Releasing the good

by Scott Grant

Hebrews 13:20-25

The good in you

How do you feel about yourself? Do you think you're basically good or basically bad? If you are a follower of Jesus Christ, you have been given a new nature that is not only basically good but wildly good. You've been given the Spirit of the living God, and it is the Spirit who defines you, not the flesh. Paul says, "But if I am doing the very thing I do not wish, I am no longer the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me" (Romans 7:20). In other words, when he sins, it's not real Paul; it's sin. It's still his sin, but sin no longer has anything to do with his identity. The new person is the real person. Powerful goodness resides within this new, real person. This is true. What seems more problematic is expressing this goodness. How is it that can release the goodness within?

That is the question the writer of Hebrews takes up as he prays for his readers in the conclusion of his letter. He tells us that God works in our hearts by showing us Jesus, in the context of relationships, so that what is good in us may be released.

The writer has just requested that the readers pray for him (13:18-19). Now he prays for them. He concludes with a prayer and doxology (13:20-21) and some personal notes (13:22-25).

God's work in us (13:20-21)

Hebrews 13:20-21:

(20) Now the God of peace, who brought up from the dead the great Shepherd of the sheep through the blood of the eternal covenant, even Jesus our Lord, (21) equip you in every good thing to do His will, working in us that which is pleasing in His sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.

The writer calls God "the God of peace." The Hebrew word for peace is "shalom," a word that the Lord used to describe an all-encompassing wellness, or wholeness, that he promised the Israelites if they would be faithful to the Mosaic Covenant. The Israelites, of course, were unfaithful and forfeited God's peace, which was bestowed in the land of promise. As we have seen, God in the New Covenant guarantees our faithfulness (Hebrews 8:7-12). God gives to us this wellness, this wholeness, the fulfillment of our humanity, and he will do so ultimately in the new land of promise, the better country that Abraham wanted (11:16). The God of peace gives us peace in the "eternal covenant." At the heart of this peace is reconciliation with God, which is brought about through the blood of the covenant, namely, the blood of Jesus.

This God of peace "brought up from the dead the great Shepherd of the sheep." This is an allusion to Isaiah 63:11-14 and Jeremiah 31:32. In Isaiah, the prophet remembered that the Lord "brought them up out of the sea with the shepherds of the flock," referring to the crossing of the Red Sea and the shepherds who led the people, principally Moses. In Jeremiah, the Lord promised the New Covenant, which would not be like the one he made "in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt." As God brought the Israelites, and their shepherd, Moses, up from the land of Egypt and up the Red Sea, he brought up Jesus, the shepherd in the New Covenant, from the dead. Egypt and the Red Sea meant death for the people of Israel, and as the Lord led them from those places, he was leading them to life, a covenant relationship with him, and peace in the land of promise.

Jesus, our great high priest who sympathizes with our weaknesses (4:15), experienced out greatest weakness, death. The best leaders are ones with whom people can identify, one who understands his people, one who has walked where they have walked and persevered amid fiery testing. Jesus is such a leader, such a shepherd. He leads us as we face our greatest fears. He is the shepherd who holds our hand as we "walk through the valley of the shadow of death" (Psalm 23:4). As one who has conquered death, he cannot be defeated. He is the shepherd who leads us from death (separation from God) to life (union with God). He leads us to pastures of peace provided by the God of peace, where we feast on the presence of the Lord.

He is the "great" shepherd, superior to Moses. Jesus called himself the "good shepherd" who lays down his life for the sheep (John 10:14-15). That's how we know he's good and great, because he laid down us life for us. In laying down his life, he gave us the perfect blood necessary to ratify God's eternal covenant, which leads us into the next age, which will never end.

The old leaders of the readers of this letter are gone (13:7). Some of their current leaders are not with them (13:18-19). Regardless of the location or quality of our leaders, we still have the leader, our great shepherd.

With the blood of his Son, God ratifies the eternal covenant. In the eternal covenant, God promises to keep both sides of it, his and ours. He swears on the blood of his Son that he will do so. He will not let anyone go who believes in his Son. Unlike the Mosaic Covenant, this one won't end. The first covenant ended because the people rejected the Lord. The eternal covenant guarantees that God's children will not abandon him.

Through this blood, God raised Jesus from the dead. The resurrection of Christ was God's demonstration that the sacrifice of Christ was acceptable. The animals sacrificed as part of the Old Covenant, of course, were never resurrected. The resurrection of Christ indicates that the New Covenant is eternal.

