Commentary on Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16
Hebrews 13:1–8, 14–15 offers wisdom for churches as they continue to emerge from pandemic lockdowns and for pastors who navigate the shifting landscape of the church in the American context. It would be inadequate to read these exhortations in an overly individualistic way, as if they only entail the cultivation of the ideal self. Instead, from beginning to end, these exhortations are communal in nature. They offer a compelling picture of what the church might look like, in an age when increasingly large numbers of people doubt its relevance.
The first command is to let “mutual love” remain. In other writings from antiquity, the Greek word philadelphia meant love for one’s brothers or sisters by blood. In the New Testament, however, it refers to a special form of love expressed among members of the Christian community. Christians were known, and sometimes jeered, because of their creation and maintenance of “fictive kinship.” The practice of referring to one another as siblings, not only conveys the theological conviction that members were all children of God, whom they called Father (see Romans 8:15; Galatians 4:6); it also reflects the reality that early Christians experienced rejection from their true kin (see Matthew 10:21, Mark 13:12).
While the command to practice this mutual love is not unique to Hebrews (see Romans 12:10, 1 Thessalonians 4:9, 1 Peter 1:22, 2 Peter 1:7), it’s important to remember some of the particulars of the writing and the situation it addresses. In Hebrews, mutual love is a shorthand for practices and dispositions that preserve and strengthen the community. As we read in Hebrews 10:24–25, the author hopes the community will stir one another toward love and good deeds. In this sense, mutual love is an important and tangible consequence of continuing to meet together.
Next, the author commands the community not to neglect or overlook the practice of hospitality. The short reference to the fact that “some have entertained angels without knowing it” recalls specific examples from the Hebrew Bible (Genesis 18:2–15, 19:1–14, Judges 6:11–24, and 13:3–23) and affirms the central place of hospitality in the Bible more generally. Hospitality played a significant role in expanding and connecting early Christian communities. The gospels and the epistles show a concern for extending hospitality to Christian workers. This general practice is given particular nuance in Hebrews. The author envisions the audience as sojourners, like Abraham and the other heroes of faith, seeking the city of God. Showing and receiving hospitality would thus be a vital virtue for such a pilgrim people.
In verse 3, the author challenges the audience to express solidarity with two groups of people: those who are imprisoned and those who are tortured. According to Hebrews 10:32–34, the audience has demonstrated just this sort of solidarity in the past, and the author exhorts them to continue doing so. Jesus’s parable of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25:31–46) praises the practice of visiting those who are in prison. We should, then, understand the command to “remember” those in prison as more than a mental exercise. Since prisons in the ancient world were not state-sponsored, prisoners would have depended on their associates for their basic livelihood.
Verses four through six contain additional commands related to the community’s maintenance and integrity. As Luke Timothy Johnson notes in his commentary, there is a long tradition of treating sexual and economic behavior in tandem, since both point to excessive or disordered desires.1 Such excessive desires, whether for money or sexual relations, have disastrous effects on communal life.
The author exhorts the audience to honor marriage and to keep the “marriage bed” undefiled. Honor for marriage and the sanctity of the marriage bed are threatened by both fornicators, those who engage in sexual activity outside of marriage, and by adulterers, those who break the covenantal bond between husband and wife. Both will be judged by God.
The author commands the audience to practice restraint in another area of life, their economic practices. The author encourages them to adopt a lifestyle that does not include the “love of money,” a vice condemned almost universally by popular philosophers in the ancient world. Love of money can lead to greed and hoarding. The opposite of the love of money, or at least its corresponding virtue, is contentment. Practicing being content with what one has can tamp down the desire to accumulate or earn more. Contentment enables the community to share possessions, as the author will command in 13:16. And for the author, contentment arises from a deep trust in God’s provision, powerfully expressed in the allusion to Deuteronomy 31:6,8 in verse 5 and the quotation of Psalm 118:6 in verse 6.
Next, the author commands the audience to remember their leaders. There are two details about the leaders identified in 13:7. First, they are described as the ones who “spoke the word of God” to the audience. Second, the author commands the audience to “remember” them. Taken together, these details suggest that the “leaders” were active with the community in the past but may not be so in the present. They may very well be what we would call the “founders” or “organizing pastors” of the community. They may have been the ones who taught the “basic teaching about Christ” that led those in the community to repent “from dead works” and to turn in “faith toward God” (6:1).
The author urges the audience to remember these leaders, not just for their potential role in founding the community, but also for the quality of their lives. They are to consider the “outcome of their way of life, and immediate their faith” (13:7). The leaders are to be respected, remembered, and emulated, not only on the basis of their authority or function in the community but also for their exemplary lives of faith.
The statement about Jesus in verse 8 does not have any grammatical or syntactical connections with the preceding verses. There’s no “thus” or “therefore” introducing the statement about the perpetuity and sameness of Jesus Christ. It may be deduced, though, that Jesus’ permanence is meant as a form of reassurance in the midst of organizational changes. Leaders may come and go, but Jesus Christ remains the same yesterday, today, and forever.
The curators of the lectionary skip over some fascinating but complicated material about strange teachings, altars, sanctuaries, blood, and city gates (13:9–14). The cultic context of these verses is important, however, for understanding the significance of Hebrews 13:15–16. These verses, and others in Hebrews, imagine the audience members as a band of priests who enter into holy space and perform cultic actions. Their activities, though, do not require the literal use of blood or loss of life. Instead, the author spiritualizes the sacrificial system. Here in 13:15–16, the author names two types of “sacrifices” offered by the band of priests: constant praise, in verse 15, and the doing good and sharing possessions in verse 16.
The exhortations suggest that a congregation’s vitality should not be measured in the plethora of its programming or the flashiness of its preacher or worship band. Rather, a congregation’s vitality depends on the demonstration of deep love, radical hospitality, solidarity with those on the margins of society, honoring (but not idolizing) marriage, sharing possessions, practicing contentment, and emulating the exemplary behavior of those who have gone before them.
- Luke Timothy Johnson, Hebrews, 341.