Bread for the journey

by Scott Grant

Hebrews 13:7-19

Eating and traveling

The scriptures paint pictures for us. Even the epistles, which specialize in point-by-point logic, conjure up the images that our minds need to internalize truth. In Hebrews 13, the writer speaks of eating and traveling, two activities that we can identify with. Both inspire anticipation. Eating satisfies hunger, and traveling brings adventure.

"Everybody's got a hungry heart," Bruce Springsteen sings. Everybody's got a restless heart, too. We want food that satisfies the heart, and we want to visit a place where the heart feels at home. Hebrews 13:7-19 tells us what to eat and where to go. The meal is grace, and the trip is to heaven. Grace is what our hearts hunger for, and heaven is the home we want. In the end, grace is the nourishment we need to take this trip. Grace is our bread for the journey.

In this passage, as in Hebrews 13:1-6, the writer gives us his concluding exhortations. They are rooted in offering to God acceptable service, or worship (Hebrews 12:28). Worship involves all aspects of our lives and includes feeding on grace and taking the journey. The passage is marked off by treatment of leaders (verse 7, verses 17 through 19).

The bread of grace (13:7-10)

(7) Remember those who led you, who spoke the word of God to you; and considering the result of their conduct, imitate their faith. (8) Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today, yes and forever. (9) Do not be carried away by varied and strange teachings; for it is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace, not by foods, through which those who were thus occupied were not benefited. (10) We have an altar, from which those who serve the tabernacle have no right to eat.

The theme in this section is nourishment. We are nourished by "the word of God," "Jesus Christ," "grace" and a certain kind of altar, as opposed to "varied and strange teachings," "foods" and another kind of altar.

First, the writer says to remember leaders who spoke the word of God. These are former leaders who are with them no longer. In Hebrews, the word of God is that which speaks of the promises of God (2:3-4; 4:1-2, 6, 8, 12). What we are particularly to do in this is consider, or examine, "the outcome of their way of life." If the leaders believed in the promises of God, one should be able to see the outcome of their faith in the way they lived. The outcome of faith in the promises of God is salvation, which can be observed as a man or woman of faith lives a different kind of life. The outcome of faith isn't always pretty, as we observe in Hebrews 11. Sometimes it leads to tremendous suffering. If you're looking for a pleasant outcome in this world, embracing the promises of God is not an attractive prospect. Yet the benefits of the future-oriented promises are such that those who believe in them live with a hope that is unstoppable, observable and contagious.

Some who speak of the promises of God, of course, end up forsaking faith, or living as if the promises weren't worth the wait. It's quite possible that the leaders the writer speaks of are now dead. Dead leaders are the best ones to examine - those who spoke the word of God and believed in it and lived it without wavering until the day they died. It's also good to hang around some older folks who have walked with Jesus for many years. We see something in them that we don't see in younger people: We see a faith that has stood the test of time.

What's the purpose for remembering leaders, for examining the outcome of their way of life? It's to "imitate their faith." The writer doesn't say to imitate their way of life. He doesn't say to imitate them or their methods; he says to imitate their faith. It's an important distinction. If we admire someone, we may be tempted to make ourselves like them. But it's impossible and therefore frustrating in the end. We are who we are, unique individuals created by God. As such, God wants us to do things differently in us from even our most admired hero. He wants us to embrace the same faith, but the expression of that faith will look different according to his creative work in each of us.

In verse 8 the writer gives us a reason for imitating the faith of the former leaders. It's because Jesus Christ, who was embraced by those leaders "yesterday," is the same for those who embrace him "today" and will be the same "forever." The word of God, spoken by the leaders, concerns the promises of God, and the promises of God are wrapped up in Jesus Christ. In fact, the writer equated Jesus with the word of God in Hebrews 1:2, saying that God "has spoken to us in his Son." The writer is saying that in the past Jesus produced a certain kind of positive outcome in the lives of those who embraced him. Since then, Jesus hasn't changed. He will do the same thing for those who embrace him today. He will forever do the same thing.

