Sermon preached on Hebrews 13:1-3 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 2/24/2019 in Novato, CA.
Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
“Let Brotherly Love Continue”
Today we begin the last chapter of Hebrews. It is a noticeable new section in the book. As is so common in New Testament epistles, we see the indicative/imperative structure. Chapters 1-12 contained largely doctrinal teaching of who we are in Jesus Christ. Now, this chapter ends with various commands that we should be doing in light of who we are in Christ. In fact, this really begins at the end of last chapter, in verse 28, when we see the word “therefore.” Therefore, in light of all these amazing doctrines, here are these commands and exhortations.
So then, we begin this section of imperatives today with verses 1-3. Verse 1 arguably sets the context for the imperatives that follow, especially verses 2 and 3. In other words, this passage speaks about the love and care we should show to strangers, prisoners, and the mistreated. Arguably, that flows out of this initial command to have brotherly love. That would mean that the strangers, prisoners, and mistreated particularly in mind are fellow Christians who fall into one of those groups. But before we get into those groups, first realize what this is saying. The Greek word here for brotherly love is surely a word most of you already know. The word is philadelphia; a compound word made up of love and brother. Elsewhere in Greek, this word is ordinarily only used to refer to the special love family members show each other. But in the New Testament, this is a concept that has been applied to the church. The church is to love our fellow church members like family. For, in fact, we are spiritually a family. Let us love one another like the church family that we are. We are all adopted siblings into God’s family!
And notice the word “continue.” I wish it was translated as “remain” because this is the same word used back in 12:27 which is translated there as “remain.” Think of the connection here with that context. Back in 12:27 Hebrews was speaking of how at the end, there would be a great shaking. Many things would not endure the final climactic day of the Lord when God makes a new heaven and a new earth. It spoke of many shakable things that would get removed. But then it said that there were some things that were unshakable; these things would “remain”. These remaining things would endure into eternity; these enduring things are part of this unshakable kingdom which we are receiving as Christians. Well, 3 verses later he says that our brotherly love is to remain, same Greek word. And so, this is why Hebrews puts it as a command here. Between now and glory, many things will pass away. But in glory, one of the good things that will remain, is brotherly love between Christians. Similarly, Paul speaks in 1 Corinthians 13 of various things that will ultimately pass away, but he says that faith, hope, and love abide, and the greatest of these is love. So then, in light of the fact that we have an enduring brotherhood as Christians into glory, let us be expressing that brotherly love here and now.
So then, we turn in verse 2 to a specific call to love strangers. That’s the literal translation for the word translated rather dynamically here as “entertaining strangers”. But the word is a compound word like we saw in verse 1. Verse 1 had the word philadelphia, verse 2 is philoxenia. You can even find philoxenia in some English dictionaries. It is the compound word made up of love and stranger. So, literally, it’s a call to love strangers. It’s most typically translated into English as hospitality, but too often when we do that in English we lose the nuance that this is something meant to show to strangers, to people we don’t know. So, I appreciate that this translation maintains the language of “stranger”.
Hospitality in that geographical area was and continues to be a highly valued practice. Here, we see it’s not just a commendable cultural norm, but a moral imperative. In the early church, we see that a common form of such hospitality came when missionaries would travel through teaching and preaching about the Lord Jesus Christ. This practice is found recorded in the ancient church document known as the Didache. That’s a document that describes various practices in the early church, and possibly even predates the book of Hebrews. It speaks of this hospitality shown to missionaries, encouraging people to open up their homes and provide for such traveling ministers. I appreciate that in the Didache there is a recognition of the abuses that sometimes go along with such hospitality. You might even remember that Jesus criticized the scribes who took advantage of hospitality. Well, the Didache says that if the missionary wants to stay beyond a day or two, or if they take from you more than a load of bread for their journey, then they must be a false-prophet. That comes across almost comical, and though it is not canon, you can appreciate the pragmatic wisdom there. So, Christians are called to show hospitality to such Christians who pass through, as we are able. We should recognize our brotherhood that we have with such visiting Christians that we just met. But we should use wisdom when we open up our homes for safety reasons. For example, back then it would be typical for a missionary to carry with him a letter of commendation from a known church that sent him. Similar practices still go on today and for good reason.
