What we love
What do you love? We all have affections, and we often say
that we "love" certain things, activities, situations
or people. For example, I love shellfish. To me there is no greater
taste sensation than feeling a steamed clam, dipped in butter,
slithering inside my mouth and down my throat - unless of course
it's a raw oyster, dipped in cocktail sauce, doing the same thing.
I love it.
The writer of Hebrews talks about what we should love and what we shouldn't love. We should love brothers and sisters in Christ, and we should not love illicit sex or money. In Hebrews 12:28, the writer said, "Therefore, since we receive a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us show gratitude, by which we may offer to God an acceptable service with reverence and awe." The word "service" can also be translated "worship." Acceptable worship flows out of gratitude and it concerns every aspect of life, such as our disposition toward others, toward sex and toward money.
Love brothers and sisters (13:1-3)
(1) Let love of the brethren continue. (2) Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by this some have entertained angels without knowing it. (3) Remember the prisoners, as though in prison with them, and those who are ill-treated, since you yourselves also are in the body.
Verse 1 governs this section. The exhortation is to love the
brethren - brothers and sisters in Christ. Two ways to do that
are to demonstrate hospitality and to remember prisoners and those
who are ill-treated.
Jesus said that allegiance to him was more important than allegiance to one's family (Mark 3:31-35, Luke 10:59-60). In the familial culture of his day, what Jesus said was shocking. What that means is that Jesus created a spiritual family that is more significant than a physical family. In this family, love for one another is what's most important. Paul says in Galatians 6:10, "So then, while we have opportunity, let us do good to all men, especially those who are of the household of faith."
The writer of Hebrews issues a command to let love for one another in the family of God "continue," a word than can also be translated "dwell." It's as if he's saying, "Give love a home." That's how it comes to us: Give love a home in our churches and fellowships. Make love of others such a priority that it is happy to take up residence among us.
The first expression of loving brothers and sisters in the family of God that the writer calls us to is the demonstration of hospitality to strangers. Because he began talking about loving brothers and sisters in verse 1 and is talking about loving them in verse 3, when he talks about "strangers" in verse 2, he's probably talking about strangers in the family of God - people who are unfamiliar to those in a particular fellowship of believers. The writer says "do not neglect" this. Showing hospitality to strangers is something that's easy to neglect, isn't it? The comfortable thing is to neglect strangers and newcomers, because they're strange and new, and we're more comfortable with familiar people and old friends.
The writer provides an interesting reason for showing hospitality: because "some have entertained angels without knowing it." This is a likely reference to Abraham, who hosted three men who turned out to be angels (Genesis 18:1-21). The word translated "angels" can also be translated "messengers" - as in messengers of God. Perhaps the writer also has in mind what Jesus said about showing hospitality: "Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of mine, even the least of them, you did it to me" (Matthew 25:40).
Two points can be drawn from this as it pertains to hospitality: 1) When we extend hospitality, we don't know what kind of effect it will have. The Lord may use our acceptance of others in some way that blesses them in an extraordinary way. We may be doing something of extreme significance without knowing it, which may be the best way to do something of extreme significance. 2) When we extend hospitality, we are blessed. The angels who were entertained by Abraham blessed him, relaying to him the promise of God.
Showing hospitality is especially important in our group. Many people move to this area. Most people who wander our way our single. Many people aren't extroverts and don't make friends all that easily or quickly. Because of these reasons, and because we claim Christ as our Lord, it's incumbent upon us to do what we can to welcome newcomers and those on the fringes.
This is a very hospitable group. We have a hospitality team that really makes an effort to make people feel welcome, and many of the others of you keep your eye out for those on the fringes. In the history of this group, we have been blessed by the hospitality of many people, including Mike and Vicky Tracy, Chi Wong and Mo Lei, who have opened their homes to us for the Community Bible Study.