What else can this be said about? Nothing! Everything changes. Everyone changes. Jesus doesn't change. The particular point in this is that faith in him always has produced a positive outcome and always will produce a positive outcome. Nothing else guarantees this. Times change; styles change; methods change. A method that achieved wonderful results yesterday fails miserably today. One that works in one place doesn't work in another.

As someone whom the elders of this church have appointed as a leader, I want to speak the word of God, which itself speaks of the promises of God, which are wrapped up in Jesus Christ. More than anything else, I want to teach Jesus. As Paul says, "we preach Christ crucified" (1 Corinthians 1:23). We're all unique individuals. If Jesus is embraced, he will work his life out uniquely in the one who embraces him. And the outcome will be glorious.

Speaking the promises of God means speaking Jesus Christ, which further means speaking "grace." Believing the promises of God wrapped up in Jesus means feeding on grace. In the writer's day, as in ours, there were floating around "varied and strange teachings." He is particularly concerned about teaching concerning "foods."

What is this teaching? In Hebrews 9:9-10, the writer said that the tabernacle is a symbol and that its sacrifices are ultimately ineffective, because they relate "only to food and drink and various washings, regulations for the body imposed until a time of reformation." These prescriptions, including what foods to eat, were for the sake of ceremonial cleanliness. They were "regulations for the body," outward symbols that represented inward realities, but they were not in fact the realities. Eating the right or the wrong foods never really affected one's standing with God, but it helped point to real cleanliness before God, which has always been based on faith in him. The strange teachings may relate to investing such ceremonial procedures with meaning that was never intended. The eating of the right foods "cannot make the worshiper perfect in conscience" (9:9). It's also possible that the writer is referring to ceremonial meals that were viewed to have supernatural power. Whatever its nature, this teaching is to be contrasted with that of the former leaders, who spoke the word of God, embraced it and experienced a positive outcome.

For us, what kind of teaching gets us focused on "foods," so to speak, that don't help us internally. It's any kind of teaching that requires us to do something other than, or in addition to, believing in Christ to receive a cleansed conscience. It's teaching that commands ritual and method and effort to achieve certainty of a right standing with God. Such teaching has a strong appeal to the flesh, so we can be easily "carried away" by it. We can also be carried away in it, always trying to figure out what the right thing to do is and always trying to find some way to do it. But it profits nothing. Accomplishment of any kind provides no assurance of right standing with God.

On the other hand, "it is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace." Where do we find this grace? As the writer says in verse 10, we find it at an "altar." It's a different kind of altar than the one in the tabernacle. Animals were sacrificed at that altar. Christ is our sacrifice. He was sacrificed on the cross. The cross of Jesus Christ is the altar that we eat from. When we feed on grace, we feed on God's love and forgiveness and acceptance. That's the kind of food we get at this altar. And that is what the heart hungers for. Our hearts long to hear that we are loved and forgiven and accepted. The food at this altar tells us even more than that; it tells us that we are cherished. How else can you explain the cross? How else can you explain the Father's giving the Son to us in this way? How else can you explain the Son's giving himself up for us in this way? God sees something in us so precious that we're worth a cosmic crisis that prompted the Father to send away his Son and prompted the Son to leave the Father. The sacrifice of the Son cleanses us to the point that the preciousness within us is brought out completely. Grace is served up at no other altar. At this altar large portions of grace are served up, and hungry hearts gobble it up.

To survive, one has to eat. To remain healthy, one has to eat regularly. This tells us that we should be feeding on grace regularly. We should devour God's love for us daily. Then, of course, there are those times when we are burdened by feelings of guilt or failure. Perhaps we've spent some time feeding at the altar of accomplishment, and we've failed. We're starving for love. At such times, it's important for us to know that food is available.

Perhaps strange teachings have caused you to feed elsewhere. You've tried to do things to be desirable. You've done some things, but you always feel the pressure to do more things. You've felt so little love. You are starving to be desired for who you are, not who you're trying to be. The altar of Jesus Christ says that you are desirable. The table of grace is waiting. God has prepared a banquet, and he is inviting you to feast on his grace, to devour love and forgiveness and acceptance, to feel his grace supply nourishment to every corner of your being, to know for sure in your heart that you are God's beloved.

