A couple of weeks ago the elders met together in my study to discuss some matters and my computer screen was visible to a couple of them. I had been working on a sermon and was on my last point. I had only typed two words under the final heading which were, “In conclusion.” One brother said to me, with a mischievous smile, “Is that the first or the last conclusion?” My reputation had preceded me!
Well, I have learned well from biblical authors, including the author of the epistle to the Hebrews.
Technically speaking, the benediction of vv. 20–21 ended the epistle—or at least it could have. In fact, the writer even closed off that benediction with “amen.” But he keeps writing. Why?
I don’t know for sure, but clearly he had a couple of matters still on his heart. It is these final words that we will examine in this study as we come to our final study of this wonderfully rich epistle.
As we begin, allow me a moment to make the case for the importance of not neglecting an exposition of these final words. These words are as inspired as the rest of this epistle. Since we hold to the doctrine of the inspiration and therefore the sufficiency of all Scripture, we must approach these words with the conviction that they too are profitable to complete the Christian (2 Timothy 3:16–17). They too are able to make us wise for salvation (2 Timothy 3:15). That is, these words are a divinely-directed means towards the end of us being Christlike. They are a means from the God of peace to make us complete, to equip us to do His will (vv. 20–21). And, make no mistake, this final word reveals three responsibilities that, if we embrace, will equip us to do God’s will.
Raymond Brown puts it this way: “Before the writer takes leave of his readers, he reminds them that throughout the Christian life there is instruction to heed, fellowship to cherish and grace to appropriate.”1
For our purposes, we will follow a different outline. By living this outline, the Lord will equip us to do His will, working in us what is pleasing in His sight.
In v. 22 we have a final exhortation to faithfulness: “And I appeal to you, brethren, bear with the word of exhortation, for I have written to you in few words.”
The writer here provides a final exhortation to sum up all the previous exhortations in this epistle. And he uses strong language as he appeals (or urges) them to do so.
The word “appeal” (or “urge”) is a strong one. This is not the first time that he has used the word (see3:13; 10:25; 13:19). He is saying, “Pay heed to my exhortations,” or perhaps better, “I ask [for a final time] for patient attention.”2
He calls them “brethren,” expressing his tender care for these brothers and sisters. He perhaps, realising the number of times that he has exhorted them (cf. the numerous “let us” exhortations, etc.), is sensitive to the possibility of them taking this final admonition in the wrong way.
Therefore, he expresses his familial concern for them as he appeals once more for them to pay heed to his final instructions. As Morris puts it, “The letter has had its share of rebukes and stern warnings, and the writer now softens the impact a little with this appeal and with the affectionate address ‘Brothers.’”3
As an important aside, this is a burden that the pastors of a congregation carry—or at least that they should be carrying. We are called to give both strong encouragement and strong or stern warning.
Eugene Peterson wrote somewhere that one of the challenges faced by pastors is that we are often called upon to be “naysayers.” We are often shouldered with the responsibility to be antithetical, in the sense of pointing out errors both of belief and behaviour. Because of this, the congregation may be tempted to view us as headmasters rather than as shepherds.
I recently saw a cartoon portraying a sparrow lying on the couch of a psychiatrist. The doctor asks, “So, what’s on your mind, Mr. Sparrow?” Our fowl friend replies, “I have this feeling that someone has His eye on me.” The person who sent this to me said that, when she saw it, it reminded her (warmly) of the pastors.
I think that this author was feeling this, so he labours to make the point that he sees them as family. This is how we should view one another. And when that is the case, we will probably respond more warmly to exhortation.
Put Up with the Preaching
The words “bear with” indicate “to endure” or perhaps, most literally, “to put up with.” As we observed above, the author clearly has a pastor’s heart. He understands that this epistle, exhorting them to faithfulness, contains words “not all easy … to accept”4 and therefore he urges them to listen willingly to all he has penned.
In the author’s opinion, he had actually written very little. As Dods comments, “To them it might seem that he had said too much; his own feeling was that he had been severely cramped by the limits of a letter.”5 In fact, when you consider the enormity of the topic (the everlasting covenant), it is no wonder that he felt he had said very little in comparison to what he could have said. Had the author dealt in depth with all the topics he would still be writing (see 5:11; 8:1; 11:32)!
Most preachers can relate to this. Though our hearers may think otherwise, nevertheless we almost always feel that, in comparison to what we could have said, we have actually only spoken briefly. (As an aside, this epistle can be read out loud in about an hour. Perhaps a short sermon is this length as well!)
