The soul's anchor

by Scott Grant

Hebrews 6:13-20

Earthly stability

In this restless, rootless, friendless culture that we have created for ourselves, is there anything provides us with stability? Is there anything that allows us to give up our wandering, whether it be actual or mental? Is there anything that liberates us to end our search for the place that meets our needs and to begin making eternal investments? Is there an anchor anywhere in this world? Yes, there is. But the anchor is hope for the next world. God has promised heaven to those who follow Jesus, and that gives us an anchor for today. God's promise of a heavenly future gives us earthly stability.

The writer of Hebrews has just told his readers to be diligent in order to realize the full assurance of "hope" and to be imitators of those who through faith and "patience" inherit the "promises." In Hebrews 6:13-20, the writer continues talking about hope and promises that call for patience. He builds on the exhortation of the previous verses by explaining the validity of what he wants his readers to believe and the ensuing effect that their belief will have in their current lives. He uses legal language of the day to prove his point: "swear," "oath," "confirmation," "dispute," "show" or "prove," "interposed" or "mediated," and "unchangeable."

First, the writer appeals to the integrity of the one who issued the promises.

God takes an oath (6:13-18a)

Hebrews 6:13-18a:

(13) For when God made the promise to Abraham, since he could swear by no one greater, he swore by himself, (14) saying, "I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply you." (15) And thus, having patiently waited, he obtained the promise. (16) For men swear by one greater than themselves, and with them an oath given as confirmation is an end of every dispute. (17) In the same way God, desiring even more to show to the heirs of the promise the unchangeableness of his purpose, interposed with an oath, (18) in order that by two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie ...

The writer has just exhorted his readers to be imitators of those who inherit the promises (6:12). Abraham is the chief of example of those whom he wants his readers to imitate, so he begins verse 13 with the word "for," explaining God's faithfulness to Abraham. Although they are to be imitators of Abraham, they are to be imitators of him because of God's faithfulness to him. The emphasis here is not so much on Abraham as it is on God. Abraham is simply someone who believed God. God is faithful, and if we are like Abraham, we too will be blessed by God's faithfulness.

God did two things for Abraham, according to the writer. He "made the promise," and he "swore," taking an oath to guarantee the promise. What did God promise Abraham? Originally, the Lord made his promises to Abraham in Genesis 12:2-3, 7. God would make of Abraham a great nation; he would make his name great; he would make him a blessing to others, even all nations; he would protect him; and he would give his descendants the land of Canaan. The promises essentially gather around his promise "to be God to you and to your descendants after you" (Genesis 17:7).

In speaking of God's taking an oath, the writer here is referring to Genesis 22, when the Lord asked Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, his only son, the one through whom the Lord's promises would be fulfilled. Abraham obeyed the Lord and was about to slay his son when the Lord stopped him. It is then, after Abraham has shown himself to be obedient, that God took an oath. An oath then, as now, was taken in God's name, calling in God to testify to the matter, so to speak (Genesis 14:22, Deuteronomy 6:13). God, of course, has no one greater than himself to call in, so he called in himself. He confirmed his promises to Abraham by taking an oath. The Lord's full response to Abraham is recorded in Genesis 22:16-18 and includes the Lord's words "by myself I have sworn," and confirmation regarding two of the Lord's other promises to Abraham, not just the promise of descendants. Still, both those promises concerned Abraham's descendants; his descendants would inhabit the land of Canaan, and the nations would be blessed through is descendants.

Why does God need to take an oath? Isn't his word enough? Of course, his word is enough. That is, in fact, what the oath says - it is saying that his word is enough. It is confirmation of the integrity of God's word. God did not say anything new to Abraham; he simply confirmed what he had already said, and he did so by means of an oath. As we shall see, he took an oath in order to communicate with Abraham in a manner that he could understand, in a manner that we could understand.

The writer says that Abraham obtained God's promise after patiently waiting. The writer in verse 12 exhorted his readers to be patient, and here is their example: the patience of Abraham. How was Abraham patient? In the context of Genesis 22, Abraham was patient throughout the Isaac ordeal. He obeyed the Lord to the end, continually trusting in the Lord despite apparent evidence that the Lord could not be trusted. He waited for the Lord to show his faithfulness. We know from Hebrews 11:19 that Abraham reasoned that the Lord would raise Isaac from the dead after he was sacrificed. How did Abraham obtain the promise? The promise concerned the multiplication of descendants. In Genesis 22, Abraham obtained this promise, not the fulfillment of the promise. Therefore, he obtained the reiteration of the earlier promise of descendants, reinforced by God's oath.

In verse 16, the writer explains what an oath means in human terms. It means, as noted earlier, "confirmation" of testimony. Taking an oath was - and is - a thing people do to confirm their testimony. An oath is "an end of every dispute," and in the case of God's promise to Abraham, his oath puts an end to any dispute regarding his faithfulness.

