SERMON: The Letter to the Hebrews
1. The Number of Books in the Bible
If I were to ask you how many books there are in the Bible, what would you tell me? Of course, some might tell me that we have 39 books in the Old Testament and 27 in the New. 66 in all. But if I were to tell you that not everyone believes that. And that some Christian churches have more books, whilst others have less. What would you say?
Now it shouldn’t be a surprise that in a world of disagreements and varying opinions—even in the church—that there is no universal agreement to the number of books in the Bible. There never has been, and there probably never will be.
As a consequence, the number of books in the Old Testament varies considerably according to the different traditions. Some have extra books that we know as the Apocrypha. Others have other books besides. Nevertheless most (not all) have the 39 books that we consider canonical.
And the New Testament? Well over the years some of the works of the Apostolic Fathers have been considered to be part of the New Testament. But these days the Syriac version has only 22 books, because it excludes 2 John, 3 John, 2 Peter, Jude and Revelation. And the traditional German Lutheran Bible … whilst it still has all 27 books, it has relegated Hebrews, James, Jude and Revelation to the back, because the great 16th century reformer Martin Luther considered them to be of lesser quality that the rest of the New Testament.
When we look at the Bible that we use today, then, we need to remember that the book we are so familiar is principally the Protestant version of the Bible. And it’s a Bible that, with odd exceptions, has been reduced down to its bare bones—to only the books necessary on which one should hang one’s faith. But even then it includes some material that over the centuries has been deemed to be questionable.
2. The Letter to the Hebrews
Now you’re probably thinking at this point, “Where’s Brian going with all this? What’s the point?”
Well it’s my job, today, to introduce you to one of the books of the New Testament – The Letter to the Hebrews. And, as it happens, The Letter to the Hebrews is one of those books that has been considered by some to be questionable. And as we are going to be studying Hebrews over the next few weeks, what I want to do is to give you an overview, so that you can decide whether the letter should be in the New Testament or not. And indeed whether we can depend on the contents of the letter in regards to matters of faith.
B. “THE LETTER TO THE HEBREWS”
1. What is the “Letter”?
And I’m going to start with the question, “What is the Letter to the Hebrews?” Now that might seem like an odd question, except for the fact that it doesn’t start like a letter at all. There is no traditional introduction. There is no this is a letter from “x” to “y” as was the traditional way of addressing letters of the day. No, the letter simply launches into what seems like a treatise or discussion. It then continues as a sermon. And only at the end does it finish with the traditional greetings and benediction and claim that it’s a short letter. Which would suggest that at least the introduction to the letter is missing.
So is it a treatise, a sermon or a letter? Well it’s a bit of everything really. But clearly sent as a letter. And in regards to the title “The Letter to the Hebrews” … We need to remember that this was not its original title. It probably didn’t have one. The title is not part of the original letter – and indeed is probably a second century addition.
2. Who Wrote It?
So, if the Hebrews is a letter, the next question is “Who wrote it?” Well the sad thing is that we don’t know. We know from one Greek verb in the whole letter, that the author was male. But apart from that the author is a mystery.
In the early church, copies of Paul’s letters were stitched together and circulated around the churches – as having good value for teaching. And the letter to the Hebrews was often attached at the back. And that’s why an early view of the church was that the letter was written by Paul. It was also probably how the letter got into the pages of the New Testament.
However over the centuries many scholars have considered the Greek text of the letter to be the most polished book in the New Testament, and have consequently dismissed the idea of Paul being the author. So instead, the theory that Barnabas was the author came about—probably because he was a Jew, and he was known as a great encourager.
However in the 16th century all that changed, and Apollos became the favourite. And that was probably because he was noted for his intellectual and oratorical skills.
So who wrote it? We have no idea. It is all pure speculation. But from the content, it was written about 64AD, and it was written by someone who had a good background in the Hebrew scriptures.
Now sadly we don’t know who it was written to either. What we do know, is that the writer knew his audience well enough for the letter to end with specific comments directed at his recipients, indicating that the letter was written to a specific community. And because of the heavy use of Old Testament concepts and scriptures, it was written to a congregation steeped in the Jewish faith.
