A lasting promise - Hebrews 6:13 - 7:28
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
I want you to imagine that during a transatlantic flight to America you find yourself sitting next to a very anxious passenger. Ever since the aircraft left the runway the person beside has been acting rather strangely but as soon as the captain announced the plane had reached its cruising altitude of 35,000 feet your fellow passenger became increasingly distressed. For as long as you can, you try and ignore the problem but eventually you pluck up the courage and ask him if he is okay. “Okay? I don’t think so. In fact, I feel so unsafe in this aircraft that I’m very tempted to open that door in front us and step outside.” Far fetched I know but just suppose you did find yourself sitting next to such a person, how would you respond? I guess one option would be to discreetly press the call button and hope one of the friendly stewardesses would slip something into his tea. But if we actually had the courage to speak to our fellow traveler then I think there are two things we could say to keep him on the plane. First of all, we could describe in detail the consequences of his actions. Let’s be frank with him. If he opens the door he will die. He will be instantly sucked out and his life will come to a spectacular end. Now I know it may sound like a rather dramatic thing to say but when the stakes are high we cannot afford to pull our punches. Secondly, we could provide our nervous passenger with positive reasons to stay inside the plane. One way of keeping him in the seat beside you is to warn him of the dangers of his stupidity but another way is to assure him with positive reasons that explain why the plane will take him to his destination. And so, therefore, why he should stay exactly where he is.
Now it’s very unlikely that we will ever meet someone like this on an aircraft but when it comes to spiritual attitudes we might discover such a person here at St Johns. Let me describe them to you. At some point in the past they joined the Christian family by putting their faith in Jesus.
They were trusting in him alone to take them to their heavenly destination. They had abandoned all their self-confidence and had decided to follow Jesus instead. But now, for some reason, they are thinking of giving up.
Over the last few weeks we have discovered that this letter was originally sent to a group of Jewish Christians. That is, a collection of Jewish people who had been persuaded to follow Jesus as their promised Messiah. But at the point in their lives when they received this letter they were thinking very seriously of returning to their Jewish roots. They were this close to abandoning their commitment to Jesus Christ. And so this letter was sent to encourage them to stay in their seats and trust Christ to get them to heaven.
Now to achieve this outcome the writer of Hebrews skillfully uses the two techniques we have already thought about this morning. At different points in the letter he either warns them of the great danger of abandoning Christ or he provides them with positive reasons why they should stay committed to Christ. Now if you were here two weeks ago you will remember the stark warning we encountered at the beginning of chapter 6. It’s there in verse 4. Listen to this. “It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age, if they fall away, to be brought back to repentance, because to their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace.” Or to put it simply, if you open the door of the plane you will die. If you abandon the Lord Jesus you will face eternal death. No doubt about it, your fate is sealed.
It sounds harsh doesn’t it? But let’s remember that when the stakes are high we need to be clear. And in this case the stakes couldn’t get any higher. The very souls of these people are hanging in the balance. So to make sure they remain committed to Jesus our writer describes what will happen if they abandon the faith.
But then from verse 13 onwards he changes tactics. Instead of focusing on the potential dangers that lie ahead he switches his attention to more of the positive reasons why those who have started with Christ should continue with Christ. And that’s what I want to focus on this morning. I want to show you two reasons why we should stay committed to Jesus until we see him face to face. And you’ll see both those reasons on your handout. First of all, because God made a promise to Abraham and, secondly, because Jesus is a priest in heaven.
First of all, let’s find out what God said to Abraham. Have a look at verse 13. “When God made his promise to Abraham, since there was no-one greater for him to swear by, he swore by himself, saying, “I will surely bless you and give you many descendents.”