Many of you have been here a while and are fairly well integrated. If you are, perhaps you remember what it was like to be new - new to this group or some other group or new to an area. Remembering your own past may help kindle your heart for those who are new. You may want to consider joining our hospitality team, or you may want to simply watch for newcomers in a more informal manner. In extending hospitality, you are blessed, and you never know how God might bless others through it.
Next the writer says to remember those who have been imprisoned for their faith and those who are ill-treated for their faith. Earlier, the writer reminded his readers that in the "former days" they sympathized with prisoners and became "sharers" with those who were ill-treated, and it is clear that such treatment, whether it be imprisonment or some other difficulty, came about because of faith in Christ (10:32-34). Imprisonment and ill-treatment cover any kind of suffering that occurs because of one's faith.
Such is the nature of the brotherly bonds in the family of God that we can and should think of ourselves as suffering right along with others, "as though in prison with them." The phrase "since you yourselves also are in the body" is probably not a reference to the body of Christ, a concept that the writer of Hebrews speaks nothing of elsewhere. More likely it is a reference to experiencing the suffering of others as if we were in their body.
We may not know anyone who is imprisoned for his or her faith, but we probably know people who are enduring some kind of ill treatment for their faith, if only ill treatment at the hands of Satan. Following hard after Jesus is hard. It attracts the attention of the enemy. Often people hit hard times on such a path. When such times occur, our hearts should go out to those people.
It's this family connection that binds our hearts to one another. The one who establishes this family connection is Jesus. He has gathered us, and we all love him. Jesus means everything to us, and we feel a special bond with other like-hearted people. When someone suffers for their faith in Jesus, and we know how much Jesus means to us, and we know that it just as easily could have been us, our hearts are kindled.
John says something interesting about brotherly love and helping a brother in need: "We know love by this, that he (Christ) laid down his life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. But whoever has the world's goods, and beholds his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him?" (1 John 3:16-17). John roots love for brothers and sisters in Christ's love for us and says that if we neglect a brother in need we are closing our hearts. This implies that as followers of Jesus, our hearts are open to our brothers and sisters and that it takes some kind of effort to close them. In applying what the writer of Hebrews says, John might say, "Let your hearts stay open. You really do care. You really do love. You really do want to respond."
This of course doesn't mean that we respond to every need. If we did, we'd never eat or sleep. But we do keep our hearts open, and that gives the Spirit an opportunity to work in our hearts and direct us to respond to specific situations in love.
Let love for brothers and sisters in Christ continue. Give it a home.
If you look around yourself at the other faces in this fellowship, you are guaranteed to see a lot of people who are not like you. In this fellowship, the Lord has gathered people from different races and cultures. There are places where you could go where the percentage of people who are very much like you is significantly higher, and those places can be wonderful places. They can also be more comfortable places. For those of you who have chosen to make the Young Adults Fellowship your home, I'm making this assumption: You want something more than comfort. You know that in Christ "there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female" (Galatians 3:28). You know that the man or woman sitting next to you is your brother or sister, though he or she may be a "stranger." All I really have to say to you is what the writer of Hebrews says: Let love of the brethren continue.
I experienced the love of the brethren in a striking way when I visited Bulgaria in the summers of 1992 and 1993. For a few weeks each summer, I was part of teams that taught the scriptures to a church of Gypsies. The family in the church that had the best home moved out for two weeks so that we could move in. The Gypsies took care of our every need, lavishing us with food and affection. The central gathering place was Nicolai and Sonia's house. After our evening sessions, many of us would make our way to their house, where we would talk and party the night away. There were so many people coming and going it was hard to keep track of who was there and who wasn't. I was seated next to a friend of mine when I spotted two people sitting in the corner who we'd never seen before. They were quite obviously travelers. I turned to my friend and said, "Where did they come from?" He smiled and said to me, "Always room for two more." We both laughed. There was no question in our minds that those two travelers would have a place to sleep that night, either at Nicolai and Sonia's house or at some other house in the village.
