The Jamaican singer Sean Paul said “The whole world is under pressure right now — the financial meltdown, war, terrorism, people are dealing with a lot so I wrote ‘Never Give Up’ about how I felt and how other people are feeling, too”. It’s a powerful song with a message of hope and strength for people who are struggling in Jamaica.
The book of Hebrews was written to Christians who were struggling and were tempted to give up following Jesus. This post addresses the highlights of this book where we see that we can keep following Jesus despite adversity.
Hebrews was written to Jewish Christians who were being persecuted for their faith (12:4-13; 13:3). Because of their hardship and suffering, they were tired and weak (12:3, 12-13). This also impacted their spiritual lives. They were being tempted to give up following Jesus and turn back to their Jewish customs. They were spiritually weak.
The book is written like a sermon, rather than a letter. It’s a “word of exhortation” and the same phrase is used in Acts to describe a sermon (Acts 13:15; Heb. 13:22). Also “say” and “speak” are used consistently instead of “write” (2:5; 5:11; 6:9; 8:1; 11:32).
Hebrews deals with the struggle of leaving one religious system for another. In this case it was leaving Judaism for Christianity. Leaving the inferior for the superior. It promotes the supremacy of Jesus Christ above all other spiritual teachers. This book also shows how to deal with persecution and keep following Jesus even when we are tempted to give up. It also stresses the danger of not believing the gospel message.
As Hebrews was probably written to a church in about AD 67-70, 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 tells them what God wanted them to know and to do. They were to know three things. The first thing they were to know is that Jesus is better than all their Jewish heroes.
Jesus is greater than …. (Ch 1-10)
Jesus is superior to the prophets (1:1-3). The revelation of God’s truth is added progressively in the Bible as we move from Genesis through to Revelation. The Old Testament was written by the prophets. What Jesus taught is summarized in the gospels. His teachings supersede those of the Old Testament prophets. Other reasons why Christ is superior to the prophets are that He made the universe and sustains it. He is the divine God. While the prophets predicted the Messiah (Acts 10:43), Jesus was the Messiah. Through His death, our sins can be forgiven. And after His resurrection and ascension, He now sits on a place of honor and privilege at God’s right hand. So of course He is greater than the prophets. Today we can say that Jesus is greater than experts and scientists.
Jesus is also superior to angels (1:4-14; 2:5). Angels brought messages from God and protected God’s people. As Son of God, Jesus has a close relationship with God the Father. The angels praised God at His birth (Lk. 2:13-14) and will worship Christ when He returns to rule over the earth (1:6). Jesus is in a position of honor and power at God’s right hand, while angels serve God’s people (11:13-14). Jesus did what angels couldn’t do, He became a human being and offered His perfect life as a sacrifice for our sin. So of course He is greater than the angels. Today we can say that Jesus is greater than those promoting spiritual experiences.
Jesus is also superior to Moses and Joshua (3:1-6; 4:6-11). Jesus represents God to us and also represents us before God. He is a mediator or go-between. Moses served the Israelites, but Jesus was equal with God who made them His people. While Joshua was unable to provide rest for the Israelites in the land of Canaan, it is available through Jesus Christ. So of course He is greater than Moses and Joshua. Today we can say that Jesus is greater than the leaders of nations.
Jesus is also superior to the Jewish high priests (4:14 – 5:10; 6:20 – 8:2). He represents God to us like a high priest did for the Jews. But the eternal priesthood of Jesus has replaced the temporary priesthood of Aaron. Because of Jesus, both the Jewish priesthood and the Jewish law have been replaced. When Jesus died this was signified by the tearing apart from top to bottom of the curtain to the Most Holy Place in the temple. (Mt. 27:51; Mk. 15:38; Lk. 23:45). Jesus didn’t need to offer sacrifices for His own sins because he was sinless. Also, “He offered Himself”, not an animal. So of course He is greater than the Jewish high priests. Today we can say that Jesus is greater than the religious leaders.
Jesus’ sacrifice is also superior to the Jewish sacrifices (8:3 – 10:14). His sacrifice only needed to be offered once, not annually like Yom Kippur. It was “once for all”. It brought in a new covenant that could include all nations, not just Jews. So of course Jesus’ sacrifice is greater than the Jewish sacrifices. Today we can say that Jesus’ sacrifice is greater than our good works.
Because Jesus is greater than all our heroes and all our desires, He’s the greatest of all. So let’s follow and live for Him.
After Hebrews 10:18 the book changes from doctrine to practice, and the next two chapters give reasons to keep following Jesus even when we feel like giving up. The second thing they were to know is that following Jesus is like running in a marathon.
Keep on running (Ch 10-12)
The writer says the Christian life is like running a marathon and urges them to endure and persevere. It’s not an easy jog. We must be ready to continue, persist, and keep going. That’s why this blog is titled, “Never give up!”. A key passage of the book is:
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before Him He endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider Him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.” (12:1-3NIV)
He gives them three ways to keep following Jesus. First, by focusing on God and Jesus and believing God’s promises given in the Bible. We don’t run in our own strength because Jesus creates and completes our faith. We can “draw near to God” by meditating on God’s word the Bible and praying to Him. Second, by encouraging one another to love and good deeds. This means putting others above ourselves and not giving up meeting together. And third, by removing obstacles that hinder us following Jesus. We can throw them off by establishing boundaries and practicing discipline.
Hebrews also gives five reasons to keep following Jesus even when we are tempted to give up. These are: because Jesus is the greatest example (He is the only way to a relationship with God and has paid the price for access to heaven), because of other people who lived by faith (Hebrews 11 gives many other examples of people who lived by faith in Old Testament times), because of our past experience (they had endured persecution and suffering in the past), because of God’s promises (their spiritual blessings were more valuable than their physical possessions, and they could look forward to the coming resurrection), and because adversity develops our character (God is teaching us, correcting us and transforming us like a parent trains a child).