The writer's description in verse 20 of God and what God did in raising Jesus from the dead supports his prayer for his readers. He describes God in this way to show us that God is willing and able to answer this kind of prayer. The prayer is that we would be equipped to do his will.
The writer prays that God would "equip" us. The word can mean "restore" or "prepare" and here may include both meanings. God prepares us by restoring us, by putting us back together. His healing touch equips us to do his will. The prayer is that God would, literally, equip us in, or with, "every good." It's not a prayer that God would equip us in every good thing we try to do but that he would equip us with every inner disposition to do good. His healing touch inclines us toward good, motivating us to do his will.

God equips us to do his will by "working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ." Here is an amazing statement about how we do God's will. God works in us so that we may do his will. Not only is the New Covenant eternal, it is internal. God writes his law on our hearts (Hebrews 8:10), and that is where he works. He is constantly working in our hearts.
That's how we do his will, "that which is pleasing in his sight." The writer has just described what is pleasing to God: praise, doing good and sharing (13:15-16). God's will is that we praise him, do good and share our lives with others. At the core of this is faith, which pleases God (Hebrews 11:6). Praise, good works and sharing - apart from faith in Christ, apart from a genuine and vibrant and growing love for Jesus - are not pleasing to God. So God works on our faith; he works on our hearts so that what comes out of us gives him pleasure.

So, how do we feel about God poking around in our hearts? When someone gets close to some of those tender spots, we wince, just as when a physician touches an injury. But just like a physician, God's intention is to heal, not to hurt. It is to restore, and to equip us to do his will, which is what he created us for.

There is something within us that is aching to be released. There is good; there is beauty; there is love. It's the precious desire to love God and others - to praise him, to do good, to share. But we don't know how to release it, and we're afraid to release it. So God works in our hearts so that all this good stuff within us is flows out of us. And when the beauty that God has placed in us flows out of us, God is pleased. He is delighted when the real person emerges, the one he has created and redeemed.

How precisely does God do this work? If God is like a physician who restores us, what instrument does he use? His work in us is "through Jesus Christ." This shouldn't surprise us. The writer of Hebrews for 13 chapters has been presenting Jesus to us. In two prior incidents when the writer has discussed something happening "through" Jesus, it's been our "sanctification" through Jesus (10:10, 13:12). We are being saved, becoming what God intended us to be, by continually drawing near to God through Jesus (7:25). We praise God through Jesus (13:15). Change in our hearts happens through Jesus Christ, as we accept Jesus and what he has done for us and as we appreciate him for who he is. In working in our hearts, God shows us Jesus, and Jesus, particularly in his priestly work on our behalf, shows us that God can be trusted when he touches the tender spots of our hearts.

It's difficult to tell who the writer sees as the recipient of glory for all this, God or Jesus. God is the subject of the sentence, but Jesus is the last reference. In either case, the glory for doing God's will is not ours. Apart from God and his work in us through Jesus Christ, we could never do his will; we could never do anything that is pleasing in his sight. It's not that no work on our part is required; it's that our work is so motivated by the love God has shown us in Christ that we desire that God and Jesus be glorified. Such is the love between the Father and the Son that they desire that the other be glorified. So it is with us: Such is our love for God and Jesus that we seek their glory.

The God of peace, who brought up from the dead the great Shepherd of the sheep through the blood of the eternal covenant, is the kind of God who answers this kind of prayer. He is able, willing, healing and loving. He will work in our hearts by showing us Jesus in order to release the good stuff, equipping us to do that which is pleasing in his sight. The color and fragrance of a flower are already present in the seed before it sprouts roots, grows and blossoms. Each of us is like a seed. The beauty is there. God, working in our hearts through Christ, brings forth the color and fragrance.

Our work in each other (13:22-25)

Hebrews 13:22-25:

(22) But I urge you, brethren, bear with this word of exhortation, for I have written to you briefly. (23) Take notice that our brother Timothy has been released, with whom, if he comes soon, I shall see you. (24) Greet all of your leaders and all the saints. Those from Italy greet you. (25) Grace be with you all.

Although the writer issues a concluding personal note in these verses, it is still tied together what he has just written. The word "but," which would be better translated "and," indicates this connection. The focus in these verses is on relationships, with words such as "brethren" and "brother," with the word "all" appearing three times, with the writer anticipating seeing his readers again in person and with greetings being encouraged and extended. In the preceding verses, the writer prayed that God would work in us that we might do his will. That work, though carried out through Jesus, happens in the context of community.

The writer urges us to bear with, or willingly receive, his "word of exhortation," which constitutes the entire letter. The word translated "urge" (parakaleo) is the verb that goes with the noun translated "exhortation" (paraklesis). In his letter, he is exhorting us. Now he is exhorting us to receive his exhortation. In doing so, he addresses us as "brethren," as fellow members of God's family who need to hear this important word.