The journey home (13:11-16)

(11) For the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the holy place by the high priest as an offering for sin are burned outside the camp. (12) Therefore Jesus also, that He might sanctify the people through His own blood, suffered outside the gate. (13) Hence, let us go out to Him outside the camp, bearing His reproach. (14) For here we do not have a lasting city, but we are seeking the city which is to come. (15) Through Him then, let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that give thanks to His name. (16) And do not neglect doing good and sharing; for with such sacrifices God is pleased.

In verse 11 the writer explains why the priests have no right to eat from the altar of Christ. He recalls the offerings on the annual Day of Atonement, as prescribed in Leviticus 16. The high priest would take the blood of a bull and a goat and sprinkle it on the mercy seat of the ark of the covenant inside the Most Holy Place in the tabernacle. Unlike many other animals offered for sacrifice, which the priests would be permitted to eat, these animals were not for eating. They were taken outside the camp of Israel and burned as a symbol of the disgrace of sin, borne symbolically by these animals. The point is that if the priests who served the tabernacle had no right to eat from the altar on the Day of Atonement, how much less do they have a right to eat from the altar of the cross, which they don't adhere to but which fulfills all the imagery foreshadowed by the Day of Atonement?

A larger point, though, is made in verse 12. The word "therefore" introduces a concluding explanation of Jesus as the fulfillment of the Day of Atonement imagery. He is both the high priest, who makes the offering, and the offering itself. His blood "sanctifies" us, making us holy to the Lord, and like the animals who were burned outside the camp of Israel in the wilderness, Jesus suffered outside the gate of Jerusalem. His blood brings out all the beauty that God created in us, and he makes us radiant for relationship with God (9:13-14, 10:10, 14, 29). Suffering outside Jerusalem, banished from the holy precincts of the temple, he bore the disgrace of sin.
Beginning with the word "hence" in verse 13, the writer explains what he wants us to do with verse 12. He wants us to "go out to him outside the camp, bearing his reproach." As followers of Jesus, thankful because we have been made holy by his blood, we go where he is. We love him, so we go where he goes. As we saw earlier, the location of his sacrifice is where we get our grace. It's where we get our love.

However, the writer says it will cost us. We "bear his reproach." Jesus was misunderstood, despised and banished from the city. If we follow Jesus, such may be our experience as well. We need the grace, but people who live on grace are foreigners in this world. It is a graceless world that lives on the basis of accomplishment, however it defines it; and those who simply gobble up the grace of God are considered strange ducks or dangerous wolves. When we go to Jesus outside the camp, we feast on grace, but we may suffer disgrace.

By leaving the city, so to speak, we leave behind that which is comfortable, familiar and safe. We leave the old ways of dealing with sin. We leave behind the old ways of atonement, which depended on a set way of doing things. In the old way, we depend upon ourselves to deal with our shortcomings. We either try to do better or we punish ourselves with guilt. It's a burdensome way, but at least we maintain the illusion of control. So we're drawn to it. In going out to Jesus, and accepting his work of atonement, we are relieved of our burden, but we also give up the illusion of control. It can be frightening. We may suffer "reproach." Others won't be able to control us the way they used to, so we may displease them. We may have a difficult time finding friends; people of passion often do.

The readers of Hebrews were considering a return to the safer confines of Old
Covenant forms. Leaving those forms behind and following Jesus, they discovered, does not necessarily bode well for one's success in this world. They found out that it can get you persecuted, imprisoned and even killed. The old way, with its familiar forms that promised protection from difficulty, was very appealing.

The writer therefore provides them with motivation for leaving the "camp" of Israel, so to speak. It concerns seeking an entirely different city. The city of Jerusalem, and the temple within it, is not lasting. Not many years after the time of this writing, in 70 A.D., Jerusalem was sacked by Rome and the temple was destroyed, just as Jesus predicted (Matthew 24:1-2). In the interest of safety and comfort, the readers were tempted to seek out Jerusalem and the temple, but all they provided was an illusion of safety and comfort. They didn't offer the real presence of the Lord. They didn't offer real forgiveness. Now that Christ, the reality behind those symbols, has come, those symbols are no longer necessary. To cling to them as if they were life itself is death itself. The writer is saying that if you want to return to Jerusalem and the temple, you're returning to something that isn't lasting. And, yes, going out to Jesus, outside the camp, may cost you, but you're not giving up anything other than that which is doomed for destruction.