Sermon Preached with a Pen
He says that he desires them to endure his “word of exhortation.” This is a strong statement, which expresses urgency. This terminology is used in Acts 13:15 in such a way that we can translate it as a “homily,” or, to use a more contemporary phrase, a sermon. This epistle is a sermon “preached with a pen.”6
The author saw this epistle as a sermon to be proclaimed to the congregation. This helps us to understand that, fundamentally, this is precisely what preaching is: proclaiming God’s Word. We see this also in 1 Timothy 4:13: “Till I come, give attention to reading [the public reading of Scripture], to exhortation, to doctrine.”
The leader of the congregation was to read the epistle to the congregation and then he was to exhort and instruct them to obey what was read. As Brown puts it, “The truth is not only a message to read, or a story to inspire, but an exhortation to heed and an instruction to be obeyed.”7 This is how we need to view expositional teaching.
At BBC, we read a portion of Scripture from the New Testament on Sunday morning and from the Old Testament on Sunday evening. It is important that we be exposed to God’s Word. Many believe that we should do this based on the teaching of 1 Timothy 4:13. In fact, an entire (good) tradition has been moulded from this. I am all for reading Scripture, but this is not what Paul had in mind when he wrote this. What he meant was that a portion of Scripture should be read and then expounded for the purpose of exhortation and teaching.
I sometimes hear church members criticise churches they have visited because they had no “public reading of Scripture.” I want to caution you against that. The question is, was the Word of God read and expounded? That is what 1 Timothy 4:13 prescribes. I have no plan to change the way we do it, but let’s not make our custom binding for others.
Now, back to the point, which is, if we will continue to persevere in following the Lord Jesus Christ, if we will keep our eyes on Him (12:1–2) and therefore off of false christs and false gospels, we need to hear and heed the Word of God. We must discipline ourselves to put up with it. We must show up and listen up, even as we put up with the hard sayings. This is the only way that we will mature (5:11–14).
There are plenty of spoken words and a host of claims to being God’s final Word, but there is only one worthy of our attention: the Lord Jesus Christ (1:1–2). We therefore need to put up with ordinary of sound doctrine. The novel may appear more esoterically interesting, but in the end it will lead to spiritual destruction. Yes, the Christian life requires biblical exhortation. We cannot progress apart from it. We need to discipline ourselves to endure such exhortation. Receiving the Word is not always easy to bear, and it is precisely for this reason that we are exhorted to do it.
The Bible everywhere serves as an exhortation for God’s people to hear and heed God’s final Word. Note the danger if we do not (2 Timothy 4:3).
Heed What You Hear
We need exposure to the preaching of God’s Word. We need exhortation from God’s Word and then we need to exercise God’s Word. In other words, we must respond to God’s Word. We are to do something with it.
We need the exhortations concerning the supremacy of Jesus Christ our Lord. We need the exhortations concerning running the race in which He has placed us. We need the exhortations telling us not to drift. We need the exhortations admonishing us to grow up (chapter 5). We need the exhortations to draw near.
Put Up With Your Pastors
This point needs to be emphasised. I have made it before. There are doubtless many pastors and teachers of God’s Word that are far more gifted than the ones you have been given. Yet your elders are the ones who, at least for now, have been given to you. So please put up with your leaders and listen up to them. Elders view church members as “brethren” and want to run the race with you. We are co-workers for your joy (2 Corinthians 1:24). Calvin is spot on when he writes, “Constant exhortations should be heard in the Church from the mouth of pastors.”8
In sum, we need both the preaching and the practice of God’s Word.
In vv. 23–24 we find a final emphasis on fellowship: “Know that our brother Timothy has been set free, with whom I shall see you if he comes shortly. Greet all those who rule over you, and all the saints. Those from Italy greet you.”
Just as we need preaching for the nourishing of our faith (v. 22) we also need partners for our perseverance in the faith. And there is a strong hint of this here in vv. 23–24.
Throughout our studies, we have referenced the many times that plural pronouns are used—most notably “us.” The writer stressed that the church is in a pilgrimage to the city that has foundations (11:10)—together. The church is a household (3:3). And it is for this reason that believers are not to forsake the gathering of themselves together but to rather exhort one another, and so much the more as they see the day approaching (10:25).9
The exhortation to fellowship is very strong here. And so it should not surprise us that, in these closing words, the matter of face to face fellowship is once again at the fore.
A Favourable Expectation
The writer was keen to be with them (vv. 18–19). Like the apostle John (2 John 12; 3 John 13–14), he desired face to face fellowship with them. He says that Timothy (who must have been well known to them) had been “set free” or “released.” Since this word is usually used in Acts to speak of being freed from incarceration, we can safely conclude that Timothy had been jailed for his faith. His release should have had the effect of encouraging their prayer life (vv. 18–19).
