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The book of Hebrews is actually a sermon. Being a gifted preacher, the author of Hebrews exposits and explains the Scriptures—in his case, the Old Testament—and helps his listeners and now readers better understand the Word of God and apply the teachings of God for believers. As he approaches the end of his sermon in chapter 12, he reminds them of a theme that has been a focus of his sermon, the necessity of holiness to draw near to God.

Throughout the sermon, the preacher has discussed our desire to “draw near to God” (7:19, 25; see also 10:22). Dwelling with God is not just a theme in the book of Hebrews but is found throughout Scripture ever since the promise of God found in Jeremiah: “I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (Jer. 31:33, quoted in Heb. 8:10). There is one problem, however: God is perfect and holy, and we are sinful and unholy. Our God is “a consuming fire” (Heb. 12:29), and no unrighteous person may be near Him or approach Him.

How, then, did the people of God in the Old Testament approach God? Imperfectly and temporarily, by the blood of sacrificial offerings by the priests in the temple, where the Most Holy Place remained unapproachable by the people of God. But the preacher of Hebrews now proclaims the better way. In sending Jesus Christ as the final and perfect offering, we now draw near to God unhindered because of Jesus and by His blood: “Therefore, brothers, . . . we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh” (10:19–20). We are able to draw near to God because of Jesus and His blood that cleanses us from sin and covers us in His righteousness. As the preacher constantly reminds us, Jesus Christ is greater.

What Christ has done for us is not disconnected from what Christ continues to do in us, sanctifying us daily to reflect Christ our Lord.

Focused and clear teaching is a sign of a fine preacher, but so also is the ability to understand and care for the listeners. The preacher of Hebrews understood the condition of human beings and their need for encouragement, their inability to understand fully, and their tendency to forget and stray. The listeners and readers of Hebrews in the early church were likely Jews who came to follow Jesus Christ. But pressure and temptations were immense. Many encouraged and even shamed them to return to their faith of old, and still others pressured and even persecuted them to turn to the philosophies and religions of the world around them. As fear, doubts, and pressures mounted, some wavered in their faith. At times, the preacher encourages his audience to remain faithful, as he does at the beginning of chapter 12, and to endure and finish the race as would an athlete. At other times, the preacher strongly and clearly exhorts them—even warns them—of the potential consequences of abandoning or deviating from faith, as he does in Hebrews 12:14: “Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (see also 2:1–4; 6:4–6; 10:26–31). Holiness is necessary to be with God.

Admittedly, such warning passages are jarring to many, especially since these statements seem—with an emphasis on seem—to undermine Scripture’s teaching on salvation by faith alone or the perseverance of the saints. Such a concern is unwarranted with Hebrews 12:14. Note first that every passage must be read in context, and the preacher of Hebrews has repeatedly and unequivocally proclaimed that drawing near to God is impossible apart from Christ and Him as a perfect sacrifice on our behalf. As the preacher succinctly summarizes, “[Jesus Christ] is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them” (7:25). Second, the point of the warning is not about personal holiness as a condition of one’s salvation but concerns the inseparability of holiness with salvation. As Paul teaches in Romans 6, receiving forgiveness of sins because of Jesus Christ does not give one license to continue sinning. What Christ has done for us is not disconnected from what Christ continues to do in us, sanctifying us daily to reflect Christ our Lord. For this, the preacher of Hebrews helpfully provides an example in 12:17, reminding his listeners of Esau, who pursued immorality and the unholiness of the world instead of desiring the things of God. The preacher exhorts us to set aside such distractions and reminds us that the Christ who saves also sanctifies. Finally, such a warning forces us to think of our eternal dwelling place and our presence before God with hopefulness. In our forgetfulness and perhaps in our struggles with temptations and challenges, we forget our eternal home and the priority of being with God instead of the priorities of the world. Prayerfully striving to be more like Jesus and the hope of being with the holy and perfect God help us to realign our thoughts, feelings, and actions to conform to His image only because of what Jesus Christ has done for us.

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From the July 2024 Issue
Jul 2024 Issue