First Mennonite Church
May 8, 2022
A Brief Word of Exhortation
Introductory Text: Hebrews 2:1-9
Today, we will begin a new series in the Letter to the Hebrews. But, before we get into it, let me make a clarification, so we will understand my approach to this series. Hebrews, is not so much a letter, based on the type material we find in it. Except for the closing remarks, the Letter to the Hebrews does not have the typical parts of a letter. For example, there is no superscription as to who is writing it nor specific references to the people receiving it. Because of that, it is not known for sure who wrote the book. There are suggestions it could be Paul or Luke or Pricilla and Aquila, suggesting that had been the latter, Priscilla might been the main writer. Again, because the letter resembles more a long sermon, it is difficult to neatly extract sections for devotional or preaching purposes. The material is closely interconnected as a whole.
Hebrews is also very dense that would require a good knowledge of God’s dealing with Israel and Israel’s religious and sacrificial system. Therefore, we read of priests, sacrifices, altar, atoning blood, cleansing rituals, the Tabernacle and the Holy of Holies. We also find many Old Testament characters alluded to and many others directly mentioned: Abel, Cain, Abraham, Moses, Melchizedek, and others.
As we will see, the Letter to the Hebrews is very exciting, but above all, it will prove to have an important and timely message for the church of today.
In this series, we will explore general themes found in the book. Therefore, although I might consider some large sections in the book, most often I will be coursing over the entire book in pursuit of the topic in consideration.
So, let us begin. First, we will identify the goal the author had for writing this amazing sermon. And, secondly, we will see what the author used as backdrop for this powerful sermon.
In chapter 13, verse 22, we find: But I exhort you, brethren, bear with the word of exhortation: for I have written unto you in few words (ASV). Although this letter would feel to us like a long sermon, the author calls it, just a few “words of exhortation”—logou tes paracleseos.” As you would immediately recall, Jesus called the promised gift of the Holy Spirit when he departed as the “Paracletos” (John 14:16, 26). The meaning of this word is translated variously in our Bibles. Paracletos is translated: Comforter, Advocate, Counselor, and Helper. There are also various ways to translate paracleseos—exhortation. It can also be translated: appeal, warning, encouragement, and comfort. In that regard, the general purpose of this sermon is to appeal, to exhort, to warn, to encourage, and to comfort the recipients of it. Now, if those are the reasons, the question is, why? Why was it necessary to make an urgent appeal and exhortation to the first recipients? Why was it necessary to give a word of warning, encouragement, and comfort to the first readers?
We will come back to this, later and even more during this series.
Now let us turn to the backdrop used by the Preacher. Although there are some hints in the first two chapters of the Letter, it becomes clearer in chapter three—the Israelites exodus journey through the wilderness. The wilderness journey becomes the motif—the dominant idea of comparison between Israel’s journey to the Promised Land and the Christian’s calling to enter into God’s glorious and eternal house of rest. Hear how the Preacher expresses it:
For every house is built by someone, but God is the builder of everything. 5 “Moses was faithful as a servant in all God’s house,” bearing witness to what would be spoken by God in the future. 6 But Christ is faithful as the Son over God’s house. And we are his house, if indeed we hold firmly to our confidence and the hope in which we glory.
Therefore, since the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us be careful that none of you be found to have fallen short of it. 2 For we also have had the good news proclaimed to us, just as they did; but the message they heard was of no value to them, because they did not share the faith of those who obeyed. 3 Now we who have believed enter that rest, just as God has said,
“So I declared on oath in my anger,
‘They shall never enter my rest.’” (3:4-6; 4:1-3)
The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews, reminded his Christian brothers and sisters that they had a similar calling as those who Moses was leading across the wilderness unto the Promised Land. The children of Israel was God’s house under the direction of Moses. We are God’s house under the leadership of Jesus. God was leading Israel to enter God’s rest after being liberated from the Egyptian slavery. And we are being led to God’s glrorious and eternal resting after having been freed from the bondage of sin. Therefore, we can see that at the core of this comparison, is that Christians of all times and places live the life of faith in the wilderness.
The main account of the Israelite journey in the wilderness is found in the book of Exodus. So, what similar conditions are there between the exodus wilderness journey and the life of faith? The dictionary defines wilderness this way: uncultivated and uninhabitable place for human life. Wild, untouched, empty or allowed to grow wildly.
Uninhabitable place for human life is the predominant image the wilderness or desert brings to our mind. When we read the exodus story of the Israelites, we see them traversing a dry, inhospitable terrain. Water was scarce and food in very limited supply. There were fiery snakes, lots of obstacles, and among the crowd, a whole bunch of grumpy, tired, and hungry people. At times during the journey, memory of the little comforts left behind—the onions, cucumbers, and garlic, seemed to have outweigh memory of the hardship of slavery. The journey seemed unending; the promise of rest, elusive. In desperate times, the journey to the Promised Land seemed even like a bad idea pursing it. On various occasions, the Israelites thought death by the sword was better than hardship in the wilderness.
Based on the hardship and great challenges of Israelite experience during the exodus journey, the writer to the Hebrews makes a connection with his first readers’ experience. Hear the clear connection:
32 Remember those earlier days after you had received the light, when you endured in a great conflict full of suffering. 33 Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution; at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated. 34 You suffered along with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions. 35 So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded.
36 You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised. 37 For,
“In just a little while,
he who is coming will come
and will not delay.”
“But my righteous one will live by faith.
And I take no pleasure
in the one who shrinks back”
39 But we do not belong to those who shrink back and are destroyed, but to those who have faith and are saved (Hebrews 10:32-39).
The desert or wilderness is indeed a place difficult to live in or travel through. But in the case of Israel’s wilderness journey, God was with them. It is the wilderness where Yahweh proved to be the Almighty God to Israel. First, God delivered Israel with “outstretched arm.” Pharaoh, with all his might, could keep God from liberating Israel. God provided Israel with a cloud by day and pillar of fire by night to guide and protect them through the wilderness. It is in the wilderness where God established his covenant with Israel at Mount Sinai. There at Sinai, God declared Israel as his chosen people. It is in the wilderness where God sustained his people with manna, water, and even meat. It is in the wilderness where God manifested his patience and compassion for Israel. When Israel blasphemed against Yahweh by casting and worshipping the golden calf, God revealed he is: “The Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6).
In other instances, it is in the wilderness where God proved himself to be the God who sees and provides, as he did to Abraham with a sacrificial lamb and to Hagar and Ishmael with water when they were dying of thirst.
As we begin to see, the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews makes a clear comparison between Israel’s wilderness journey and the Christian journey of faith. The church of today, as well of centuries past, is facing lots of challenges. The world is a spiritual wasteland for the soul. In this wasteland, walking the journey of faith is challenging. In desperate situation, the little comforts of the world can be a temptation bidding us to return to it. We must remember, however, that it is in this wilderness journey where God walks with us, reveals himself to us, makes covenant with us, and provides for us. Therefore the warning in Hebrews 2:1-3:
We must pay the most careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away. 2 For since the message spoken through angels was binding, and every violation and disobedience received its just punishment, 3 how shall we escape if we ignore so great a salvation? This salvation, which was first announced by the Lord, was confirmed to us by those who heard him.
Therefore, contrary to that first generation of Israelites on the exodus journey, let us hear, not only the assurance of God’s presence among us, but also the warning against losing confidence in him. Let us pay careful attention to the one who is leading and not shrink back, because the one who said he is coming will indeed come and will not delay. Let us persevere, so that when we have done the will of God, we will receive what he has promised. Amen!