The writer knew Timothy and hoped to travel with him to wherever these believers were. Nevertheless, with or without Timothy, he was coming! He wanted to be with them to partner in their perseverance.
Again, as this epistle has highlighted, we do not run the race alone. It is true that Jesus Christ is God’s final Word to us, but this does not mean that we do not need others in our quest to hear and heed this Word. We need others who will strengthen us in our walk as we worship the Lord.
In an age of individualism, we need the repetitive reminder that we need the Body. We need the help of others if we will remain faithful to the final Word. We need other Christians who will come into our proximity and help us to “vasbyt” (persevere) in the good fight of faith. We should love such brothers and sisters rather than keeping them at arm’s length. As Lane helpfully comments, “Christians were not to regard themselves as isolated individuals, or as autonomous societies, but as members of the family within the household of God.”10 This brings us to the next verse and the next related observation.
A Friendly Demonstration
For the third time in the chapter the writer mentions “those who rule over you” (v. 24); that is, their spiritual leadership (see also vv. 7, 17). Here, they are told to pass on his greetings to them.
We should note that this may indicate that one particular house church received the letter and was to pass greetings on to the leaders, wherever they were. There are some lessons for us here.
First, the epistle was not to the leaders but to the congregation, a congregation that included leaders. The Word of God stands over and above the church and its leadership. This is very important. God’s final Word reigns supreme over all in the church.
In South Africa, there have been calls by government recently to regulate religion because of scandalous instances of pastors feeding live snakes and other things to their congregants. I don’t in any way condone such abuses, but let us remember that God has already given His Word to regulate the church. Anyone who ignores this is as foolish as those scandalous pastors.
Second, we can see here that the leaders are singled out because they are important for the welfare of the congregation. This is not in contradiction to what was just said, but rather is complementary to it.
Perhaps this is why the author (who held some kind of authority; no doubt, some kind of apostolic authority) makes special mention of them here.
The more I have read and thought through chapter 13, the more convinced I am that there must have been some kind of underlying tension between the leaders and the congregation. Several things in this chapter indicate this, not the least being the threefold mention of the leaders, as well as the seemingly defensive statement of the writer in v. 18. And it is not hard to surmise what may have been the underlying tension.
The repeated exhortations not to drift can cause tensions in a church between people flock and shepherds. We just don’t like confrontation.
I think that, due to this tension, the writer was seeking to undergird the authoritative ministry of the leaders by singling them out to be (literally) “enfolded in the arms” of the church. When the church so embraces its leaders, who likewise embrace the church,then the likelihood of drifting becomes more remote.
And All the Saints
Not merely the leaders, but all of the “holy ones” were to be enfolded in the arms. Even those who did not receive this word directly were to be greeted, for each of them mattered. Jay Adams helpfully observes, “Here the writer is helping to cement the relationships between the Christians of various congregations.”11
Perhaps we can learn from this that, in the city, in our city, there are many “holy ones” with whom we have little connection and yet share an intimate connection in Christ.
I, of course, do not wish in any way to diminish the value of the local church. Every Christian is to be a committed and covenanted member of a local church. Each Christian is to be accountable and meaningfully involved in serving a particular local church. Yet, at the same time, we need to realise that the church is wider than our local assembly. And we should be gratefully greeting those in the new covenant who worship elsewhere.
I was recently involved in a reconciliation between two church members. The one member asked the other for forgiveness, and, granting it, he responded, “We are going to spend eternity together, we should get along now.”
Let’s love widely as long as we are together for the gospel.
The writer sends greetings from “those from Italy.” This can mean either those who were with him in Italy as he wrote, or those who were with him who were from Italy. The Greek is ambiguous; perhaps we can therefore follow the equally ambiguous NEB: “Greetings from our Italian friends.”
I personally favour the second option, as it seems to fit the rest of the New Testament record (see Acts 18:1–2). Regardless, the point to take away is that, once again, we are reminded that, wherever we are in the world, Christians share the same race because we have been saved by the same grace. God has His people all over the world. Let us count our blessings—including the blessing of corporate love.
In v. 25 we have a final encouragement for fruitfulness: “Grace be with you all. Amen.”
I recently read a book a work by theologian Michael Horton titled Ordinary: Sustainable Faith in a Radical, Restless World. It was a spiritually refreshing read.
