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“Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” – Hebrews 13:8
Remember — and Do
Do you like learning new words? Not long ago, a youngish writer for our local news-paper used the expression “totes fleek.” After scratching my head, I Googled the expression and learned that it’s urban slang, meaning “totally on point,” or “looking really good.” A variation is “totes on fleek.”
Today’s lesson offers the opportunity to learn an old word that may seem new. “Parenesis” is a relatively technical term used by students of literature and rhetoric. It derives from a Greek verb meaning “to exhort,” and refers to instructions that encourage people to do good. It can include various types of advice, proverbs, exhortations, comparisons, and commands, all employed for the purpose of inspiring positive behaviors. The adjective form is “parenetic.”
The Bible has many examples of parenesis. If we pay attention to today’s parenetic passage, our lives might be a bit more totes on fleek.
What we should love(vv. 1-6)
Our text addresses issues of what we should (or shouldn’t) love (vv.1-6) and who we should (or shouldn’t) follow (vv. 7-17). The passage is linked to the previous chapter’s insistence that God has granted us “a kingdom that cannot be shaken,” for which we should be thankful and “offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe” (11:28). The word translated as “worship” also means “service.” The following verses explain what constitutes acceptable service to God.
The writer begins with the bottom line: “Let mutual love continue” (v. 1). “Mutual love” translates the Greek term philadelphía, or “brotherly love.” It was not common in the Greek and Roman world to describe anyone other than biological siblings as “brother” or “sister,” or to assume obligations to people beyond the family. Secular writers sometimes commented on the Christians’ odd penchant for calling each other “brother.”
True love is not transitory or inspired by occasional feelings. The verb in the sentence means “to remain” or “to abide.” Love for one another should be a constant in the lives of believers. It should also stretch beyond our homes or our church. The author insists that we not fail “to show hospitality to strangers” (v. 2a). While the philadelpía of v. 1 speaks of family love, the philaxenía of v. 2 calls us to love people we don’t know.
The immediate context may have concerned itinerant evangelists or other believers unknown to the community. Roads could be treacherous during the first century, and travelers frequently depended on the hospitality of others for lodging. Nothing about the verse, however, limits the call for hospitality to Christians (witness Jesus’ story of the “good Samaritan,” Luke 10:30-37).
As added motivation for entertaining strangers, the writer added “for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it” (v. 2b). This does not suggest that we should anticipate visits from angels in disguise, but recalls stories in which both Abraham and Lot showed hospitality to visitors who turned out to be angels (Genesis 18-19).
We see this also in the writer’s call to “Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured” (v. 3). The primary reference probably concerns ministry to fellow Christians who had been imprisoned or persecuted for their faith, but such ministry can extend beyond fellow Christians.
Prisoners in the first century were often dependent on visitors or family members for food, clothing, blankets, or other needs. Caring for a Christian prisoner could be dangerous, for it could raise suspicions about the visitor. Still, the demands of love required that fellow Christians take the risk of showing love to those who were in need.
Believers should know who to love, and what (or who) not to love. Married people should avoid falling in love with someone other than their spouses, for example. The author warned believers to remain true to their marriage partners, lest they fall under judgment (v. 4).
The writer also understood the dangers of materialism: “Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have” (v. 5a).
The Bible often connects sexual immorality with covetousness. In the Ten Commandments, the prohibition of adultery is followed closely by warnings against stealing and covetousness. Contemporary Jewish, Greek, and Roman writings also frequently connected the two. They understood that both immorality and greed are grounded in the kind of selfishness that can lead one away from God.
The writer of Hebrews reflected confidence that believers could trust in the care of a God who had promised: “I will never leave you or forsake you.” Likewise, Christians could confess with the psalmist, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?” (Ps. 118:6).