For these reasons we can keep following Him even when we feel like giving up when facing adversity.
The third thing they were to know is the danger of not believing the gospel message because this excludes people from heaven and leads to eternal punishment for one’s sins.
God’s greatest warning (Ch. 2-12)
Five warnings are also included in the first 12 chapters of Hebrews. These warnings are written in strong language. They are imperatives and commands, not just models to follow. While Noah and the Old Testament prophets warned their generations of God’s imminent judgment (2 Pt. 2:5), these warnings apply to us today.
The first warning is against “drifting away” and ignoring God’s gift of salvation by remaining in unbelief (2:1-4). The Bible says ignoring the gospel leads to disaster. The second is against “unbelief”, which is dangerous because it leads to missing out on heaven (3:7 – 4:13). This book was written to professing Christians; they were not all true believers. Some were unbelievers; they had “sinful unbelieving” hearts. The third is against “falling away”: the danger of apostasy, which is hearing the gospel and renouncing it instead of accepting it (6:4-8). In this case, it’s impossible for them to repent. The fourth is against “deliberately sinning after knowing the truth”, because the apostate will be punished severely for rejecting the gospel and opposing Christianity (10:26-31). This punishment is worse than death – because it goes beyond death. Finally there is a warning against “turning away”, where unbelievers are warned of a greater punishment than experienced by the Israelites in the wilderness (12:25-29).
So, unbelief and apostasy are dangerous. God’s greatest warning for us is the danger of not believing the gospel message because this excludes people from heaven and leads to eternal punishment for one’s sins. Are we warning unbelievers? In particular an apostate (a professing Christian who becomes a traitor or spiritual terrorist who undermines Christianity) is doomed to punishment in hell. You can read all about them in the book of Jude.
The only way to escape God’s anger, judgment and punishment is to accept Christ’s sacrifice in the place of sinners like us. Let’s do this and turn around (repent) and persevere by trusting God day by day.
Once they knew these truths the final chapter tells them what to do about it.
How to please God (Ch 13)
Hebrews 13 begins with three outward things (13:1-3). They were to love one another like siblings in a spiritual family, to be hospitable to strangers and to have empathy for Christians who are suffering by sharing their feelings.
It then looks at two inward things (13:4-5). They were to be sexually pure because 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). They were also to be contented in order to avoid the love of money. This is possible by realizing that the Lord is always with us by His Spirit and can be trusted for our safety, protection and economic welfare.
Hebrews 13 then looks at how we live our spiritual lives, beginning with a source of strength to live a Christian life. They were to respect and follow godly church leaders (13:7-8, 17). The leaders kept following Jesus throughout their lives – they were faithful despite the difficulties, and they finished well. They also cared for their spiritual welfare.
Next they are urged not to return to the false teachings of Jewish legalism (13:9-12). 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 gained by following Jesus to live the Christian life as it is described in Hebrews 13.
Because of Jesus, Christians don’t need to sacrifice animals. Instead they offer different sacrifices, including suffering for Christ, words of praise offered to God through the Lord Jesus, and good works (13:13-16). God is pleased when we live like this, because it shows that He is more valuable than the things of this world.
Then they are urged to keep on praying because prayer is another way to seek God’s help to live a life that pleases Him (13:18-19). Finally they are to recognize God’s work through Jesus Christ, whose death paid the penalty owing for the sin of humanity (13:20-21). His prayer was that God would give them the desire and resources to do His will and the power to carry it out. And that they would let God work through them.
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.
Lessons for us
Let’s read the book of Hebrews when we are struggling and tempted to give up following Jesus. It reminds us that Jesus is better than all our heroes, that following Jesus is like running in a marathon, the danger of not believing the gospel message, and how to please God.
Do we realize that Jesus is superior to all our heroes? He is greater than all other spiritual teachers. Because He is unique, let’s encourage each other to follow Jesus as Lord. Are we reminding each other of the greatness of Jesus and what He has done and God’s promises in Scripture?
Are we encouraged to persevere and keep following Jesus even when we are tempted to give up? This is evidence of genuine faith in Christ. Let’s encourage one another to keep following Jesus.
Do we know the danger of not believing the gospel message because this excludes people from heaven and leads to eternal punishment for one’s sins? Have we accepted God’s rescue plan by confessing our sins and trusting that Jesus has paid the penalty for them?
So from the book of Hebrews we see that we can keep following Jesus despite adversity.
Written, December 2015
I have received the following comment about a post on whether Christians should gather together on the Sabbath day.
