Hebrews Week 11

A Word of Exhortation: Practice Holiness: Hebrews 12:14–13:25

By Rob Wall
Paul T. Walls Professor of Scripture and Wesleyan Studies

Read this week’s Scripture: Hebrews 12:14–13:25


Painted by Rudolf Schiestl, a depiction of Pilgrimage to Gößweinstein (1927).
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Those of us raised in Seattle are familiar with the loud rumbling notes of the foghorns that sound warnings every couple of minutes when boats are near other vessels in foggy conditions, or when their navigation of Puget Sound is obscured by other dangers in their shipping lanes. Depending on the signal, the foghorn’s low notes instruct the ships’ pilots to slow down or change lanes to avoid collision. The sound blast, when timed, can help the pilot measure the distance from a boat to the shoreline or to other boats. Although radar technology now has replaced the need for foghorns, they remain in use on Puget Sound simply because their sounding lets folks know that there are competent people on watch, ever vigilant to keep their precious cargo safe.

The Preacher is like a ship’s pilot whose pastoral task is to guide his flock to heaven’s harbor through the dangers they encounter on the journey home. His concluding exhortations, typical of other New Testament letters, signal the foghorn’s warning of dangers ahead. We shouldn’t suppose these exhortations are meant to correct practices and behaviors present among the readers; rather, they are more like a captain’s compass intended to safely guide a congregation forward by encouraging them to take certain actions to avoid dangers ahead.

Deuteronomy and the Preacher’s Concluding Exhortations

Scholars have proposed various outlines for this letter’s concluding benedictory. What many have noted, however, are the constant quotes from and allusions to the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy, which provides the conditional (i.e., if…then) logic of the Preacher’s pastoral exhortation. The Preacher’s exhortation throughout the entire letter is thusly shaped: if a people obey God, then they live once for all; but if they fail to obey God, then they will fail to receive what God has promised them, for “our God really is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:29; Deuteronomy 4:24; 9:3).

As we would expect, Scripture sounds the foghorn’s rumbling note! There is a sense in which the Moses of Deuteronomy and the Preacher of Hebrews articulate God’s Word in unison. They both teach a covenant people whose instruction guides them into the Promised Land where the blessings of God their Savior await them. But both stress that their possession of this land is conditioned on their covenant-keeping fidelity to God’s Word.

The Community of Holiness

The wilderness wandering is not a solitary one. We make our way to heaven in a caravan joined by our Christian sisters and brothers. For this reason, the opening exhortations address a congregation’s readiness. The primary verb, a present imperative, “pursue” (Hebrews 12:14), is plural in form: Y’all, pursue peace with everyone! Y’all, pursue holiness! The congregation’s peacekeeping requires “everyone” (12:14) as a practical matter: divided congregations are spiritually ineffective. The word translated “holiness” envisions a formative process that takes place within the bounds of a community of practice. If the congregation is divided, it likely will fail in its pursuit of holiness since disunity subverts the Spirit’s sanctifying work (cf. 1 Corinthians 2–3).

The language of holiness in Hebrews reaches its climax here. The letter’s intended readers have been assured they are already made holy (Hebrews 3:1; 6:10; cf. 13:24) because of Christ (2:11; 10:10, 14, 29). If the community firmly and fully owns its confession of the incarnate One, then it also owns what it has become by God’s grace. The congregation that lives into this new competency lives in a manner suitable for intimate fellowship with its exalted Lord under the terms of the new covenant [see Author’s Note 1]. The imperative mood and present tense of the verb “pursue” imply, however, that our sanctification is also an element of our covenantal relationship with our Lord. Christians are not passive partners in the work of God’s salvation. We are cooperative participants in this formative process by which we become, by God’s sanctifying grace, what we already are: a holy people. Moreover, without our active cooperation in the working out of our sanctification, we will never be made holy, and our future with Christ in the coming age is threatened.

Two Illustrations from Scripture

The Preacher draws two illustrations from Scripture to make clear the urgency of his appeal to pursue peace and holiness as a congregational practice. The first is taken again from Deuteronomy. Remember the “if…then” logic of God’s commands! Readers have already been put on notice by the subsequent exhortation to “make sure that no one misses out on God’s grace” (12:15), an allusion to Deuteronomy 4’s reminder that the exodus generation failed to enter into the Promised Land because of their disobedience in the wilderness. They missed out on God’s grace because they failed to cooperate with it.

