In closing, the writer of Hebrews outlined seven exhortations for living daily by faith, beginning with the encouragement that all these heroes of our faith act as a cloud of witnesses—past runners—cheering us on from the sidelines in the amphitheater of heaven, as we run the race of life.
- Focus on Christ, Hebrews 12:1-3
- Welcome God’s Discipline, Hebrews 12:4-13
- Keep Our Relationships Right, Hebrews 12:14-17
- Trust in God’s Promises
- Treat Brothers and Sisters Well
- Remain Solid in the Truth
Strengthened by Grace
Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings; for it is well for the heart to be strengthened by grace, not by regulations about food, which have not benefited those who observe them.Hebrews 13:9
If strange teachings about food regulations were among the first-century church’s most controversial issues (circumcision was the other one), then the subject of grace might have been among the most talked about.
God has always been a God of grace. Nothing can coerce or manipulate God. So that God would reach from eternity into the finite world of earth in order to love and cherish a people is all completely from grace, from the very nature of God Who is Love and Light.
So grace is not new to the Christian Testament, or new to those who have known and loved God for thousands upon thousands of years.
But the understanding of grace was changing, as the Jesus Movement became more and more outward towards those who were not of Jewish descent or faith.
Christians know what is among the more famous passages in Paul’s epistles, that speaks of salvation as a gracious gift from God.
But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.Ephesians 2:4-8 (NRSV)
In all of Paul’s letters, he prayed the grace and peace of God and Christ for all.
The word in Greek is χάρις | charis, meaning grace, favor, and beauty, kindness and goodwill, a delight in something, or from something, pleasure and gratification. When extended to another, it is a gift, undeserved in any way, not to be expected as an entitlement. And it is a quality, or character trait, that we find throughout the Hebrew Testament as graciousness and lovingkindness.
“The Lord, the Lord,Exodus 34:6-7 (NRSV)
a God merciful and gracious,
slow to anger,
and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,
keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation,
forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin,
The same blessing Paul prayed for all is found in the Aaronic blessing of old.
The Lord bless you and keep you;Numbers 6:24-26
the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you;
the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.
We have an altar from which those who officiate in the tent have no right to eat.Hebrews 13:10 (NRSV)
Though it is not completely clear what strange doctrine the writer was referring to here, there is strong evidence the writer was circling back to the warning he had made at the beginning of his letter about those who were returning to their traditional practices. The pull of the temple, and the Levitical liturgies was intensely potent! It is possible Jewish Christians were going back to to at least some of the animal sacrifice that felt so right because it was so deeply ingrained.
But, the writer was saying, that altar, those sacrifices, are no longer fit.
For the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the sanctuary by the high priest as a sacrifice for sin are burned outside the camp. Therefore Jesus also suffered outside the city gate in order to sanctify the people by his own blood.
Let us then go to him outside the camp and bear the abuse he endured.Hebrews 13:11-13 (NRSV)
When an animal was sacrificed, only the blood, meat portions, and fat remained at the altar. The rest of the animal was taken outside the camp to be disposed of, for all the rest of it was unclean—the hide, much of the innards, the offal.
But the skin of the bull and all its flesh, as well as its head, its legs, its entrails, and its dung— all the rest of the bull—he shall carry out to a clean place outside the camp, to the ash heap, and shall burn it on a wood fire; at the ash heap it shall be burned.Leviticus 4:11-13 (NRSV)
So it holds great significance that Jesus’ blood was also shed within the city of Jerusalem, at the base of Mount Zion, the holy mountain, as he was scourged. This is the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. Once His blood was shed, Jesus Himself was then crucified, and His body disposed of, outside the city limits.
Now, the writer was saying, do not return to the shed blood of obsolete sacrifices, shed at an obsolete altar that is after all mere bronze and wood, when Christ’s blood has been offered in the real Holy of Holies in the heavenly realm!
Instead, let us identify ourselves with Christ the true sacrifice, given once and for all, and accept the persecution and abuse that will come with identifying ourselves in that way.
Because that is why the Jewish Christians were being pulled back into the old ways in the first place. The level of fierce opposition they were facing with friends and family.
Jesus’ cross marked the end of the old Mosaic order, the end of the rule of law from Mount Sinai along with the now obsolete Aaronic priesthood.
Jesus’ death and resurrection marked the beginning of the new covenant of grace, pointing towards the heavenly Mount Zion. Living by faith in Jesus meant rejecting the old life, and it also meant being rejected by the people who still lived the ways of the old life.
The City to Come
For here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.Hebrews 13:14 (NRSV)
The writer referenced the father of faith, Abraham, who “looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.” And all the heroes in the writers hall of faith.
All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland.
If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one.
Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.Hebrews 11:13-16 (NRSV)
All of us, you and me today, and the cloud of witnesses who have gone before us, look forward to that celestial city to come!