I am so disturbed to learn that we as Christians have decided that the Sabbath which was commanded by God can be dealt away with. There is nowhere in scripture we are told to change that. In face Jesus says if you love me follow my commandments. There was no new commandment set by Jesus to abandon the sabbath. He said I came to do my fathers will. Sunday worship comes from Rome and the worship of Roman gods. The same goes for Christmas and Easter. All these are pagan celebrations which has infiltrated the church. The true Christians under Paul and Peter never celebrated anything besides preaching on the Sabath. In the book of Revelation, John declares he saw seven golden candle sticks, a symbol from the old testament and Christ was in the midst of this. The God, Yahweh has never changed and will never changed. His laws remains the same till the end of time. I truly believe its satan worship if we tell Christains to worship on Sunday’s and don’t follow the laws of God. That’s against everything God stands for, if you love me keep my commandments. Which commandments? We still obey the laws because we Gentiles are the spiritual Israelites, but our path way salvation is Christ not just obeying the Law. I dont understand why anyone will teach this to the Christian world that you can disobey the Creator because of what man has decided it’s the new religion. Wake up and come out of Babylon, we are called by God and not by man. There if God says 7th day is the week is the day of worship, nothing changes because Yahweh doesn’t change. The first day of the week is the worship of the Sun God, do some research and you will know Constantine started this with the Roman Church. You cannot change God’s Law or command. Jesus said I came to fulfill, not to change. Jesus said I came to do my fathers will. So there is no where Sunday worship was instituted and declared the Holy Day of the Lord. Brother George ask the Holy Spirit for deep teaching and insight so you don’t deceive his children. Shalom
This post is based on a survey of the instances when the Sabbath day (7th day of the week) is mentioned in the New Testament between Acts and Revelation inclusive. These are the books of the Bible that apply to the Christian church, which began on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2). In the previous books of the Bible (Exodus to John), the Israelites (or Jews) are God’s special people on earth who are commanded to obey the Mosaic law (which included animal sacrifices, male circumcision and keeping the Sabbath). Because there is no Jewish temple (with altars for sacrifices) or priesthood, today it is impossible to practice the Mosaic covenant as it was followed in the Old Testament.
We will see that the model given in Scripture for the early church was for Sunday observance, which was different to the Jewish practice of Sabbath observance.
In this post we look at whether the instances of Sabbath day observance between Acts and Revelation are a command, a model to follow or merely a report of events. Instances of Sunday (1st day of the week) observance will be considered in the same way so the two can be compared.
Is Sabbath day observance a command, a model or a report?
Sabbath observance commanded
I am not aware of any command to observe the Sabbath day between Acts and Revelation in the Bible. It is interesting to note that the other nine of the ten commandments given to Moses are repeated as commandments for Christians in this portion of Scripture, but the 4th commandment isn’t. Also, when they joined the early church which was largely Jewish, the Gentile Christians weren’t commanded to keep the Sabbath (Acts 15:19-20). Furthermore, Sabbath breaking is never mentioned as a sin in this portion of the Bible.
But if Sabbath observance isn’t commanded for the church, is it modelled?
Sabbath observance modelled
During his first missionary journey, Paul preached in the Jewish synagogue at Pisidian Antioch on two Sabbath days (Acts 13:14-49), but the message was rejected by the Jews. Then Paul preached to the Gentiles and they accepted the message. Paul and Barnabas left this town when they were expelled by the Jewish leaders (Acts 13:50-51).
During his second missionary journey, at Philippi Paul went outside the city gate to the river on the Sabbath day, where he expected to find a place of prayer (Acts 16:13-15). Paul must have preached there because Lydia responded to his message. But Paul and Silas had to leave this town after they were imprisoned. According to the NIV Study Bible, there were so few Jews in Philippi that there was no synagogue (ten married men were required), so the Jews who were there met for prayer along the banks of the Pangites river. It was customary for such places of prayer to be located outdoors near running water.
Next Paul visited Thessalonica where: “As was his custom, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Messiah had to suffer and rise from the dead. ‘This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Messiah,’ he said. Some of the Jews were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a large number of God-fearing Greeks and quite a few prominent women” (Acts 17:2-4). After this the Jewish leaders forced them to leave the city.
When Paul visited Corinth during his second missionary journey “Every Sabbath he reasoned in the synagogue, trying to persuade Jews and Greeks. When Silas and Timothy came from Macedonia, Paul devoted himself exclusively to preaching, testifying to the Jews that Jesus was the Messiah” (Acts 18:4-5NIV). But when the Jews opposed him and became abusive, Paul went next door and preached to the Gentiles.
So on his missionary trips Paul had a custom of visiting synagogues on the Sabbath. Why did he do this? What did he do there? From the four accounts summarized above we see that he preached that Jesus Christ was the Jewish Messiah that was promised in the Old Testament. Paul kept on doing this until he was forced to leave because of Jewish opposition. Then he preached to the Gentiles. So the purpose of this custom was to preach the message about Jesus to the Jews because they knew about the Old Testament. Paul only went to the synagogue on the Sabbath because there was an audience there for his message.
What is the example for us to follow? It is about preaching about Jesus whenever there is an opportunity and not about observing the Jewish Sabbath day. The other main occurrence of preaching to the Jews was Peter’s address on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:14-41). This was on a Sunday because the day of Pentecost was the 50th day after the after the Sabbath of Passover week (Lev. 23:15-16). So the apostles preached whenever the Jews were gathered together, whether it was on the Sabbath or on Sunday. The day of the week they preached wasn’t important to them.
Furthermore, there is no evidence that the early church met on the Sabbath. The meetings that Paul attended on the Sabbath during his missionary journeys were meetings of Jews held in a synagogue.
But if Sabbath observance isn’t commanded or modelled for the church, is it reported?
Sabbath observance reported
I am not aware of any other verses between Acts and Revelation in the Bible that are related to observance of the Sabbath day. The only other occasions the Sabbath is mentioned are in Colossians and Hebrews.
Paul prohibits Christians being condemned for not following particular food or drink regulations and for not observing particular religious activities that are held on an annual, monthly or weekly basis: “Do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ” (Col. 2:16-17NIV). The examples given in this passage are arranged in the order of annual, monthly, and weekly. From Numbers 28:9-25 it is clear that the religious festivals were the annual Jewish festivals (such as the Passover), the New Moon celebration was the monthly Jewish offering, and the Sabbath day was the weekly Jewish Sabbath. As Christ has come, there is no value in keeping these things that foreshadowed His coming. Observance of these holy days is no longer required. Today we celebrate the reality, not the shadows.
Also, the “Sabbath-rest” in Hebrews 4:1-11, is different to the Sabbath day. This is the spiritual rest of salvation through faith in Christ (Heb. 11:2-3) that is likened to the physical rest of the Sabbath. Christians rest in the completed work of Christ (Mt. 11:28-30).
