Recently, while on holiday, Jill and I enjoyed some time in Knysna. From what we observed, I suppose that in many ways Knysna is the aquatic playground of the wealthy. I was amazed by the number of yachts that I saw anchored in the harbour. I wondered how often these expensive boats are taken for a sail. But one thing I am sure about: Whoever owns them wants to make sure that, when they go down to the dock, their expensive boat has remained anchored, safe and sound. They no doubt arrive hopeful—yea, confident—that the yacht they left in the harbour is still there, well anchored right where they left it.
The nautical theme of being well-anchored was a common metaphor in the ancient world, and it appears here in chapter 6 of Hebrews.
In ancient times, there were three primary symbols of Christianity: the fish, the dove and the anchor. There are Christian tombs that have been uncovered in which anchors are etched on the walls. The anchor is a wonderful symbol of the Christian hope, which is securely anchored in a Jesus Christ.
The writer to the Hebrews was concerned that the faith of his readers remain stable and secure in the gospel. He wanted to make sure that the anchor of Christian hope was stabilising their life in the midst of opposition, even such that was taking on the form of persecution. He desired that they be confident through the gospel. He desired that they be confidently hopeful in Christ. With this goal in mind, he wrote Hebrews 6:13-20.
The writer was well aware of the difficulties which his readers were facing. He knew what pressures they were under for their loyalty to Christ; nevertheless, he had a very strong longing for their perseverance in the faith. Having just expressed his confidence in their profession of faith, he was not content to rest there but rather to exhort them to grow in their faith and consequently to grow in their hope in Christ—to the very end.
Of course, what was true for them is also to be true for us. We must also continually grow in confidence. It is vital that our hope be well-anchored and that we not end up with a faith that is shipwrecked by the difficulties we encounter in a world that is hostile to grace, dismissive of the gospel and defiant towards God. It is expected that we persevere hopefully to the end. As Morris writes, “Hope is the very antithesis of the despair that might grip us if we saw no more than a sinful world. But we do see more. We look forward to the consummation of God’s great work of salvation.”1
Hope for the believer is not merely a subjective feeling, but as Lane points out, especially as used in Hebrews, “the word ‘hope’ . . . always denotes the objective content of hope, consisting of present and future salvation.”2 In other words, our hope is gospel-centred. We have a well-anchored hope that, in the end, all will be well. It is objectively certain.
We who are Christians are called to a life of faith in which we are to believe that what we see is not the final word. That is, we are called to believe that what we do not yet see is actually more real than what we often do see. Yet what we do see can often rock our boat and unsettle our faith. The difficult circumstances of life in a fallen and ugly world often tempt us to lose our hope. We can become a bit uncertain and even unstable in our faith. We begin to doubt the Lord and His Word with the result that the yacht of our life becomes unmoored and we find ourselves drifting away (2:1) into the sea of unbelief.
The temptation to unbelief and instability can take on various forms. As a church, we recently prayed fervently for a young Christian woman who fell victim to a dangerous food allergy. When pleaded with God to spare her life, but she died a short while later. Why did God not positively answer our prayers? I don’t know, but it is at precisely such a time in which we must guard against the temptation to instability.
As another example, we have had several babies come through our home as a place of safety before moving to their adoptive families. Every time we have a new child in the home, we pray earnestly that God would move them into a Christian home. Sometimes, this has happened; at other times, the prayer has gone unanswered. Why would God seemingly ignore such prayers and allow these children to be adopted by unbelievers? Once again, the answers are not always evident, but the temptation to stability is prevalent.
On a more general front, there is the seeming moral digression of the world and a seemingly growing secularism. There is the seeming ineffectiveness of the church. There is often a seeming lack of progress in our own church—a lack of sanctification, etc.
Whatever the particular difficulty, most of us can testify that we sometimes find our faith faltering and our confidence in the Scriptures waning. The sad consequences are that we lose our hope, with the result that we lose our joy and we can lose our gospel perspective completely.
If any of this describes you then I invite you to follow the argument of our anonymous writer with the goal of leaving with a well-anchored confidence.
