How to please God
Checklist in Hebrews 13
Before you climb the Sydney Harbor Bridge there’s a checklist that covers your: age, height, blood alcohol reading, pregnancy status, essential medication, and health. To climb the bridge, you need to satisfy all these requirements.
Today we are looking at a checklist given at the end of Hebrews that helps us to keep following Jesus and not turn back to our old ways. Then we will please God by doing His will.
Hebrews was written to Jewish Christians who were being tempted to give up following Jesus and turn back to their Jewish religious customs. Hebrews tells them what God wanted them to know and to do. They were to know three things. First, that Jesus is greater than all their Jewish heroes like the prophets, angels, Moses, and the priests (Ch 1-10). Second, that following Jesus is like running in a marathon race (Ch 10-12). As athletes keep running through adversity, we can keep following Jesus through adversity by: focusing on God and Jesus; encouraging one another; and removing the obstacles that hinder us. Third, the danger of not believing the gospel message because this excludes people from heaven and leads to eternal punishment for one’s sins (Ch. 1-12). Once they knew these truths the final chapter tells them what to do about it.
As Hebrews was probably written to a church about AD 68, which is well after the early days of the church, we can generally apply the principles in it to us today without needing much consideration of the changes since then.
Hebrews 13 begins with three outward things.
Love one another (v.1)
Keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters.
The Greek noun used here is philadelphia (Strongs #5360), which is love among brothers and sisters in a family. It describes the connection and relationship that should be felt with all true Christians. Because God is now like our Father and we are like His children, all who have trusted in Him are like siblings in a spiritual family. That’s why we often call each other brothers and sisters. These metaphors should influence our thoughts and behavior towards each other. Paul wrote, “Be devoted to one another in love (philadelphia)” (Rom. 12:10NIV).
Do we feel the family connection with believers in our church? Do we feel the connection with other believers in our area? In our city? In our state? In our nation? In other nations across the world?
Practice hospitality (v.2)
Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.
The Greek noun translated “hospitality” (#5381) means friendliness shown to strangers. It’s providing them with food and shelter. The Bible also says “Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling” and “Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality” (Rom. 12:13; 1 Pt. 4:9). Christians who were fleeing from persecution certainly needed hospitality. Jesus commended those who showed hospitality, “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in” (Mt. 25:35).
By showing hospitality, we can support God’s people and God’s servants. Abraham (Gen. 18:1-15), Lot (Gen. 19:1-17), Gideon (Jud. 6:11-24 and Samson’s father Manoah (Jud. 13:9-23) each showed hospitality to angels although they didn’t know who their visitors were at the time.
Do we show hospitality to Christians who are in need? Have we taken the initiative and invited them into our home? In this way we can share in their Christian lives and our family can benefit from the interaction. Do we show hospitality to non-Christians? Have we invited a non-Christian into our home over the past year? This can be a blessing to both families.
Practice empathy (v.3)
Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.
Christians were imprisoned and mistreated during this time of persecution. Their colleagues were told to remember them in a particular way. The Greek text says “as being bound with them” in prison and “as also yourselves being in their body” when they are mistreated. This is empathy, which is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person. Paul expressed it as, “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn” (Rom. 12:15). Previously they had “stood side by side” with those who were persecuted and “suffered along with those in prison” (Heb. 10:33-34). Also, Jesus commended those who visited prisoners, “I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me” (Mt. 25:36). Ancient prisons didn’t give prisoners any food, so visits from friends were essential.
Do we have empathy for Christians who are suffering? Can we imagine what it is like walking in their shoes?
Hebrews 13 then addresses two inward things.
Be sexually pure (v.4)
Marriage should be honoured by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral.
Before sin came into the world, God created marriage between a man and a woman. He wants us to hold it in high regard. On the other hand, the Bible says that sexual immorality is a sin against God (Gen. 39:9). Besides the problems it causes in this life, it brings God’s judgement unless one is pardoned through Christ’s death as our substitute.
A reason to honor marriage is because it is to be an example of the loving relationship between Christ and His bride the church (Eph. 5:22-33). Marriage is dishonoured by adultery and sexual immorality, which is having sexual relations with someone who is not your spouse. Sexual sin impacts one’s relationships, family and Christian witness. It has more influence on one’s life than other sins (1 Cor. 6:18). God’s people need to exercise self-control in this area. After all, one of the gifts of the Spirit is self-control.
How are we influenced by the loose sexual standards in society today? What about pornography? If we are married, are we faithful to our spouse?
Be contented (v.5-6)
Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” So we say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can mere mortals do to me?”
These Christians were tempted to want more money and what it can buy. Paul used the same Greek adjective (#866) to say that a church elder shouldn’t be “a lover of money” (1 Tim. 3:3). He also learnt “to be content whatever the circumstances” and taught that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil”, which brings griefs and causes people to wander from the Christian faith (Phil. 4:11-13; 1 Tim. 6:6-10). Instead they were to be content with what they had, which was Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.