The “root of bitterness” (Hebrews 12:15; cf. Deuteronomy 29:18) cues the recitation of a new covenant brokered by Moses for the second generation of Israelites who are destined for the Promised Land (cf. Deuteronomy 29–30) — the analog of the intended readers of Hebrews. Moses sounds Scripture’s foghorn, warning God’s chosen people to avoid the spiritual complacency of presuming their election means they have it made in the shade. God’s saving grace is always cooperative; sometimes God’s people do not cooperate! Obedience to God’s Word, which is “very close to you […] in your mouth and in your heart, waiting for you to do it” (Deuteronomy 30:14; cf. Romans 10:8), is always a condition of being saved, because salvation is worked out within the bounds of a covenant relationship.

The second illustration recalls the story of Esau from Genesis (cf. Genesis 25:29–34; 27:30–40). On the face of it, Esau stands in a long line of biblical figures whose misbehaviors are motivated by present handwringing rather than the hope of future blessings awaiting those who obey God (see Hebrews 12:18–29). The Preacher typically embellishes the biblical story to make even louder those earlier blasts from his foghorn (see Hebrews 6:4–6; 10:26–31; cf. Deuteronomy 29:20–21)! Once again in view is not the believer’s one-off spiritual failure but the more permanent failure of a particular kind: apostasy [see Author’s Note 2]. Esau’s subsequent efforts to subvert Isaac’s blessing of Jacob, through whom the covenant promises would continue, is the type of apostasy the Preacher has in mind. It stands as an example of a flagrant violation of God’s Word. God has a zero tolerance policy for this practice of spiritual terrorism.

The Eschatology of Hebrews

The eschatology of Hebrews — its vision of the future of God’s salvation — is a debated but essential topic of this letter’s contribution to God’s scriptural word. Let me remind us all of two orienting concerns of Hebrews before we head into its most important passage about salvation’s future, 12:18–29. First, the biblical typology of Christian existence that orders the Preacher’s word of exhortation is the exodus story. Like any good story, the exodus story has a beginning, middle, and end. While the Preacher’s word of exhortation addresses readers where they are right here and now, it always looks back to the story’s beginning in Scripture and especially in the incarnation of God’s Son. For this reason, the letter’s introduction to God’s Son begins with the phrase “in these final days” (Hebrews 1:2), which indicates that Christ’s incarnation inaugurates the final stage of salvation’s history according to Scripture. In fact, the Son is the medium through whom God creates “the ages” (Hebrews 1:2; author’s translation), including the “world that is coming” (2:5; cf. 6:5). It is the Son’s priestly work in the past (both revealing God’s Word and redeeming God’s people) that operationalizes the new covenant.

As important as the past is for negotiating the suffering and spiritual testing of our present wilderness wandering, the blessed hope of that journey is its promised destination in the Promised Land, which the Preacher keeps ever before his readers (cf. Revelation 21:1–4). God’s Word provides the map for getting there, but the journey is the challenge of Christian existence, since “no one will see the Lord without [holiness]” (Hebrews 12:14).

Along with its Christology (cf. 4:14; 6:19; 7:26; 8:1; 9:24; 12:24), the other orienting concern of Hebrews is its spatial and temporal interplays between heaven and earth, and between what is already real (our purification from sin) and not yet realized (God’s coming unshakeable reign on earth). These cues mark out a complex biblical account of the universe (cosmology) that reimagines the real world in a way that relates time (now and not yet) and space (heaven and earth) to confirm the hope of God’s people in the consummation of God’s full salvation — all because of the exalted Christ!

Painted by Fra Angelico, a depiction of The Forerunners of Christ with Saints and Martyrs (c, 1423-24).
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In any case, these two cosmic dimensions are in play in shaping the Preacher’s vision of our future into three movements. First, in the past God’s Word was spoken to Moses on Mt. Sinai (12:18–21). Second, in the present God’s Word — incarnate in Jesus (cf. 1:2) and witnessed by his apostles (cf. 2:3) — speaks “to the spirits of the righteous who have been made perfect” (12:23) gathered on Mt. Zion of the heavenly Jerusalem (12:22–24) [see Author’s Note 3]. Third, in the future God’s voice will shake “the things that are part of this creation” (12:27) to secure God’s eternal kingdom on earth as it now is in heaven (12:25–29).