His premise is that the church today is over-emphasising the spectacular, the novel and the “earth-shaking” while ignoring the ordinary means that God uses to glorify His Name, to extend His kingdom and to accomplish His will on earth as it is in heaven. In fact, he does such a good job of articulating what the ordinary Christian life looks like that D. A. Carson calls this book “extraordinary”!
Horton sums up what he is getting at when he writes, “Who knows? Maybe if we discover the opportunities of the ordinary, a fondness for the familiar, and marvel again at the mundane, we will be radical after all.”12
I mention this because v. 25 is a very “ordinary” ending for almost all the New Testament epistles. If we are not careful, we will be tempted to gloss over these “ordinary” words, thereby missing out on some extraordinary encouragement that will help us to live radically for Jesus Christ, the great Shepherd of the sheep who, through the blood of the everlasting covenant, was raised from the dead (v. 20). In other words, though these words may appear to be merely an “ordinary” ending, they are in fact packed with power. They serve as a fortifying and final encouragement for their faith. They have everything they need to be fruitful.
Brown once again says it so well: “The letter has contained passages of serious and necessary warning, but it closes on the note of radiant confidence.”13 That is, it ends with the mention of grace.
The point being made here is that, by the grace of God, as experienced through His final Word, the Lord Jesus Christ, we can live confidently for the Lord in the face of challenges to our faith. As Morris notes, “Grace is a fitting note on which to end a letter like this one, so full of what God has done for people in Christ.”14
The concept of grace runs through every chapter of this epistle. God’s grace is at the heart of this epistle, for it is at the heart of God’s final Word.
In addition to here, is specifically mentioned at least six times in Hebrews (2:9; 4:16; 10:29; 12:15, 28; 13:9).
The author is not unaware of the challenging pressures faced by his readers. We have seen his pastoral heart all the way through this epistle. But he also knows that God’s final Word to them is His appointed means to their perseverance through these pressures. God’s power through His appointed Saviour is the way that they will be able to obediently respond to the imperatives of the letter. We might say that it is because of the indicative of grace that the Christian is able to fulfil the imperatives. “Grace alone” applies more broadly than to our justification; it has everything to do with our sanctification. We need this “ordinary” benediction.
This epistle, many believe, was written to a house church. Of course, in the early days, the church would meet in homes throughout the city as they did not have access to church buildings like we have today. If this is so, then the extension of grace to all would be a way of expressing his desire for this greeting/benediction for the wider body of Christ. A couple of observations here will be appropriate.
First, the grace of God is available to all of God’s children. God’s supply of grace is not only for supersaints (if such a thing even exists).
It will go a long way towards how we treat one another when we come to realise that God values every one of His people (see Luke 15; Matthew 18:1–14).
Second, by implication, we can learn from this that God’s gracious help is available to all. You and I need to keep this truth front and centre. This is why we are in danger ourselves of the judgement when we dismiss someone as worthless (Matthew 5:22)—particularly when we are thinking and speaking of another brother or sister in Christ. Don’t ever give into the temptation to give up on a professing believer.
Novatius was an early third-century priest who was critical of the church and formed his own sect because he thought that the leadership was too lax in accepting Christians who had lapsed during persecution. Regrettably, Novatianism is still alive in our day. May we never be guilty of it.
Grace to You
Without compromising truth, without reducing the demands of the gospel, at the same time we should graciously seek to help the wandering to rely on God’s grace and to return to the fold.
In a sense the writer is saying, “Though I understand that I am writng this epistle to you, and though I understand that you are privileged to receive this in your own congregation, do not let it remain solely with you. Rather, get the word out! Tell and remind believers everywhere that God’s final Word is for them; tell them everywhere that God is for them; tell them in every church that God’s grace is available to you. Help is available!”
Third, and intimately related to the above, we can learn from this widespread benediction that there is hope for every believer.
We need hope. All of us do. The benedictal greeting—“Grace be with you all”—should be on our lips because it is in our hearts (Luke 6:45). We should view one another with hope. You see, because He is the God of peace, our Father is also the God of hope (Romans 15:13). The person and work of Jesus assures us of this (Hebrews 7:25).
In his book War of Words author Paul Tripp helpfully points us to the reality that the Christian is on mission: God’s mission. As the apostle Paul puts it in 2 Corinthians 5:19–20, “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them, and has committed to us the word of reconciliation. Now then, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were pleading through us: we implore you on Christ’s behalf, be reconciled to God.”
Paul wrote these words to Christians, to a pretty troubled and not-so-godly Christian church. Yet he was hopeful. He spoke the truth both plainly and boldly, and he had every hope that they would repent and be reconciled.