Because we are encouraged to be imitators of Abraham, we are strengthened by these verses with the assurance that we, too, will find God faithful. But God's dealings with Abraham are even more applicable to us than the example they provide. God's promise to Abraham and God's oath for Abraham are specifically applicable to "the heirs of the promise." Who are these heirs? They are Abraham's descendants - his spiritual descendants, those who belong to Christ (Galatians 3:29). All of us who have put our faith in Christ are Abraham's descendants, not only the result of God's promise to Abraham but the inheritors of his promise - meaning, when God made his promise to Abraham and confirmed it with an oath, he did so to and with us as well.

What is his promise? His promise to Abraham featured by the writer of Hebrews was the promise of descendants (us), but the blessing that both Abraham and his descendants would receive was God's presence - "to be God to you and your descendants after you" (Genesis 17:7). Specifically, for the writer of Hebrews, it is God's eternal presence in a new and perfect creation, the "hope set before us" (6:18) in a "better country, that is, a heavenly one" (11:15). It is a promise that still awaits fulfillment.

God desires "even more" to show us something. He desires to do something more than make a promise. That's the reason for the oath. He adds an oath to the promise because of his desire to show us that his purpose for Abraham is also his purpose for us, and that it is his purpose for us forever. His purpose his unchangeable. And that purpose is to bring us to the better country where we know God perfectly and enjoy him forever.

God does two things. He makes a promise, and he takes an oath. These are the "two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie." It is always impossible for God to lie, of course, which simply reinforces God's promise and oath.

The humility of God should not be overlooked. Taking an oath is a thing people do. God humbles himself by walking into a human courtroom, so to speak. This is something we can relate to, something we understand. It is the best we can do to guarantee truthful testimony. We might think that God would be too high and mighty to lower himself to our level. We might picture him saying: "Me? Take and oath? Preposterous! Don't you know who I am? I'm God. I am the truth. How dare you suggest that I take an oath." Actually, we never suggested it. Abraham never asked for it. God just did it, because he wanted desperately for us to believe something. He wanted desperately for us to believe that no matter how bad things look here, there is a better country, and that he will take us there some day. And in wanting desperately for us to believe in the better country, he wants desperately for us to believe that his purpose for us is good. So he not only promised a better country, he took an oath.

If it had happened in our day, in a modern-day courtroom, it would have looked something like this: God walks into our courtroom. He takes a seat on the witness stand that we use. He takes an oath, as we do. He invokes God, as we do. The picture gets absurd when we imagine God putting his hand on the Bible and saying " ... so help me God" (" ... so help me ... me"?!). God is willing to go to extreme lengths - even extremely humiliating lengths - in order to convince us that his purpose for us is good.

And we need convincing, don't we? It may be impossible for God to lie, but it is certainly possible for people to lie. People have lied to us. They have broken promises. They may have even sworn in the name of God regarding a promised course of action, only to break their word and our hearts. History may make it difficult for us to believe anyone, even God. But God is not like people. In this sense, he is foreign to our experience. It sounds like a simple thing that most of us would assent to: God doesn't lie. But after the trite recitations are out of our mouths, how many of us have to confess that we simply don't trust God? We need to move outside our experience, through the scriptures, with the help of the Holy Spirit, to the deep and life-changing belief that God doesn't lie, that it is impossible for him to do so. God will not deceive you. You may think he has deceived you, but he has not. You may think he will deceive you, but he will not. It simply is not possible, and God has gone to great lengths - taking an oath in our courtroom - to prove it.
If we believe God's purpose for us is the better country he will take us to one day, it will impact the way we live this day.

We have an anchor (6:18b-20)

Hebrews 6:18-20:

(18) ... in order that by two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we may have strong encouragement, we who have fled for refuge in laying hold of the hope set before us. (19) This hope we have as an anchor of the soul, a hope both sure and steadfast and one which enters within the veil, (20) where Jesus has entered as a forerunner for us, having become a high priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.

The writer sees that God's oath should influence us today. The two effects that the writer envisions are both in the present tense. The verb "have" is used twice. God's oath is intended for us to have "strong encouragement" and "an anchor of the soul" right now. What God has said in the past concerning the future impacts us in the present.

First, God's promise and oath regarding the future are intended for us to have strong encouragement. How are we encouraged? We are encouraged that God's purpose for us is changeless, that it is good, that he doesn't lie.

Only certain people have the opportunity to be encouraged in this way, however: those "who have fled for refuge in laying hold of the hope set before us." A more literal translation of this phrase would be those "who have fled for refuge to lay hold of the hope set before us." Some people fled something in order to lay hold of something.

The writer describes what it is these people have laid hold of: the hope set before us. They have found refuge in this hope. What have they fled from? The writer doesn't say, but inasmuch as the refuge concerns hope for heaven, the thing to be fled must be something like hell on earth. Earth is hell when we assume it is supposed to be heaven. We need to flee from this false belief. If we take the imagery provided by the author seriously, it is something that threatens us. We need to flee from it as we would something that threatens our safety.