Two Mountaintop Experiences of God’s Word

This revelatory word is thematic in Hebrews because it maps the community’s approach to God, from whom all blessings flow. Characteristic of the Preacher’s exposition of the new covenant, then, a comparison (synkrisis) is drawn between two mountaintop experiences of God’s Word. On Mt. Sinai an untouchable God vocalized “a sound of words” (the noun rhēmōn is used) so frightening that its hearers, including Moses, begged that God would not speak another “word” — in this instance the noun logos is used, probably in reference to the Decalogue (cf. 12:19–20).

The contrast with the people’s joyful reception — a “festival gathering” (12:22) — of God’s Word on Mt. Zion is clear. In this case, the “assembly” (12:23; ekklēsia = congregation) gathered there are Jesus-followers made perfect by His cleansing blood [see Author’s Note 4]. The reference to Jesus as the “mediator of the new covenant” (12:24; cf. 8:6) neatly sums up the Preacher’s exposition of Christ’s incarnation of the divine Word (cf. 1:2), which discloses in personal form the truth about God and God’s plans for creation. His disciples have followed Him to “the city of the living God,” where they are surrounded by their guardian angels (cf. 1:14) and a “cloud of witnesses” (12:1) [see Author’s Note 5].

God’s Unshakeable Kingdom

A hook word, “speak” (12:24 and 12:25), is repeated to connect this comparison of mountaintop experiences with the Preacher’s climactic description of the coming victory of God’s unshakeable kingdom. But the identity of “the one who is speaking” is unclear (12:25). The one speaking from heaven about Christ’s blood (12:24) is not the one speaking (a masculine participle is used) from earth to the readers (12:25). Although debated among scholars, it seems probable that the speaker from heaven is the Preacher, who addresses his readers as the prophetic carrier of God’s Word.

His hard word is clear: to reject Jesus is to reject the revelation of God’s promise of kingdom come — the Promised Land of the covenant-keeping community. In particular, God promises “once again” to shake things up (12:26–27)! The repetition of the Greek word translated “once again” (cited from Haggai 2:6 NRSV) draws upon the Preacher’s earlier uses of this word, where he compares the priestly Christ’s once-for-all-time blood sacrifice for sin with the law’s legal requirements under the old covenant (cf. Hebrews 9:26–28; 10:2). Christ’s messianic death as God’s Son occasions God’s definitive removal of creation’s shakeable things.

While it’s not entirely clear what the Preacher means by his use of the “shake-rattle-and-roll” image (12:26–28), it likely refers to divine activity that consummates the Creator’s plan for a new creation, in which creatures enjoy an unshakeable, eternal rest (Hebrews 4:11), and over which the Son rules with a “rod of justice” (Hebrews 1:8).

The heavenly city (i.e., Jerusalem), residence of the living God (12:22), is also the address of the assembly place where eschatological (end time) Israel gathers to await the consummation of God’s new creation at the risen Lord’s second coming (cf. 9:28). This is where the terms of the new covenant are finally and fully enacted. Those creatures not of a piece with God’s holy character are shaken free and destroyed. Slated for demolition are those who resist the Preacher’s warning (12:25) and refuse to serve the city’s living God with gratitude (12:28). The congregation that “make[s] sure that no one misses out on God’s grace” (12:15) “continue[s] to express our gratitude” to God in worship and praise (12:28) [see Author’s Note 6].

The Exhortations of Hebrews 13

Remember the spiritual crisis addressed by this letter. Disciples live out (or into) their faith in a wilderness of spiritual tests and suffering. While they are cared for by their exalted Priest, they travel to the city of the living God — their Promised Land — in a caravan of grace. Christianity is not a religion of lone rangers, each baptized into their very own Holy Spirit. We are baptized into a covenant community where together we worship, we learn, we love, we receive God’s Word, and we practice it as one body of believers that follows one Lord and is led by one Spirit. The exhortations of Hebrews 13 target that community that is traveling to Zion in a caravan of practice.