The takeaway for you and me is that we should look at Christians hopefully, and our speech should convey this hope. Yes, we are to speak the truth, and sometimes this may mean that others will view you as being “hard.” But if we are speaking with hope in our hearts, then the hardness will be like velvet steel.
My point is that God’s grace is sufficient to empower any and every believer to persevere to the end. His grace is sufficient to bring everyone over the finish line. Like the 9,000 volunteers who serviced this year’s Boston Marathon, we as Christians need to be giving hope to those who are about convinced that they will not finish the race. God’s grace is the key to the race. You and I need to remember this for our own race, but we also need to be saying this to one another. In other words, help the otherwise hopelessly defeated Christian to understand that God’s grace means that they’ve “got this”—because He’s got them.
What does this look like practically?
It means that you can confidently love your otherwise exasperating husband, wife, parent or child.
It means that you can confidently proclaim the name of Jesus Christ in a hostile culture.
It means that you can confidently face otherwise humanly insurmountable and apparently hopeless situations. As I write these words, a family in our church is experiencing an incredible trial. The father recently said to me, “The Lord has displayed His grace to us through His Church.”
It means that you can confidently face a world of evil, knowing that God’s grace is sufficient for you.
It means that you can confidently face losing all because of faithful discipleship, because of your faithful following of the Lord Jesus Christ. A pastor of another church in our city recently called me to talk about a difficulty he is facing. As a church, they had to deal with a disciplinary issue, and the guilty member actually sent them a lawyer’s letter seeking to stop them from dealing with the matter in a public church setting. They did the right thing, trusting that God’s grace is sufficient.
It means that you can confidently face your failures, knowing that God’s grace will not condemn but that He will rather lovingly and correctly correct you (see Jeremiah 46:28).
It means that you can confidently face death, knowing that your Saviour is interceding for you at the right hand of the Father. I recently read the following reflections on the death of the early Methodists under the ministry of the Wesley brothers:
Wesley’s mediation of the art of dying was so successful that the early Methodists were known for their “good deaths.” A physician who treated several Methodists made the claim to Charles Wesley, “Most people die for fear of dying; but, I never met with such people as yours. They are none of them afraid of death, but [are] calm, and patient, and resigned to the last.”15
The Lord Jesus Christ is the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. He is God’s final Word. He is, quite literally, God’s Amen (2 Corinthians 1:20). And so it is fitting that the final word in this epistle is “amen.”
This word is also a fairly ordinary word. It means, “indeed” or “so be it.” For the Christian, grace is the final word, for we are saved by the gospel of the grace of God (Acts 20:24). It is most fitting therefore that the last word is a repeat of the final word of the first benediction (v. 21). Indeed, so be it. When you have said grace, you have said it all.
The writer has proven his thesis that Jesus Christ is superior to angels, to Moses, to Joshua, to the Levitical priesthood and to any and every high priest. He is superior to any Adam who has ever lived, and therefore His self-sacrifice is superior to any and all sacrifices.
Our response therefore needs to be, “Indeed, He is. So be it. I will follow Him.”
May this be our testimony. And when it is, then we will take comfort that, indeed, God’s saving and sustaining grace will be with us all. That, in the end, is the final word on the matter.
- Raymond Brown, The Message of Hebrews: The Bible Speaks Today (Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press, 2000), 270. ↩
- B. F. Westcott, The Epistle to the Hebrews: The Greek Text with Notes and Essays (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977), 450. ↩
- Leon Morris, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 12 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981), 12:156. ↩
- Jay E. Adams, Hebrews, James, I & II Peter, Jude: The Christian Counselor’s Commentary (Woodruff: Timeless Texts, 1996), 143. ↩
- Marcus Dods, The Expositor’s Greek Testament, 5 vols. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 4:380. ↩
- John F. MacArthur, Jr., Hebrews: The MacArthur New Testament Commentary (Chicago: The Moody Bible Institute, 1983), 453. ↩
- Brown, The Message of Hebrews, 270. ↩
- John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries, 22 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2005), 22.1:358. ↩
- In the context of the original audience, “the day” had reference to the judgment of Jerusalem and the old covenant structures. ↩
- William L. Lane, Hebrews: Word Biblical Commentary, 2 vols. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1991), 2:570. ↩
- Adams, Hebrews, James, I & II Peter, Jude, 143. ↩
- Michael S. Horton, Ordinary: Sustainable Faith in a Radical, Restless World (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014), 27. ↩
- Brown, The Message of Hebrews, 272. ↩
- Morris, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 12:157. ↩
- Chris Johnson, “Dying Well According to John Wesley,” http://goo.gl/XcfHAC, retrieved 16 August 2015. ↩