Don't love illicit sex and money (13:4-6)
(4) Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled; for fornicators and adulterers God will judge. (5) Let your way of life be free from the love of money, being content with what you have; for He Himself has said,
"I will never desert you,
nor will I ever forsake you,"
(6) so that we confidently say,
"The Lord is my helper,
I will not be afraid.
What shall man do to me?"
The common theme in the previous section was brotherly love,
expressed in the twin commandments to care for strangers and the
hurting. A common theme in verses 4 through 6 is acknowledgment
of God - recognizing him as judge and helper. Such recognition
helps us to carry out the twin commandments that concern sex and
money. How we handle sex and money, inasmuch as these are issues
of the soul, is intimately related to our acknowledgment of God.
How we treat sex and money says a lot about how we treat God.
The greater theme, then, in these verses is lust - lust for sex
and lust for money. It's a kind of lust that disregards God's
design and, more significantly, relationship with God. The writer,
of course, gives us insight into moving away from lust for these
things and toward love for God.
First, the writer wants marriage to be "held in honor among all." Marriage was God's idea; it is his design. When a man and a woman are married, they become "one flesh." In creating this relationship, God in essence creates a new life. A marriage should be honored in the same way that a human life, created by God, is honored. All should honor marriage, whether we're married or not. Marriage should be respected, treated with dignity and held in a certain awe, even among those who aren't married. One of my favorite things to do as a pastor is perform weddings. In the past when I have led couples through their marriage vows, I have had occasion to be so moved that I forgot what to do next. In one case I was so touched by the groom's vows that I actually forgot to lead the bride through her vows! So for the sake of leadership at weddings, I've stopped paying such close attention to what the bride and groom are saying, lest I forget what I'm supposed to do next. It's a precious thing to watch God create a life.
How should we honor marriage? The writer says "let the marriage bed be undefiled," an expression that means protecting the sexual integrity of a marriage. Defiling the marriage bed would be engaging in fornication or adultery - two words that together cover all sexual activity outside of marriage. Therefore, even if two unmarried people engage in sex, they are not honoring marriage; they are defiling the marriage bed, for the marriage bed - and only the marriage bed - is God's place for the expression of this great gift.
The reason given for honoring marriage in this way is that "fornicators and adulterers God will judge." When God judges, he simply gives us what we want, and all the consequences that come with it. We were not made for sex outside of marriage, and when we engage in it, it has a degrading effect. A few years back I attended a function at which I saw several friends I hadn't seen in years. None of them was a follower of Christ, each of them was married, each of them had at least one young child and each of them had lived promiscuously before being married. The topic of conversation somehow got around to sex before marriage. All of them expressed hope that their children would remain abstinent until marriage. How could these people arrive at such a conclusion unless they had experienced sex outside of marriage as destructive in their own lives? What they experienced, without knowing it, was the judgment of God - a judgment intended to point them to Christ and to cause them to honor God's design for marriage.
In practical terms, what does all this mean for us? First, if we're to avoid fornication and adultery, we might be inclined to ask for a definition of fornication and adultery. Some, who say, "I did not have sexual relations with that woman," define it very narrowly and technically. There is another who said that "every one who looks on a woman to lust for her has committed adultery with her already in his heart" (Matthew 5:28). So that's the place to start - one's heart. And if we start there, we don't start with questions such as, "How do you define sex?" or, "Where's the line?" or, "How far can I go?" Paul says, "All things are lawful for me, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be mastered by anything" (1 Corinthians 6:12). The question to ask is not, "What is lawful?" but, "What is profitable?" And the statement to make is not, "I will go as far as I can go without crossing the line" but, "I will not be mastered by anything." The Lord told Cain that "sin is crouching at the door; and its desire is for you, but you must master it." In part because the sexual desires that God has placed within us are so powerful, sexual sins can be particularly mastering.
