Proper 16 • Hebrews 12:4–24 • August 25, 2013
By Thomas Manteufel
The letter to the Hebrews was written to exhort Jewish Christians in the first century to remain steadfast in faith and dedication rooted in Jesus as the Messiah promised to Israel, resisting all temptations to live in impenitent disobedience, or forsake their confession of his claims to be their Prophet, Priest, and King. One of the helps furnished to them is the admonition to remember what it means to be in the Family of God.
This theme is rooted in the truth of the gift of adoption which belonged by faith to Israel (Rom 9:4, 6, 8), whom the Lord called “my firstborn son” (Ex 5:22). As the apostles teach, that privilege of being accepted as the children of God belongs to all sinners, even Gentiles, who through trust in the only-begotten Son of God are counted as offspring and heirs along with him (Rom 8:15–17; Jn 1:12–14). So the church of Christ is truly called in our text today “the assembly of the first-born” (v. 22). At least three implications of being treated by the Father as his children are powerful helps to Jews and Gentiles alike in following Jesus as the Messiah, the saving Christ.
Our Life in the Family of God
I. Afflictions in Christians’ lives are our Father’s discipline of us as his children (vv. 5–11).
A. We may not realize this fact, but think, even complain or else lament in despair, that hardships, losses, and griefs mean that God is angry with us, condemns us, or is insensitive and unconcerned toward our sufferings. But in reality they show his love, as a wise and unerring Father, who wants to use all these things as rebukes, corrections, even judgments (1 Pt 4:17) of our bad attitudes, unloving words and actions, mistreatment of neighbors, and all the besetting sins which we need to lay aside in order to grow spiritually and serve him better (Heb 12:1). We may be assured that there is no wrath toward those who are reconciled to Him through the propitiation of his dear Son, our elder Brother (1 Jn 2:2; Rom 8:l). Rather, in his love the Father wants us, his children, to become like him—to share his holiness (v. 10), though we experience it slowly and imperfectly now, until he bestows the final freedom from all sin in the eternal life with him (see the Large Catechism under the Third Article, paragraphs 35–59). In all the Father’s chastisements and crosses he, it has been said, “sends his love-letters in black-edged envelopes”—they seem like announcements of bad news, but are actually good tidings of a plan for restoration.
B. Though the chastisements, afflictions, crosses, and losses are indeed painful, they have the purpose of training for living righteously, of awakening us again and again to our need for God, of strengthening our desire to be free from sin, of making those who have suffered actually able to say, as one child of God did: “I am glad to say that this disease has brought me back to my Savior, and I trust in the future to be a better Christian than I have ever been heretofore.”
II. The proper life in the family of God is one of peace and mutual concern and help for the brothers and sisters (vv. 12–17).
A. The stronger members of the body of Christ can be an encouraging example for the weaker (that the crippled limb may be made well, v. 13). An example is the case of the nurse who was deeply impressed by her Christian patient’s faith and thanksgiving in the midst of affliction: “For the first time in my life I have seen a really satisfied girl. If Christ can satisfy that lifelong invalid in her suffering, he will satisfy me.”
B. It is proper and fitting for the children of God to care for each other’s spiritual welfare (v. 15). Each then truly wants the others to be among those who will see the Lord and who are going through the sanctifying restoration which he gives to the justified (v. 14).
III. The children of God are encouraged in their chastisements and crosses by the heavenly hope (vv. 18–24).
A. They can be refreshed by focusing on their destiny as the assembly of the first-born (vv. 22–23). So, then, in the pattern of their elder Brother (v. 2), they endure for the joy which is set before them.
B. They then have not the fear of the threats of the law (vv. 18–21), but the hope of heavenly joy because of Jesus’s blood shed for them (v. 24).