The word of exhortation, of course, concerns Christ. It presents Christ as our great high priest who gives to us the New Covenant. This word points out the greatness of Christ and the greatness of the covenant, which is both internal and eternal. The greatness of the covenant serves to cause us to appreciate all that Christ has done for us and to hold on to him. In the writer's final words, we see both the priest and the covenant. There is talk of "blood," the manifestation of the priestly work of Christ, and we are equipped "through Jesus Christ," who as a priest brings us to God. There is talk of the covenant, which is called "eternal," and there is talk of its internal work, with God "working in us."

This word of exhortation is one we desperately need. We desperately need to hear of the greatness of Jesus Christ and what he has done for us. We need to receive it willingly and eagerly. This is the word we need to hear above all others. When the writer began his letter, he said, "God, after he spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in his Son ... " (Hebrews 1:1-2). God speaks in Jesus. God's word to us is Jesus. The writer's word of exhortation is Jesus, who uses to equip us to do his will.
The writer provides us with incentive for hearing this word by noting its brevity. In our busy schedules, it may seem as if it takes too much time to open up our Bibles or to find time for places and events that connect us with God's word. It doesn't take that much time or effort to listen for just a little bit, and a little openness to truth about Jesus can make a world of difference.

The writer, hoping to bring Timothy with him, anticipates seeing his readers. He wants to bring with him a brother for companionship and ministry. The writer has written to them because he is not with them. In visiting them, he will no doubt continue his exhortation, which is best carried out in person. This is ministry with relationship, with Timothy, and in relationship with people. The best way to minister is by being with people, though it isn't always the easiest way. Greetings then are both encouraged and extended. They are encouraged to greet the leaders and saints who come their way. Others with the writer who are "from Italy," probably those not currently living in Italy (Acts 18:2), extend their greeting.

The writer's word of exhortation is in the context of relationships, and it encourages relationships. Connecting with this great word concerning Christ, and allowing God to do his internal and eternal work in our hearts, can't help but open us up to other people as well. It also works the other way: Connecting with others helps to connect each other with Christ.

Larry Crabb illustrates this well in his book "Connecting." He describes a time when he was counseling a man who had tried to commit suicide:

For more than six months I worked with this man in therapy. Even now I recall the session - I think it was the tenth - where I came up with an insight that put so much of his pain into new perspective. I remember him saying, "How on earth did you figure that out?" I humbly shrugged and said, "Hope it helps."

In the middle of our work together, I happened one spring day to be driving through the local college campus and saw my depressed client sitting on the grass with a friend. They were laughing. I'm not clear why, but I felt a strong desire to join their good time. ...

On an impulse, I stopped my car, walked over to where they were sitting, their backs toward me. When I got close, they heard my footsteps, and turned. I greeted them both, then said to my client, "How are you?"

Picture what it would be like to have your therapist, while you're in the middle of treatment for suicidal depression, walk up to you in a casual setting and ask, "How are you?"

He wrinkled his face into a serious expression, coughed a few times, then said, "Well, maybe a little better. Still really worried about ... "

I interrupted. "I don't mean, 'How are you doing with your struggles?' I'm just sociably asking how you're doing."

He replied, "You mean, 'Fine thanks'?"

"Yes, exactly!"

"In that case, fine thanks. Can you join us?"

"Sure, I've got some time."

For the next thirty minutes I didn't say one intelligent thing. I just enjoyed two friends.

Three years later I met him for coffee during a trip to the town where he was then living. He was doing well. At one point in our conversation he thanked me for my influence on his life. I asked what he remembered that had helped the most. There was no hesitation.

"It was that half hour you sat on the grass with me and my friend and just chatted." He was warmly smiling.

I was indignant. "Don't you recall that life-changing insight I came up with in the tenth session of therapy?"

"Uh, no, I don't. Can you refresh me?"

I believe that the work we did in therapy was important. But I also believe that the time I most clearly led with my heart rather than my head was the time of greatest power. Perhaps then he could trust whatever else I said. Or perhaps that moment on the lawn did the most actual healing.

If even the simplest connection with another person can open that person up to the work of God in his heart, the power of relationships must be strong indeed. Seek to know others, and let others know you. Some beautiful things just might spring up from your heart.

Grace be with you

Finally, the writer bids grace to be with us. By God's grace Jesus died for us (2:9). God reigns from a throne of grace, where we find grace when we approach him (4:16). We are encouraged to have our hearts strengthened by grace (13:9). Now the writer bids that that grace be with us, the grace that gave us Jesus, the grace that we find when we approach God, the grace that strengthens our heart.

And that grace is with us. Jesus is with us. To God be the glory.

- SCG, 12-6-98