Sunday, January 12, 2014
"Nothing. Better." Sermon: Hebrews 11:39-40
January 12, 2014 Second Reformed Church
This week and next week, Lord willing, we will look at the two concluding sections of this section of Hebrews – which includes verses one and two of chapter 12.
We may remember, in chapter 10 of Hebrews, the author was arguing that the readers of his letter ought not to give up faith under persecution. After arguing this, he turns to a definition of faith: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1, ESV).
And we have said that faith, as the author of Hebrews has explained it, is a conduit – the way we are able to receive something – it is like the gutters and leaders on our homes and apartments which catch the rain and move it from one place to another. Faith receives what God has said and brings it to us – faith moves what we have on the pages of the Bible and what we hear preached into us and by the power of the Holy Spirit who lives in every Christian, we are assured that everything that God has promised and prophesied in the Bible will come to pass exactly as it has been written, and we are convicted – we are absolutely sure – of the reality of those things that God says are reality that we have not seen because we were not there – such as the Creation or the Flood – and those beings which are invisible to us – such as the angels.
Faith is a gift of God which allows us to receive His Word, read it and hear it preached, and know everything that God has said is true and real and certain.
The author of Hebrews then turns to examples of a number of specific people, and then, as we have seen most recently, he looks more generally – since he doesn’t have time to list every possible example – at the fact that faith can lead to victory and to misery, depending on the Will of God. And that fact that we are victorious or suffering says nothing about the reality of our faith or belief. Either are possible outcomes, and we need to be aware of that as we live and die for Christ and hold on to Him for whatever God has seen fit to bring to pass for us and the world – including all of His promises.
The author of Hebrews then turns to his first of two concluding remarks for this section and draws a distinction between those he has talked about in this chapter and “us” – the first century Christians that he was writing to – and, we may argue, all believers from that time forward. And the distinction is this: the Old Testaments saints received nothing. We received something far better.
He makes this argument in four doctrines:
First, the Old Testament saints were commended for their faith.
Second, the Old Testament saints did not receive the promise.
Third, the New Testament saints received something far better.
And fourth, without the New Testament saints, God would not perfect the Old Testament saints.
The first of these is rather obvious, if we have heard any of the sermons over the past several months as we have looked at chapter 11 of Hebrews: the Old Testament saints were commended for their faith. As the author of Hebrews writes:
“And all these, though commended through their faith,”
“These” were commended for their faith – “these” were praised, they were held up as examples, they were shown to be worthy, and so forth.
“These,” of course, are all those people he has talked about in the chapter – and we remember that the chapter is open-ended – in the sense that he tells us there are many more he could have listed – so, in fact, “these” includes all believers from Adam up to, but prior to, the coming of Christ.
He began with Abel in the offering that he offered by faith, which was commended by God. Then we saw Enoch who was taken by God and never experience physical death. To Noah – the one righteous man – with his family – who God saved through the Flood – and repopulated the world. To Abraham whose faith was accounted to him as righteousness – who left everything for God to become a people for God – and with his wife Sarah, bore Isaac, through whom Abraham’s faith was tested.
Then to the faithful twin – who was also a scoundrel – Jacob, who became Israel, and fathered Joseph, and they followed God into Egypt. Joseph died in faith of the Exodus, for whom God raised up Moses, who led the people out of Egypt, instituted the Passover, and brought the people to the Promised Land.
Joshua took up the mantel of faith and led the people up the eastern side of the Jordan, conquering by the Hand of God, and then conquered Jericho, with the help of the faithful prostitute, Rahab, beginning the conquest of Canaan proper.
And we looked at Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, and those that would have been known by the first century Church to have lived by faith, both to victory in God and to misery for God.
Although we did look at some New Testament persons who were victorious and who suffered misery, the author of Hebrews did not. There are two reasons for that – first, he lived sometime in the first century when these histories would have been new and not know by everyone and, more importantly, he is going to draw a distinction in this morning’s passage between those believers prior to Christ’s coming and to those after Christ’s coming.
The first half of the distinction is our second point: the Old Testament saints did not receive the promise.
“did not receive what was promised,”
And in one sense, this does not surprise us that the author of Hebrews says that they did not receive the promise, because he already told us, after writing of Abraham, “These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth” (Hebrews 11:13, ESV).