How does this compare with what the New Testament says about Sunday observance?
Is Sunday observance a command, a model or a report?
Sunday observance commanded
I am not aware of any command to observe Sunday (the 1st day of the week) between Acts and Revelation in the Bible.
But if Sunday observance isn’t commanded for the church, is it modelled?
Sunday observance modelled
When they visited Troas during Paul’s third missionary journey, Luke reported “On the first day of the week we came together to break bread. Paul spoke to the people and, because he intended to leave the next day, kept on talking until midnight” (Acts 20:7). In the previous verse it says that they stayed in Troas for seven days. Although he was in a hurry to travel to Jerusalem over the next month Paul seems to have waited until he could meet with the local church when they celebrated the Lord’s Supper on the first day of the week (Acts 20:6, 16). This is the most likely meaning of the saying “we came together to break bread”. It didn’t mean an ordinary meal, because they would have had these during the rest of the week and because Paul preached and taught as well. The Lord’s Supper and the apostles’ teaching, which are mentioned on this occasion, were two of the corporate activities of the early church (Acts 2:42). Therefore, the statement in the comment that “The true Christians under Paul and Peter never celebrated anything besides preaching on the Sabbath” is false.
Was this an unusual farewell meeting, and not necessarily indicative of normal practice? The fact that Paul spoke to midnight was probably unusual as the reason given for this is “because he intended to leave the next day”. But there is nothing in the passage to indicate that their celebration of the Lord’s supper was unusual or that Paul speaking after this celebration was unusual. In fact the prime reason given for meeting together on Sunday was to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. There is a spiritual connection between the Lord’s supper and Sunday – the former symbolizes Christ’s death and the latter His resurrection.
So it seems as though it was the practice of the early Christians to gather together on the first day of the week in order to observe the Lord’s Supper and carry out other corporate activities.
When Paul wrote to the believers in Corinth he urged them to support needy believers in Jerusalem, “Now about the collection for the Lord’s people: Do what I told the Galatian churches to do. On the first day of every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with your income, saving it up, so that when I come no collections will have to be made” (1 Cor. 16:1-2).
Paul doesn’t say exactly how this money is collected, “set aside” or saved up. The Greek noun translated “collection” (Strongs #3048) only occurs I these two verses and none other in the Bible. According to Thayer’s Greek Lexion, in this context it means “money collected for the poor”. The passage seems to promote systematic giving. There was to be a collection each week so that the amount could accumulate over time and there would be no need for a collection when Paul came. So it was a corporate collection, not one done individually (if it was individual, there would need to be a collection when Paul came). If Paul wanted the collection to be done “at home” he could have included this phase as in 1 Corinthians 11:34; 14:35. This means that the finances of the early church were centralized as they were amongst the apostles when Jesus was on earth (Jn. 12:6; 13:29). So it seems as though it was the practice of the early Christians when they gathered together on the first day of the week to collect money from each other to support the needy.
Although Sabbath observance is modelled for the church, is it reported elsewhere?
Sunday observance reported
I am not aware of any other verses between Acts and Revelation in the Bible that are related to Sunday observance. The only other possible mention of the first day of the week was when John said he saw a vision of Christ “on the Lord’s Day” (Rev. 1:10). The only other occurrence of this Greek adjective (Strongs #2960) in Scripture is a reference to the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:20). According to the NIV Study Bible, “The Lord’s Day” is a technical term for the first day of the week because Jesus rose from the dead on that day. It could indicate that John and the early church treated Sunday in a special way among all days.
Some think that Romans 14:5-6 addresses Sabbath or Sunday observance, but there is no evidence of this from the context of this passage.
Sabbath observance and Sunday observance compared
We have seen that the Greek noun for Sabbath (Strongs #4521) is associated with Paul preaching in the synagogue. It’s an example of Paul adapting to the customs of the Jews in order to win them to the Lord. “Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law” (1 Cor. 9:19-20).
On the other hand, the phrase “the first day of the week” (Strong’s #1520 and #4521) is associated with gathering together to celebrate the Lord’s Supper (Acts 20:7). This phrase is also linked in the gospels with Christ’s resurrection (Mt. 28:1; Mk. 16:2; Lk.24:1; Jn. 20:1). So the resurrection of Christ seems to be the reason why the early church met on Sunday and this practice has continued down through the ages. Of course Christians can meet on other days of the week as the Bible doesn’t prohibit this. But there is no spiritual connection between the Lord’s supper (and His resurrection) and the Sabbath day.
I am not aware of any command given between Acts and Revelation in the Bible to the early church to observe either the Sabbath day or Sunday. There is no biblical command that either Saturday or Sunday be a day of worship.
It seems as though it was the practice of the early Christians to gather together on the first day of the week in order to observe the Lord’s Supper and to carry out other corporate activities including collecting money from each other to support the needy. But it’s not a day of rest or a holy day like the Sabbath was for the Jews. The only Christian practice in the Bible that’s related to the Sabbath is preaching about Jesus whenever there is an opportunity. As one of the opportunities was when Jews gathered on the Sabbath, that was when Paul preached (until he was rejected by the Jewish leaders). There is no model to follow for the church to meet on the Sabbath. It was only the Jews who held their services on the Sabbath.
A study of the portion of the Bible written about and to the early church (Acts to Revelation, inclusive) shows evidence for Sunday observance of the Lord’s supper and other corporate activities by Christians, but there is no evidence of Sabbath observance.
So the model given in Scripture for the early church was for Sunday observance, which was different to the Jewish practice of Sabbath observance.
Written, September 2015
Also see: What about keeping the Sabbath day?