3. What Does it Say?
Now at this point you’re probably saying to yourself, “No wonder the veracity of The Letter to the Hebrews has been questioned. No wonder some have suggested that the letter be removed from the pages of the New Testament.”
But if we were to take that line, how many other books of the Bible are there where we don’t know the author, or why the book was written? So before we grab our Bibles and tear out the letter to the Hebrews, let’s consider what it has to say. Because surely the most important thing, is whether the message of The Letter to the Hebrews is consistent with the rest of the Bible.
So what is the letter all about? Well at the very basics, the Letter is quite simple really. Principally, it takes great respect for the Old Testament—for the old covenant, God’s laws, and the sacrificial system—and it compares them with the person and work of Jesus Christ.
a). A new revelation (1:1-4)
It begins by talking about how God communicates with his people. In the past it had been through his prophets. But now he talks to the people through his son. And it then talks about how superior God’s son is to all that had gone in the past. Particularly following his death, resurrection and ascension. All good biblical teaching.
b). The superiority of Christ:
It then advocates the superiority of Christ over the angels. Indeed, it notes who worships who.
It advocates the superiority of Christ over Moses. Moses being a faithful servant in God’s house. But Jesus being a faithful son over God’s house
And it advocates the superiority of Christ over the priests of the Tabernacle and Temple. Not an earthly priest, but a heavenly priest, in a different order as described by King David in Psalm 110. Still all good biblical stuff.
c). The Superior work of Christ, the High Priest (9:11-15)
And then it compares the Christ, the great High Priest, with the high priest of the Old Testament sacrificial system.
It compares the earthly tabernacle in which the high priest entered the Most Holy Place once a year, with heaven itself. It compares the sacrifices of bulls, and sheep and goats with the sacrifice of Jesus. And it compares the covenant on Mount Sinai—with its requirement to observe God’s laws—with the new covenant. A covenant where Christ is the mediator to set people free from sins committed under the old covenant.
d). Encouragement to persevere in the faith (12:1-3)
And as the people being addressed were clearly wavering from the new covenant, back to the old, the letter encourages the people to stick with the faith. To throw off anything that hinders and was inclined to tie the people up in knots. And to join in the race, with eyes firmly fixed on Jesus.
e). Exhortations (13:1-25)
Then having delivered his message, the author concludes with a few exhortations, and some personal comments.
Now leaving the issues of “what is it?” and “who wrote it?” aside—common enough issues in the bible—it seems to me that the Letter to the Hebrews fits perfectly within the pages of the New Testament. The language may be far more polished than that of Paul, or anyone else who has contributed to the New Testament. And for sure the question of what exactly is it, is still open for debate. Yet the content itself is very consistent with the ideas expressed in the pages of the Bible.
So should we tear the book out of our Bibles, or even relegate the letter to the back, as being inferior? I don’t think so. I think it fits perfectly well, exactly where it is.
But if that is true, then what can we learn, from the Letter to the Hebrews? Well over the coming weeks we will be taken through the letter in great detail. But even from the perspective of an overview I would suggest that there are at least two important issues that we can we learn from the letter.
1. The Place of the Old Testament
And the first, I believe, is the place of the Old Testament within our New Testament belief. And I say that, because one of the things that the letter does well is to remind us that the events of the New Testament did not happen in isolation.
After all, the Old Testament was the Bible of Jesus’s day. And he was born because of the failure of God’s people to respond appropriately to the old covenant, the laws and the sacrificial system which were intended to point the way.
Now it’s all very well saying that what Jesus did was superior to what had gone on in the past. But if we don’t have a base for that comparison then it’s very easy to lose its meaning. Indeed ignore the Old Testament, and the comparison becomes meaningless.
It’s a bit like the adverts you see on television. You know that ones that claim their brand is superior. But they don’t actually tell you what it’s superior to. It’s a meaningless statement. And so is saying that Jesus is superior to everything before him, if you don’t have that base for comparison.
And that’s what the Letter to the Hebrews is so good at. And with a good understanding of the Old Testament—particularly the covenant, God’s laws and the sacrificial system—we can have a far better appreciation of what Jesus actually did.
