Hebrews 13, Part 36.
The Jewish believers who received the Letter to the Hebrews were on the move. They sought safety, avoiding Roman citizens who persecuted Christians and destroyed their livelihoods, for followers of Christ were considered to be “atheists,” since they did not worship Romans gods.
Surely, the superstitious Romans reasoned, the Christians’ rejection of Roman gods would result in bad harvests, sickness, and other calamitous outcomes. For this reason, Roman citizens despised followers of Christ, who also refused to worship the Emperor. Another reason to hate them.
And so, these believers were most likely on the move, fleeing martyrdom and/or unrelenting harassment, sheltering along the way deep in forests, within caves, near small streams, hiding away as best they could. To survive their refugee living situation, they did whatever was necessary.
Then and now, maintaining order enables us to deal with turmoil. If family units keep to a structured routine, if we continue right behavior with kindness, resetting and beginning again when everything falls apart, then we’re able to live in harmony amidst the boxes and bags of relocated households.
By the grace of God, we may arrive on the other side. The same is true of living through the upheaval and the isolation of this pandemic. When we practice order and kindness and rely on Jesus, who is the same yesterday, today, and forever, our way is eased.
Simple routines give us a sense of continuity and security. Prayers in the morning. Meals eaten together. Readings or recitations done as usual. Kind communication. Gentle tones. Nap times and bedtimes maintained. Prayers at night.
The authors also instructed these men and women: “Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled, for God will judge the sexually immoral and the adulterous” (Hebrews 13:4 ESV).
Not only is infidelity the breaking of covenantal vows, but it is anti-family, disrupting the family’s safety during a time of upheaval and decreasing the family’s ability to survive their refugee experience. Fidelity, however, helps to maintain normality, keeping the family structure intact during hardship.
Remembering past successes in these situations enabled the readers to bear up under their current persecution. They had done this before, and so, by the grace of God, they could get through it again, as written earlier:
“But recall the former days when, after you were enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to reproach and affliction, and sometimes being partners with those so treated. For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one. Therefore do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised” (Hebrews 10:32-36 ESV).
Changing their living situation was repeated numerous times in the lives of the authors, particularly if these authors lived, worked, and traveled with Paul, which almost everyone on the following list of possible authors did. The theology in this letter seems indicative of Paul’s tutelage over a prolonged period. Additionally, New Testament leaders, teachers, and apostles often traveled to care for churches, giving themselves away for the sake of the Gospel.
The Letter to the Hebrews was most probably authored by one of these: Luke, Apollos, Barnabas, Clement of Rome, and the couple who are always listed together: Priscilla (Prisca) and Aquila, teachers of Apollos, working as one. Given plausible evidence for each, only God knows.
Adolph Harnack was a Baltic German Lutheran theologian and prominent Church historian who produced many religious publications from 1873 to 1912. He hypothesized that Prisca was the primary author of Hebrews. If you’re interested, Priscilla’s Letter by Ruth Hoppin examines this possibility.
“…Mention should be made of Harnack’s, who argued that the epistle was written by Priscilla and Aquila, with Priscilla as the dominant partner. Their quality as teachers is attested by the instruction which they gave to Apollos; they were closely associated with Timothy; they were host and hostess to a house church in Rome. . .; the transition back and forth between ‘we’ and ‘I’ would be suitable to a married couple; the disappearance of the author’s name from the memory of the church could be explained by the same antifeminist tendency as the Western text (more particularly Codex D) displays in toning down the relatively prominent part which Priscilla plays in Acts” (F.F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews, pg. 18-19, Wm. E. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids/Cambridge, www.eerdmans.com).
The authors frequently identify in the plural, switching seamlessly to singular, for one appears to be primary given the elegance of the Greek, and the other appears to be equally participatory, given the multiple harmonious uses of “we” and “us” throughout the letter. The letter may have been authored by two people accustomed to working as one.
“Pray for us, for we are sure that we have a clear conscience, desiring to act honorably in all things. I urge you the more earnestly to do this in order that I may be restored to you the sooner…I appeal to you, brothers, bear with my word of exhortation, for I have written to you briefly. You should know that Timothy has been released, with whom I shall see you if he comes soon” (Hebrews 13:18-19, 22-23 ESV).
