Many believers in the Lord Jesus experience times of difficulty. Sometimes, there may be circumstances which are visible to others; in many cases, there are matters known only to the individual. It may be through sickness or in relation to employment; some may be struggling with a particular sin. In other cases, it is a burden for a loved one – a close family member or friend who is in a backslidden condition, or, even worse, now denies faith in Christ. In each case, the problem is personal, very real, and has the potential to seemingly overwhelm the believer. In such cases where should we turn?
The writer to the Hebrews wrote at a time when the people of God were enduring trials and afflictions. Whilst his identity is uncertain to us, he was clearly known to his readers and he knew them. They were Hebrews but, more than that, they were those who professed to believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ – their Messiah and Saviour. His readers were disheartened as they found the way difficult. Since trusting Christ they had left the old system of worship, the law and the temple service, behind. They had suffered persecution and ridicule from their fellow countrymen, and watched as others who had professed to believe that Jesus was Messiah had turned from that profession and gone back to the temple and the offerings. What should they do? Should they go back, or should they carry on?
The writer takes up his pen and seeks to exhort and encourage his readers. In fact, the whole epistle is said to be an ‘exhortation in few words’. He blends together a wonderful ministry of the person of Christ with warnings and exhortations. He shows the glories of the new covenant and the things that God has in store for His children. He warns of the dreadful implications of going back to the Judaism. His desire is that his readers, rather than going back will move forward, that they will strive for maturity in the faith.
Like all good teachers, the writer is not just content to convey the facts; he also wishes to make application to his readers – how the teaching should affect them personally. On thirteen occasions in twelve verses the phrase ‘Let us’ occurs in our English version. In each case the writer is seeking to bring home the lessons he has been making. Notice how he includes himself, ‘us’ – he is not above his readers, and neither are we. None of us can ever say that we have gained sufficient spiritual maturity that these exhortations are no longer applicable to us.
In this epistle the Christian life is presented as a life that demands time and effort. He will speak of labour, holding fast, moving forwards constantly, ridding oneself of that which will hold us back, running with endurance. It reminds us of the words of the Lord Jesus, ‘If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me’, Matt. 16. 24. How much time and effort are we prepared to expend?
Exhortation can be given by way of a challenge. Sometimes, it can be by encouragement. Trace each occurrence of this expression ‘Let us’ and it will be seen how they can affect every area of our life. This includes: making sure that we have really got salvation in the first place; pointing us to Christ as a means of encouraging us when the way is rough; and making sure that our affections are truly centred in Christ. In addition, we are encouraged to have a care for each other.
It is beyond the scope of this article to consider each occurrence in detail but we will consider a selection, with the hope that this will stimulate personal study.
The first occurrence of the phrase is in chapter 4 verse 1, ‘Let us therefore fear’. What has the writer in mind that his readers should fear and why? In chapter 3, he has been considering the example of those Israelites who left Egypt following the Passover, where they had sheltered beneath the blood. They had been ‘baptized to Moses in the cloud’ – and yet we discover that they never entered into the Promised Land. Why? It was because of their unbelief, 3. 19! If we measure success by modern standards, then the exodus from Egypt was a tremendous success! A huge multitude knew salvation from Egypt. It was never God’s intention, however, that the people should be taken out of Egypt to die in the wilderness. When the people tested God and refused to believe Him, He swore that they would not enter into His rest, 3. 11. In reality, success was to be measured by the number that actually got into the land.
It would have been disturbing and discouraging for these dear Hebrew believers to see others going back having initially professed faith in Christ. Sad though it was, the writer puts it very plainly that although the gospel had been preached, for some it had not been ‘mixed with faith’, 4. 2. These people had not entered into God’s rest – they were going back to a religion of works, to ceaseless activity and could never earn or deserve rest. How sad to see men and women taken up with works when it is actually those who believe, not work, that enter into rest. There is a sense that this rest is enjoyed now by the believer, for we receive rest from Christ, Matthew chapter 11, but there is also a sense that this rest will have a future fulfilment, Heb. 4. 9.