I’ve been told that Christians should keep the ten commandments as they were God’s law and not the law of Moses. Is this true?
I went to a church service that was held on Saturday instead of Sunday and was told that was when we should worship God what does the Bible say about this topic?
After he was out drinking with some mates one night, Jonothan Beninka tried to walk home along a railway track. But he fell and knocked himself out and finished up in hospital after being hit by a train. He lost an arm, a leg and some fingers. Every day he feels like crying because of the impact of his injuries on the relationship he has with his family. He can’t pick up his children like most dads. One decision changed his whole life forever.
When we look at the lives of the sons of Jacob in the Bible, we see that our choices have consequences. In particular, sinful behavior has negative consequences.
The nation of Israel was named after Jacob whose name was changed to Israel (Gen. 32:28; 35:10). Jacob had 12 sons and in those days the position of leadership of the family clan was usually passed on to the eldest son. And the eldest son’s birthright was a double portion of the inheritance (Dt. 21:17).
But we see from the Bible that the tribe of Judah (4th son) became prominent instead of the tribe of Reuben (1st son) – king David was a descendant of Judah (10th generation, 1 Chron. 2:1-15), Jerusalem the capital of Israel was located in their territory and they were the last tribe to be conquered and taken into captivity. This was unusual because Judah was the fourth oldest son of Jacob and not the firstborn.
Of Judah’s descendants, the most prominent in the Old Testament is king David and the most prominent in the New Testament is Jesus Christ. Jesus was the promised Jewish Messiah (Isa. 9:6-7; Jer. 23:5-6), the “son of David” (Mt. 1:1; 22:42; Lk. 1:32, 69; Rom. 1:3; 2 Tim. 2:8; Rev. 5:5; 22:16).
After the Babylonian exile, the Israelites were called “Jews”. This name is derived from the word “Judah” and was used because, by that time, virtually all Israelites were descendants of the kingdom of Judah (the rest had assimilated into other nations). Also, the Jewish religion was known as “Judaism”. So Judah’s prominence is reflected by these words.
Jacob’s last words
When he was on his death bed Jacob gave a farewell message to each of his sons (Gen. 49:1-28). Beginning at the eldest and progressing to the youngest, he predicted what was in store for their descendants.
Although he is the firstborn, Reuben is told he is unstable and will not excel because he slept with his father’s concubine Bilhah (Gen. 35:22, 49:4). In those days it was customary for new kings to assume the harem of their predecessors (2 Sa. 3:7; 12:8; 16:21; 1Ki. 2:22). So this was an arrogant and premature claim to the rights of the firstborn. Because of his sin of incest, Reuben lost the rights of the firstborn. His right to extra land was given to Joseph (1 Chron. 5:1-2) and his leadership right was given to Judah.
If the eldest son lost the rights of the firstborn, we would expect these rights to be transferred to the second-born son. Simeon was Israel’s second son. Israel tells Simeon and Levi (his third son) that their descendants would be scattered and dispersed within the nation of Israel. This was fulfilled when the Levites weren’t given an allocation of land like the other tribes and Simeon’s allocation was surrounded by Judah’s – the tribe of Simeon was assimilated into the tribe of Judah. (Josh. 14:4; 19:1-9). The reason given is that they were angry, cruel and violent (Gen. 49:5-7). For example, after their sister Dinah was raped by Shechem (Gen. 34:1-7), Simeon and Levi killed all the men of the city and plundered their women, children, and possessions (Gen. 34:25-30). Also, this increased the threat of the Canaanites attacking Jacob’s family.
Jacob’s greatest and longest blessings are given to Judah and Joseph (Gen. 49:8-12; 22-26). Judah is promised leadership over the other tribes, which was fulfilled by king David. Jesus Christ was also a descendant of Judah (Mt. 1:3; Lk. 3:33). Judah would be praised for victories over their enemies. Their supremacy is symbolized by the lion’s supremacy in the animal kingdom. Some of Judah’s descendants are also promised peace and prosperity (Gen. 49:11-12).
So, there are two main reasons why Judah was the most prominent tribe of Israel. First, Reuben forfeited his rights by his incest and Simeon and Levi forfeited their rights by their cruelty and violence. They were disqualified for misconduct. Judah was the next in the order of birth and that is why he received the blessing. Second, this prominence was prophesized by Jacob before he died.
But the brother’s treatment of Joseph also offers some insight into this topic.
Treatment of Joseph
Joseph was Jacob’s favorite son. After Joseph dreamt that his family would bow down to him, his brothers were filled with jealousy and hatred toward him (Gen. 37:4-5, 8, 11). When Joseph was sent by his father to visit his brothers, they plotted to kill him. Judah’s leadership potential is shown when they agree to his suggestion to sell Joseph into slavery rather than kill him (Gen. 37:26-27). Joseph is taken to Egypt where he rises to a prominent position before there is to be a famine. During the famine, his brothers travel to Egypt seeking food.
When Joseph commanded his brothers to bring Benjamin to Egypt, Reuben told his father that he would put both of his sons to death if he didn’t bring Benjamin back (Gen 42:37). On the other hand, Judah said that he would guarantee Benjamin’s safety and be personally responsible for him (Gen. 43:8-9). If he didn’t bring Benjamin back, then he would bear the blame all his life. Here we see that Judah was willing to take personal responsibility for Benjamin’s safety, whereas Reuben offered his sons to take the consequences instead.
When the brothers returned to the city because Joseph’s silver cup was found in Benjamin’s sack, the Bible says that “Judah and his brothers” went into Joseph’s house (Gen. 44:14NIV). And then Judah responded on behalf of the brothers when Joseph said “What is this you have done?” (Gen. 44:15-34). So Judah takes a leadership role amongst his brothers. He also offered to stay at Joseph’s in Egypt instead of Benjamin so that Benjamin could return to his father (Gen. 44:33-34). This is in accordance with his previous offer to take personal responsibility for Benjamin’s safety.
