Commentary on Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16
Hebrews 13 can read like a list of rules — do this and don’t do that — but it also includes some vital and enduring theological truths.
The instructions and the grounds for those instructions combine to create a template for ethics, a picture of how this community might live until they finish the race of faith (Hebrews 12:1) and enter God’s heavenly city (Hebrews 12:22–24).
At the close of chapter 12, the author left his audience with the intense quote from Deuteronomy, “Our God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:29). He must have taken a deep breath there, or maybe even resumed his sermon series the next week, for the beginning of chapter 13 switches tone abruptly. He issues six basic instructions for those who are members of Christ (Hebrews 3:1,14).
First, they should love their brothers and sisters. The early Christian movement practiced “fictive kinship.” In both language and lifestyle, they treated one another like family. The author of Hebrews has used this practice throughout the letter referring to them as siblings (Hebrews 1:1; 2:11-12, 16, 17; 3:1, 12; Hebrews 8:11; 10:19; 13:22-23) and urging them to continue in supportive relationships (Hebrews 3:13; 10:25, 32-34). Here he only reiterates what he has urged before: keep loving one another.
Second, they should not become an insular community focused only on themselves. They can’t forget to love the stranger as well. Who knows? They might end up entertaining an angel who has been sent to serve humanity (Hebrews 1:14) just as Abraham did (Genesis 18:2, 16; 19:1, 15-16).
Third, they have an intimate responsibility to remember those who are in prison and those who are being mistreated. The author noted that they faced persecution in the past (Hebrews 10:32-34) and are currently struggling against sin, which could also include an element of external persecution (Hebrews 12:2). The prisons of the first-century Roman world were daunting places. Crowded, dark rooms where prisoners were often bound and abused, these prisons necessitated that family and friends provide goods and visits to those in chains. They are all part of the same body, so the congregation should serve those suffering just as if they were going through the same horrors.
Fourth, with little fanfare or explanation, the author asserted that marriage should be honored and sexuality in marriage should be undefiled. God will judge those who commit adultery and fornication. It is a striking reminder of the gap in time and culture that these issues receive such little treatment. Hence, modern interpreters are left to try to ascertain the scope and application of such a blanket term as pornos (sexually immoral person). Nevertheless, exclusive purity of the marriage relationship remains his clear instruction.
Fifth, a place should exist in their lives for contentment, literally an “anti-love of money” (aphilarguros). They should acknowledge that what they have is sufficient. Scholars know that ancient house churches consisted of a few wealthy and quite a few not-so-wealthy, but here the emphasis lies in an acceptance of what God has provided for them. A lack of gratitude or a grasping for more wealth should not color their lives.
Sixth, and finally, he urges them to remember their leaders. These could have been direct witnesses to Jesus, who heard from him the gospel (Hebrews 2:3) and then spoke it to this congregation (Hebrews 13:7). They must not be with them anymore, for the author asks his listeners to set before them the way in which these people ended their life. They endured until the end, just as he is hoping the listeners will do. They are part of this great cloud of witnesses (Hebrews 12:1) and their faith should be imitated.
Toward the end of these instructions the author makes three theological comments, two from the Scriptures of Israel, and one about Jesus Christ. They provide a rationale for both the immediate instruction, but also a foundation for his entire letter.
After he warns them about covetousness and dissatisfaction, he reminds them that God has said, “I will never leave you nor will I forsake you.” There is no need to worry about material goods if you have the presence and protection of God. The citation echoes Deuteronomy 31, where Moses promises the people and Joshua who are poised to enter the land of Canaan that God will protect them. On a broader level, then, this quote is not just about finances, but about promise of God to sustain. Since they are following a new Joshua (in Greek Jesus and Joshua is the same name, Iesous) to a heavenly land of promise, they need this assurance from God as much as the Israelites did.
The second citation is their response. For the first time in the letter that includes numerous Scripture citations the audience is given a voice. Knowing God’s faithfulness to those who are listening, they can respond courageously with words from Psalm 117. Since the Lord helps them (cf. Hebrews 4:16), they need not fear anything that another human could do to them. If they were fearing future persecution, especially more seizure of their property (Hebrews 10:34), knowing that God would provide for them and help them would allow them to withstand anything, even as their forebears had done (11:35b–39). Thinking about persecution in the future and in the past might have led the author to his next comment about the earlier generation of leaders and their lifelong faithfulness. If they showed consistency in their lives, Jesus’ consistency is even greater. He has been the same yesterday, today, and forever.
This rich statement could stand on its own and at least one copyist was so moved by it, he added an “amen” at the close of this verse. Again, it could simply be a comfort that even though good leaders of the past have died, their leader Jesus will remain forever. On a deeper level, though, this statement adds further support for this author’s high view of Jesus. He is the Son of God, and that does not only indicate that he is Israel’s Messianic King, but that he is truly divine. If he exists in the same way from eternity past to eternity future, such a statement can only be said about God.
A theological life
After the author reflects again about the power of Jesus’ sacrifice (Hebrews 13:9-14), he instructs the audience to offer sacrifices of their own: praise, good deeds, and fellowship. By this point of the letter, they know who God is and what God has done on their behalf. They also know specific ways they should live, but the image of a sacrifice through all times (Hebrews 13:15) captures the ongoing application of Christian theology in Christian life. Praising God, doing good, and caring, in other words, a right relationship with God, self, and others will please the God who will sustain them forever.