Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

Last week’s lesson from Hebrews 9:24-28 told us that the church is not a system of atonement;

November 15, 2009

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

Last week’s lesson from Hebrews 9:24-28 told us that the church is not a system of atonement;

this week’s lesson tells us what the church is — a new community of folks whose consciences have been cleansed by God, who are confident in God’s forgiveness and eager to encourage one another “to love and good works” (Hebrews 10:24). This brief passage brims with joy and certainty: “we have confidence”; “let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith;” let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering.”

“Confidence” is the keynote of this lesson. In Greek, the word connotes frankness, outspoken speech, openness to public scrutiny, courage, boldness, fearlessness, and joy. It is a characteristic of free citizens who may hold their heads up without shame or fear, looking others directly in the eye. In Roman society, slaves did not exercise such boldness; it belonged to the free members of the household.

In Hebrews, it characterizes members of the household of God (Hebrews 3:6; 10:21). Indeed, we ourselves are God’s house, God’s dwelling, God’s temple, over which Christ is the faithful overseer (3:2-6) and high priest (3:1; 10:21).

Such confidence is to characterize every aspect of our lives, from our relationship with God to relationships within and outside the Christian community. Fittingly, the fact that we are “naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account” (4:13) correlates with our openness before God. God already sees our inmost thoughts and motives, so there is no reason not to be frank and outspoken in our prayers.

Furthermore, the God with whom we speak is known through Jesus Christ, who knows what it is to be tempted and can “sympathize with our weaknesses” (4:15). For this reason, we may confidently, “with boldness” (NRSV), bring all our concerns to God and “find grace to help in time of need” (4:16).

The basis of such joy and certainty lies outside ourselves, in what Christ has done to deal with our sin: “By a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified” (Hebrews 10:14). This means, in short, that confidence, assurance of God’s faithfulness and the freedom to come into God’s presence, are not our own creation. As preachers, we do not have to generate such confidence in our congregations, we do not have to do spiritual calisthenics or drum up courage. We need only rest in what God has done (cf., Hebrews 4:9-10) and share that good news.

The effect of this offering is the cleansing of our conscience (Hebrews 10:22; cf., 9:14; 10:2-3). This does not mean the absence of any conscience at all. Despite our cultural aversion to apologies, the capacity to recognize and name our own wrong-doing, and to ask forgiveness of one another, is essential to our humanity. Hebrews talks of this in terms of openness before God, who knows our inmost hearts (4:13) and completely forgives us, to the point of forgetting our misdeeds (10:17). Indeed, it is confidence in God’s forgiveness that gives us the freedom to be honest about our failures, coming freely before God and receiving the gift of God’s gracious acceptance.

This frank relationship with God spills over into frank relationships with one another in Christian fellowship. Today’s lesson tells us to encourage one another in love and service, “not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some” (10:25). The exhortation gives us the opportunity to ask what causes folks to stay away from fellowship.

Many, if not most issues, can be traced to failures of communication: unresolved conflicts; guilt and fear of being judged; inward isolation or a sense of playing a role. In such instances, caring, open communication is urgently necessary, yet only possible in the presence of the God who already knows our hearts, cleanses our consciences, and creates an arena of grace in which all are judged and all are forgiven. Our mutual openness is grounded in what Christ already has done, once-for-all dealing with sin on the cross.

Finally, anchored in God’s grace and strengthened through fellowship, the community is able to be confident in the face of opposition and hostility. Thus the third aspect of “confidence” in Hebrews is bold public witness. Hebrews 10:32-39 reminds the readers of the experience of suffering and public abuse that accompanied their first Christian witness. In particular, they maintained fellowship with their Christian brothers and sisters who were imprisoned and willingly allowed their possessions to be plundered (10:33-4).

Their courage was based in their future hope, their abiding dwelling in God’s house (10:34; cf., 10:21; 3:6), and their confidence that Christ will bring justice on earth (10:36). For all these reasons, Hebrews exhorts us: “Do not, therefore, abandon that confidence of yours; it brings a great reward” (10:35).

An intimate and frank relationship with God, openness with one another, and bold public witness that perseveres in the fact of opposition — these are the characteristics of the confident community portrayed in today’s lesson. The text invites us to a frankness of speech that deals confidently with the barriers of guilt and shame that often divide communities, and with the barriers of timidity and fear that hinder our public witness to the transforming power of the gospel. Such boldness and confidence is grounded in what Christ has done, dealing with the condemning power of sin once-for-all, and what Christ will do, establishing justice on the earth.