When Jacob’s family moved to Egypt during the famine, “Jacob sent Judah ahead of him to Joseph to get directions to Goshen” (Gen. 46:28). So Jacob recognized Judah’s leadership role in his family.
So we see that before Jacob made his predictions, Judah took a leadership role in his family and took personal responsibility for Benjamin’s safety. His conduct qualified him for this role.
Lessons for us
The choices made by Reuben disqualified him from receiving the rights of the firstborn. These rights weren’t transferred to Simeon or Levi because of the choices they made. But the rights were transferred to Judah because of how he chose to behave. So, our choices have consequences.
Reuben, Simeon and Levi experienced negative consequences because of their sinful behavior. So sinful behavior has negative consequences.
What has changed since then? We aren’t Israelites living under the law, but Christians living under the new covenant instituted by Jesus. Our eldest sons don’t inherit leadership of the family or a double portion of our wealth. Instead, humility is important and we receive spiritual rewards after death at the Judgment Seat of Christ. So, our choices do have consequences – in this life and after death.
Sin separates us from the God who empowers us. It weakens us. So our sinful behavior does have negative consequences. It can also have some lasting consequences as Jonothan Beninka found out. But when we confess and repent of our sin, our relationship with the Lord is restored (1 Jn. 1:9).
Written, July 2015
“The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog” is a sentence that contains every letter of the alphabet. It has been used to practice writing and typing and to display the characters of computer fonts. The hare and the tortoise is a story where the slow tortoise wins a race with a fast hare. This sentence and this story both contrast something that is fast with something that is slow. James also contrasts the fast and the slow when he writes in the Bible,
“Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires” (Jas. 1:19-20NIV).
The context of this passage is that the book of James describes how the Christian life is to be lived. After addressing external trials and internal temptations, he turns to obeying God’s word.
Are we “quick to listen” to what God tells us in the Bible? Are we ready to listen to godly advice? This is the first step to accepting God’s word and obeying it (Jas. 1:21-22).
Are we “slow to speak”? Do we keep a tight rein on the words we say (Jas. 1:26). Or do our words give us away? Are we hypocrites who both praise God and denigrate other people (Jas. 3:9-12)?
Are we “slow to become angry”? Do we lose our temper?
Are we “quick to listen” to other people or are we long-winded (Job 16:3)? If we listen attentively to what people say, then we will come to know what life is like for them. Who speaks the most during our conversations? Is it more about us or more about them? If it’s us then we are probably not listening enough. Let’s be ready to listen so we can reflect the person’s feelings and summarize what they are telling us. Then listen again to their response and see if we were right. Don’t assume we know what life is like for them. It we haven’t understood properly, they can correct us. Such listening is a vital skill in caring for each other.
As Jesus said a tree is recognized by its fruit (Mt. 7:20), the state of our spiritual life is evident from our attitudes and behavior. Do we show the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23)?
So there’s a time to be fast and a time to be slow. As followers of Christ, let’s be “quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry”.
Written, July 2015
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!
What do we fear? Terrorist attacks? The rise of radical Islamism? Danger? Crime? Failure? Rejection? Change? Loss? The future? The unknown? Uncertainty? Being alone? Unemployment? The rising cost of living? Economic recession? Climate change? Immigration? Pain? Death? Dentists? Public speaking? Heights? Snakes?
Fear can help us respond to a dangerous situation, but constant fear is debilitating. This can lead to anxiety, which is prevalent today.
The fear (reverence and respect) of God is a feeling of awe and praise of a small creature before their immense Creator. This type of fear is unusual today.
Let’s look at what the Bible says about these types of fear. We’ll see that through the Holy Spirit, Christians can be courageous when others are fearful. Although we shouldn’t be afraid, healthy fears help us live godly lives and we need to reverence and respect God and Christ as our Lord.
There are at least 10 Greek words that are used in the New Testament to describe “fear”. The two most common ones are:
phobeo (Strongs #5399) is a verb which means either to fear and be afraid, or to reverence.
phobos (Strongs #5401) is a noun which means either fear, or reverence and respect for authority.
In this study we looked at the 81 occurrences of all the 10 Greek words for “fear” in the books of the Bible written to the early church; Acts to Revelation inclusive (see the references in the next four sections). These occurrences were grouped according to whether they were about fear or about reverence/respect. We begin by looking at the fears of unbelievers.
Fears of unbelievers
Sometimes the first-century Jewish and Roman authorities were afraid. The captain of the temple guard and his officers didn’t use force to recapture the apostles because they feared that the people, who highly regarded the apostles, would stone them (Acts 5:26). The magistrates were afraid when they heard that Paul and Silas were Roman citizens because they had been beaten publicly without a trial (Acts 16:38). Likewise, the Roman commander in Jerusalem was afraid when he found out that Paul was a Roman citizen because he had put him in chains (Acts 22:29). Later because he was afraid that Paul would be torn to pieces by the crowd, the commander had Paul taken to the barracks (Acts 23:10).
When Paul was a prisoner he was sent to Italy by ship. A storm with hurricane force winds struck when they were near Crete and the ship was driven towards Malta for 14 days. During the storm, the sailors were afraid the ship would run aground, and near Malta they feared the ship would be dashed against the rocks (Acts 27:17, 29).
People are afraid when they face punishment. When we do wrong we are afraid of those in authority because we will be punished (Rom. 13:4). Those living under the law feared God’s judgment, but believers don’t live in this fear (Rom. 8:15). When a Philippian jailer thought all his prisoners had escaped after an earthquake, he was about to kill himself. After Paul reassured him that all the prisoners were still there, the jailor was convicted of his sinfulness and he fell trembling before Paul and Silas and asked what to do to be saved from going to hell (Acts 16:29).
