Hebrews, Hebrews 13:8-16
Post last updated on April 24, 2022
Image: The Cleveland Museum of Art
This short section serves as among the last admonitions of this epistle. It seeks the steadiness of faith, a faith which previous parts of the epistle so clearly describe and instruct as being essential to a man’s life before his Redeemer. Accordingly, when the writer here states, “Be not carried about with divers and strange doctrine,” or when he writes that the heart should be established with grace, these are not new arguments: they exist as part of the writer’s final attempt to summarize, recommend, and confirm faith in his readers. It is faith that this epistle seeks to both impart and elicit.
If we were to isolate this section for its closer consideration, perhaps we might begin in verse 8, for it serves as the immediate anchor for what follows after. There, we are reminded that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. If subsequent verses (such as verse 13) encourage the Christian to a lively and courageous faith, their exhortations must first draw upon the constant character of Jesus Christ himself. The believer is to draw upon the constancy that is part of the very nature of his savior.
Both Hebrews 13:8 and 13:9, then, are connected in this way: the believer’s savior is the same as he ever was and will be; but the believer is established with God’s grace. He obtains his new and abiding character through Christ. By grace he is then expected to be the same tomorrow as he is today—a believer who trusts in his Lord. It is quite true that the believer’s constancy is not the same kind nor quality as his Lord’s; and yet, grace is intended to establish the believer against the strange doctrines that would distract him.1Hebrews 13:9 reads that the believer is established with grace instead of meats; that is, instead of the animal sacrifices of the Old Testament. In this way, there is a contrast of the eternal character of Jesus Christ to the character that he imparts to the believer through grace.
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Because of its original, Jewish audience, this epistle takes a particular form and content. After all, it is written to a people who felt the pressures to return to Moses. For this reason, the writer surveys and contrasts the nature of Old Testament religion with what the believer possesses in God’s son. The writer of this epistle saw it fitting—even necessary—to remind his readers that the law was but a temporary measure, a shadow of good things to come (Hebrews 10:1). It formerly and conditionally separated Israel from the nations, but it set apart and kept the Jewish people until something better was established to replace it.2See for instance, Hebrews 8:13, Galatians 3:19-25, Hebrews 7:19-22, Hebrews 9:10. The Mosaic Covenant was not intended to perfect Israel; that would be provided in a new and eternal Covenant (Hebrews 10:1, 10:14-23). The sanctification referred to in Hebrews 10:14, I take it, refers to the setting apart of Israel through the Mosaic Covenant. It is contrasted with the additional and eternal salvation of the believer by the New Covenant, which the writer brings to his readers attention in Hebrews 10:15-17, a recollection of Jeremiah’s prophecy of the New covenant (cf. Jeremiah 31:33). Jesus Christ himself provided the effective and eternal pardon for sins (Hebrews 10:12).
The Hebrews writer brings all of this and much more to bear upon his readers. Only in this way could the various threats to their faith and its resiliency be overcome. This reminds us that good doctrine cannot always be reduced to the simplistic.32 Peter 3:16 In keeping with the rest of this epistle, then, its writer but repeats himself here: Jesus is the new and living way—a way which the Mosaic order could not provide (cf. Hebrews 10:20). The priesthood and sacrifices of each covenant distinguish them from one another: The blood of beasts was offered by priests under the old covenant; Jesus Christ is the high priest of a new and living way.
This new and living way revealed what was true but often hidden under the old order: Covenant Israel contained faithful believers, but also unbelievers. A dichotomy always existed in the character of faith among the individuals who were united in Israel by the Old Covenant. Indeed, they were united as a single people, but some possessed a saving faith that others did not possess. However, with the inauguration of the New Covenant—effected by the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ—difference among individual Jewish people was heightened and revealed. Some people became believers in Jesus Christ, the promised Messiah, while others remained dedicated to the Mosaic order.
Accordingly, the writer here distinguishes those Jews who held to the Mosaic order and those who now confessed Christ Jesus. This is what the writer is getting at in Hebrews 13:10. Israelites who maintained confidence in the Old Testament order and sacrifices, worshiped at an Old Covenant altar in the temple; but the believer’s altar (so to speak) was the cross. The writer is reemploying an Old Testament image to speak to a New Testament reality: The believer finds his altar in the cross of Christ Jesus.
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Obviously then, this short section recalls what the writer has already established previously in his epistle; and yet, it all necessary for his application. That application obtains its logic in the already-stated differences between the two covenants. To that end, the writer now reminds the reader of the difference between their respective places of sacrifice.
Firstly, the Levitical priests would sacrifice the offering at the door of the tabernacle and temple,4For example, see Leviticus 17:4. and then bring the blood within the sanctuary; but the body of the sin offering was not brought within the holy place; it was removed from the temple and burned outside the camp (Hebrews 13:11). This meant that the bodies of the sacrificial animals were not only removed from the temple grounds, but also taken outside the gates of the city, burned in a place reserved for this task. That was an unclean place, denoting the ceremonial uncleanness of the animal, but that ceremonial uncleanness typified the moral corruption of men for whom it was made to represent.
It is therefore instructive that our Lord suffered and died outside the city walls of Jerusalem. He was not killed on the temple grounds, for that is the place where the Old Testament sacrifices were offered and killed. And yet, Jesus Christ was not only our sacrifice, he is a high priest after another order of priests (Hebrews 5:10). Accordingly, a strange irony arises in him: the high priest also becomes the sacrifice. This was never the case in the Levitical order, but Jesus was the high priest who (in a sense) sacrificed himself (Hebrews 9:26).5And yet, in a stranger irony still, when the priests and scribes ordered the death of Jesus, they are fulfilling a priestly service—the killing of a sacrifice.