The Letter to the Hebrews, then, is a reminder of the importance of the Old Testament in a New Testament faith. And it shouldn’t be ignored simply because it’s too hard, or old hat, or because we think it’s been replaced.
2. The Place of the Old Covenant
And the second thing that the letter to the Hebrews does is to place the old covenant within our new covenant faith.
Now again that might seem an odd thing to say, but another thing that The Letter to the Hebrews is good at is not to dismiss the old covenant because it was somehow faulty or defective, as though God had somehow made a mistake in the past. No, the letter acknowledges the value of the old covenant, but within the context of Christ’s superior work.
In regards to the old covenant, there is a progression described in the pages of the Old Testament. It begins with God’s covenant with Abraham, a covenant that was renewed with Isaac and Jacob. It is then expanded, and becomes more elaborate at Mount Sinai—when the laws were given to the people to guide them on the right path, and a formalised sacrificial system was introduced. A system which included sin and guilt offerings—to deal with issues when the people went astray. And a system that anticipated a final stage, spoken about by the prophets, particularly Jeremiah (chapter 31) and Ezekiel (chapters 36 & 37), where the emphasis would be on a covenant written on the heart. And it is to this scenario that Jesus was born.
What the Letter to the Hebrews does, then, is to remind us of the value of the old covenant, and to place the work of Jesus within that context.
But there was nothing wrong with old covenant. It wasn’t faulty or defective. God hadn’t made a mistake. It wasn’t God’s laws that were the problem. It was what people did with them—that was the problem. And that is why the final stage needed to be brought in.
In other words, Jesus came to fulfil the old covenant, not to replace it. He came to take it on to its next and final stage.
But having done that means there are elements of the old system which no longer apply. Including the sacrificial system. After all, if Jesus was the perfect High Priest, who made the perfect sacrifice, and opened up God’s Temples in earth and heaven for all believers, then the original sacrificial system is no longer relevant. Jesus’s sacrifice has been made once for all upon the cross.
But that doesn’t mean that everything that went with the old covenant no longer applies. Indeed the standards of behaviour expressed in the laws still remain useful, not least of which to help us understand what God expects of his people.
The Letter to the Hebrews may well describe the Old Testament covenant as being “obsolete”, but it does so, not because it has been replaced, but because it’s been fulfilled. And that is a very important distinction that we need to make.
Now I’m sure that I may have lost some of you on the journey today. But whether you’ve understood everything or not, I am hopeful that you can see that The Letter to the Hebrews is a very important document in the pages of the Bible. And the debate over whether it should be in our Bibles or not, should remind us that we need to test everything that we hear and read, to see if it is true.
In regard to the content of The Letter to the Hebrews, however, I think its great strength is in reminding us of the connection between the Old Testament and the New, and the connection between the old covenant and the new. Indeed it should remind us that the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus did not happen in a vacuum.
The old covenant was not defective—God didn’t make a mistake. As a consequence we cannot say that the Old Testament and the old covenant are irrelevant. Instead, what we should be saying is that the New Testament and the new covenant are an extension, the next phase, of the old—even anticipated and expected by the old. And that puts the bible in a very different light to what a simple concentration on the New Testament can bring.
Posted: 21st May 2016
© 2016, Brian A Curtis
BIBLE STUDY: The Letter to the Hebrews
1. It is the 3rd century AD, and there is no definitive list of documents that can be considered “biblical”.
In recent years new documents have appeared purporting to be the works of the Apostles. And in Jewish circles, a Greek translation of Old Testament documents (the Septuagint) has fallen out of favour. In the Christian church, then, there are various groups using different documents.
Your task is to come up with a list of documents that can be published as a ‘Bible’ for common use. What criteria for selection do you use?
2. Does the Letter to the Hebrews fit your criteria? Why/why not?
3. What is “The Letter to the Hebrews”?
a). Is it treatise/methodical discussion (1:1-4)?
b). Is it a sermon? (2:1-4)?
c). Is it a letter (13:22-25)?
4. Greek scholars consider the letter to be the most polished book of the New Testament. Who wrote it (11:32)? And to whom was it addressed?
a). Was the author Paul?
b). Was the author Barnabas (Acts 4:36-37)?
c). Was the author Apollos (Acts 18:24-28)?