But we don't just flee into the darkness. We flee to the hope set before us. The hope, as noted earlier, concerns the heavenly country. We are not yet there, because it is set before us. But it is there, because it is set before us. Therefore, it is certain.

This fleeing and grasping has already taken place in the lives of the people the writer is describing. He is not now encouraging people to take refuge in the hope set before them; he is describing what they have already done. Those who have done this then have this hope as an anchor of the soul. Who are these people? The writer says that "we" have this anchor - evidently, he and his readers, the followers of Jesus. All of us who have come to Christ, then, have taken refuge in the hope set before us. We may not appreciate the hope the way we should, but it is still there, and it is still ours. And it has given us - and we have - an anchor for our souls. Our problem may be, then, as with so many of our problems, that we don't realize what we have, that we don't realize the dimension of the hope, that we don't realize that we have an anchor.

How, precisely, is the hope of heaven an anchor for the soul? The word translated "soul" can simply mean "life," and that shade of meaning is probably included in the writer's thoughts. Our lives are somehow affected by this hope. But for the writer of Hebrews, the meaning goes deeper than that, into the inner life of a person. Because of this hope, our inner lives have an anchor. The writer uses two synonyms, translated "sure" and "steadfast," to describe the reliability of the anchor.

The fact that the soul has an anchor implies at least two things: The soul needs an anchor, and the soul is inclined to drift. An anchor prevents drift. The anchor is our hope. Our future hope, then, has some kind of steadying influence in the present.

If we have an anchor in heaven, that means we can deal with our restlessness on earth. We are restless because nothing works the way we want it to. If we think our anchor is in this world, our restlessness will never end. We'll keep looking for a place to drop anchor, and when we find it, it will disappoint us, and we'll move on to the next place. We'll wander from place to place, job to job, person to person, church to church - always looking for something better, always looking for some harbor worthy of our anchor. That was Cain's curse, by the way. He was a "vagrant and a wanderer on earth" (Genesis 4:12), without a heavenly anchor that allowed earthly relationships.
However, if we have already dropped our anchor in heaven, if that is the perfect harbor we're waiting for, then we freely abandon our search for it here. Then an amazing thing happens: We become free to drop our earthly anchor in an imperfect harbor. We realize that there are storms in every harbor, and we expect them.

Also, because our anchor is in heaven, we are concerned with making eternal investments. We are not so concerned about a harbor that doesn't meet our so-called needs. Instead, we are concerned with investing in the people of the harbor at which we're docked. That's what heaven is concerned with, and if we know that our eternal anchor is heaven, we realize this.

We have an anchor for our souls. Our inner life is at rest with the knowledge that all will be well one day, that it doesn't have to be well this day and that we can drop our earthly anchors in stormy harbors. What God has promised in the past about our future in heaven gives us stability in the present.

Certain changes in thought and behavior are evident once someone gets engaged. For example, once a woman says yes to a man's proposal, the man changes. What she has promised in the past about the man's future ("Yes, I'll marry you") changes the man's present outlook. He has dropped anchor, so to speak. He is motivated to stop looking for something better, because he believes the best will take place when he's married. He doesn't need to look for something better in the meantime. He makes decisions based on what he knows will be valuable after the wedding day. We should be similarly stabilized by the Lord's promise of heaven - stabilized to make eternal investments in imperfect harbors.

For all its stability as an anchor, this hope also has movement. It "enters within the veil." Actually, that's where it is. Our hope is inside the veil. The veil marked off the Most Holy Place in the Jerusalem temple. The Most Holy Place was occupied by God. This really shows us what this hope is all about; it's about being in the presence of God. This happens not in the earthly temple, which no longer exists, but in the heavenly temple, which served as a pattern for the earthly one (9:23-24). There is a sense in which we are already there (Ephesians 2:6), but also the sense, the one the writer of Hebrews conveys, that we are not yet there. The anchor metaphor may be helpful: Perhaps our anchor is in heaven, but our ship is on earth.

We have entered (Ephesians 2) and will enter (Hebrews 6) because Jesus has entered as a forerunner for us. The word "forerunner" invokes more than one image, but the idea is always that of a precursor, of something or someone or some people going first, with the promise of more to follow. Jesus entered God's presence first, with the promise of more to follow - us. Again, this is not an earthly temple but the heavenly one. He entered as a high priest in order to make atonement. The atonement he made - his death on the cross - allows us, too, to enter into God's presence. For the third time, the writer says that Jesus was a high priest "according to the order of Melchizedek" (5:5, 10). Beginning in Chapter 7, he will fully explain what he means by this phrase, but the aspect that he emphasizes here is the eternal aspect of Jesus' priesthood. This aspect is emphasized because it coincides with the eternal hope the writer speaks of.

God's word is enough

The writer tells us that God has promised us heaven and taken an oath to verify the promise. That seems to be all the evidence we need. God speaks. He tells us what he will do. Rather, he has told us what he will do. Somehow, he expects us to believe him. Somehow, he will enable us to believe him, if we listen to what he has said. And as we believe, we know we have an anchor for the soul.

- SCG, 10-12-97