Better and Enduring Riches in Heaven
I enjoy teaching first-year Bible school students topics like hermeneutics, studying the methods needed to correctly interpret the Bible. It has consistently been our hardest and most helpful class. Students begin the course by asking, “Herman Who?” but they finish with a basic understanding of how to rightly interpret Scriptures. One hermeneutical principle can be summed up with the simple equation, W + C = M. If I were to tell you, W equals words and M equals meaning, would you be able to guess what C means (without looking ahead to the next sentence)? Words plus what equals meaning? C stands for context. Words plus context equals meaning.
For Bible study, this becomes even more important because so many Hebrew and Greek words have a large semantic domain. Simply put, words can have a variety of meanings. We can’t always know exactly what the original intent of the writer was unless we also know the context in which those words were first communicated. Let me give you an example in English: “The plate broke.” When you read these three words, you may have tried to picture it in your mind. If you ever worked in a restaurant you probably thought I was referring to a dinner plate. Perhaps you pictured it falling off a table, or slipping out of someone’s hand, and then it broke. But I could have been thinking of one of the other eight items that the letters P…L…A…T…E can be referring to. Only if I add some context does the meaning become crystal clear: “He slid into second so hard that the plate broke.” All along, I was referring to an ESPN highlight I saw regarding a baseball player who slid home so violently that he actually broke the plate! But what if I was a geologist working in California who, when announcing, “The plate broke,” was referring to an earthquake that broke the tectonic plate under the Earth’s crust. What if, instead, I was operating a crane that was placing metal plates over highway construction ditches? When a chain suddenly snapped, down came the plate with such force onto the pavement that…the plate broke. Webster’s Dictionary lists eight definitions for the word plate, the last one being: “a schedule of matters to deal with, Example: I have a lot on my plate now.”
Words plus context equals meaning. So when we conduct Biblical word studies, we examine the context. Context is defined as “the parts of a discourse that surround a word or passage and can throw light on its meaning.” When we study books of the Bible, we examine not just the immediate context, but also the cultural, literary, and historical contexts. When studying Paul’s Epistles, for example, we can research and know about the culture of the area he was writing about, the type of writing, who’s doing the writing, and what was happening (and had happened) in the history of that particular area.
Then we come to Hebrews. Its context is very hard to discern in many ways. As far as the literary context, or what type of genre it is, at least that’s clear. Hebrews is defined as “a word of exhortation” (13:22), which is the same way Paul’s sermon in Antioch was defined in the Book of Acts as previously mentioned in Chapter One (See Acts 13:15). But the usual hermeneutical questions, “What happened, who, when, why and how?” are all unclear. For example, who wrote Hebrews? Some scholars are sure Paul wrote it, while others are just as sure he didn’t. Origen, who lived from 185 to 253 A.D. famously declared, “Only God knows who wrote this Epistle.” If that question was unanswerable way back then, it probably will always remain so. Perhaps it was meant to be that way. Perhaps Paul wrote it, and given the hostility he faced from so many of his own Jewish countrymen, maybe he (and the Lord) felt it best he write it anonymously. Or perhaps Priscilla or some other female leader wrote it, but she was wise enough to know its message was for all people, even those who are adamantly against women teachers in the church!
Who were the recipients? No one knows for sure. It has a final greeting, “Those from Italy greet you” (13:24). This seems to say that those who are with the writer (and send their greetings through him) are from Italy. Was the author writing from Italy? “Those from Italy” could instead describe Italians living outside their homeland, and that Hebrews is directed to people living in Italy, possibly in Italy’s capital, Rome. A number of solid commentaries on Hebrews agree that the writer is probably writing a church in Rome made up of Jewish and Gentile believers. That, however, is just a good educated guess. If it was written between the first and second major waves of persecution that swept through the early church in the Roman Empire, it would fit the facts within the letter. Historically, it does appear this Epistle was written between the persecution under Nero and the one to come under Domitian. If so, these believers endured the first wave of persecution, but were not spiritually ready for the more severe one on the horizon. This sermon appears to be given in the hopes of getting them ready for it.
How can we interpret this Epistle correctly when we can only guess its definite historical context? The lack of context in one area is made up by the fact that we know a whole lot about the condition of the recipients. Throughout Hebrews, the Pastor powerfully expounds on Old Testament passages that speak of Christ, such as Psalm 2, Psalm 97, and Psalm 110. All of the sudden, in Chapter Ten the curtain is pulled back and we get a full view of the former condition of these believers. The description of their condition doesn’t begin in Chapter Ten, but their past spiritual condition when they first were saved is expressed there. The importance of knowing about their past condition is a major key to understanding and interpreting this forty-five-minute sermon accurately. So let’s pick up from where we left off in Chapter One:
But call to remembrance the former days, in which, after ye were illuminated, ye endured a great fight of afflictions; partly, whilst ye were made a gazingstock both by reproaches and afflictions; and partly, whilst ye became companions of them that were so used. For ye had compassion of me in my bonds, and took joyfully the spoiling of your goods, knowing in yourselves that ye have in heaven a better and an enduring substance (Hebrews 10:32-34, KJV). Here’s the same passage in the New Living Translation and The Message Bible:
Think back on those early days when you first learned about Christ. Remember how you remained faithful even though it meant terrible suffering. Sometimes you were exposed to public ridicule and were beaten, and sometimes you helped others who were suffering the same things. You suffered along with those who were thrown into jail, and when all you owned was taken from you, you accepted it with joy. You knew there were better things waiting for you that will last forever (NLT).
