If you want to live a Christian life, it’s important to ask: How do you do it? Are you responsible to just do it? Or, does God live it through you?
Our topic the last few weeks might cause you to ask that question. I have said that perseverance in the faith — continuing to trust in Christ as you journey on your Christian pilgrimage — is the mark of the reality of salvation. And I’ve noted that we are promised by God that he will preserve in the faith those whom he draws to himself. For example, it says in 1 Peter one that our eternal inheritance is being:
1 Peter 1.4–5: “kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.”
You might gather from that verse and others like it that God is seeking to live the Christian life through us — he is the one guarding us through faith for salvation. If we will only get quiet enough, calm enough, and submissive enough, he will do it all through us. We are like a glove and God is the hand. The glove does nothing; it merely is still, waiting for the hand to come and act through it.
Well, that’s one view on one end of a spectrum. It’s called quietism. But the problem with this view is two-fold. First, there are too many verses that contain commands that require real effort on our part. And, secondly, you aren’t a lifeless object waiting to be used. You are an image-bearer of God, given intellect, emotions, and will and expected to act.
On the other extreme there is activism. Many people consider the Christian life to be summed up simply in the words: “God commands; I obey.” After all, the whole Bible, even the New Testament is filled with commands. What are they there for except for us to take them seriously and put them into practice? The problem is, there is too much in the Bible that tells us that unaided human power is incapable of doing what God requires. The Christian life requires supernatural enablement.
Here’s a verse that gives us the balance:
Romans 8.13: “For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.”
As is often the case, the truth is somewhere in between the two extremes that we often fall into. This verse tells us that “by the power of the Spirit, you must obey. The only way to live the Christian life is to actively seek to follow God’s commands in continual reliance on God’s enabling power. This means the Christian life requires intense effort on our part. That’s why, in the Christian life, we are often wavering between two poles — “Let go and let God,” and “Hang on!” That struggle is designed to help us continually seek a balance.
So, “What motivates a person to run the Christian race? If Christian discipleship involves an earnest effort to live a Christian life, an effort that we can only truly fulfill by reliance on God’s power, then what will sustain us to continue in that race?” That’s the subject of this paragraph that acts as a bridge back to the discussion of Melchizedek.
Let me remind you of where we are in the book of Hebrews. Five Sundays ago, we began in Hebrews 4.14 with the introduction of the theme of Jesus, the Great High Priest. This is the theme of chapters 5–10, but after introducing the idea that Jesus is a priest in the priestly order of Melchizedek (a mysterious figure only mentioned twice in the Old Testament), the writer breaks off and inserts one of the five warnings in the book. “About [Melchizedek] we have much to say,” he writes, “but we can’t go on because you have become dull of hearing.” Then he goes into a serious warning about the fate of potential hypocrites and counterfeits within the church body. After a encouraging them to “imitate those who through faith and patience inherit the promises,” he then gives them this exceptional example of one who did just that — Abraham.
According to Genesis 12, God called Abraham to leave his native land in Ur of the Chaldeans (present Iraq), and go to the land of Canaan (present day Israel and Jordan). There, God gave Abraham a multifaceted promise out of which all of redemptive history unfolds. This promise is basic to both the Old Testament and the New Testament. God’s promise to Abraham has at least three facets: He was promised…
· Now, the story of Abraham’s life is his persistent reliance on these promises despite all appearances to the contrary. So, our passage says:
Hebrews 6.13–15: For when God made a promise to Abraham, since he had no one greater by whom to swear, he swore by himself, 14 saying, “Surely I will bless you and multiply you.” And thus Abraham, having patiently waited, obtained the promise.
Note that our writer only mentions the ‘seed’ promise — an uncounted multitude of descendants. This is the only aspect of the promise Abraham’s experienced any fulfillment of — he never owns the land; he merely lives there as an alien and stranger. He blesses some individuals but he never becomes a source of world-wide blessing. But he does have one son.
The story if quite remarkable. Abraham and his wife Sarah are childless… until he is 99 and she is 89. Though far past normal childbearing, she becomes pregnant and bears a son whom they name Isaac (meaning ‘laughter’ since they both laugh when God tells them). Then, years later, God tells Abraham to offer Isaac in sacrifice on Mount Moriah. Abraham, despite knowing child sacrifice is wrong, prepares to do what God has told him but at the last minute, he is spared and a ram caught by his horns in a bush is substituted.
God says to him:
Abraham doesn’t live to see the fulfillment of the promises, only the fulfillment of the one key promise on which all the others depend: a son out of whom the ‘great nation’ will come. And careful Bible readers among the Jewish people had noted these words very carefully, “By myself I have sworn.” You see, God’s command to sacrifice Isaac put the whole promise in jeopardy. Abraham’s obedience was, then, a tremendous act of faith. So, God confirmed the promise by swearing an oath.