We can summarise all of this by highlighting that the Christian is to have a hope that is confident, because it is certain. This hopeful confidence (confident hope) is non-circumstantial and therefore continual. This is what the perseverance of the saints looks like.
Let me begin by simply giving a brief review of what precedes this passage and then we will expound the rest of the chapter.
An Expressed Hope
We won’t spend much time here, but in vv. 9-10 the writer expresses his confidence that his readers are not like the field that brings forth thorns and briers, which is only fit to be burned, but rather he sees from their love for one another that they are like the fruitful field, which can expect blessings from God. Heaven, rather than hell, is his expectation for them. They are beloved, not Belial. He does not want them to be discouraged by the truth that he must expound regarding apostates. Yes, as a faithful brother, he needs to warn them, but he fears lest, by an unhealthy introspection, they doubt the salvation that they have by all appearances actually experienced. Calvin notes, “Certainly anyone who wants to be a good teacher ought to treat his pupils in such a way as always to encourage rather than to discourage them. There is nothing that has a greater effect in alienating us from listening to teaching than to see that we are thought of as hopeless.”3
However, as we will soon see, they are nonetheless in need of growing in this confidence themselves. It is all well and good that they love one another, but they need to grow also in the virtues of faith and hope.
An Expected Hope
In vv. 11-12, we see that the writer expects his believing readers to experience this confident assurance themselves. He expects them to take personal responsibility to grow in “full assurance of hope to the end.” That is, he expects their confidence in the gospel of Christ to be continually maturing.
The writer has encouraged the readers with his confidence that they are the real deal by virtue of their perseverance in the past. He now encourages them to persevere in the present. One of his exhortations is that they imitate those who “through faith and patience inherit the promises” (v.12). That is, they are to follow the examples of those who persevered in their trust in God in the face of similar, if not worse, persecution. In fact, chapter 11 lists numerous examples of such. His point is that they are not unique in their situation and that they have every reason to be confident that God will see them through. But the natural question is, on what basis do we have such hopeful confidence? Or perhaps, what is the foundation for this confidence? What produces this “certain hope”? The answer is found in the gospel; that is, the good news that God saves sinners.
The recipients of this epistle had every reason to believe God’s promise of the gospel of His Son. They must therefore keep believing the gospel. And as they do so they will grow in grace. And the same, of course, is true of you and me. This gospel-driven perspective is vital for us to grasp. As Tim Keller writes, “The gospel is not just the ABC’s but the A to Z of the Christian life. . . . We are saved by believing the gospel, and then we are transformed in every part of our minds, hearts, and lives by believing the gospel more and more deeply as life goes on.”4, 48.]
Our anchor is hope because ultimately our anchor is Him.
But, of course, like all good teachers, this brother does not merely shout at them to pull up their socks; rather, he is intent on helping them to their feet.
He exhorts them to look for examples of those “who through faith and patience inherit the promises” and he calls on them to “imitate” them. He then points them to a concrete example whom they should “imitate”—Abraham.
An Exemplified Hope
Abraham is presented as an exemplary illustration of biblical hope.
For when God made a promise to Abraham, because He could swear by no one greater, He swore by Himself, saying, “Surely blessing I will bless you, and multiplying I will multiply you.” And so, after he had patiently endured, he obtained the promise.
Abraham is mentioned in Hebrews ten times. The only other New Testament books that mention him more are Luke (fifteen times) and John (eleven times). He figures so prominently for a couple of reasons, not the least of which is that an epistle to the Hebrews is a good place to emphasise their founding father and the continuity that they share with Father Abraham. This is especially important in this particular context.
The second reason is because of his connection to Melchizedek, the theme which introduced this section (5:1-11) and to which the writer will return in 7:1.
Third, Abraham’s faith in God’s promise is a model of perseverance.
These three reasons help us to see the relevance of the writer mentioning Abraham here. However, the final reason that I would suggest is that the very promise that God had made to Abraham is the promise that these believers have experienced in Christ. Again, there is rich and important continuity between Abraham and these first-century new covenant believers. And as I trust we will shortly see, this continuity applies to you and me as well.