By leaving the city, not only are you not losing anything, you are gaining plenty. The word translated "but" in verse 14 is an emphatic, as is the word translated "seeking." We are seeking something very intensely. An intense desire for another kind of city draws us outside the gates of the present city. This is a heavenly city. It is what Abraham and the other believers in Hebrews 11 were seeking and desiring (11:13-16). It's a different kind of Jerusalem, what John calls "new Jerusalem" (Revelation 21:2). When John is given a vision of this city, he says, "And I saw no temple in it, for the Lord God, the Almighty, and the Lamb, are its temple" (Revelation 21:22). The new Jerusalem, which is the new creation, is filled with the actual presence of the Lord.
Leaving the old city and seeking the new one can be frightening, but it is liberating - and profitable. In giving up the old way of the city of this world, we give up that which will not last, and we seek a city that will not fade. As Jim Elliot said, "He is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose."

Jesus offered the perfect sacrifice for sins, fulfilling the imagery suggested in the Day of Atonement. The only sacrifice left to offer, then, is one that responds to his sacrifice. The writer in verses 15 and 16 suggests three kinds of responsive sacrifices: praise to God, doing good and sharing. We offer these sacrifices "through" Jesus, our high priest. These sacrifices are a response to God's grace, which makes us holy and beckons us to the city to come. The sacrifices of this age concern what we do with out bodies (Romans 12:1).

Notice that we should offer a sacrifice of praise "continually" - literally, "through all." Through all circumstances, and in all circumstances, we should praise God. The circumstances don't change our standing before God or our destination. The writer calls such a sacrifice "the fruit of lips," an expression that speaks of the beauty of such praise. It gives thanks to, or confesses, the name of God, which invokes who he is and what he's done.

But that's not all. The writer says "do not neglect doing good and sharing," which implies that it is quite possible to neglect them. It is quite possible to offer a sacrifice of praise and think that it is the only response required of us. The appropriate response to the one who has done such good for us is to do good to those created in his image.

Another appropriate response is "sharing," which at its root means sharing ourselves. As people cleansed by the blood of Jesus, we can share with each other our true selves, because we understand our true selves to be beautiful, not ugly. We share with each other who we really are, and who we really are is what other people really need. Others are blessed when we give them something of ourselves, our true self, not the false self that we put forth to impress people or protect ourselves from them. Of course, this also means we share our resources with each other.
With these responsive sacrifices God is pleased. He is not pleased with sacrifices that seek to atone for shortcomings or seek to win his favor. Our shortcomings have been dealt with by Christ, and God's favor has already been won. When we seek to make atonement or win God's favor, it represents a rejection of his Son, so God is not pleased with such sacrifices.

It's a good thing to know, simply, that God is pleased with praise, with doing good and with sharing. Many of us think that if God is ever pleased at all, it takes an awful lot to please him, and that God always wants more. We picture God as never being satisfied with us. But the picture that the writer of Hebrews gives us is that of a God who is pleased, who is delighted, who is satisfied with a simple word of praise, a simple act of kindness or the simple sharing of one's heart. Such simple sacrifices give God great pleasure. Therefore, we can and should picture as God being delighted with our simple sacrifices - even one simple sacrifice. The only way he is displeased because of one of his children is the way a perfect father would be displeased because of a wayward son. In such cases his heart breaks for us. The love never stops. When we offer simple sacrifices, he experiences spikes of pleasure.

