighty matter. Becoming Christians had brought them shame among their own people.

 

Jesus endured reproach too. We cannot belong to Him, agree with Him, or have Him as our hope without experiencing the sneer of the world.  The death of Christ involved mocking. Taking up our cross means we will have our words misunderstood, disagreed with, and our hope demeaned.  In some way we will experience rejection. The solution to all this is never to avoid it, but to go gratefully to Him outside the camp bearing the disgrace He bore, just as in some sense Moses did (11:26). Christ suffered without reviling or insulting those who mistreated Him (1 Peter 2:21-25). There is no hint in Hebrews 13 that we should ever give as we receive when it comes to insults. Hebrews is eager to answer the challenge when it is alleged that we lose by confessing Christ. It is true that those early Jewish believers lost the sacrifices, the Jewish clergy, and the shadows that pointed to the Messiah. They were viewed as losers. What they kept was the substance, the Messiah Himself, and His reproach. Others held on to shadows, the praise of men (John 5:44), some ceremonial foods, and their sins.

 

The strong temptation was to go back into the city and be at peace with rejecters of Christ. This would make them apostates who sided with the ones who had Jesus crucified.  The choice is to be crucified with Him or to join the crucifiers. No decision could be more clear. The way of faith and life was to accept the reproach and with it the eternal reward. Those wavering and sorely tempted should go in their weakness to the Throne of Grace. Their High Priest Who knows human temptation intimately, is their right of access. At that throne they will not find scorn from an unsympathetic deity, but an understanding mercy with grace to help in time of need (4:15,16).

 

13:13,14   By “outside the camp” and “outside the city gate,” the writer drew attention to Jerusalem. It had rejected Christ. In no way would the Sanhedrin have considered killing Him in their temple. The location of the cross outside the city suited them well. They knew the significance of His death outside the city.[1]  The writer now takes up another painful subject. The believing Jews could say of their city, “This is no longer our home; we do not belong here.” They too were “out” like the man in John 9:28-34. A polarization was developing over Christ (Matthew 10:32-39). Christians no longer had a place in Jerusalem, the city that had rejected the Son of David. Like Abraham they were looking for a city to come (11:10), a better country (11:16). Jerusalem was not a city which would last. In 70 AD the Romans would vent their unbridled anger on the Jews in the massacre that exceeds all others. They not only destroyed the city; there were no survivors. Jesus had warned that this was coming (Matthew 24:15-25). Those who recognized Him as  the Son of God knew to believe Him, and escaped.  Those who rejected Him (probably including Christian apostates who remained in the city when the Roman armies appeared), died a horrible death.  We are not of those who shrink back from Christ and are destroyed (10:39).  We have the city to come, an unshakable kingdom (12:28) that  Roman legions cannot invade.

 

13:15,16  Our Double Offering   Never again should ceremonial blood be shed in the Name of Christ. The Passover has been replaced by the Lord’s Supper, and circumcision by baptism. The unique sacrifice is unrepeatable. We were neither the victim offered nor the priest to offer. But we do offer sacrifices pleasing to God of another kind.  It really is ridiculous to think we who have sin could ever offer anything to God, but we may and must. The sacrifices we offer are pleasing to God because we come “through Jesus”. (Those words are in the emphatic position.)  We offer substandard offerings to our holy God and He is pleased nonetheless.  Everyone should see how astounding this is. The only way we may do this is that we are accepted as His children in Christ, because of Christ, and we stand before Him perfect because of the blood of Christ.  Now thanksgiving from the heart comes through our lips. We are not blessed by eating ceremonial foods, but because we have been strengthened by grace. We realize the grace of the Lord, so in heartfelt thanks we praise Him. 

 

This is not the hypocrisy of empty words, praising a God we cannot see and not caring for those we can, because our worship of thanksgiving is accompanied (6:9,10) by grace shown to others. We are to share with those who may be as unworthy of grace as we are, for this is how the grace of God works. Both praise and good works are sacrifices to God, not comparable to Christ’s, but in response to His. This means every believer in every place is a priest who continually serves in this kind of liturgy throughout the earth.

 

13:17   Jewish believers in Jesus eventually lost their welcome in Jerusalem and in due course in synagogues throughout the world. They were not, however, without a community. Perhaps Hebrews was sent to a house church. The writer definitely knew them, and he knew of deterioration among them. Their pilgrimage was to be the journey of a company, not the lonely trek of an individual. God has given many prayers and instructions in the Bible in a plural form. They had leaders and were to obey their leaders, quite obviously not the ones in v.7 who had died. 

 

Some specific things in Hebrews show a sense of mutual responsibility, such as “See to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin's deceitfulness” (3:12,13). In light of 13:17, I suggest we should read these pastoral instructions together something like this, “See to it, brothers, (and leaders) that you keep watch over each individual, so that…”

 

For us to obey 13:17, we must submit to authority recognizing the responsibility the Lord has placed on the elders of the church and their accountability to Him. These leaders were ones who kept watch over their flock. Hebrews does not order obedience to leaders whose small interest is themselves. Attitude goes a long way to making their work a joy and not a burden. Though the enduring heavenly city is seen only by faith and is the city to come; it has a very real presence on the earth; we must not treat it with disdain in spite of its imperfections. We cannot have a healthy church unless faithful leaders receive due respect.