Now you may be out there thinking, "OK, God placed these powerful sexual desires in me, and he designs for them to be expressed in marriage, and, furthermore, I'm not married! What am I supposed to do?" Wait. Pray. Watch. Respond. God has great gifts in store for us, but he's waiting for the right time to give them. It's the same with all the best things in life: You wait for it. The desire for sex represents the desire for relationship. If you want sex, you want relationship. So, how about praying for one? How about praying for a husband or a wife? Jesus said "keep watching and praying" on more than one occasion (Mark 14:38). Pray, and then watch for what God does. And if you see something that looks a little suspicious, circumstances that perhaps come together in an odd sort of way, perhaps they're coming together in a supernatural way. Don't get carried away with this. Don't assume that God is doing something. But "suspicious circumstances" are worth investigating. God might be doing something. Respond.
Now, you may be thinking, "OK, I've waited. I've prayed. I've watched. I've even responded. And I'm still alone. It seems cruel of God to give me these overwhelming desires and to prohibit their expression." He is not prohibiting their expression; he is delaying their expression. God does not give us desires without fulfilling them. If he doesn't fulfill them on earth, he will in heaven.
Now, you may be thinking, "Wait a minute. I didn't think there was marriage in heaven." You're right (Luke 20:34-35). But there is everything that marriage represents in heaven: There is relationship with God. The Lord calls himself a "husband" to Israel (Isaiah 54:5). When Israel abandons the Lord and chases after other gods, it's called "adultery" (Jeremiah 3:9). In the re-creation, the fulness of our relationship with the Lord will be expressed. The Lord will be our shepherd, and we shall not want. Even those who had great sex in great marriages will be fulfilled in their relationship with the Lord beyond anything they have known. If God designed sex, he will fulfill his design, and we shouldn't mess with it.
This gives us one of the greatest opportunities in life: the opportunity to walk with Lord through a fiery furnace of desire, to express our hearts to him, to cry out, to learn to trust.
The writer now turns to the subject of money and possessions. This is the second time the word "love" has appeared in this passage. Earlier, we were to love the brethren; here we are not to love money. Loving money hinders loving brothers and sisters. If we are free from the love of money, we are free to use money to help people. Our way of life is to be "free" from the love of money. Loving people is good, but loving money can be enslaving, just as illicit sex. It can work its way in to, and take over, one's "way of life."
The way to be free of the love of money is to be "content with what you have," to not feel that we need more to be happy. How is it that we can be content with what we have? The writer addresses that question halfway through verse 5, beginning with the word "for." The answer has to do with what God has said.
The writer is emphatic about this, adding the word "himself" to intensify the fact that it is God who has said this. In the scriptures, it was Moses, not God, who originally said this of God's disposition toward Israel: "He will not fail you or forsake you" (Deuteronomy 31:6, 8). When Joshua took over for Moses, the Lord spoke to him, saying, "I will not fail you or forsake you" (Joshua 1:5). The Lord spoke these words to Joshua to give him courage to lead the people into the promised land. God was addressing Joshua's fear. The writer of Hebrews hears these words as addressed not only to Joshua but to us as well. Fear causes us to love money and possessions, to grab for them and hold onto them as if they were the source of life and our security in life.
A literal translation would read something like this: "Not not would I desert you, neither not not would I forsake you." This is poor English, of course, but if one wants to state something emphatically, it's excellent Greek. The writer uses a double negative in the first line and a triple negative in the second line. It's hard to imagine a more powerful form of expression. The writer uses five negatives in two lines to say that God's abandonment of us cannot happen and will not happen.
How does this relate to contentment? The writer is calling for love for God over and against love for money. God speaks. Money and possessions don't speak. God is better than money. At some point, even if only at the point of death, money will desert you; God will not.
Many of us fear abandonment. Perhaps it's happened before: Someone we trusted abandoned us, so we fear abandonment, particularly abandonment by God. Often people who harbor such fears become very possessive with money, belongings and relationships. We think, although we're probably not conscious enough of our thinking to articulate it this way, "If people fail me and abandon me, I'll just have to provide for myself. I'll make my own way. I'll get money and possessions and hold onto them with everything I've got." Even if we manage to get the money and possessions that we want, we're still left wanting. If we set our heart on these things, whatever we get is never enough, is it?