Unbelievers will be afraid when they face God at the Great White Throne to be judged because their names are not in the book of life. The degree of their punishment will be according to the evil deeds they have done. When Paul spoke about the judgment to come, Felix was afraid (Acts 24:25). An apostate is someone who professed to be a Christian and attended a local church, but abandons the Christian faith. The Bible says they will be fearful when they face God’s judgment (Heb. 10:27, 31). Unbelievers (whose destiny is hell, not heaven) are described as being cowards because, unlike the overcomer, they are afraid to believe that Jesus is the Son of God (Rev. 21:7-8).
People of the earth will be afraid after God’s future judgments. When two of God’s witnesses are resurrected after being martyred, those who see them will be afraid (Rev. 11:11, 13). After the two witnesses ascend to heaven, there will be a severe earthquake and the survivors will be afraid. When Babylon falls, the kings of the earth and the merchants will be afraid (Rev. 18:10, 15).
Finally, people are afraid of dying. The Bible says this fear is like slavery (Heb. 2:15).
These are mainly examples of fearing danger, punishment, and death. They may be called protective fear where people respond to protect themselves. This is a healthy kind of fear. In the case of chronic fear, people are too anxious and doubtful to respond appropriately. This is an unhealthy kind of fear, which keeps us from doing things we should do. It is an anxiety which can lead to depression and mental illness (such as phobias, which are persistent fears of objects or situations).
Next we look at the fears of those who trusted in God.
Fears of believers
People are afraid when they see a demonstration of God’s power. Moses trembled with fear at the burning bush and was greatly afraid at the sight at Mount Sinai (Acts 7:32; Heb. 12:21). Cornelius was afraid when an angel spoke to him (Acts 10:4). And people were afraid when they heard how Ananias and Sapphira died (Acts 5:5, 11).
Christians should fear sin and its consequences. We should be afraid that some people haven’t yet accepted God’s plan of salvation and so they aren’t going to heaven (Heb. 4:1). If an elder sins in such a way as to harm the testimony of the church they are to be rebuked publicly so the others may fear falling into sin (1 Tim. 5:20). When responding to victims of apostasy, we should fear being trapped by the allure of sin (Jude 1:23).
Paul was afraid about the effectiveness of his preaching and teaching ministry. He was humble when he visited Corinth as he came in weakness with great fear and trembling (1 Cor. 2:3). Paul was afraid that the Corinthians may be deceived by false teachers and that if he visits them, they will be disorderly (2 Cor. 11:3; 12:20). At Macedonia, he was harassed by internal fears because he was hoping that Titus would give him news about the church in Corinth (2 Cor. 7:5-7). This was alleviated when Titus told him about the Corinthians’ sorrow and their longing to see Paul. Also, Paul was afraid he had wasted his efforts in Galatia because they were following Jewish practices (Gal 4:11).
Sometimes the apostles were told to not be afraid. At Antioch, Peter separated himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of bullies in the circumcision group (Gal 2:12). But he stopped this after he was rebuked by Paul. When he was on the island of Patmos, John fell at His feet when he saw Christ, but was told to not be afraid (Rev 1:17). After Paul was converted he escaped Damascus (as the Jews planned to kill him) and went to Jerusalem. When he tried to join the disciples, they were afraid of him because they didn’t believe that he was a disciple (Acts 9:26-27). But they accepted Paul after Barnabas told them about Paul’s conversion and preaching.
These are mainly examples of fearing God’s power, sin and its consequences, pride, and that one’s preaching and teaching may not be effective. These are healthy fears as they are associated with godly living.
Courage is the opposite of fear; it’s the ability to face danger without fear. Next we look when those who trusted in God demonstrated courage instead of fear.
Moses’ parents weren’t afraid of the kings edict to drown every Hebrew boy that is born and Moses didn’t fear Pharaoh’s anger (Heb. 11:23, 27). The Psalmist wasn’t afraid when he was in trouble because the Lord was with him (Heb. 13:6).
The early Christians were to be courageous when they faced persecution. They were not to fear threats or be frightened when persecuted and not retaliate, but endure it patiently and be kind to their persecutors (1 Pt. 3:14). The church in Smyrna was told not to be afraid of persecution and to be faithful even to the point of death (Rev 2:10). All this is possible because the Holy Spirit makes believers courageous and not timid; “For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid (fearful), but gives us power, love and self-discipline (2 Tim. 1:7NIV).
One night the Lord spoke to Paul in a vision and told him to not be afraid because “I am with you” and no one would harm him and there were many people in Corinth who would follow the Lord (Acts 18:9). During the storm, an angel told Paul to not be afraid of shipwreck because he would stand trial before Caesar (Acts 27:24). Also, Paul told the Romans, if you do what’s right, then there is no need to fear those who are in authority (Rom 13:3).
As marriage thrives in a climate of love, honor and respect, there is no place for fear in a healthy marriage. Peter said wives shouldn’t be terrified of their husbands (except for cases of domestic violence, which isn’t acceptable) (1 Pt. 3:6).
Christians don’t fear death because it brings them closer their Savior. In fact, Jesus frees believers from the fear of death (Heb. 2:15).
Christians don’t fear God’s judgment because Jesus has paid the penalty. John wrote, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love” (1 Jn. 4:18). Christ’s death on our behalf is the “perfect love” that “drives out fear” of God’s judgment.
These are examples of courage and not fearing authorities, trouble, threats, persecution, harm, danger, death, your husband, and God’s judgment. This courage is healthy because it is associated with godly living.