Now God made this promise to Abraham after the rather dramatic incident in the Old Testament when Abraham was asked to sacrifice his only Son Isaac. You can read all about it in Genesis chapter 22. Now this was not the first time God had made a promise to Abraham. I once heard someone say that the Bible is a book of two halves. Genesis 1-11 is the first half and Genesis 12 to the end of Revelation is the second half. And the point he was trying to make is that the initial promises made to Abraham way back in Genesis 12 are the key turning point in the whole Bible story. In fact, from this point onwards the story is all about how God will deliver what he promised. Now at various points in Abraham’s life God reassured him that he really did mean what he said. He didn’t specify exactly when he would deliver the goods but he wanted Abraham to have complete confidence in his promises. And to make sure he did, God would often repeat them. Once should have been enough, this was God speaking. But, of course, God knows very well what the human condition is like. We are suspicious creatures, aren’t we? We are skeptical of the special offer. Too good to be true? Then it probably is!
When I was 17 I worked for a car insurance company in Scotland called Kwik-Fit Car Insurance. We were based on one of those large industrial estates outside Glasgow and the building itself was a huge space with hundreds of people working away at their desks. Now when I was 17 I was easily impressed. I was given my own desk, which I thought was fantastic. I was given a set of those headphones for the telephone which means you don’t actually have to hold the receiver, which I thought were space age. And we even had a giant electronic scoreboard that displayed how many sales each of the teams had secured that day – unfortunately, however, since I was part of a temporary summer team we were given a flip chart instead! Now I will never forget a conversation I had with someone who wanted to buy third party fire and theft from me. I went through all his details, I asked him for his best price and then I put him on hold as I tried to calculate whether we could offer him a competitive alternative. Absolute nightmare – you find yourself staring at a price which is on a different planet. But before I spoke to him again I decided to check out the fully comprehensive price and to my great joy I discovered it was around £150 cheaper than his best quote for third party fire and theft. So with youthful confidence in my voice I offered what I thought was a sure deal to the customer. And he didn’t believe me. I tried and tried. I told him I’d checked the details with my supervisor. It was all above board and all he had to do was give me his credit card details. But he would not believe me and so he put the phone down.
We are suspicious creatures, aren’t we? We are skeptical of the special offer. And Abraham was no exception. He was just like us. So to give him reassurance that God would make good on his promises they were repeated on numerous occasions.
But in Genesis 22 there is an added ingredient. Did you see it in verse 13? We are told that “When God made his promise to Abraham, since there was no-one greater for him to swear by, he swore by himself.”
So in Genesis 22 the promises were not simply repeated but they were also combined with an oath from God. And we’re told the reason for this in verses 16 to 18. “Men swear by someone greater than themselves, and the oath confirms what is said and puts an end to all argument. 17 Because God wanted to make the unchanging nature of his purpose very clear to the heirs of what was promised, he confirmed it with an oath. 18 God did this so that, by two unchangeable things in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled to take hold of the hope offered to us may be greatly encouraged.”
Now if any of us in this room were to appear as a witness in a court of law then we would be forced to take an oath. Human beings often tell lies so taking an oath is supposed to guarantee the truthfulness of what we say. But what about God? Why did he confirm his promises to Abraham with an oath? We are told the word of an Englishman is his bond but surely the word of God can be trusted entirely. So here is the question we need to answer: Why did God combine his certain promises with an oath? Look again at verse 17. “Because God wanted to make the unchanging nature of his purpose very clear to the heirs of what was promised, he confirmed it with an oath.” So on its own the word of God would have been good enough but for the benefit of weak human beings, who are very suspicious of the free lunch offer, God formally staked his reputation on delivering the goods.
Now I said at the beginning that one of the reasons we should continue to trust in Christ until the end of our lives is because of this promise to Abraham. But to understand why, we need to concentrate on one particular word in verse 17. And that is the word ‘heirs’. Did you see it? The oath was not just for the benefit of Abraham. It was also to give encouragement to those who would be known as the true descendants of Abraham.
You see God’s promise was not simply to bless one man but to bless a group of people who would be linked to that man in a special way. And to give them encouragement God confirmed his promise to Abraham with an oath.
Or in the words of verse 18, “God did this so that, by two unchangeable things in which it is impossible for God to lie [that is, his promise and his oath], we who have fled to take hold of the hope offered to us may be greatly encouraged.”