The mention of Abraham would arrest their attention and give great credibility to the writer’s argument. Abraham’s trial of faith was immense and the result was miraculous.
The story of Abraham well illustrates the faithfulness of God, and this is precisely the anchor to which these first century Jewish Christians needed to cling. In other words, if they would persevere, the key was the character of God. His character is the basis for belief in His promises, especially the promise of the gospel. God’s character is the basis of the hope that anchors the believer and holds him steady in the storms of life. And God’s Christ is the space-time incarnation of the faithful character of God. That is why we can say that the Christian’s hope is indeed an anchor, both because of the character of God and the Christ of God. And this anchor of hope holds steady the ship of the promises of God in which the Christian is riding through life.
The point that the writer is seeking to drive into the heads and hearts of his readers is that God performs what He purposes and therefore what He promises. This was important, for at the end of the day the gospel is all about God’s promise (see Genesis 3:15; etc.). Abraham persevered because God is faithful. It was for this reason that Abraham “contrary to hope, in hope believed” (Romans 4:18). The good news that God saves, and will save, sinners gave to Abraham a well-anchored hope. It will for us as well.
God’s Amazing Condescension
Verse 13 highlights God’s amazing condescension. God’s promise, His Word is sufficient guarantee that He will do as He said. As the writer of Psalm 100 put it, “The LORD is good; His mercy is everlasting, and His truth endures to all generations.” He is faithful indeed. But when God made a promise to Abraham, as recorded in Genesis 22:16-18, He did so in an unusual manner: “He swore by Himself.”
When men make a promise, they will sometimes call in one greater than themselves as confirmation of the pledge that they are telling the truth. In fact, on several occasions, Abraham himself called upon God as his witness, and even demanded that others do so (Genesis 14:22; 21:23ff; 24:3). Therefore, to commit perjury was to call down God’s wrath on oneself.
But, of course, there is none greater than God and so He called upon Himself as witness (“By Myself I have sworn,” Genesis 22:16). He confirmed His promise with an oath (v. 17). It is as if God was saying, “If I break my promise I will fall out of heaven.” “The fulfilment of this promise was bound up with the life of God; that it was so implicated with His purposes that God could as soon cease to be, as neglect the fulfilment of it.”5
We will say more about this later, but suffice it to say for now that God condescended to give to Abraham a “full assurance of hope to the end” (v. 12). Abraham’s hope, his confidence, was well-anchored, for it was grounded in the character of God.
God’s Assuring Confirmation
Verse 14 tells us of God’s assuring confirmation: “Surely blessing I will bless you, and multiplying I will multiply you.” The quote here is very significant and is selected purposefully as a means of highlighting God’s faithfulness and therefore giving us encouragement to be full of faith.
This reference is found in Genesis 22—that famous chapter in which we have the record of Abraham, in faithful obedience to God, offering up Isaac on the altar.
Abraham had waited (not always patiently, as the account of Hagar and Ishmael bears out) 25 years for the fulfilment of God’s promise of a son, who would be the beginning of an innumerable offspring. Now that his son had grown to young manhood, and Abraham was well over a hundred years old, the Lord commanded him to offer up his only son (22:1-2). Abraham, of course, obediently responded (22:3-10). But just as the knife was set against Isaac’s throat, the Lord sent His angel to intervene and instructed Abraham to stop. He gladly obeyed!
But in response to Abraham’s faithful obedience, the Lord reconfirmed the promise made to Abraham so many times before. The Lord assured Abraham that indeed, through Isaac and his descendants, an innumerable multitude would come, and through the Seed of Abraham, all the nations would be blessed (22:17-18). This reference is a gospel promise, for the Seed of Abraham (as Paul explains in Galatians) was the Seed who was the Son of God, the promised Seed of Genesis 3:15. In other words, through Abraham, God’s redemptive plan would come to pass in space-time history. “God’s will does not change. He has his purpose and he works it out. That was what the oath said.”6
God’s Affirming Commendation
Verse 15, by inspiration of the Holy Spirit, is a further commendation by God of Abraham as a man of faith. But there are some questions that are raised here that we should address.
First, what does it mean, “after he had patiently endured”? That is, what does “after” refer to? After what?
