Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost

The culmination of the author’s central argument grounds ecclesiology in eschatology.

November 18, 2012

Second Reading
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Commentary on Hebrews 10:11-14 [15-18] 19-25

The culmination of the author’s central argument grounds ecclesiology in eschatology.

“Are there any verses in the Bible that explicitly tell us to go to church?” Students have raised this question several times in my classroom, and rarely is there an occasion where the answer is so straightforward.

Hebrews 10:25 is just that verse: “And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” The injunction is clear: do not neglect to meet together. This author will allow for no “bedside Baptists,” for no mentality that loves Jesus, but can live without His church.

But, why? Why can’t a believer, empowered by the Holy Spirit and fed on the Word of God and prayer, go it alone? That method would certainly be less complicated. The author of Hebrews’ belief in the necessity of Christian fellowship depends upon the eschatological reign of Jesus guaranteed by the identity of God.

When I teach Hebrews to undergraduates, I begin by asking them if they have heard Hebrews preached much in their home churches. I usually get responses from both ends of the spectrum. Some heard it preached often, usually coupled with preaching from the Old Testament. The others hardly ever heard it preached at all. I’ve found that this letter holds rich resources for proclamation of the gospel when the preacher invests in exploring the stories and systems of Israel, an investment particularly beneficial for this section of the letter.

This week’s text draws together the argument the author began six chapters ago, namely that Jesus is God’s final and ultimate High Priest. The author can point to the model of Israel’s priests to explain what Jesus does, but his priesthood differs in several fundamental respects. Beginning in verse 11 the author reiterates those differences once again.

First, the other priests stand, and Jesus sits. We might not think that creates much of a difference, or even that this difference makes Jesus seem lazy, but for the author of this sermon, Jesus’ position relative to the other priests conveys the status of his work in bodily form. Other priests stand because they offer the same sacrifices for sins daily over and over again.

According to the author, this indicates that the sacrifices do not remove sin and its tainting of the conscience (10:2). The offerings of the other priests cannot remove sin, because they only cleanse the external (9:10). They do not affect the heart, a critique he derives from Israel’s prophets. In contrast, Jesus sits because his sacrifice has brought perfection — complete forgiveness of sins. He sits because his work is done.

Moreover, Jesus doesn’t just sit down anywhere. He takes a seat at the right hand of God, the fulfillment of the promise to David’s heir found in Psalm 110:1 (first cited in Hebrews 1:14). His heavenly session allows those who claim him as their priest to go right into the holy place of God (10:19). His sacrifice, like those of other high priests, cleanses the body, but it also removes the consciousness of evil from the heart. It is this internal cleansing that makes Jesus’ sacrifice the harbinger of the New Covenant in which one’s sins are forgotten and one’s heart and mind prepared for the implantation of God’s law (10:16-17).

Then the author urges his audience to hold fast their confession without wavering. An exhortation to the audience after this bold proclamation of the work of Christ might seem odd. Has his sacrifice not brought perfection? Isn’t it the case that there is no more need for offerings for sin? Can they not approach the holiest throne of God? Hebrews maintains a delicate balance between these two truths. Christ’s death has brought perfection, but those who follow him are still being sanctified (10:14). In other words, they are members of God’s household, but they have not yet reached God’s house.

Hence, they all have need to remain together and to pay attention to each other, so that they can encourage one another toward love and good deeds. For the author, assembling together is even more pressing in light of the approaching day — surely a reference to the day of the Lord, the day in which God will mete out judgment for all people (See, for example, Isaiah 2:12; 13:6; Amos 5:18; Joel 1:15). On this day, the children of God will celebrate on God’s mountain while the enemies of Jesus will be placed under his feet, as is promised in Psalm 110:1. It is so important to stay together, because if you remove yourself from this family, you end up among the enemies of Christ. There are no distant relatives. You are either in the family or you aren’t.

But how can they trust that confessing Jesus will pay off? How do they know that the access they have to the throne of God in prayer and worship will come to fruition in eternal worship before God’s throne? How can they know that Jesus will reign supreme and all things will be subject to him? How can they be sure that following this priest will lead them into God’s eternal house?

As the author grounds his goal for church participation in the eschatology of Christ’s session, he grounds the guarantee of Christ’s session in the character of God. They can hold their confession without wavering, because the one who promised is faithful. As God made promises to Abraham (Hebrews 6:13), to Sarah (Hebrews 11:11), to all his people (Hebrews 8:8-9), so too did he make a promise to his Son Jesus Christ (Psalm 110:1; Hebrews 1:14).

Just as he brought the dreams of the prophets to reality in the sacrifice of Jesus, because he is faithful he can be trusted as well to bring this promise to his Son to fulfillment. Jesus’ enemies will be subjected to him, and his followers will be fully sanctified. Those who trust in him should remain together as they eagerly anticipate the coming day of the Lord to ensure that for them the day will not be a day of judgment but a day of celebration.