Now let me show you from the book of Galatians what all this has to do with us. (BIG SCREEN TEXT) This is what Paul says in Galatians 3:29, “If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” That is, when we give our lives to Jesus Christ, when we have faith in Jesus Christ, we become true children of Abraham and therefore we become inheritors of the promise made to him many thousands of years ago. Which means that when we become Christians we now stand under God’s blessing and not his condemnation.
And the wonderful news is that this new status before God has nothing to do with how strong or weak our faith is. Let’s be honest. Our trust in the promises of God will go up and down over the years. But the key factor is not how passionately we believe what God says.
I may passionately believe that this pulpit will hold my weight. And I’m sure it will. As far as I know no one has sabotaged the bottom and the music group don’t seem to have a lever which will remove me from public view if the need arise. And despite the cakes people keep on giving me I still find myself shopping for a 30inch waist. So I’m fairly confident that my puny little physique will be supported by this sturdy contraption. But in many ways it doesn’t really matter how much faith I have in the pulpit. Some days I may have more faith in it than others. But regardless of my degrees of faith what matters most of all is the object of my trust. It’s the pulpit which holds me up, not my faith in it. And the same when we consider the promises of God. Over a period of time our confidence in the words of God may change. Our trust may go up and down. But the key truth to remember is that God has, in fact, made a promise.
And when God makes a promise the goods will always be delivered. Let me assure you that the creator of heaven and earth does not employ a customer care team to handle the complaints from people who have failed to receive what he guaranteed. Now, of course, we do sometimes shake our fists at God and accuse him of letting us down. But the key question to ask whenever we feel like having words with the man upstairs is this: Do I have a legitimate complaint? For example, did God promise me a stress free life? Because if not then when I do feel stressed, busy and tired then I cannot point the finger at God and say, “Well, what all this about? I thought life was supposed to be easy as a Christian.”
Or let me take another example. There is often anger directed against God when people are diagnosed with serious health problems. But let’s ask the key question: Did God actually promise me perfect health until I die? Because if not then I have no right to complain when sickness comes my way. And neither do you.
We need to get our expectations right. The pattern of the Christian life, as modelled by the Lord Jesus Christ, is suffering now, glory later. But here is the good news. We can have complete confidence that there will be a later. And it’s all because God made a promise to Abraham many years ago.
So how confident are you that when you meet God face to face he will welcome you into his presence? On a scale of 0 to 10, with 0 representing “I don’t stand a chance” and 10 representing “Get a move on and show me to my room”, where do you think you are on the chart? And why have you placed yourself at that particular point?
I often meet people who have a false confidence in their own goodness and so when they arrive at the angelic security gates they expect to be waved through with no questions asked. Do you know those people? It is a very dangerous position to be in.
To believe everything is okay and yet to discover at the end, when it’s too late, that you have been totally wrong about your eternal destination.
And yet I also meet people who suffer from the opposite problem. Rather than being confident when they should be uncertain, they are uncertain when they should be confident. So ask them is they are going to heaven and they will respond with nervous indecision. “Well, maybe. But I can’t be absolutely sure. Who can?” But listen to what we are told in verse 19. “We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure.” I don’t know if you are someone who is currently tossed around by all sorts of doubts and confusion. Perhaps you are someone who fears you might be heading for an eternity without God. Well, you might be and therefore for some in this room fears like this may be entirely justified.
But the assurance we are to treasure from Hebrews chapter 6 is that when we turn to Christ we become children of Abraham and when we become children of Abraham we are guaranteed to experience God’s blessing when we meet him face to face.
So let’s stay committed to Jesus because God made a promise to Abraham. Secondly, let’s stay committed to Jesus because he is currently a priest in heaven. And for this we turn to Hebrews chapter 7. Now for many Christians the next 28 verses would be categorised as incomprehensible and irrelevant. I saw a few of your faces as I read the passage earlier and the signals I picked up were rather simple to interpret. And I’m sure many of you are currently thinking what went through my head at the beginning of the week. You find yourself staring at the page with no idea what it means and why it matters. So let me show you why this chapter is in the Bible.