Remember those early days after you first saw the light? Those were the hard times! Kicked around in public, targets of every kind of abuse—some days it was you, other days your friends. If some friends went to prison, you stuck by them. If some enemies broke in and seized your goods, you let them go with a smile, knowing they couldn’t touch your real treasure. Nothing they did bothered you, nothing set you back (The Message).
The Pastor (which is how I will refer to the author) wants these folks to remember what they went through when the first were saved. The persecution was real and intense. They went through suffering of various sorts. They were:
(1) made a spectacle both by reproaches and tribulations,
(2) became companions of those who were so treated,
(3) and experienced the plundering of their goods.
Some of them were imprisoned for their faith. Just by visiting those prisoners, the others would expose themselves to ridicule and plundering. Later, the Pastor encouraged them to continue to care for the imprisoned: “Remember those in prison, as if you were there yourself. Remember also those being mistreated, as if you felt their pain in your own bodies” (Hebrews 13:3, NLT). While in jail, Paul would ask his friends to bring him some bare necessities: “When you come, be sure to bring the coat I left with Carpus at Troas” (2 Tim. 4:13). This tells me the prisoners in those days not only weren’t given Gideon Bibles, but they weren’t even given adequate clothing. Prison ministry took on a deeper meaning back then. The Roman Historian Sallust said of a first-century prison, its “neglect, darkness, and stench” gave it “a hideous and terrifying appearance.” If those new believers were to visit their fellow believers in prison, it would set them up to becoming “spectacles.” That word literally means being brought onto stage, an idiom for becoming publicly ridiculed. Why were they being reminded of their past victorious endurance of severe persecution? They needed to be reminded of how they were victorious.
The Pastor gives a specific and prophetic warning to them in Chapter 12: “You have not yet resisted to bloodshed, striving against sin” (verse 4). He seems to be telling them that the persecution they once faced was mild in comparison to what was ahead for them. If this letter was to believers in Rome, history books tell us that the persecution under Domitian was filled with martyrdom, and much blood was shed. These believers were willing to accept public scorn in their attempts at ministering to imprisoned fellow believers, and they also joyfully accepted the plundering of their goods that resulted. Let’s imagine for a moment that you lived in a Communist or an Islamic country. Picture someone knocking on the door of your home and asking if you were a believer in Christ. If you say, “Yes,” you might be taken away to jail. You would know that if you ever got out (this side of eternity), all your earthly goods would have been plundered. The car in your garage, the furniture in your house, and all your electronic gadgets would have been taken from you; and not returned. These believers went through something similar and remarkably, they went through it with joy! They “joyfully accepted the plundering of their [earthly] goods” because they kept in mind that in heaven there was waiting for them better and eternal blessings, things that no man could ever plunder. Our heavenly blessings awaiting us are both better and longer lasting than anything in this earthly life. Jesus told us to, “Store up treasures in heaven where moth and rust cannot corrupt” (Luke 12:33).
The Lord once warned Jeremiah, If you’re worn out over small trials, what are you going to do when really hard times come? If you have run with the footmen, and they have wearied you, then how can you contend with horses? And if in the land of peace, in which you trusted, they wearied you, then how will you do in the floodplain of the Jordan? (Jeremiah 12:5-6) Commentaries tell me that when the Jordan River would flood, ferocious lions would come out of the thickets and roam the land. Proverbs 24:10 says, “If you faint in the day of adversity, your strength is small.” The Pastor tells them to remember what they went through and how they went through it. The reality of heaven’s future joys enabled them to successfully endure. They knew that the best of Earth pales in comparison to our heavenly rewards. The treasures in heaven are better and permanent. When that truth is a burning reality in your heart, you can endure anything, and joyfully endure.
If we start our Christian walk strong and then begin to waver, the Lord may remind us of our past as a way of encouraging us to follow our own good, prior example: Go and shout this message to Jerusalem. This is what the Lord says: “I remember how eager you were to please me as a young bride long ago, how you loved me and followed me even through the barren wilderness. In those days Israel was holy to the Lord, the first of his children” (Jeremiah 2:2, NLT). I have this complaint against you. You don’t love me or each other as you did at first! Look how far you have fallen! Turn back to me and do the works you did at first. If you don’t repent, I will come and remove your lampstand from its place among the churches (Revelation 2:4-5, NLT). These believers in Hebrews were encouraged to not cast away their confidence, knowing that when the Lord returns, they will be richly rewarded. The Pastor then quotes from Habakkuk a verse that declares that it is by faith we are to live: Therefore do not cast away your confidence, which has great reward. For you have need of endurance, so that after you have done the will of God, you may receive the promise: “For yet a little while, and He who is coming will come and will not tarry. Now the just shall live by faith (from Hab. 2:4); But if anyone draws back, My soul has no pleasure in him.” But we are not of those who draw back to perdition, but of those who believe to the saving of the soul (Hebrews 10:35-39, NKJV).
The Pastor is going to give to these weary, sluggish believers a whole list of examples through whom they can find encouragement and instruction of how to, by faith endure joyfully what they were facing and soon to face. If all the examples in Hebrews Chapter 11 were to be grouped into one huge Faith Hall of Fame, we then can simplify these examples into three categories:
1. The example of their past victorious experiences,
2. The Old Testament heroes of the faith, and
3. The shining example of our Lord Jesus.
All of these examples, we will see, lived by faith…and primarily faith in the reality of heaven’s future rewards. And in their endurance, they were not only joyful but also sympathetic and empathetic. This is where this study on Hebrews is heading!