My conclusion is this refers to Abraham’s offering up Isaac. In other words, it was after Abraham obeyed to the point of actually putting the knife to Isaac’s throat that he “obtained the promise” of v. 14.
The phrase “after he had patiently endured” refers to Abraham’s trial of faith in Genesis 22:1-10. Of course this would have included all that led up to this as well. Put another way, Abraham had “patiently endured” from the initial promise (Genesis 12) through this most difficult of trials. “Abraham’s faith saw the unseen. He saw a living God who was sovereign in all of life—he saw his sacrificed son resurrected and living on—he saw himself fathering a sea of humanity—he saw blessing for the whole earth. And because he saw this, he was gloriously long-suffering through many years.”7
The result was that he “received this promised confirmed by an oath” that, indeed, “in blessing I will bless you and multiplying I will multiply you.”
At this point, it is helpful to observe this matter of assurance, the theme with which the writer is concerned. Phillips helpfully observes, “Growth in assurance comes through perseverance. Abraham, by waiting patiently, received certainty with regard to the promise, and the same will be true for us.”
But we need to consider this phrase further, for I believe that there is another aspect to this: the already / not yet dynamic.
When Abraham died, he died having his one promised son but no grandchildren. Yet as the writer will make clear in chapter 11, Abraham did believe. And as John makes clear in 8:56, “Abraham rejoiced to see” the day of Jesus Christ. In other words, Abraham, as it were, did obtain the promise—in the sense that he was certain that it would come to pass. Now this is not provable, at least from this passage, but the point that that the writer is emphasising is that Abraham is the kind of example that they, and we, should follow. Yes, Abraham faced numerous challenges to his faith in God’s promises and yet he continued with confidence. His faith, his hope, was well-anchored in God’s faithfulness and so, though the promised result was yet invisible, nevertheless it was as good as done.
Perhaps I am getting ahead of myself, but let me mention something that is true of an anchor: It does its work, normally, very invisibly. We don’t see the anchor, yet we can tell if it is doing its job by whether the ship is steady. So it is with faith and hope. The object of our faith, and therefore the source of our hope, is invisible: We do not see Jesus with physical eyes, yet the reality that He is fulfilling His promise is evident in the steadiness of the ship of our lives. We live with confidence because we are confident in the existence and the ministry of our Saviour.
Returning to the passage before us, these readers were being exhorted to imitate the example of Abraham. In what way could they do so?
It is doubtful that any of them were being commanded to offer up their sons on an altar to God as a sacrifice, at least not in the way that Abraham was commanded to do. Nevertheless they were being challenged to believe the promise of God in Christ in the face of religionists who were always pointing to the visible temple and the very visible elements of cultic worship. In the eyes of their family and friends, and the surrounding culture, those who were following this invisible Christ were doing the unthinkable. After all, to believe that one who was infamous for being crucified—and there were plenty of witnesses to His death—was now living and on the right hand of God interceding as their High Priest was, well, crazy! In fact, it was scandalous—as scandalous as offering your only son on an altar while believing that the same child would be brought back to life (Hebrews 11:17-19).
The writer points them to Abraham so that they might also patiently endure. And the same applies to you and me.
We are surrounded by people who think that we are nuts for worshipping Jesus. Our society increasingly mocks those who follow Christ. Some reading this may be the recipients of taunts from family and co-workers because you are serious about following Jesus. They think that you who give your money to God have been deceived and those who leave family and home and careers to serve the Lord elsewhere are irresponsible (or looney at best).
But, like Abraham, we need to keep looking to Him who is invisible, and the visible will then make sense.
Later, I will return to this to make the point that we have every reason to be confident that, like Abraham, all nations will one day be blessed. We need to patiently endure and obtain that promise.
But we must now consider the source of this confidence. In other words, why was Abraham so confident in this promise?
An Explainable Hope
Verses 16-18 shows us that this hope is quite explicable:
For men indeed swear by the greater, and an oath for confirmation is for them an end of all dispute. Thus God, determining to show more abundantly to the heirs of promise the immutability of His counsel, confirmed it by an oath, that by two immutable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we might have strong consolation, who have fled for refuge to lay hold of the hope set before us.