And I want to do this by asking two questions about this individual called Melchizedek. First of all, who was he? And then, secondly, why is he the focus of these verses?
First of all, who was Melchizedek? We’re told what he did in verse 1. “This Melchizedek was King of Salem [which we know from Psalm 76:2 was the ancient name for the city of Jerusalem] and he was a priest of God Most High.” When did he live? Well, according to verse 1, “he met Abraham returning from the defeat of the kings and blessed him, and Abraham gave him a tenth of everything.” So quite obviously he must have lived at the same time as Abraham. And yet listen to what we are told in verse 3. He was “without father or mother, without genealogy, without beginning of days or end of life, and he remains a priest forever.” And then verse 4. “Just think how great he was: Even the patriarch Abraham [remember the one who stands at the turning point of the Bible story] gave him a tenth of the plunder!” So who was this extraordinary individual? Well, I think there is only one individual who fits the description. If we had to line up all the potential candidates and choose a name then here’s my suggestion. I’m convinced that Melchizedek was an appearance of the second person of the Trinity before he became a man 2000 years ago. Now I realise this may be a rather new idea for some of you but when we look at the Old Testament carefully, and particularly the opening chapters of Genesis, I think we discover quite a number of occasions when the second person of the Trinity made an appearance here on earth. And when it comes to understanding who Melchizedek was, I don’t know anyone else who else fits the bill so perfectly as the eternal Son of the eternal Father?
But that still leaves us with another question: Why is Melchizedek the focus of Hebrews chapter 7? Let me suggest two reasons. First of all, he is used to show us that the priestly line from the tribe of Levi was only temporary. Listen to verse 11. “If perfection could have been attained through the Levitical priesthood…why was there still need for another priest to come – one in the order of Melchizedek, not in the order of Aaron?”
Now the reason we know another priest, who was not from the tribe of Levi, was destined to come into the world is because of Psalm 110, the Psalm that is quoted in verse 17 and verse 21. Now we don’t know exactly when it was written but we can say for definitive that it came into existence after the Levitical priesthood was set up. And it’s all about the future Jewish Messiah, who according to the Psalm would be both a king and a priest. But here is the really important point to grasp. The Psalm promises that when the Messiah arrived he would not be a priest from the tribe of Levi but a priest who followed in the footsteps of Melchizedek. Or to put it simply: the Psalm is telling us that the days of the Levitical priests were numbered. They were only serving a temporary purpose. The system was never meant to continue indefinitely. And we know this because when it was up and running God promised that he would send a different type of priest into the world to achieve his purposes.
We are not to think of the Old Testament as a gigantic experiment of trial and error. God is not to be viewed as a nervous General trying out a number of different plans to see which one might be successful. The plan was always to send Jesus Christ into the world but before his arrival a number of alternative systems were put into place to prepare for his appearance. So, for example, the Old Testament law, the sacrifices and the Levitical priests were all temporary teaching aids. Now of course they served a useful purpose at the time, and indeed they still do serve a useful purpose when understood correctly, but we need to understand they were never destined to last forever. And one of the reasons why Melchizedek is the focus of Hebrews chapter 7 is to make this point.
The second reason why he is the focus of these verses is to convince us that Jesus really is a priest. I’m sure most of us will understand the importance of ancestry when it comes to choosing the next King or Queen of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
Despite her recent back problems the Queen is in rather good shape for a woman in her eighties but deep down we all know she cannot continue forever. So who will be the next King or Queen to live in Buckingham Palace? Well, just suppose you woke up one morning and saw my cheesy grin spread across the front page of your favourite newspaper. There is large picture of me standing outside Jacksons wrapped in a purple robe and wearing a golden crown. And the headline says: Handsome Scotsman challenges William for the throne! Now I don’t stand a chance of being the next King, do I? I’m sure you can all suggest many reasons why I should never be allowed to move into Buckingham Palace but the easiest way to put an end to my takeover plans is to simply dig out my family tree. And within minutes you will discover that I have absolutely no royal blood running through my veins. To be the next King or Queen we need to have the right credentials.