5. What is the letter all about?
a). A new revelation (1:1-4)
b). The superiority of Christ:
(i). Over angels (1:5-9)
(ii) Over Moses (3:1-6)
(iii) Over Aaronic priests (4:14-5:10)
(For Melchizedek see Genesis 14:18-20, Psalm 110:4)
c). The Superior work of Christ, the High Priest (9:11-15)
(i) A superior sanctuary (11)
(ii) A superior sacrifice (12-14)
(iii) A superior covenant (15)
d). Encouragement to persevere in the faith (12:1-3)
e). Exhortations (13:1-25)
6. Does the letter meet the Protestant criteria?
a). Apostolic Origin
b). Universal Acceptance
c). Liturgical Use
d). Consistent Message
7. In your opinion does “The Letter to the Hebrews” have a place in the pages of your Bible?
Posted: 12th May 2016
© 2016, Brian A Curtis
SERMON: Let Us Be Mature in Christ (Hebrews 5:11-6:12)
1. A School Room Drama
Good morning class… (Good morning Brian). That’s Mr Curtis to you. Now I’ve been looking through your homework, and needless to say I’m not pleased with what I’ve seen. Adam … Your handwriting is appalling. It’s like a spider has crawled all over your work. Christine… I said a thousand words, not five hundred. You can do it again. Have it on my desk first thing Monday morning. Jeremy, Catherine and George… I don’t know what book you’ve used, but you could have made it a little less obvious you were copying out of the same book.
Now I don’t know where you have all been for the last few years, but the standard of homework this week may have been acceptable in grade 7, but it’s not good enough for grade 10. Indeed I’m very tempted to tell you all to do it all over again. Except what’s the point? You clearly haven’t learnt a thing that I’ve taught you. So with that in mind I’m going to abandon today’s lesson, and instead we’re going back to basics. You may want to be treated like adults, but you are behaving like babies …
2. The Writer of the Letter to the Hebrews
Now you’re probably thinking, “Brian’s gone mad. This is supposed to be a sermon. We’re in church, not school.” And you’re probably right. Except for the fact that the frustrations of the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews are encapsulated in the frustrations of the Grade 10 teacher.
After all, here was a group of people who had been Christians for a while. But in many respects they still behaved as infants in the faith. They hadn’t moved along; they hadn’t grown very much in the faith at all. And that’s why the writer interrupted what he was saying in his letter.
Indeed he had presented the Gospel in terms of the person and work of Jesus Christ—Jesus being far superior to anyone who had come before. And now having introduced the subject of Jesus being the great High Priest in the Order of Melchizedek, he comes to a halt.
He realises that the topic is far too complicated for an immature audience to understand. That’s why he comes to a stop; that’s why we have this interlude.
B. THE STATE OF THE CHURCH
So what was the problem?
1. The Problem of Immaturity (5:11-14)
Well the problem was that the people were hanging back from their responsibilities in regards to the Christian faith. Yes they had learned the basics, but they were relying on others to do the work—to put the faith into practise.
As a consequence the author chastises them. He points out that they’d been taught the basics some time ago, but since then had made very little progress. Indeed he points out that rather than hanging back, they should all be teachers by now.
But worse than that, because they hadn’t progressed, they had in fact gone backwards, not forwards. They couldn’t distinguish right from wrong. And the implication is that they had rejected aspects of the faith that they had found unpalatable. So in many ways they needed to begin their Christian education all over again.
Now that’s a pretty damning indictment on any Christian church. And yet as we look around the state of the church today, what do we see? Do we see people who have been taught the basics of the faith? Do we then see them then grow, and take on leadership roles? Or do we see the same people sitting in the pews year in year out, making very little contribution to the life of the church?
Well I guess the answer to that question will depend upon which church we’re in. But for me the alarm bells that were ringing for the writer of this letter are in many ways the same alarm bells that are ringing in many of our churches today. And that’s a major reason why the Christian church is in such decline in the western world.