It is important to emphasise that the focus of this passage is not on Abraham. Granted, he is set forth as an example of one “who through faith and patience inherited the promises,” nevertheless the reason that he had faith and the motivation for his “patience” was the character of God. In fact, I want to point out that Abraham was one who “inherited” the promises. It was a gift from God. The reason why any believer perseveres is the character of God. We believe the promises because the promises are believable and they are believable because God is believable! That is the point of this passage.
Verse 16 reminds us again of the nature and purpose of an oath. In the human legal realm, an oath is designed to put an end to all argument. If one swears that they are telling the truth then nothing can contradict it. But, of course, men can lie. It is impossible for God to do so (v. 18), however. In other words, God was so determined to demonstrate His faithfulness that He condescended to undergird His promise (which was enough!) with an oath. He desired to demonstrate His unchangeable character, and so He did so with this oath to Abraham.
The writer then builds on this in v. 18 when he states that by “two immutable things” (God’s promise and God’s oath) “we might have strong consolation, who have fled for refuge to lay hold of the hope set before us.”
What is the connection between what God promised to Abraham and God’s promise to us? The answer is that the promises are the same. We see this in v. 17: “17 Thus God, determining to show more abundantly to the heirs of promise the immutability of His counsel, confirmed it by an oath.” In other words, God’s oath-confirmed promise to Abraham was not only to Abraham but also to the believers to whom this epistle was written—as well as to you and me! “The unchanging purpose of God provides a strong reason for emulating the trust and steadfastness of Abraham.”8 Yes, God confirmed His promise to Abraham with an oath for all who subsequently would believe on the Lord Jesus Christ; to all who would flee to Christ as their refuge from their sins and from the sinfulness of this world. This is why we should follow Abraham’s example, for the same God who was worthy of his trust is the God whom we are called to trust. And just as He was faithful to Abraham, so He is to you and me. Our God’s immutable character calls for our unquestioning trust.
Now, consider this whole passage once again. The readers are exhorted to look to Abraham as an example of perseverance. But the reason is not simply because the story of Genesis 22 is so inspiring—and it is—but rather because the promise that God makes there, and confirms with an oath, is actually a promise to us as well. It is as though God looked down the corridors of time and made this promise so that we, along with Abraham, would persevere, knowing that we were on His mind at precisely the time that Abraham and Isaac were on His mind. This story of Abraham offering up Isaac, and then being stopped by God and subsequently honoured by God, was intended throughout history to serve as an encouragement to God’s people that He will bless His people among all of the nations. Yes, this passage speaks to the issue of the Great Commission; it speaks to the issue of missions.
We can take away from this the encouragement that God’s counsel, His determined will, will be done on earth as it is in heaven. All of those whom He has chosen to be His heirs will be brought in. So we must persevere in the midst of difficulties. With great hope, well-anchored in the character of God, we are to go forth and disciple the nations. The mission will be finished one day!
The latter part of v. 18 highlights that these believers were in difficult circumstances. They in fact lived in an environment that was hostile to their faith in Christ, hostile to the blessing of God in Christ coming to all the nations—including their own Jewish nation. Thus with an illusion to the cities of refuge (Numbers 35:6-28), the writer encourages them that the hope they are laying hold of is sure and certain. In fact, it is even more sure, for our High Priest will never die!
But again, how can we be so sure? Yes, the promise confirmed by the oath in Genesis is sufficient, but to what or whom did this promise ultimately refer? The answer is given in the closing verses of the chapter. The answer is Jesus Christ. “The assured character of God’s promise is confirmed in the life, death, entry, and high priestly investiture of Jesus.”9
An Existential Hope
In vv. 19-20 the writer further expounds on the hope that is set before them.
This hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and steadfast, and which enters the Presence behind the veil, where the forerunner has entered for us, even Jesus, having become High Priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.
He says that this hope is “an anchor of the soul [life],” that it is “both sure and steadfast” and that it goes beyond this world to that “which enters the Presence behind the veil.” What does this mean?