Now it was exactly the same in ancient Israel. Family tree discrimination laws were in operation. The next leader of the nation was not decided on ability but on the basis of having the right parents. Now I’m pretty sure most of us knew that already. It’s not rocket science, is it? But I suspect what is less familiar to you is that a similar system in ancient Israel decided who could become be a priest. So like being a King it was not a job that anyone could do. You had to have the right birth certificate. So, for example, if at the age of 16 your careers advisor asked you what you wanted to do when you left school you could only mention becoming a priest if you were from the tribe of Levi.
And here was the problem for Jesus. He was not from the tribe of Levi. His parents were both from the tribe of Judah. So how could he legitimately be called a priest? Well, this is where we need the example of Melchizedek. Melchizedek is the first priest mentioned in the Bible and significantly we know he was not from the tribe of Levi. So although many people sincerely believed a person had to be a Levite to serve as a priest, the evidence of Scripture leads us to a different conclusion.
It tells us there is different way. And so therefore despite his well-documented descent from the tribe of Judah our Lord Jesus Christ can legitimately serve as our priest before God the Father.
And what a priest he turns out to be! Have a look at verse 20. “Others became priests without any oath, but he [Jesus] became a priest with an oath when God said to him: “The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind:’ You are a priest for ever.’” So unlike the Levitical priests who could only serve the people until they died, Jesus is able to serve his followers forever. And listen to what this means for us. Verse 24: “Because Jesus lives for ever, he has a permanent priesthood. Therefore he is able to save completely [or alternatively save for ever] those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them.” And I think the next few verses tell us what this means. So listen to what we are told in verse 26. “Such a high priest meets our need – one who is holy, blameless, pure, set part from sinners, exalted above the heavens. Unlike the other high priests, he does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself.” Which leads to the big conclusion in 8:1. And let me just say that if you’ve lost the plot somewhere in the last five minutes this is a fantastic moment to re-engage your brain. Here is the big conclusion. “The point of what we are saying is this: We do have such a high priest, who sat down at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, and who serves in the sanctuary, the true tabernacle set up by the Lord, not by man.”
We are not to picture the Lord Jesus as a frantic messenger boy always trying to the twist the arm of the reluctant Father. That is not how he intercedes for us. Rather, according to these verses, he intercedes for us not so much by what he says but by his presence before the throne of God the Father. Did you notice the posture of Jesus in verse 3? He sits down before the throne of God the Father.
Now if you examine the Old Testament you will discover that none of the other priests ever sat down. They were too busy repeating the sacrifices day after day. But notice that Jesus is different. He sat down. And the reason is because when he sacrificed himself once and for all when he died on the cross he dealt completely with the problem of sin. And that’s how he intercedes for everyone who puts their trust in him. He sits at the very centre of heaven with the visible scars that declare to everyone who can see: the price of sin has been paid!
So where are you on that scale of confidence? Over here at 0, in the middle at five or over here at 10? Now I know it may seem a little presumptuous to place yourself over here at 10 but if we are Christians here this morning and if we understood Hebrews 7 then we must place ourselves at this end of the scale.
It was Benjamin Franklin who famously said, “Nothing can said to be certain except death and taxes.” Now I’m sure we could add one of two other things as well. The certainty of hitting a motorway traffic jam when you are running out of petrol or your little darling needs an urgent toilet stop; the certainty of matching socks being separated in the great laundry of life; and the certainty of Christmas adverts at the beginning of October. But what about this for a certainty? Because God made a promise to Abraham and because Jesus is a priest in heaven then every single Christian is guaranteed a future in the New Creation. So let’s make sure we stick with Jesus until we see him face to face. Let’s pray together.
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