Commentary on Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16
How do we go about living as Christians in a society where we find ourselves increasingly on the margins?
Our need to answer that question places us close to the original congregation that received this pastoral word of encouragement that we call Hebrews, for that group of believers struggled to hold on and hold out in the face of pressures from the broader society as well.1 In listening to the word addressed to them, we may also hear a word for ourselves.
The writer of Hebrews rounds out his sermon with a set of ethical teachings. These words form an interconnected series about how to live as a community of faith in an indifferent or even hostile world. They provide practices that set our community apart from its broader culture. To return to the image of the Christian life as a race (12:1), these words of exhortation function as marks of the trail. They keep us on the path and on our way to the goal.
The first mark, which forms the foundation for all the rest, is love. The writer focuses our attention in two directions. First, he points us to the love of fellow believers in community: “let mutual love continue” (13:1). Here the writer employs the word philadelphia, the Greek noun expressing the love between brothers and sisters. We are family, and we must continue to nurture and strengthen that bond if we are to find our way.
But love also has an external dimension. As we show love to our brothers and sisters, we do not wall ourselves off as members of a distinct tribe. We are also to show love to the stranger through the gift of hospitality (13:2). In the first century, hospitality was a practical virtue because inns were disreputable places. There were no Ramada Inns or Motel 6s. Though our circumstances are different, hospitality–paying attention to the stranger–remains a vital demonstration of love. We must become welcoming and inviting congregations. The writer reminds us that when we are hospitable, we too receive gifts because we may entertain “angels without knowing it” (13:2). Perhaps the writer was thinking about Abraham (Genesis 18) or Gideon (Judges 6) or Manoah (Judges 13). For all of these characters, hospitality led to new stories of good news, new possibililites, new life, and new avenues of service.
A second mark of the trail is to show care in times of distress. The writer mentions two crises in particular: those who are in prison and those who are being tortured (13:3). In both cases, the writer underscores the depth of compassion in its sense of suffering-with-others. Our life is a life in the body, and just as Jesus as our great high priest identifies with our tests and shares our vulnerability (2:14, 18; 4:15), so we should identify with those of our sisters and brothers.2
The third mark is fidelity: we should honor marriage, and we should be faithful to our marriage covenants. Such faithfulness sets us apart from the broader culture and strengthens the bonds of the community. Infidelity is not a private matter. It weakens the fabric of community, and those who are faithless bear responsibility for the wreckage their lack of steadfastness produces.
Contentment with what we have is the fourth mark of the trail (13:5). We do not greedily seek more to secure our lives. Rather we are to trust in God’s promises of presence and protection. Quoting first from Deuteronomy 31:6, 8 (see also Joshua 1:5), the writer reminds us that God will not leave us or forsake us (13:5). Yet, God is not simply present. As Psalms 118:6 demonstrates, God is our helper, so we need fear no human action or institution (13:6).
A fifth mark is loyalty and constancy. We should remember those who have spoken the word of God to us, for their faithfulness stands as an example for us (13:7). The ultimate example of faithfulness, of course, is Jesus (12:1-3), who “is the same yesterday and today and forever” (13:8).
The final mark is proper worship, and, in particular, proper sacrifice. That advice is no surprise, since worship has been central to this sermon. We are to make an offering of thanksgiving in response to the blessings we have received under the new covenant. First we are called to offer a sacrifice of praise as we confess Christ’s name. But acceptable sacrifice moves beyond the arena of worship and confession. As those who have received grace and trust in God’s provision, we are called to extend such grace toward others through doing good and by sharing what we have. We honor our generous God by living with open hands. We do not cling to our resources in order to secure our own lives in the face of an uncertain future. Instead, we share what we have as divine gifts entrusted to us as stewards of God’s bounty.3
This final mark, with its focus on acceptable worship, underscores the unity of all these admonitions. Having called us to give thanks and offer our acceptable worship to God (12:28), the writer now spells out the various dimensions of that worship.4 Acceptable worship does not find expression solely in ritual acts in the assembly or sanctuary. It infuses all of life. Thus in our love for each other or for strangers or in our care for those in crisis, we are worshipping God. In our sharing that reflects our trust in God rather than possessions, we are worshipping God. In our faithfulness to our covenants and to the example of those who have gone before us, we are worshipping God.
We embody this way of life, not on the basis of our guilt or in any effort to secure God’s favor, but because God’s grace transforms and empowers us. Jesus, whose constancy knows no end, has opened for us a new way to God so that we may approach God’s throne with confidence (10:19-22). In response, we offer both our praise and the witness of all of our lives with thanks and praise.
1James W. Thompson, Hebrews (Paideia Commentaries on the New Testament; Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2008), 277-78.
2Victor C. Pfitzner, Hebrews (Abingdon New Testament Commentaries; Nashville: Abingdon, 1997), 194.
3David A. DeSilva, Perseverance in Gratitude: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on the Epistle “to the Hebrews” (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000), 527.
4William L. Lane, Hebrews (Word Biblical Commentary 47B; Dallas, TX: Word Books, 1991), 572-73.