Hebrews 6.16: For people swear by something greater than themselves, and in all their disputes an oath is final for confirmation.
In a fallen world, words have lost their authority. Words were meant to be binding statements, but people are not truthful. So, they swear oaths to prop up their statements. They swear by something greater than themselves, usually God, in an attempt to supply their words with the kind of certainty they don’t have on their own. God didn’t swear by himself to prove his reliability — his word is true by its very nature; he is source of truth. But, as the writer says, to “show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise,” which means to underline with double assurance how serious his word is, he swore and oath. This promise combined with an oath I’m going to call God’s ‘sworn promise.’
The heirs of the promise are Christians. The New Testament makes it crystal clear that everyone who believes the promise, now fulfilled in Christ, is part of the seed of Abraham. Abraham, you see, has both physical descendants and spiritual descendants. God took his promise and then combined it with the integrity of his own character by swearing an oath — and, since he had no one greater by whom to swear, he swore it by himself — thus confirming his intention to fulfill it.
Abraham’s example is presented to us as both an example and a source of our motivation. The first thing we see is that God’s sworn promise to Abraham convinces us of his reliability to fulfill all of his promises.
I meet people all of the time who think that the Bible is just a messy jumble of stories with no unifying theme or central story — that is a part of today’s view of life in general: there is no metanarrative, no primary storyline that unites the whole thing together. But, the ‘promise–fulfillment’ theme of the Bible, which begins in earnest in Genesis 12 provides the interpretational key to the Bible. Tracing what is almost always called in the singular — “the promise” — as it grows and develops through the Old Testament and then as it begins to be fulfilled with the coming of Jesus in the New Testament is a provides a very coherent sense that you are dealing with an unfolding story, no matter how complex the storyline becomes or how many subthemes it develops.
That’s his first point here: Abraham is the one who held on to the promise in all of its multifaceted splendor. He held on tenaciously despite all opposition, doubt, and uncertainty. And in the end, he experienced the fulfillment of one tiny facet of the promise: the promised heir through whom he would bless the world. He becomes for us the example of what it means to continue to trust God through all of the storms of life.
He reminds us that we do not have to see the fulfillment of all of our hopes and dreams in order to cling to him until death.
But note that in verse 18, he turns his attention to a second way that God’s promise to Abraham is relevant to us:
Hebrews 6.18–19: So when God desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he guaranteed it with an oath, so that by two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us.
The “two unchangeable things” are God’s promise and God’s oath — put together, these form an unbreakable confirmation that God will do what he has promised.
It’s interesting here that we are invited as careful readers to reflect on the theme of Melchizedek, the Priest-King who was mentioned in chapter 5. He’s now going to turn his attention back to him. As is so frequent in this book, he mentions something without developing it; in the next chapter, he will develop at great length the parallel between Melchizedek and Christ. We who have trusted in Christ, the ultimate fulfillment of the ‘Seed’ promise to Abraham — the Seed, the descendant through whom all of the promises have been fulfilled — also have our part of the promise confirmed by an sworn promise. The promise that Christ would be the great high priest who would provide the final and completely acceptable sacrifice for sinners was also accompanied by an oath:
Psalm 110.4: The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind, “You are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.”
In other words, not only does God’s sworn promise to Abraham convinces us of his reliability to fulfill all of his promises, but God’s sworn promise in Christ motivates us to persevere in our Christian race.
The writer’s admonition that we continue to hold on to Christ is not only rooted in the promise to Abraham in the distant past but also to what we now experience as Christians. It gives us “strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us.”
So he concludes with this powerful word:
Hebrews 6.19–20: We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain, where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf, having become a high priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.
There’s a potent point here that is based on a powerfully emotive image: Our individual lives (our ‘soul’) is pictured as a ship adrift in the sea of this world; the storms of life toss us to and fro. But in our troubles, we have an anchor — our hope is anchored in Jesus himself (after all, he is “our blessed hope” (Titus 2.13). Having won the prize and gained a people through his death on the cross, he has been raised from the dead. And in his glorious resurrection body he has returned to heaven triumphantly. He has gone into the Most Holy Place in the true tabernacle in heaven, into the very presence of God to fulfill his duty as the high priest after the order of Melchizedek. Our hope, anchored in Christ, means that in this storm-tossed and ship-wrecked world, we are anchored by faith in Christ to a destiny firm and secure.
And to all that he has promised, God has affixed his oath, based on his character, that he will fulfill it.
Today, as we come to the Table to taste and see that the Lord is good, we are simply affirming our faith in the Messiah, Sin-bearer, Savior. We are acknowledging that cable that runs from our individual souls to the mighty anchor of our hope in heaven; Jesus himself, who delivers us from the wrath to come.