When we looked at verse 13 of chapter 11 and the verses following it, we said that the promise they were looking for could not merely be Canaan – the Promised Land. The author of Hebrews goes on to explain that the land they were looking for was a “heavenly country” – a “heavenly city.” They were looking for a homeland which was not yet fully available on earth. Although they could come into the Presence of God, they were not in the restored Creation with God in their midst.
So, was the promise that they did not receive the Kingdom of God? No.
Was the Kingdom of God with them in any sense? It would seem so, would it not?
Had the first century Christians received the Kingdom of God? Yes.
We read, “Being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, [Jesus] answered them, ‘The kingdom of God is not coming in ways that can be observed, nor will they say, “Look, here it is!” or “There!” for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you’” Luke 17:20-21, ESV).
But, had the first century Christians received the Kingdom of God in its fullness? No.
The Kingdom of God will not come in all its fullness until Jesus returns.
We read of the Kingdom in all its fullness in Romans: “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:19-23, ESV).
And in Revelation: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:1-4, ESV).
When Jesus returns, and all evil is banished, the Creation will be restored, and the Kingdom will be on earth in all its fullness, and all we who believe will live in the Presence of our God and Savior, Jesus, forever.
And here we have the Promise that was not received by the Old Testament saints: As God first spoke it in His condemnation of the serpent – the devil – “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (Genesis 3:15, ESV).
The Promise which they did not receive was the fulfillment of the Gospel: God come to earth in the Person of Jesus, Who lived a perfect life under God’s Law, died for the sins of everyone who would ever believe, and physically rose from the dead and ascended back to His throne. They did not receive the Promise of the Savior and His finished work for the salvation of all those who would believe. From Adam to the Resurrection, they waited in faith – sure of the Promise they hoped for; convicted that it would come to pass in the future, just as God had promised in the beginning.
Third, the New Testament saints received something far better.
“since God had provided something better for us,”
The author of Hebrews confirmed that Jesus is the Promise in the opening to his letter: “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world” (Hebrews 1:1-2, ESV).
A major part of the book of Hebrews is arguing that the Old Testament Sacrificial System was incomplete and finite. It was never designed to grant forgiveness for all sins or for all time. The best the System could do was forgive all the sins a person confessed for a moment. The Old Testament Sacrificial System was never intended to – and could not – make a person right with God.
The only way for a person to be right with God is for God become a real human being, so He could keep the Law perfectly and credit our account with His Righteousness, and so He could suffer the full Wrath of God for all of the sins of everyone who would ever believe – and survive. The only way for a person to become right with God is for a real human being to live a perfect life and suffer as a substitute for each believer’s sin – eternal Hell. The only way a human could do that is if He is also – at the same time – God Himself.
The Jewish Christians the author of Hebrews was writing to – we may remember – were suffering and wondering if they might have been wrong about Jesus being God, the Savior. They were looking at the possibility of turning back to the Old Testament Sacrificial System to become right with God, so the author of Hebrews labors the point that Jesus is greater than the Law and the Prophets and He, by virtue of His being the Incarnate God, is the only possible way to become right with God.
The Old Testament saints looked forward in faith, clinging to the promises and prophecies of the Savior Who was to come – they did not receive the Promise – they all died before God sent His Son in the Person of Jesus – they were made right with God through believing by faith alone in the Savior Who was to come.
The original audience of the letter to the Hebrews – and all we who believe after Jesus’ first coming – have received something better than the promises of a Savior Who is to come – we have received the Savior. We have seen Him accomplish His work and say, “It is finished!” We know that everything that could ever be done to make a person right with God has been done through the Savior, Jesus Christ. We now look back on the promises and prophecies and recognize that Jesus fulfilled every word of them then and as He returns.
So the author of Hebrews makes sense, does he not? The Old Testament saints were commended for their faith in the Whole Counsel of God – they believed everything God had said and promised and prophesied – especially about the Savior Who would come and make the only way to be right with God. However, the Old Testament saints all died looking forward to the fulfillment of the Promised Savior in history, but it didn’t happen – not then. But Jesus did come – God did come to earth in the flesh and fulfill the Gospel that all we who believe will be saved – so we have received something better in that we know and have a record of Who the Savior is and what He did to complete the work of salvation for us.
One more point:
“that apart from us they should not be made perfect.”