2. The Problem of Being Stuck On the Basics (6:1-8)
Now of course, accusing a particular church of being immature, of needing milk not solid food, is a pretty brave thing to do. And there are obvious risks attached to what the writer felt that he had to say.
Nevertheless the interlude isn’t all bad. Indeed he encourages them in the things they have learned, and he encourages them to move on—to build on the basic building blocks of the faith.
But what he acknowledges they had learned makes some very interesting reading. Because by listing six things—in three groups of two—he actually defines what he means by them being immature in the faith. And the list might surprise you. Because he lists: The need for repentance—as in the need to turn away from the life that leads to death—and the need to have faith in God. The need to be clean before God (symbolised by baptism), and the need to receive the Holy Spirit (symbolised by the laying on of hands). The need to believe in the resurrection of the dead, and the need to look forward to judgement in the age to come.
Now you or I might think, “Immaturity? What’s so immature about that? Surely they are the very basics of the gospel.” And you’d be right. Except for the fact that the readers were stuck there. And because they hadn’t progressed any further, they had started to dismantle even these six basic blocks of the Gospel.
That’s why the writer goes on to suggest that these six aspects of the faith represent only the milk; they are only the basic building blocks. And to become mature in the faith we need to learn a whole lot more.
In stopping his letter part of the way through his argument about Jesus being the great High Priest, in the Order of Melchizedek, he was effectively saying that Jesus’s ministry didn’t end with his death and resurrection. And there wasn’t going to be a large gap where Jesus did nothing, and then at some stage in the future he would be coming back to judge the world. No! He wanted them to recognise that Jesus was even then continuing his work in heaven at God’s right hand. And if Jesus hadn’t stopped working, then neither should they.
What he was saying, then, was there was nothing wrong with the basic teaching. But the test of maturity was the continual need to grow in the faith and to practice what they believed. And any refusal to go on with the faith puts a believer in danger, not only of stagnating in their faith, but of actually falling away to the point where it is impossible to come back.
And I guess in that is a lesson for us too. Because I can’t remember how many times I have heard the Gospel explained in terms of the six things mentioned in this part of the letter: repentance and faith; being clean before God and receiving the Holy Spirit; and believing in the resurrection, and in the judgement to come. Indeed I can’t remember how many times I have explained it in those terms either. And yet trying to move a congregation on—to learn more, and to practice what they believe—well that is another thing altogether. And yet learning more about God and ourselves, and applying our faith, are the very things the writer says we are supposed to do.
3. The Need to Persevere In the Faith (6:9-12)
As a consequence, our writer encourages his readers to move on. Indeed he suggests that they avoid the traps of inertia—being selective in what they believe, and rejecting the aspects of the faith they are uncomfortable with—and that they embrace the community of the faithful.
They are to get on with being a Christian. They are to use the gifts that God has given them, and they are to recognise that what they do for one another they are actually doing for God. Indeed they are to demonstrate the same zeal and excitement for the Gospel that they had at the very beginning. And if they needed a role model to follow, they need look no further than the men (and women) of faith in the Old Testament.
In short, re-evaluating what they believed to make it consistent with the basics of the Gospel was the first step in solving the churches dilemma. But then moving on with the faith—demonstrating an eagerness to learn more—accompanied with active participation in the work of God’s church, was to be the second. There were to be no excuses for not doing one’s part.
Now I think the writer of the letter was a very brave man. He was given a task by God which wouldn’t have been easy to do. The church he was writing to was in trouble, it needed correcting. But it is never easy to put yourself in a position where you face rejection because of the things you have to say.
Nevertheless, I think we can be grateful for the writer’s boldness, particularly as the background to this letter seems to ring so many bells for the church today.
So what can we learn from this passage? Well I think it raises a series of questions that we need to answer. But we can only do that if we approach this letter with some kind of maturity too.
1. Are We Babes Or Adults In The Faith?
And the first question is, “Like the original recipients of the letter, are we babes or are we adults in the faith? Where are we spiritually? Are we lazy and rely heavily on others, or are we eager to learn and take an active role in the faith?”