 

13:18,19   When the writer asked for prayer and urged obedience to its leaders, he had not judged the church to be in apostasy. Whoever wrote Hebrews had the mind and skill of a genius and the tenderness of a shepherd. Yet this man [2] asks for prayer. He humbly admits his need to those he instructed. We are all weak; we all need the Lord. If he would be restored to them, then he had been with them before; he knew them. He had a clear conscience giving the warnings he wrote in this letter. He also indicated that he wanted to come to see them. He did not wait to address their need until he arrived. He put his sermon in writing and sent it ahead.

 

13:20,21   Hebrews ends with one of the beautiful benedictions of the Bible. God is the God of peace because Christ our Mediator has obtained peace with God for us. Since God is this God of peace with no hostility toward us, the writer calls for blessings on the people. 

 

First, he reviews the work of Christ with special insight on the resurrection. Had Christ died for us and not risen again, there would be no indication that His offering had been accepted. For a priest to make an offering and then end up a dead priest would show that his representation for others had been rejected. The resurrection is the act of God the Father to show His approval of the offering presented to Him. So since He brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, He is satisfied. The Father is satisfied not only with the Priest He raised; He has also accepted those whom the Priest represented. Since this foundation is secure, the prayer that seeks our blessing will be granted.  

 

He also included reference to the blood of Christ. No part of the Bible gives more attention to the blood of Christ than Hebrews. It is not surprising that it would appear again in this final word. But it is again the blood of the covenant, the eternal covenant. This cannot refer to a covenant between the Father and the Son, since no blood was involved to ratify that eternal covenant. It was enough that the Father and Son agreed; anything they agree to is inherently unbreakable. The blood of the eternal covenant in 13:20 is the blood of the new covenant. Because it is eternally effective, no later covenant will be needed.  The old covenant was obsolete; it did not have Christ and His blood as its foundation, but the new covenant rests on Christ as Mediator and Guarantor. His blood is the guarantee that all covenantal obligation concerning our sin has been met. Thus with Christ’s work finished and His sacrifice accepted, there is no impediment to His being resurrected by the Father. He received what He deserved, and in Him we too receive what He deserved. [That is not a misprint; yes, we by faith receive what He deserves: eternal life.] Thus it makes perfect sense for every blessing to come to us on this basis. The blood of Christ has procured for us in advance every blessing that shall ever come to us. Further, Jesus is the Great Shepherd. Yahweh is my Shepherd; I shall not want, because my Great Shepherd laid down His life for the sheep (Psalm 23:1; John 10:11). A shepherd’s care is a constant care, and He is ever working in us what pleases Him.   

 

The blessing mentioned is very general, “everything good”. But it is valuable that it is stated this way, because such words indicate how all blessing has one source. That source is not vaguely stated because all blessings are through Christ with no exception. Everything good for us is from God because of the blood of Christ.  It is in this setting that God equips and works is us. So every gift and talent, every virtue and grace is ours because of our Great High Priest. He is the Originator and Perfecter of our faith (12:2). We do not please Him on our own, for God works in us what is pleasing to Him. Though the Spirit is not mentioned, He is how God works. It is through Christ, for apart from Him we would have no communion in the Spirit, or favor from the Father. It is Christ Who is the channel of God’s blessing and every benefit is based in His priestly mediation. Thus the writer, who knew this and could state the work of Christ perhaps better than any other man on earth, ends his word about Christ with a doxology, “to Whom be glory forever and ever.”  That is the delight of a man who knows so well how God’s blessing comes. 

 

13:22-25   This is a post script to a post script. He calls his letter an exhortation, because it is a sermon in sermon form. This probably explains the missing name and typical greeting at the beginning of the letter. Hebrews is very brief; one can only imagine what else he could have said had he taken up other themes. They all know Timothy and he hoped they would arrive together. All would be glad to hear that Timothy had been released. Maybe it was written in Italy, explaining the mention of people from there. Those are details that would be clear to the readers not to us. For some reason they are to greet all their leaders. We do not know why that was said that way. Perhaps some had less than proper respect for certain leaders. 

 

The word of “grace for all” ends this letter. It is the principle in God’s heart that best describes our salvation. Love is His motive; His unbending justice determined that salvation can only be through the sacrifice of our Priest, but grace describes the way God has chosen to deal with us. To this, we add that holiness characterizes all that God is and does, and His sovereignty is His inherent right to show His grace as He chooses. The world has many religions; only the gospel of Christ is gracious from first to last, and grace makes a fitting finale to both Hebrews and to my lecture notes. 

 

 



[1] I have a similar paper “Why Crucify, Why not Stone?” on my website www.grebeweb.com/linden. The point is that the Jewish leadership did not stone Him as they did Stephen, because they wanted Jesus crucified so that the method of death would indicate the curse of God upon Him. However, by this they only enhanced the gospel (Galatians 3:10-14). Likewise, having Jesus die outside the wall of Jerusalem also made the gospel more clear.

[2]  In 11:32, the author refers to himself with a participle which is masculine. This shows in the Greek text.