Verse 5 quotes Moses at the end of his life telling the Israelites that God would help them possess the land of Canaan, “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the LORD your God goes with you; He will never leave you nor forsake you” (Dt. 31:6). This strong promise is the key to being freed from the love of money. It’s realizing that God is always with us; we’re never alone.
Verse 6 quotes the Israelites giving thanks to God for deliverance from their enemies “The LORD is with me; I will not be afraid. What can mere mortals do to me? The LORD is with me; He is my helper” (Ps. 118:6-7). Nothing can separate us from God and His love and His promise of eternal life. Likewise, Christians can trust God for their safety, protection and economic welfare. They shouldn’t fear financial loss or poverty. Instead trust God to take care of you.
If we believe the promise that the Lord is always with us and empowers us, then we will love one another, show hospitality and empathy, be sexually pure, and avoid the love of money.
Are we contented with what we have in life? Or are we discontent and influenced by materialism? Are we greedy? Are we afraid of the future? Or do we trust that the Lord is with us?
Hebrews 13 then looks at how we live our spiritual lives, beginning with a source of strength to live a Christian life like this.
Follow godly church leaders (v.7-8, 17)
Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.
They are given the example of godly church leaders to follow and imitate. In the past these leaders had taught them God’s word. The leaders kept following Jesus throughout their lives – they were faithful despite the difficulties, and they finished well. They didn’t go back to their previous Jewish ways of worship. That’s the kind of faith to follow and imitate.
These leaders’ teaching and faith was based on the fact that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (v.8). This means that His character is the same, not that He does the same things in every age. As God, He has the same love, wisdom, righteousness, power, knowledge and plan. He never changes His mind because of unforeseen circumstances.
Church leaders are also mentioned in v.17.
Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you.
Church elders are to care for (“keep watch over”) the spiritual welfare of the congregation. Elders are accountable to God at the Judgment Seat of Christ for this pastoral care. This is serious business. They will be asked, what did you teach? How did you live? How did you care for the lonely, the suffering, and the disobedient?
The congregation is to respect, trust and follow such godly leaders (elders) because of the work they do. This gives them joy and the congregation benefits.
If we are an elder are we a godly example for the congregation? Are we keeping watch over them? Do we pray for them regularly? Are we interested in their spiritual growth? Are we ready to give an account of our time and effort used in this task? If we are in the congregation, do we respect the elders? Do we pray for them? Are we willing to let them take an interest in our spiritual growth?
Next they are urged not to return to the false teachings of Jewish legalism.
Follow Jesus (v.9-12)
Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings. It is good for our hearts to be strengthened by grace, not by eating ceremonial foods, which is of no benefit to those who do so. We have an altar from which those who minister at the tabernacle have no right to eat (v.9-10)
Holiness doesn’t come from following rituals and food laws, which were some of the false teachings they were being tempted to follow. Only God’s love and kindness shown to us by Jesus can empower believers to live holy lives through their relationship with God. It takes inner strength to live the Christian life as it is described in Hebrews 13.
Then it says “we have an altar”, which is a figure of speech (metonymy) for Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. Through it we can have forgiveness and hope. Instead of Jewish rituals and rules, we have Christ’s supreme sacrifice and the blessings it brings. All those involved with the Jewish religion had no right to the better things of Christianity (because they rejected Jesus as their Savior). They must first confess and repent of their sins and accept Him as Lord and Savior.
The high priest carries the blood of animals into the Most Holy Place as a sin offering, but the bodies are burned outside the camp. And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through His own blood. (v.11-12)
Under the Jewish sacrificial system, certain animals were killed and their blood was brought into the most holy place of the temple by the high priest as a sacrifice for sin. The people’s sins were symbolically transferred to the sacrificial animal. The body of the animal was disposed of away from the temple (or “outside the camp”) (Ex. 29:14; Lev. 4:12, 21; 9:11; 16:14, 27). Likewise, Jesus was crucified outside Jerusalem at a place where criminals (those rejected by society) were punished (Jn. 19:17). His death enabled us to have our sins forgiven so we can be holy before God. It says that God can make us holy through the death of Jesus (“His own blood” means His death).
Are we tempted like the Jewish Christians to go back to our old ways of life? To the things that occupied us before we changed to follow the Lord.
Because of Jesus, Christians don’t need to sacrifice animals. Instead they offer different sacrifices.
Suffering, praise and good works (v.13-16)
Let us, then, go to Him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace He bore. For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come. (v.13-14)
Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise—the fruit of lips that openly profess his name. And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased. (v.16-17)
Instead of offering sacrifices at Jerusalem, as Christians they were to offer three other kinds of sacrifices. The first is a sacrifice of suffering for Christ (v.13-14). Because Jesus suffered outside the city of Jerusalem to meet our need (v.12), Christians are urged to join Jesus in His sufferings (v.13). “The camp” represented their old Jewish religion centred at Jerusalem (for us it can mean our previous way of life before we followed Christ). The Jewish believers escaped from Jerusalem because they were persecuted and ridiculed by the Jewish religious leaders for following Jesus (Acts 8:1-4). They suffered insults and shame. As disciples of Christ they denied themselves, took up their cross and followed Him (Mk. 8:34). Likewise, to meet the needs of this world we need to leave our comforts and security. Instead of putting our efforts into building our lives in this world, which won’t endure; we should be putting them into heaven, which is everlasting.