That's because we were made for God, not money. We were made for relationship, not stuff. Look at the nature of God's promise. He doesn't promise money or possessions; he promises relationship. He promises to be there. He promises never to leave us. Think about that for a moment. But first think about your fear of abandonment and how that fear has perhaps caused you to question or distance yourself from God's presence in your life. Then think that God is with you right now, in relationship with you right now. Think that there is no possible way that he will ever desert you or forsake you. It cannot happen; it will not happen. How do you know? God "himself" said so. If God said so, hear him saying it to you. Hear him saying these words to you: "I will never desert you, nor will I ever forsake you." God honors marriage, his covenant relationship with us.
This is what God says to us. Such words call for a response. Because God "has said" this to us, we "say" something to God, and we say it "confidently." Our response is confident because God's words of assurance are true and meaningful.
Our response comes from Psalm 118:6. In that context, the psalmist records crying out to the Lord in distress and being answered by the Lord, who set him in a "large place." The Lord's answer to his cry prompted the psalmist to write the words quoted by the writer in Hebrews 13:6. What is our cry of distress? And how does the Lord answer that cry by setting us in a large place? Our cry, whether we know it our not, deep in our souls, is for relationship. It's a cry that someone will come to us and listen to us and talk with us and love us and never leave us. The Lord answers that cry with his promise: "I will never desert you, nor will I ever forsake you." His promise sets us in a large place - a place of safety. At last, someone who will come and never leave!
Thus I can say, "The Lord is my helper." The Lord helps me at my deepest point of need - my need for relationship. Thus I can say, "I will not be afraid." The promise of the Lord to stay with us abates fear. I am afraid that I won't be appreciated, loved or cherished, but the Lord is here with me doing precisely that - appreciating, loving, cherishing. He promises to do so forever.
Thus I can say, "What shall man do to me?" Well, there's a lot that man can do to me. We have already seen in Hebrews 11 that man has caused an awful lot of problems for people of faith. Man can torture me, mock me, scourge me, put me in prison, stone me, saw me in two, put me to death with the sword and cause me to wander about destitute, afflicted and ill-treated (Hebrews 11:35-37). Here's what man cannot do: He cannot make God leave me. No one alive or dead can change Romans 8:38-39: "For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord." We may be afraid of what people may do to us, but they can't touch God's love for us, which is what we most need and want.
God speaks to us directly and individually, "I will never desert you, nor will I ever forsake you." We respond personally: "The Lord is my helper, I will not be afraid. What shall man do to me?" We need to hear these words as spoken by God directly to each of us as individuals, and we need to understand that his promise spoken to each of us affects each of us. Many of us may think of the Lord as a helper, but as someone else's helper. The truth is that he is "my" helper; he is "your" helper.
At the end of the movie "Brother son, sister moon," the story of St. Francis of Assisi, Francesca and his ragged band of men, who have all taken a vow of poverty, travel to Rome to seek an audience with the Pope. Because things have gone badly for their little order, Francesca thinks they may have done something wrong. He seeks an answer from the Pope. Francesca calls the order "simply a band of men who love God." That's enough for them. When the Pope sees this ragtag bunch, he is cut to the quick. He tells the men: "You've brought me, dear children, great joy - and a little sadness. I too started my vocation, oh, long ago, in much the same way as you. But in time, all that enthusiasm passed, and the responsibilities of church government took hold of me, as you see. We are encrusted with riches and power. You, in your poverty, put us to shame." If the Lord loves us and will never desert us or forsake us, who needs money?
Acknowledge God. Acknowledge him as judge and as helper, as the one who neither deserts nor forsakes.
Loving the right things
We can see from looking at these verses the importance of loving the right things and not lusting after the wrong things. Love brothers and sisters. Love strangers. Love those who are suffering. Don't lust for sex outside God's design. Don't lust for money. Thus we worship God acceptably.
- SCG, 11-15-98
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