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Psalm 69 has some connection here. Verse 9, later quoted in John 2:17, speaks of the reproach born by our Lord: “For the zeal of thine house hath eaten me up; and the reproaches of them that reproached thee are fallen upon me.” Here, we read how the unreproachable Christ bears the deserved reproaches of sinful men. Interestingly, the first reference is associated with his ministry in the temple, but other parts of the same Psalm—especially Psalm 69:20-21—confirms that the place of Christ’s greatest reproach was the cross itself.
Reproach hath broken my heart; and I am full of heaviness: and I looked for some to take pity, but there was none; and for comforters, but I found none. They gave me also gall for my meat; and in my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.
Because the believer’s sacrifice is associated with Golgotha (at that time a place beyond Jerusalem’s walls), the Jewish believers who first read and heard these words in Hebrews needed to understand that their obedience also required their identification with a place outside the confines of the temple—a despised place for criminals.
This section makes that call is to depend upon two things. On the one hand, the believer bears reproach in connection to the place that Jesus suffered for them. Confidence in Christ disassociated the believer from the temple worship that was now inconsequential and ready to vanish away (Hebrews 8:13). But insofar as that expired and ineffective form of worship remained a confidence of most Jewish people, Christian confidence necessarily invited a reproach upon the small minority of believers. Their faith would excite scorn and anger among some unbelieving Jews, especially those who remained improperly dedicated to Moses, who felt their confidence was challenged by Jesus of Nazareth, whom they called a sinner.
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The believers, then, were called to go unto Christ—outside the camp, bearing his reproach (Hebrews 13:11.) This is a metaphor that recognizes the Old Testament worship and yet insists upon a departure from it. The will and energy to do just that is contained in the apprehension of the Savior’s love for us; but the Hebrews writer also presents a second important fact in this regard. He describes the second fact rather simply: “For here have we no continuing city, but we seek one to come” (Hebrews 13:14).
In other words, the strength and will to bear reproach and its attending consequences must take account of God’s promise. After all, when the Jewish believers forsook their former confidences in Jerusalem and its temple, they actually lost nothing that they could keep. This does not deny temporal losses, but it does speak of something to gain—a new Jerusalem (Revelation 3:12, 21:2). One can imagine how difficult it might have been for some to hear and appreciate this promise; nevertheless, when Jerusalem and its temple were destroyed in 70 AD by a Roman army, vivid illustration was made that the Christian—and indeed, no one—has a continuing city here; nevertheless, the believer is assured that there is one to come (Hebrews 13:14).
Finally, it is observed that the unbelieving Jews had not only forfeited faith in their promised Messiah, but also their former heritage as pilgrims. When they settled in occupied Jerusalem as a continuing city and invested their confidence there, they also betrayed the very circumstances of Israel’s identity as a pilgrim people, one called out from among the Gentile kingdoms. By then refusing faith in Christ, the original pilgrim identity of this people also disappeared. They increasingly conformed to the character and hopes of the Gentiles, the very people from whom they had once been separated by the Passover Lamb. Now, rejecting the true Passover Lamb (1 Corinthians 5:7), the unbelieving Jews became a worldly people.
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Indeed, the modern history of the Jewish people, remains a tragic history of migration, despite its many examples of courage and ingenuity. Even so, that people have not been pilgrims. It is true: that poor, persecuted people has been scattered again and again, victims of countless atrocities that move them from one place to another; nevertheless, their travels have not resembled that kind of journey which only belongs to the pilgrim. After all, the pilgrim is, for all of his leaving, also going somewhere—somewhere celestial. In a sense, as long as the unbelieving Hebrews insisted on an undisturbed residence in a continuing city—the same which ran counter to the first calling of that people by Moses—they could never obtain the glories of the city whose maker and builder is God (Hebrews 11:10), a celestial city that, once planted on the earth, will never be shaken or moved (Hebrews 12:28).
It is in this respect, then, that the believing Hebrews—the Christians to whom this letter is addressed—remain the true, spiritual decedents of the patriarchs and the prophets. They, apart from their unbelieving countrymen, understand and take up again the identity of a pilgrim. And to this fact, the writer reminds us all that those believers who have no continuing city nonetheless—even ironically—continually have praise upon their lips. They make sacrifice of praise in their wilderness. There, the Christian offers his sacrifices (Hebrews 13:15-16).
Notes & References
|↑1||Hebrews 13:9 reads that the believer is established with grace instead of meats; that is, instead of the animal sacrifices of the Old Testament.|
|↑2||See for instance, Hebrews 8:13, Galatians 3:19-25, Hebrews 7:19-22, Hebrews 9:10. The Mosaic Covenant was not intended to perfect Israel; that would be provided in a new and eternal Covenant (Hebrews 10:1, 10:14-23). The sanctification referred to in Hebrews 10:14, I take it, refers to the setting apart of Israel through the Mosaic Covenant. It is contrasted with the additional and eternal salvation of the believer by the New Covenant, which the writer brings to his readers attention in Hebrews 10:15-17, a recollection of Jeremiah’s prophecy of the New covenant (cf. Jeremiah 31:33). Jesus Christ himself provided the effective and eternal pardon for sins (Hebrews 10:12).|
|↑3||2 Peter 3:16|
|↑4||For example, see Leviticus 17:4.|
|↑5||And yet, in a stranger irony still, when the priests and scribes ordered the death of Jesus, they are fulfilling a priestly service—the killing of a sacrifice.|