Two blocks of exhortations cover two kinds of indispensable practices. The first block of exhortations concerns congregational care one for another (13:1–6). Under the general practice of family love (13:1), readers are encouraged to be hospitable (13:2; cf. Genesis 19:1–11; James 2:21–26; 2-3 John), to care for prisoners and those unjustly treated (13:3; cf. Matthew 25:35–36), to encourage faithful marriages — since God judges the pornographer and adulterer (Hebrews 13:4; cf. 1 Corinthians 6–7) — and to resist a narcissistic consumerism and embrace contentment with a simple lifestyle that depends on God’s faithfulness and the community’s sharing of common goods (13:5; cf. 1 Timothy 6:2–10; James 4:1–5:6; Acts 2:42–47).

Spiritual Leaders

The exhortation to “remember” and “imitate” the community’s past (apostolic) leaders (13:7) is grounded in the apostles’ eyewitness of the historical Jesus, who is the same Jesus for us today and into the future as He was in the distant past (13:8). This exhortation and the Preacher’s subsequent exhortation to “rely on your leaders and defer to them” (13:17), which includes the Preacher himself (12:25), bracket off a second unit of congregational practices that drill down on the importance of spiritual leaders to guide the forward journey of God’s people (13:9–16). These instructions resonate with other New Testament teaching about the character and practices of those who lead Christ’s Church following the departure of His apostles (e.g., Acts; 1–2 Timothy; Titus; 2 Peter; 2–3 John).

Significantly, spiritual leaders protect the congregation against “strange [i.e., non-apostolic] teachings” (13:9). The verb “to defer” (13:17) must be understood in this early Christian context, in which the witness of the apostles as the community’s rule of faith is still under review. Perhaps the contrast “by grace rather than by food” (13:9) hints at yet another misleading teaching, similar to Paul’s concerns about food offered to idols in 1 Corinthians 8–10 and Romans 14 — especially when framed by Acts and its firm rejection of “the pollution associated with idols” (Acts 15:20, 29; 21:25). That is, any religious practice that takes precedence over the triumph of God’s grace because of Christ is to be rejected out of hand. Or as Acts puts it, “Throughout the whole world, no other name has been given among humans through which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).

It is the leader’s responsibility to shepherd the flock away from any distraction or detour, theological or ethical, in order to move her congregation in this single direction (Hebrews 13:17; cf. 1 Peter 5:5). In any case, we must not lose sight of the Preacher’s pivotal exhortation, “go on to perfection” (6:1 NKJV), which regards the congregation’s continuing education in Christ’s “word of righteousness” (5:13), without which their end-time salvation is made impossible.

The Pastoral Benediction

At the letter’s end we find the Preacher’s pastoral benediction (13:18–25). These final words to the readers include one of Scripture’s most famous farewells (13:20–21). But this passage is also the subject of considerable debate among scholars because it has all the marks of a later editor’s addition to someone else’s letter. For example, there is evident continuity from 13:18–19 to 13:22–25, as though the poetic language of 13:20–21 intrudes upon the benediction’s natural, more business-like flow. Moreover, the mention of Christ’s resurrection seems out of place in a letter whose Christology moves readers from Jesus’s death to His exaltation as God’s Son without mention of His empty tomb. The reference to Jesus as “the great shepherd” (13:20) is also odd in a letter that focuses on His priestly, heavenly work. If it is a later addition to the letter (which I think it is), the manuscript evidence also suggests it was part of the letter the postbiblical Church received long after it was written and then recognized as Spirit-sanctified Scripture, suitable for inclusion in the New Testament canon [see Author’s Note 7].

The closing appeals (13:22–25) open a window to the Preacher’s situation and help readers make sense of his letter. He has delivered a “word of exhortation,” a phrase that generally refers to a pastoral sermon. I’ve suggested several times in this Lectio series that this attribution helps us nail down the book’s genre. This facilitates a dialogue between the Preacher’s exposition of Christ (catechesis) and his pastoral exhortation to readers on this basis (discipleship). The two are inseparably intertwined.