The authors’ focus is on the eternal outcome. Therefore, during this difficult time, the authors write commands to these Jewish believers that, when obeyed, will require the readers to hold their lives loosely.
“…Here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come — …Mount Zion, the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem… therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken” (Hebrews 13:14; 12:22, 28).
The readers have lost everything. They are sheltering until they must move on, change neighborhoods, or leave the city. The authors instruct them to do what they did in the past, and yet, in Nero’s first-century world, obeying the following words could cost believers their lives.
Yet, Christ-like behavior is the essence of Christianity.
Let brotherly love continue.
Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers.
Remember those who are in prison … and those who are mistreated.
Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.Let brotherly love continue. Don't neglect to show hospitality to strangers. Remember those in prison. Don't neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God. #KindnessMatters Click To Tweet
These four commands appear in this final section of the letter, Hebrews 13:1-3, 16. Philadelphia is the Greek word translated here as “brotherly love.” This is the love Christians share for one another as brothers and sisters in Christ, looking out for one another, sharing their lives together. This type of love is to be their/our habitual way of living.
Families share their goods with those in need. If one family runs out of food or other required resources, the others in the group share a portion of their own goods, so that all can survive. Life on the move would require a group effort to keep them all together and thriving.
Welcoming a stranger into your home or tent, a first-century norm, could put all of your family in danger, should that person be a spy for local officials.
Going to prison to take food to your friends and fellow believers who have been arrested could result in you being locked up with them.
Standing up for another believer who is being harassed by a mob could result in you being harmed alongside them. This happens regularly in India today, where followers of Christ are persecuted.
Yet, these are the commands given, and all are within philadelphia, brotherly and sisterly love, one to another, a shared and welcoming life.
These instructions are based on Jesus’ mandate to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus repeated what had already been commanded in the Old Testament, and in fact, upon which the Law and the Prophets depend.
This is the life of love that Jesus lived from beginning to end. Walk in his steps.
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35).
For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery [repeated in Hebrews 13:4 above], You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Romans 13:9 ESV).
“But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?” (1 John 3:17 ESV).
These instructions to love are repeated in Luke 10:25-37; Matthew 22:34-40; 1 Thessalonians 4:9-10; 1 John 3:16-19; 1 John 4:20 – 5:3; Romans 13:8-10; John 13:34-35; 1 Corinthians 13:4-8; Romans 12:9-13; Titus 1:5-9; 1 Peter 4:7-9.Jesus said, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself." This is the life of love that Jesus lived from beginning to end. Walk in his steps. #Love Click To Tweet "If anyone has the world's good and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God's love abide in him?" (1 John 3:17 ESV). #Love #KindnessMatters Click To Tweet
These are universal teachings of love and unity that are applicable to all Christians of all time periods during all kinds of trials. They contain instructions to help others, especially strangers, people who aren’t of our own group or clan, those outside our comfort zones, in every possible way.
This also includes loving our own family, our neighbors, and our fellow church members. To follow Christ Jesus in this kind of sacrificial love, we give ourselves away repeatedly. Jesus modeled this.
“Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Philippians 2:4-7 ESV).To follow Christ Jesus in sacrificial love, we give ourselves away repeatedly. Jesus modeled this. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus. #KindnessMatters #Love Click To Tweet
These are the words the authors wish to imprint upon their disciples and friends. They don’t know if they’ll see one another again, if these others will make it to safety. It is suspected that many lost their lives while living in obedience to these basic rules. They were likely martyred, probably also the authors. Many died at Nero’s hand.
These words are particularly challenging to us in this time of turmoil. Lord, help us to see you clearly and to follow your leading, to give ourselves away when you call us to do so, as you gave yourself away for us.
How do the words of this letter, these final instructions, touch your heart?
In what ways do these instructions motivate you to live a life of love?
As you read, did you think of any particular acts of kindness and help that are desperately needed by another? What would God have you do?