Now I guess one of the ways we can answer this question is to compare our spiritual life at different parts in our spiritual journey. And of course everyone will be different. But if where we are today, is the same as it was five years ago, ten years ago, and twenty years ago, then that is an indication that we haven’t moved on. And that is an exercise that can be done by congregations as well as individuals.
Another indication would be to whether our basic beliefs are any different to the basics of the Gospel. After all, amongst us there are bound to be some things that we don’t like—some things we find unpalatable. But have we rejected aspects because there are things we don’t like? And have we rejected things because they are beyond our understanding? Because if we have, then our beliefs will not conform to the Christian faith, and we will have some evidence that we have adjusted the faith to suit ourselves.
Spiritual inertia happens when we restrict God to only the things we like and the things we can understand; when we refuse to build on a solid base; and when we refuse to fulfil our role in the life of the church. So are we babes or adults in the Christian faith? Are we immature or mature?
2. What Exactly Do We Believe?
The second question is, “What exactly do we believe?”
Now clearly the writer to the Hebrews laid down six principles that he believed his readers had accepted, at least to start with. But are they things that we accept today? Is repentance and faith; is being clean before God and receiving the Holy Spirit; and is believing in the resurrection and in the judgement to come—are these the basics that we clearly believe? And more than that, have we then gone on beyond that, to grow our beliefs—to learn more about ourselves and our God, and to do the work he wants us to do?
Now one of the comforting things about this letter, I think, is that the writer was sure that his readers had learned the basics. But then he lived in a day where the congregation would have consisted of a majority of people who would have claimed to have faith. But these days I wouldn’t be so sure—the makeup of our churches is so very different. Indeed I have had many conversations over the years with people who have come regularly or semi-regularly to church who have admitted that they don’t believe. I have also had many conversations with people who claim to be believers, but state there are aspects of Christianity that they cannot accept. And the most common of these have to be: Christian ethics, the miracles, the resurrection and the place of the Old Testament in the Christian faith. So the question remains, “What exactly do we believe?”
Because deny God’s principles of living and you deny sin. Throw out the miracles, and you remove certain proofs that Jesus was the Messiah. Throw out the resurrection, and you deny life after death. And throw out the Old Testament, and you not only reject God, who is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow, but you deny that Jesus died for our sins, or in any way fulfilled any of the Old Testament promises.
Being faithful to the Gospel, then, no matter what we think of particular aspects of it, is an essential part of our faith and the faith of the community to which we belong. Accepting the basics on which we can build and express our faith, then, is essential for a healthy Christian life.
3. Are We Willing To Move On?
And the third question is, “Are we willing to move on?”
Now the remarkable things about the writer of this letter, was that he may have been a very frustrated teacher, but at no time does he laud it over his readers. Indeed he had the spiritual welfare of his readers at heart. He wanted the best for them, and he wanted the best for God. And that’s why he encouraged them to sort out where they were spiritually, and encouraged them to move on. But is that something that we are prepared to do too?
Because whether we are stuck in the past, and falling apart; whether we have issues with aspects the Gospel; or even if we are in the process of learning more, and willingly put our faith into action, we still need that motivation to move on.
Now doubtless at the time this letter was being read, there would have been a few objections. “How dare he speak to us this way?” And yet I see no malice in what he had to say. On the contrary, I see only good.
Now we don’t know who wrote this letter, and we don’t know to whom it was addressed. As a consequence we don’t what their response was to its contents. We can only guess. What we don’t have to guess, though, is our response.
So should someone suggest to us, or to our church, that there is something wrong, don’t you think that we should at least be prepared to listen? We may not like what they say—but then how many of us like to be told that we are wrong. Nevertheless that doesn’t mean that it is not in our interest to listen and learn. And that’s particularly true of the implications for us in this “Letter to the Hebrews”
Our response shouldn’t be to get our backs up, and stubbornly refuse to budge. On the contrary, my hope would be that we should take the advice that was being given, and we should take it in the way it was meant to be received. And if there is a problem with our faith, and our church, then we should accept the chastisement that is being offered. We can then, with God’s help, fix up the problems that we have, and accept the encouragement to move on—to become the mature Christians that God intended us to be.