The second meaning of “fear” in Scripture is to indicate reverence and respect for authority.
Godly men who lived in Old Testament times had an attitude of reverence and respect for God. For example, after being warned by God of the coming judgment, in holy fear (reverence and respect) Noah built an ark to save his family (Heb. 11:7).
People were filled with awe at the miracles done by the apostles when the church was formed at Jerusalem (Acts 2:43). Although they were mainly Jews, it soon became evident that there were Gentiles who also had an attitude of reverence and respect for God. Cornelius and his family were devout and God-fearing (Acts 10:2, 22). They believed in one God and the moral and ethical teachings of the Jews. Likewise, there were Gentiles in Pisidian Antioch who reverenced and respected the Lord (Acts 13:16, 26). When Peter realized that God accepted Gentiles, he said God accepts those who respect Him and do what is right (Acts 10:35). When someone lives up to the revelation they have received about the Lord, He makes sure that they hear the gospel and so has the opportunity to be saved.
Gentiles shouldn’t be proud that there are more of them in God’s family today than Jews, but they should respect God (Rom 11:20).
After the people in Ephesus realized that Paul’s miracles were greater than the false exorcists, they were also filled with a deep sense of awe and the Lord’s name was honored (Acts 19:17).
Believers are commanded to give respect and honor to those owed respect and honor (Rom 13:7). This includes revering and respecting God and worshiping Him with reverence and awe (2 Cor. 7:1; 1 Pt. 2:17; Heb. 12:28; 1 Pt. 1:17). This is opposite to unbelievers, who don’t revere or respect God (Rom 3:18). There is a reward for those who revere God (Rev. 11:18). When believers respected the Lord, the early church grew (Acts 9:31). So although they didn’t fear persecution, they revered Christ as Lord (1 Pt. 3:14, 15).
Paul respected the Lord as He is the one to whom Christians are accountable when they are rewarded at the judgement seat of Christ (2 Cor. 5:10-11). Similarly, we should fear displeasing the Lord. Jesus is another example for us; He prayed with reverent submission (Heb. 5:7).
The Corinthians respected the Lord and they received Titus “with fear and trembling”, which means with a sense of reverence before the Lord (2 Cor. 7:11, 15). Paul urged the Philippians to work on deliverance from their contentions “with fear and trembling”, which means with a sense of reverence before the Lord (Phil. 2:12-13).
In the gospel of the coming kingdom, people are told to respect God and worship Him, not a man (Rev 14:7). At that time, God’s judgments on the earth will show that He is a God of holiness (Rev. 15:4). They will cause all nations to revere, glorify, and worship Him.
Slaves, children, and wives are to submit to their masters, parents and husbands out of reverence to Christ (Eph. 5:21). As already mentioned, respect is part of a healthy marriage. While the husband is to love his wife, the wife is to respect her husband (Eph. 5:33). Wives should also be morally pure, which springs from reverence toward the Lord (of course this principle applies to husbands as well) (1 Pt. 3:2).
Slaves should respect and obey their masters (no only when they are watching or to earn their favour) with sincerity and with reverence to the Lord (Eph. 6:5; Col 3:22; 1 Pt. 2:18). Similarly, as God’s slaves/servants, our attitude towards Him should be one of reverence and respect (Rev. 19:5).
These are examples of reverence and respect for God, who warns of coming judgment, who enabled the apostles and their delegates to do miracles, and who we wish to please as our Lord. They may be called respectful fear, which is a healthy fear associated with godly living. This reverence leads to slaves, children, and wives submitting to their masters, parents and husbands.
Lessons for us
From these Scriptures we see that if we obey the law, there is no need to fear punishment from authorities. But do we fear danger or death? If we have no external resources to help us, it is natural to fear these possibilities. But through faith in Christ, these fears can be replaced with courage, security, protection and peace when we realize that Christ is with us (Acts 18:9-10; Heb. 13:6). Prayer is helpful in overcoming all types of fear (Phil. 4:6-7; 1 Pt. 5:7). Then we can practice protective fear without lapsing into chronic fear.
As Christians, do we fear God’s power, sin and its consequences, pride, displeasing the Lord, or that our service and ministry may not be effective? These are healthy fears that help us live godly lives.
The apostles were courageous when they faced the Sanhedrin (Acts 4:13; 5:29). This courage came from the Holy Spirit (Acts 4:8; 2 Tim. 1:7). After Paul’s trial before the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem, he was told by the Lord to have courage because he would also stand before Caesar in Rome (Acts 23:11). Christians are commanded to be courageous against dangers and difficulties, including false teachers (1 Cor. 16:13). Do we have courage instead of fear when we face authorities, trouble, threats, persecution, harm, danger, death, or God’s judgment? This courage comes from the Holy Spirit who empowers believers for godly living.
Do we go against the tide in a world where one’s rights are given priority over one’s responsibilities? Do we reverence and respect God and Christ as our Lord? Then we can practice respectful fear. Do we respect His message for us in the Bible? Do we respect our employer, parents, spouse and our church elders?
Less respect of God leads to more trust in humanity, which leads to more anxiety and chronic fear. It also leads to less respect for authority in families, schools, and society. When parents don’t respect God, children don’t respect parents. When teachers don’t respect God, students don’t respect teachers. When our leaders don’t respect God, people don’t respect the police, the judiciary or the government.
Let’s bring all our fears to the Lord in prayer so we can exercise protective fear when we are aware of danger and not lapse into chronic fear based on assumed dangers. And most important of all, let’s be aware of God and Christ so we can practice respectful fear until it is part of our character.
Through the Holy Spirit, Christians can be courageous when others are fearful. Although we shouldn’t be afraid, healthy fears help us live godly lives and we need to reverence and respect God and Christ as our Lord.
Written, February 2015