As v. 20 points out, this is clearly an allusion to Jesus Christ, who is our High Priest. He, like the high priests under the old covenant, has gone beyond the veil to offer the sacrificial blood to God. But unlike those high priests, we actually go beyond the veil with Him! We are accepted by God Himself in His very presence. This is the point of the reference to Jesus being our “forerunner.” He has set the precedent. He has paved the way for us. Yes, like Abraham, we have been blessed, and with such salvific confidence we have a “strong consolation” (v. 18).
The word translated “forerunner” is used only here in the Bible, and it had many meanings in the ancient world. It was used of a military point man who would pave the way for the army that followed. But apparently it was also a nautical term. It referred to a smaller boat that would carry the anchor of a larger boat into the shallow harbour. The forerunner would drop the anchor, which would then secure the larger ship that was sitting in potentially rough seas. What a beautiful picture of Jesus Christ! He has gone before to the calm seas of Heaven and the ship of our soul is therefore firmly anchored though we are often in the midst of storm-tossed seas. As Dods comments, “It is because the anchor enters into the eternal and unchangeable world that its shifting or losing hold is out of the question.”10
Remember that Jesus is on the throne of the universe. There is no more secure place for our souls to be anchored! And even though our anchor is in the invisible realm, nevertheless the proof is seen in this very visible world as clearly our anchor holds.
As Richard Phillips so beautifully says,
In the great promises of God, secured in Christ, we therefore have a cable of salvation that nothing can break or destroy, so that we can be certain of arriving safe in the harbor of heaven. . . . Can unforeseen circumstances break the line to this great anchor? Can the work of men, the temptations of the devil, or the hostility of the world sever a cord forged and placed by God himself? Can your sin break the line to this great anchor? The answer to all of these is No. God is greater than them all, and his oath shall overrule every opposition.
Let me make an important digression. I pointed out earlier that God “condescended” to confirm His promise with an oath. But this was not the only time God condescended to affirm His promise. His ultimate condescension was the incarnation. The faithfulness of God’s character was manifested in God’s Christ.
Philippians 2:1-5 records the ultimate condescension of God, and by the incarnation, death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the oath of the everlasting covenant was everlastingly confirmed. This is precisely why we can conclude that the anchor is our faith in Christ. In fact, it is more correct to say that Christ is our Anchor. We do not see Him. But because He is our Anchor, our hope is secure. The two chains of God’s promise and oath are the visible assurance that our Anchor holds and therefore our hope is certain. What God, in Christ, has begun in you He will perform until the Day of Christ. Your hope is eternally secure. As our author writes a little later,
Now may the God of peace who brought up our Lord Jesus from the dead, that great Shepherd of the sheep, through the blood of the everlasting covenant, make you complete in every good work to do His will, working in you what is well pleasing in His sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.
Hywel Jones pastorally notes, “Life in a fallen world is tempestuous and the soul needs an anchor that will not drag in the storm. Jesus has blazed a path to heaven and as king and priest will guard and guide all that trust in him.” This is at least true for those who have fled to Christ as their refuge from sin, from the world and ultimately from a holy God who exercises His wrath against both. Yes, God is the refuge for those who recognise and submit to the reality that they need a refuge from God. Those who do then find Christ as their Saviour, and forever He will be their well-anchored hope. So let me ask, is your soul well-anchored? May it be so today, this acceptable time for the salvation of your soul.
- Leon Morris, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 12 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981), 12:61. ↩
- William L. Lane, Hebrews: Word Biblical Commentary, 2 vols. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1991), 1:153. ↩
- Raymond Brown, The Message of Hebrews: The Bible Speaks Today (Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press, 2000), 123. ↩
- Timothy J. Keller, Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012 ↩
- Marcus Dods, The Expositor’s Greek Testament, 5 vols. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 4:302. ↩
- Morris, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 12:60. ↩
- R. Kent Hughes, Hebrews: An Anchor for the Soul, 2 vols. (Wheaton: Crossway, 1993), 176. ↩
- Lane, Hebrews, 1:152. ↩
- Lane, Hebrews, 1:154. ↩
- Dods, The Expositor’s Greek Testament, 4:305. ↩