Now I began today pretending to be a frustrated school teacher. And I did so, because I thought it was a good illustration of the frustration of the writer to the Hebrews, who stops the lesson he has prepared, in order to pull his pupils into gear. And that’s how I’d like to conclude. So let’s go back to our fictitious class.
So class, what’s it to be? Shall I get you all to redo your homework? Shall we spend the rest of the year catching up from where you were in Grade 7? Do you want to be treated as babies or adults? What’s it to be?
Well… Times up, we’ll continue this next time. Class dismissed.
Posted: 31st July 2016
© 2016, Brian A Curtis
SERMON: Entertaining Angels Unawares (Hebrews 13:2)
A. BIBLE FAVOURITES
As I have moved around, I have been constantly amazed at the number of people who are able to quote passages from the bible. Of course, not all would have a clue where to find their particular passage, many of the renditions are not totally accurate, and some have no idea that they are actually quoting the bible. Nevertheless, it is a remarkable reflection of the influence that the bible has had on our culture.
It could be a passage that was taught at school or Sunday school. For example, I particularly remember having to learn off by heart John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, etc”. On the other hand, it could be a passage that was made famous in song, like the Pete Seager classic Turn, Turn, Turn—based on the passage from Ecclesiastes (3:1-8)—stating that there is a time for everything. Then again, it could be something that appealed to someone’s sense of humour. Like Jesus’s biting comment to the Pharisees, who had the practice of straining their water to get rid of insects, before they drank it, “You blind leaders! You strain a gnat, then swallow a camel.” (Mt 23:24). Or it might be a passage that has a lot of spiritual meaning. For example, Paul’s exhortation to the church at Rome: “There is, then, no penalty for those who belong Christ Jesus,” (Romans 8:1).
As a consequence, this has set me thinking, “What is my favourite verse, and why do I like it?”
And the first one I came up with was this one—the verse from Hebrews 13:2— “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing so some have unknowingly entertained angels.” Now this verse has always intrigued and challenged me.
Firstly, because it appears to fly in the face of modern attitudes towards strangers. It reminds me that Christian values are often quite distinct, quite different from worldly values. I am therefore constantly challenged to decide which code of rules I am going to live by—God’s rules or the worlds?
And secondly, because it’s a reminder, that some of the people I meet day by day, could actually be sent my way by God. And not knowing who they are in advance means that I always need to be on my toes.
But that’s me… that’s my favourite. But what does it really mean to entertain strangers?
Well these days, some might consider sitting someone down in front of the TV or putting on a video as providing entertainment. But that’s not what is meant here. Hospitality in biblical times was prized as a virtue by Jews, Gentiles and Christians alike. It referred to the friendly and generous reception of guests (and strangers) under all sorts of circumstances.
1. Abraham (Genesis 18:1-8)
For example, in the Old Testament it was a practice epitomised by Abraham. Here he was sitting outside his tent at Mamre, in the heat of the day, when he looked up and saw three men standing nearby. Three total strangers he’d never seen before. It was the hottest and most inconvenient part of the day. And yet, he immediately he got up, rushed over to the men, and offered them hospitality. He offered to bathe their feet and provide food for their needs. And in what has been described as almost royal honours, he killed his choicest calf to provide what would have been a lavish meal. Typical Bedouin hospitality.
2. Rebekah (Genesis 24:15-28)
Similarly, with Rebekah, coming out of the town of Nahor to fill her jar with water at the spring. Now she saw Abraham’s servant coming to meet her—and didn’t have a clue who he was. But she probably guessed from his state that he’d been travelling for miles. He was obviously tired and thirsty. So, she not only provided water for him to drink, but she drew enough water from the spring for his camels, and provided food and lodgings for the night as well.
3. Zacchaeus, Mary and Martha
And turning to the New Testament, there are the examples of Zacchaeus, and Mary and Martha. In both cases Jesus finding himself on the receiving end of hospitality. Zacchaeus, the tax collector, who gladly accepted Jesus into his home (Luke 19:9). And Mary and Martha giving a dinner in Jesus’ honour, in which about a pint of perfume was poured on Jesus’ feet (John 12:1-8).