Fourth, without the New Testament saints, God would not perfect the Old Testament saints.
Does that sound weird to you? “Without me, God would not perfect Abraham.” “Without Sunita, God would not perfect Able.” “Without Sandra, God would not perfect Moses.”
We get at an understanding of what he means by his use of the phrase “made perfect.” The author of Hebrews uses this phrase and variations of it more than four times as often in his book than in any other book of the Bible – so he means something – he means something that is important for him.
We have seen him use this several times already:
“For it was fitting that [Jesus], for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering” (Hebrews 2:10, ESV).
Christ brings many to glory by suffering to perfect salvation.
Again he writes:
“And being made perfect, [Jesus] became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him,” (Hebrews 5:9, ESV).
We may remember that when the author of Hebrews says Jesus “became perfect,” he was not saying that there was a time when Jesus was not perfect morally, but there was a time when His work was not complete.
“For the law appoints men in their weakness as high priests, but the word of the oath, which came later than the law, appoints a Son who has been made perfect forever” (Hebrews 7:28, ESV).
Hopefully, we can see that the phrase “made perfect” has something to do with completing Christ’s work. Does that make sense? So, we could read the phrase, “that apart from us they should not have their salvation completed.” OK? Bear with me.
When Jesus saves us, we are justified – we are legally declared sinless by God – Jesus takes the punishment for our sins, we are credited with His Righteousness, and God declares us right with Him.
But we are all still sinners, right? We are now, by the Power of the Holy Spirit, engaged in becoming sanctified – we are becoming holy – inch by inch, step by step, being made into the Image of Jesus.
But when Jesus returns, He will make us holy and we will be glorified – the fullness of the Kingdom will come and we will no longer be able to sin. We will be “made perfect.” Christ’s work of salvation will be complete in us.
OK? I know we did that very quickly, but I hope you get what I am saying.
We looked at what Paul said about the Restoration of the Creation – that it is being “made perfect.” He also writes about it this way: “Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed” (I Corinthians 15:51-52, ESV). When Christ comes again, all the believers who have ever lived will be raised and glorified – “made perfect.”
And here we get the answer to the part of the text that sounds kind of weird – why will God not make perfect all those men and women of faith without us? Because we will all be made perfect together at the return of Jesus as one people – the Church – Christ’s Body. Although there is a sense in which we can talk about individual salvation, God sent His Son to save a people – the elect – all those who will ever believe.
Peter explains that the writings of the prophets were not merely for them but for all those who would believe: “Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories. It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look” (I Peter 1:10-12, ESV).
And Paul explains that when Jesus returns, all the dead in Christ will be raised and join the living in Christ that we, together, would be with Him in the Kingdom forever: “For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words” (I Thessalonians 4:15-18, ESV).
So, after explaining that the Old Testament saints were commended for their faith – as we have seen at length – but did not receive the historical fulfillment of the Promised Savior in their day, the author of Hebrews turns to state that we – from Christ’s day until now, have received the historical fulfillment of the Promised Savior, Who we know is Jesus Christ.
And to show us that the Church is united from the Old Testament through the New Testament and to today – that the Church has always been from the beginning – all those who believe in the Savior God would and did send – that we are not alone – we are neither Lone Rangers who need nobody else, nor are we left alone, but we are members of the Church – members of the Body of Christ – who will be gathered together as one people at the end of the age, when Jesus returns to bring the fullness of His Kingdom to earth, to restore the Creation, and to glorify all of His people, that we may live with Him forever and ever in glory.
God has worked in many different ways and through many different men and women throughout history, but salvation comes only through His Son, Jesus, Alone, and through Him, we are united together as one, waiting to be glorified.
Indeed, let us encourage each other with these things.
Let us pray:
Almighty and Sovereign God, we thank You for the witness of faith of the men and women of the Bible. We thank You that You chose them to believe in the coming of Your Son, and we rejoice that Your Son did come and make one way for us to be right with You. We thank You that You have made us Your people – that we are not alone, but have brothers and sisters in Christ in this sanctuary, around the world, and throughout history. We ask that you would encourage us by each other. And we ask that You would keep that hope ever before us that You are returning to make us perfect and to establish the fullness of Your Kingdom on earth. To You we give all the praise, in Jesus’ Name, Amen.