Who we should follow(vv. 7-17)
With v. 7 the writer urges readers to pattern their lives after faithful church leaders. He begins with past leaders, “those who spoke the word of God to you.” He challenges believers to consider their example and to “imitate their faith” (v. 7). Later (v. 17), he challenges believers to trust their current leaders as well, using words as strong as “obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls and will give an account” (v. 17a). Note that believers are not to follow their leaders blindly but to “consider the outcome of their lives” before imitating them, and to remember that leaders are also accountable to God.
Words about leaders in vv. 7 and 17 provide a frame for a consideration of what leaders teach. The much loved v. 8 (“Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever”) may appear to have no particular relation to what comes before or after, but it serves as an effective bridge between v. 7 and vv. 9-17. The writer uses the familiar confession to remind his readers that Jesus has not changed, thus setting the stage to warn them against getting carried away by “all kinds of strange teachings” (v. 9a).
The “strange teachings” appear similar to the legalistic dogma that plagued the churches of Galatia and prompted a fiery letter from Paul. Some early Jewish Christians believed that Christians must continue (or begin) following Jewish customs, including kosher foods.
Believers should seek strength of heart through grace, not through eating certain foods, the writer argued (v. 9b). True religion is an inner experience with the God of grace that works itself out in a life of goodness, not a relationship based on external criteria such as food or rituals.
Contrasting the Christian faith to sacrifices presided over by priests, the writer argued that Christians “have an altar from which those in the tent have no right to eat” (v. 10). In Hebrew rituals, some sacrifices were eaten, while others were not. The sacrifice offered on the Day of Atonement was taken outside the camp and burned: only the blood was sprinkled on the altar. The writer compared the burning of the sacrifice “outside the camp” to Jesus’ crucifixion “outside the city gate” of Jerusalem, where his death served to “sanctify the people by his own blood” (vv. 11-12).
Believers are to leave the old camp behind, venturing outside the gate to join Christ and face the possibility of suffering abuse with him (v. 13). We can face such trials because “here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come” (v. 14).
Some first-century Christians may have sought to hide behind the façade of Judaism, which was an accepted religion in the Roman Empire, rather than claim Jesus alone and face the risk of persecution, but the writer would brook no such compromise. Perhaps he recalled Jesus’ instruction to would-be disciples that they should deny themselves, take up their own crosses, and follow him (Mark 8:34).
As Christian believers, we do not offer to God sacrifices of animal blood or fruit from the fields, but “a sacrifice of praise,” which the writer described as “the fruit of lips that confess his name” (v. 15). With this thought, the writer returned to his earlier instructions for lives that offer acceptable worship and service to God. “Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have,” he said, “for such sacrifices are pleasing to God” (v. 16). Such behavior recalls the earlier exhortations to love the right things and to turn away from the wrong things.
We serve a Lord who went outside the camp to reach a lost world and even die for the sake of others. To follow Christ faithfully, our religious experience should not be limited to stained glass and cushioned pews, but must reach into the world of people outside the camp – the world for which Christ died.
How did those first-century Christians who first received this letter respond? Did they heed the call? We have no way of knowing. How will we respond? That is the question that matters. NFJ
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Adult Teaching Resources
Download the PDF for August 28, 2016 teaching resources. This PDF contains the FIT Teaching Guide, Digging Deeper, and Hardest Question pages.
Read Scripture online: Hebrews 13:1-16
What rules do you have for your family? Where do these rules originate from? Do they originate from the fear of your child doing or not doing something? Or do they originate from the love that you have from your child? Do your rules promote freedom? Or do the rules come from a sense of fear? The writer of Hebrews lays out some rules for people who called themselves followers of Christ, but the rules didn’t originate from reigning someone in or from fear. Instead, the rules for followers of Christ promoted freedom and love. As you help your children grow into adults, think about the rules that you have set in place and what they originate from. Then, as you live into these rules, live into them with love and freedom instead of fear.
Teaching Resources | Download
Download the PDF for youth teaching resources. This PDF contains the FIT Teaching Guide for this lesson.
Encourage youth to check out this video ahead of the lesson.
“Activating the Troops” from Small Soldiers via www.youtube.com
Read Scripture online: Hebrews 13:1-16