Therefore, be filled with faithBy Reta Halteman Finger
This quarter’s theme can be summed up in one word: faith. It’s a short, simple word, but a complex concept. My Greek-English dictionary describes 14 shades of meaning in English for the Greek noun pistis, which can be called faith, faithfulness, reliability, trustworthiness, confidence, and so on.
In our world, “faith” as a personal belief carries a different meaning from “faithfulness” as a way of life and relationship. But these concepts overlap or merge in the world of the Bible.
If asked to name the “faith chapter” in the Bible, many Christians would identify Hebrews 11, the one with all the heroes of faith from the Hebrew Bible. Our text for today comes immediately before that, in the last half of chapter 10. It’s a beautiful, poetic text, which the New Revised Standard Version labels “A Call to Persevere.” But it has a structural problem: it begins with “therefore.” Therefore we must find out what comes before the “therefore.”
The unknown writer of Hebrews loved “therefore.” He or she structured this entire book (actually, a sermon) as a series of theological truths followed by exhortations to action. In other words, if this idea is true, here are the implications of the idea.
Therefore, we must go back at least to the beginning of Hebrews 10 to understand the basic theoretical instruction that precedes the action of verses 19-39.
Looking over Heb. 10:1-18, we can infer that the author is a Jew writing for a Christ-believing Jewish audience. These Jews know Greek philosophy well enough to understand Plato’s “forms” — the idea that things in our visible world are only shadows of the true reality we cannot see. Adapting Plato, the author stresses that the traditional system of animal sacrifice to remove sin was only a shadow of what was to come. “Jesus offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins… . For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified” (10:12, 14). The believer’s sin is forgiven “once for all” (10:10).
“Therefore,” in 10:19-39, we find two implications of the preceding explanation. First, we have confidence to walk through “the curtain” (10:20). Pictured here is the original tabernacle described in Exodus. Only the high priest could enter the back room called the Holy of Holies once a year bearing the sacrificial blood for the forgiveness of the people’s sins.
But in verse 21, Jesus is not only the bloody sacrifice but also “the great priest.” (Though Jesus is not from the priestly line and never otherwise called a priest, Hebrews 7 argues that, through the “order of Melchizedek,” he is a greater priest than any Levitical high priest.) Now believers can walk behind Jesus through the curtain to personally meet the Shekinah, the presence of the living God. We can do this with “full assurance” because “he who has promised is faithful” (10:23).
Now if all this leads to the concept of “eternal security” or “free grace” found in some Baptist and other evangelical churches, we need to read the second implication. “If we willfully persist in sin” (10:26), the whole deal is off. No sacrifice for sin can cover those who think they can coast on a previous “faith” commitment without the ethics that go with it. And the ethics described here are very demanding, involving “a hard struggle with sufferings” (see 10:32-34).
Where do you stand on the knife-edge of “full assurance of faith” (10:22) and “the fearful prospect of judgment” for those who “willfully persist in sin” (10:26-27)? How many of us risk being “exposed to abuse and persecution” by challenging the powers and injustices of this world? Is there a difference between having faith and being faithful?
Reta Halteman Finger, of Harrisonburg, Va., is retired from teaching biblical studies at Messiah College.
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