The mention of Timothy (13:23) recalls his character in Acts as Paul’s Jewish missionary associate, whom Paul circumcises to facilitate his mission to the Jews (Acts 16:1–5). The Timothy of Acts is symbolic of the thematic thrust of this letter, which uses the biblical images and religious institutions of the Church’s Jewish legacy to secure the majesty and importance of the exalted Christ as God’s Son. The practices of prayer (13:18–19), of greetings (13:24), and of farewells (13:25) are the stuff of epistles’ benedictions and are in common with other New Testament letters. These literary conventions remind readers that they have finished a canonical letter whose purpose is to instruct and encourage a firm and functioning faith.

Questions for Further Discussion

  1. What does it look like in your own life to “work out your sanctification”?
  2. How does the Preacher use the example of the Israelites in the wilderness? What can the story of the “wilderness generation” teach modern-day congregations?
  3. Read Hebrews 13:1–6. Which of these practices come most easily to you? Which of these practices is most challenging to you? Why?

Author’s Notes

Author’s Note 1

The connection between holiness and seeing the Lord is implicit in the Beatitudes (see Matthew 5:8). As a metaphor for a deepened personal relationship, which is what Christians hope for in the coming age, 1 John 3:2 grounds the promise in our knowledge of Christ. Face-to-face contact will enable His disciples to know the exalted Son up close and personal.


Author’s Note 2

The apostasy that grows “the root of bitterness” (Hebrews 12:15) in Deuteronomy 29 is pagan idolatry that Israel encounters during its wilderness journey. Perhaps this co-text allows us to imagine that the Preacher’s concern is for the idols of secular religion: in today’s world, the militarism, materialism, and secular scientism/humanism that challenge Christian faith in increasingly politicized and public ways. Esau is a biblical trope for these kinds of threats too.


Author’s Note 3

The identity of these “spirits” is debated by interpreters both ancient and modern. Most likely they are God’s people (i.e., “the firstborn”) whose faithfulness prompts God to register them as citizens of the kingdom. Presumably they wait in heaven for the Lord’s second coming to earth and the inauguration of the new creation, which they will populate for an eternity.


Author’s Note 4

The reference to “Abel’s blood” and its comparison to Jesus’s “better” (i.e., eternally effective) blood (12:24) recalls the Preacher’s earlier reference to Abel, whose offering of a “better sacrifice” (11:4) exemplifies the believer’s faithfulness to God and to receiving the benefits, then, of Jesus’s blood, thus revealing more clearly God’s covenant-keeping requirement.


Author’s Note 5

The idiom of the Preacher resonates with the Book of Revelation (cf. Revelation 21:1–7), since both visions of the future are apocalyptic. Both are descriptions of divine revelation (theophany). In particular, the phrase “the spirits of the righteous who have been made perfect” (12:23) needs further explanation. The use of “spirits” doesn’t refer to a disembodied existence, but to a manner of life “made perfect” by God’s sanctifying grace. Once made perfect, a believer is capable of sharing life with God in the Spirit’s realm. As such, it is a form of Christian existence that “can’t be shaken” (12:28) when Jesus comes a second time and consummates God’s victory over sin and death (cf. 9:28).


Author’s Note 6

The Greek word translated “gratitude” is literally “to have grace.” It is characteristic of those saints “made perfect” (12:23) by Christ’s blood under the terms of the new covenant. That is, the Preacher’s exhortation describes (rather than prescribes) Christian existence in the kingdom of God. Some scholars take the “therefore” of 12:28 as introductory to the catalog of concluding exhortations that follows in 12:28–13:17. This seems unlikely to me, since the idiom of 12:28–29 continues the apocalyptic cast of the preceding warning, while the general exhortations of 13:1–17 seem more apropos of a concluding benediction characteristic of other New Testament letters. However, in context, the Preacher seems to pick up from 12:14–17 to describe a manner of Christian living that negotiates the spiritual tests of the wilderness, thus preparing his readers for the apocalypse of God’s salvation.


Author’s Note 7

In my opinion, the editor’s purpose in crafting this benediction is to bring other apostolic traditions into interplay with the central theme of this letter: “the blood of the eternal [i.e., new] covenant” (13:20). The shepherd idiom is characteristic of both Johannine (John 10) and Petrine (1 Peter 2:25) traditions, and the centrality of the resurrection is characteristic of the Pauline tradition.



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