The Jewish religion was centred on the city of Jerusalem. That’s where the temple was.
But Christians don’t have a special city on earth. Instead, they look ahead to the new Jerusalem (the coming city) where God and Jesus are enthroned (v.14). Unlike earthy cities, this city is permanent and secure. They long for heaven and its joy and eternal pleasures (Ps. 16:11). Because they are satisfied with all that God has done, they long to be with Him. They value the Creator above the creation. They’re only visiting this planet, it’s not their home.
The second is a sacrifice of words of praise offered to God through the Lord Jesus (v.15). It’s “through Jesus” because that’s the only way we can approach God (Heb. 7:25; 10:19-21). He’s our mediator. This is to be “continual” verbal praise, not just on Sunday. Every day of the week and in good times and bad times (Acts 16:23-25). It flows from our satisfaction with God and longing to be with Him (v.14). How can we creatively mention our faith in Jesus and God’s greatness and goodness in our conversations? Are our meetings God-centred?
The third is a sacrifice of good works (v.16). It says “to do good and to share with others” who are in need. This would include the things mentioned earlier in the chapter, such as using our time and possessions in loving one another, and showing hospitality and empathy. Living for others. Doing the good works that God has prepared for us (Eph. 2:10). Then a reason is given for doing this “for with such sacrifices God is pleased”. God is pleased with this sacrifice because when we live like this, we show that He is more valuable than the things of this world. If God is our treasure, we’ll serve Him by helping others instead of being devoted to the things of this world.
How do we rate on these sacrifices? Are we willing to suffer and be ridiculed because we are a Christian? What about moving outside our churches to evangelize our neighbourhoods, our cities, our nation and the nations of the world? Do we have a heart of praise? Do we live for others?
Up to now the book of Hebrews has been like a sermon, but it finishes like a letter.
Keep praying (v.18-19)
Pray for us. We are sure that we have a clear conscience and desire to live honorably in every way. I particularly urge you to pray so that I may be restored to you soon.
The writer appeals for their prayers. Because he says he has a clear conscience and desires to live honorably in every way, he may have been attacked by Jewish critics. As he also asks them to pray that he might be able to visit them soon, it seems as though he had been delayed. Perhaps he was in prison (v.23). Prayer is another way to seek God’s help to live a life that pleases Him.
Do we pray for others?
The writer now expresses his final desire and prayer for those he is writing to.
Recognize God’s work (v.20-21)
Now may the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, equip you with everything good for doing His will, and may He work in us what is pleasing to Him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.
He calls God the “God of peace”, because through Jesus we can have peace with God. Our sins separate us from God, but through Jesus we can be reconciled and draw near to God.
The fact that Jesus was raised back to life after being in the tomb showed that His mission was accomplished – His death paid the penalty owing for the sin of humanity. Because of this we can share in God’s eternal covenant, which is also called the new covenant. A covenant is a promise, and because of what Jesus did, we know that God keeps His promises.
Jesus is called the “great Shepherd of the sheep”, which is a metaphor for a great leader of all the redeemed. Sheep need guiding to fresh pasture and protection from predators. Because He is alive, and because by His Spirit He is always with us, He can guide and protect those who follow Him.
His prayer was that God would give them the desire and resources to do His will and the power to carry it out (also see Phil. 2:13). Doing God’s will is what pleases Him. Then they could be faithful and keep following and serving Christ and have inner strength and faith to persevere to the end (Jer.32:40).
All this equipping believers and pleasing God is achieved “through Jesus Christ”. It’s the same explanation as given for how Paul learnt to be content in all circumstances: “I can do all this through Him who gives me strength” (Phil. 4:13). That’s why Jesus deserves glory and praise for ever and ever.
Do we give Jesus glory, honor and praise as our great spiritual leader? Do we realize that God equips us and works in us? Are we like Paul whose goal was to please God (2 Cor. 5:9; Col. 1:10; 1 Th. 4:1)?
We have seen that an understanding of the greatness of Jesus, the importance of perseverance and the danger of unbelief needs to be expressed by loving one another; showing hospitality and empathy; sexual purity; avoiding the love of money; following Jesus and godly church leaders instead of false teachings; persevering in the Christian faith by accepting suffering, by continual praise and by doing good works; prayer; and by letting God work though us.
In 1935 a Boeing B-17 aircraft crashed when being evaluated by the US Army. The crash was caused by pilot error. When they realized that flying the plane was too complex to rely on the pilot’s memory, they developed checklists to make sure nothing was forgotten.
Let’s use this checklist in Hebrews 13 to keep following Jesus and not turning back to our old ways. Then we will please God by doing His will.
Written, May 2015
Also see summary of the book of Hebrews:
Never give up!