However, Jesus was not only on the receiving end of hospitality. For he may not have had a home to invite people to, but that didn’t stop him feeding the multitudes on more than one occasion. 5,000 in one case (Mk 6:30-44), and 4,000 in another (Mk 8:1-13). And that was just the number of men, let alone the women and children.
Jesus also talked about the importance of hospitality. He told the parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk 10:30-37), demonstrating the need to care for one another—even strangers, even people of different beliefs and cultures. And then, Jesus told the disciples about judgement day. He told the story of dividing the sheep from the goats (Matthew 25:31-46). And in that story, he concluded that those who fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, invited strangers into their homes, gave clothes to those who need them, and who had visited those who were sick or in prison, had effectively done those things to him.
So, in the bible hospitality is prized highly. And so much so that the Apostle Paul, who himself must have been at the receiving end of people’s hospitality many times, exhorted the people of the Roman church to “Contribute to the needs of the saints. Pursue hospitality to strangers” (Romans 12:13).
He also wrote to Timothy (1 Tim 3:2) and Titus (Tit 1:8), stating that the practice of hospitality was an essential role for the elders of a church.
C. THE ALTERNATIVES
So, where does that leave us today? Well obviously, providing hospitality, with all its variety of meaning, is something that as Christians we should prize highly. However, as I said at the outset, it rather does conflict with modern attitudes towards strangers. And it may mean that we have much to unlearn.
1. The Dangers
Because, in our society today, the idea of not talking to strangers, or the (older) attitude of only talking to strangers after having been introduced, may make sense to some degree. But is this the Christian way? The stories that we hear about people ripping one another off, and even our own personal experiences, may mean that there’s a tendency to withdraw into ourselves for our own protection, and not to offer hospitality at all. But is this what we are supposed to be like?
These days it seems lack of trust and suspicion is the order of the day—not an open heart to help those in need. People seem more concerned about the protection of self and the protection of property. But then, these days, maybe we have so much more to lose.
2. The Blessings
The other side of the coin, however, is that even though some people may have got their fingers burnt, what about the blessings that others have received because of the hospitality they have given to passing strangers.
After all, in the story of Abraham, the three strangers, Abraham later discovered, were two angels, and God himself. And because of his hospitality Abraham received great blessings from his encounter. He received the promise of a son, Isaac (Gen 18:10), the promise that he would become the father of a great and powerful nation (Gen 18:18), the right to plead for the saving of the righteous people of Sodom (Gen 18:23), and the rescue of Lot and his daughters from Sodom (Gen 19:29-30). And all that from that one encounter. Rebekah was also blessed, by returning with Abraham’s servant and becoming Isaac’s wife. And the number of strangers blessed by Jesus in his earthly ministry, would have phenomenal too.
3. Not Being Naïve (The Didache)
Having said all that, we shouldn’t be naïve. Because, when the church was probably less than a hundred years old, a handbook was written on morals and church order. It claimed to be based on the teaching of Jesus to the disciples. And the book, called the Didache, included some advice about hospitality.
So, for example, travellers who professed to be Christians were deemed to be frauds if they stayed more than two nights. When they left, you were supposed to give them food to take with them. But if they asked for money, they were deemed not to be genuine.
Nevertheless, the general philosophy was that people were given the benefit of the doubt, until they proved themselves otherwise.
Now as Christians, the way we treat people, is not only a response to faith, but is seen by others as a measure of our beliefs. And our faith is something we need to jealously protect.
The dilemma for us today, then, is that our faith teaches us that hospitality (particularly to strangers) is something that is highly prized, and yet, we live in a world where lack of trust is the order of the day. We have the example of the early church not to be totally naïve. But we also have the problem that if we take that too far, and protect ourselves too well, then we risk losing being hospitable altogether.
That favourite verse of mine again: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing so some have unknowingly entertained angels.”
Now that verse is quite a challenge, particularly in this day and age. Because, if we practice hospitality, there’s a risk we might get used and taken for a ride. But if we don’t then we risk missing out on any blessings that might otherwise come our way.
That verse from Hebrews is one of my favourite verses. And is quite a challenge. But what is your favourite verse? And why does it appeal to you?
Posted: 21st July 2018
© 2018, Brian A Curtis