Perhaps some of his readers were wavering. They had not thought through the implications of going back. Would there be some who would read and would be challenged by this solemn warning as to whether they really had faith in Christ? We must always bear in mind that once a person has trusted Christ then they are saved forever – the Lord Jesus Himself guarantees this, John 10. 28-29. The writer is not thinking in this epistle of backsliding, but, rather, the sin of apostasy: a conscious decision to forsake Christ and return to Judaism and its system of worship, a system of works. Nevertheless, in application to us in our day, perhaps there is a reader who has made profession of salvation but has never really trusted Christ. To such a person may the exhortation speak forcibly, ‘Let us therefore fear, lest a promise being left us of entering into his rest, any of you should seem to come short of it’.
This phrase ‘Let us’ occurs four times in chapter 4. We will consider the fourth, which is found in verse 16, ‘Let us therefore come boldly’. What a difference there is between the first occurrence and this one. Faith in a risen Saviour, and confidence in a great High Priest enables us to approach God boldly and not in a spirit of fear. The word ‘therefore’ points us back to what has gone before. In verses 14 and 15 we discover that we have a great High Priest who has gone into heaven itself and is in the presence of God for us. Note His qualification to be a high priest: He has suffered testing Himself. He was tempted like as we are, sin apart. There are some who teach that for the Lord Jesus to be qualified as our High Priest He could have sinned, even though He didn’t. This is not true, for God ‘cannot be tempted with evil, neither tempteth he any man’, Jas. 1. 13. Praise God, we have a High Priest who knows what it means to suffer. He knew hunger, thirst, weariness. He knew what it was like for men to hate him and persecute him. ‘He knows what sorest trials mean for he has felt the same’, Isaac Watts. If I sin, I do not need sympathy in my sin! I need one who will deal lovingly but faithfully with me, ‘an advocate with the Father’, 1 John 2. 1. How privileged we are that we can approach a throne of grace and not a throne of judgement and we are encouraged to come boldly. We have at our disposal the resources of heaven. Let us take advantage of them. William MacDonald comments, ‘His mercy covers the things we should not have done, and His grace empowers us to do what we should do but do not have the power to do’.1
Two instances of the phrase occur in chapter 12 verse 1: ‘let us lay aside every weight’; ‘let us run with patience’. Again, the writer is looking back at what he has just said and seeks to apply this to himself and his readers. Chapter 11 is a catalogue of the heroes of faith. Along with a number of named individuals from the Old Testament, the writer says that time prevents him from speaking of many more who lived in faith and endured the persecutions of the world. He describes them: ‘of whom the world was not worthy’, 11. 38. It is the responsibility of believers in each generation to take their stand for God. The Christian life is likened to a race – not a sprint, but a marathon. We are told to run with patience, or endurance. It is not usual for runners in a marathon to weigh themselves down – all unnecessary items are removed to make running easier. In like manner, we too should remove from our lives those things which will hinder us, which will slow us down. Some expositors take the phrase ‘and the sin which doth so easily beset us’ to refer specifically to the sin of apostasy. However, it is probably true of all believers that there are sins which affect us personally and what may be a problem to one may not be the same for another. Instead of being encouraged to run the race blindly, we are told to look unto Jesus, to consider His time on earth of endurance and humiliation – all for the joy that was before Him. G. W. Frazer writes,
‘Have I an object, Lord, below
Which would divide my heart from Thee;
Which would divert its even flow
In answer to Thy constancy?
Oh teach me quickly to return,
And cause my heart afresh to burn’.
Many people like to wait for the beginning of a new year before making adjustments to their behaviour. Rather, we should examine ourselves constantly and make adjustment by the help of the Spirit of God. May we be encouraged by the exhortations contained within this tremendous epistle and seek to live for the glory of God.