The imagery of the first section was eating. The imagery in this section is traveling. We go out to Jesus, seeking the city to come. Life is a meal, but life is also a journey. When the writer of Hebrews invokes the sacrifices called for in the law, he speaks of the portable tabernacle in the wilderness, not the permanent temple in the promised land. He wants us to see ourselves as travelers, as pilgrims on a journey to a better place. It's Jesus who takes us to this better place, so we go out to him. We keep seeking and longing for the city to come, the heavenly Jerusalem that will be our heavenly home. We see it from afar, we hear sounds of life emanating from it, and the trade winds blow its delightful smells our way. All this calls us homeward. So we hit the road, and we find some other travelers along the way who share our passion. We're all heading for the same place. We're all following the same Lord. Together we thrill to the sights, sounds and smells of heaven. The Father calls us homeward with such anticipation that we can't wait to get there. It's the best kind of trip imaginable. It's better than a vacation; it's a trip to the home we've always wanted but never visited.

Leaders who keep watch (13:17-19)

(17) Obey your leaders, and submit to them; for they keep watch over your souls, as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you. (18) Pray for us, for we are sure that we have a good conscience, desiring to conduct ourselves honorably in all things. (19) And I urge you all the more to do this, that I may be restored to you the sooner.

The writer opened the passage with an appeal to his readers to remember their former leaders; he closes it with an appeal to obey, or be persuaded by, their current leaders. He is no doubt familiar with and trusting of these leaders, and they no doubt are speaking the word of God to the people, just as the former leaders did. Again, the appeal is to be persuaded by those who speak the word, not by those who offer strange teachings. Submitting to such leaders, then, represents a submission to the word - a lifestyle based on appreciation of the promises of God.

The reason given for submission to leaders in this case is that "they keep watch over your souls," or lives. This is the concern of leaders in the church - the lives of those in the flock, particularly as it concerns their relationship with the Lord. Leaders concern themselves with how people respond to God. One of the chief ways they do this is to speak the word, the promises of God.
Leaders keep watch intending to "give an account," apparently to God, regarding their faithfulness as leaders to attend to the people entrusted to their care. In other words, these leaders are taking the spiritual welfare of the people very seriously. That should be motivation to be persuaded by and submit to them and the truth they speak. Such responsiveness on the part of the people means that leaders can lead with "joy and not with grief." As John says, "I have no greater joy than this, to hear of my children walking in the truth" (3 John 4). Seeing someone respond to the promises of God is a source of great joy to one who speaks them.

The "grief" of leaders because of non-responsiveness is "unprofitable for you." Sometimes, the grief of another, particularly a leader who we may not be completely satisfied with, seems "profitable." We find satisfaction in someone else's grief. But the writer tells us that there is no profit in it for us. Just as we do not benefit from strange teachings (13:9), we do not profit from the grief of leaders stemming from our unresponsiveness to them and the truth they speak.
Submission to leaders is not an absolute command, of course. Paul warned the Ephesian elders, "I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them" (Acts 20:29-30). We should not be persuaded by such leaders.

The theme of responsiveness to leaders continues in verses 18 and 19. The writer counts himself among the leaders of his readers, though he is currently absent. He asks that his readers "pray for us" - the other absent leaders and him. He wants them to pray specifically that he might be "restored to you the sooner." This would be good for them, because he is sure that he and other absent leaders "have a good conscience, desiring to conduct ourselves honorably in all things." His conscience has been cleansed by the blood of Christ to serve the living God (9:14). A leader whose conscience has been cleansed is not so inclined to do things to satisfy his conscience, or to prop up his ego, because he already has what he wants in Christ. His leadership, then, is less likely to be in his own self-interest but in the interest of the flock. The writer is therefore saying that he and the other leaders can be trusted. They legitimately desire to conduct themselves honorably in their relationships with people. That is the kind of leader whom a church should want restored to it.
The last section, then, forms a nice complement to verse 7, which began the passage. We are to be inspired by former leaders who spoke about the promises of God and lived based on them; we are to respond to current leaders who do these things; and we are to pray for the presence of more leaders who do these things.

The greatest journey

In the end, it is these leaders who invite us to feast from the altar of grace and beckon us to take the journey home. And in the end, it's the bread of grace the nourishes us for the journey. It's God's grace that strengthens our heart for its greatest journey.

- SCG, 11-22-98