Yet, even when we use wisdom and employ safeguards in hospitality, we have to recognize there is still an unknown factor. That might make people hesitant to show such hospitality. We might not know what to expect. We might even go in with a negative attitude thinking it won’t be a good experience. We might expect to be inconvenienced or put out. Yet, look at what verse 2 says. The motivation it offers is to remind us that some in the past have shown this hospitality and ended up showing hospitality to angels. Here we see Hebrews again employing the Old Testament to make its point. There are several such examples in the Old Testament. Likely the one most in mind is what we find in Genesis 18-19. That’s when Abraham and Sarah show hospitality to three visitors. Eventually it becomes clear that one of the visitors was none other than the LORD God himself in some sort of theophany. The other two were angels. That’s when the LORD tells them that in about a year they would have a son, causing Sarah to laugh since she was well past the age of childbearing. After that, the two angels go on to Sodom and where Lot and his family show hospitality to them. The angels warn Lot about the impending judgment of Sodom so they could flee the city. We could also mention Gideon’s encounter with the Angel of the Lord in Judges 6 and Manoah’s (Sampson’s father) in Judges 13. When you look at each of these accounts, not only do these families find out that they were showing hospitality to angels, but in each case they receive important revelation from them.
So then, a question that surely comes up is this: should we be motivated today to show hospitality to strangers because they might just turn out to be angels? No. First off, realize that Hebrews doesn’t actually go as far as to say that. This verse in and of itself doesn’t say whether we should expect such a thing today. That’s a question we would have to answer from elsewhere in the Bible. To that question, I would say that since we believe the Bible is complete and that therefore special revelation has ceased, we should not expect that we would end up today entertaining angels unaware. The word “angel” means a messenger sent to deliver a message. In each of those Old Testament examples I just mentioned with Abraham, and Lot, and Gideon, and Manoah, that’s why the angels visited them. They delivered special revelation to them. That’s why angels come to people in the Bible, to deliver special revelation. Therefore, a cessationist position would mean that we don’t expect to host any more angels.
But that doesn’t negate the point of Hebrews. Hebrews doesn’t say whether we will or won’t get more angelic visitors. Rather, Hebrews points to the fact that some Old Testament saints were surprised to find great spiritual blessing in the hospitality they showed to strangers. Likewise, if we show hospitality to Christians that we don’t know that are passing through, we might be surprised to find that we are greatly blessed in the hosting. In other words, when we show such hospitality, we tend to think we are doing something nice for them. We tend to think of it as a blessing we give to them. We think of it as act of giving, not receiving. Yet, sometimes, to our own surprise, it can turn around and be a blessing in return. We can end up receiving more than we are giving. Like how Lot tried to protect his angelic guests from the wicked Sodomites, but the angels struck the Sodomites with blindness and ended up protecting Lot.
So that’s a bit about the command here to love strangers. Look with me next at the command in verse 3 to remember prisoners and the mistreated. This verse seems almost poetic to me, with the parallelism and the verb gapping you’d expect in such poetry back then. The two groups mentioned, prisoners and the mistreated are surely intended to be closely related. We’ve read in this book that Christians back then were already facing persecution. That persecution sometimes took the form of imprisonment. Sometimes it took the form of physical beating and corporal punishment. Here they are called to remember such afflicted brothers and sisters in Christ. There certainly would have been need to remember them. Prisoners back then would often have to rely on loved ones to bring them food if they were going to eat. And being in prison was lonely, so visiting people in prison was an act of love and kindness. Likewise, when people are physically beaten, they will need someone there to help them out afterwards. Whether it is to commiserate with them and comfort them, or maybe even physically assist them while they heal, they could use a support network of their Christian brothers and sisters. And though we may not have quite the same experience today in the United States, surely there are people afflicted in different ways for their Christian faith that can use the help of their church family.
So, such people need to be remembered. In our sinfulness, it’s tempting to want to forget such people. When people are going through such trials it can be messy. We might not want to “look” at such a mess. It’s easier to ignore such hurting people; to turn a blind eye to their struggles. Helping them requires time and effort. It can also be an emotional investment that can put a toll on us. It’s easier to forget them. In fact, back in chapter 10, Hebrews says that the original audience of this letter had in the past shown compassion to the afflicted and people in prison. And so, for this chapter to remind them to remember such people would suggest that they had started to neglect this practice which they used to do faithfully. And so, they were called to renew their remembrance of them. We too are called to remember such people, even though it is a challenge to do so.
But this passage not only calls to remember such people, it also calls us to have sympathy for them. Given the poetic nature of this verse, it might not come across too clearly here. But the language for how we are to respond to both prisoner and the mistreated both suggests sympathy. In our translation, the first part brings this out clearly with the prisoners. We are to remember them as if they were chained with them. Like we were going through the same imprisonment right along with them. Similarly, the last half of the verse probably means something along the lines that we should remember the mistreated as if we were suffering in the body also with them. Well, this sympathy should be easy for the Hebrews. If we remember back in chapter 10, Hebrews acknowledged how they had already suffered various persecutions like this. So, they could especially show sympathy to such persecuted Christians as people who have gone through some of that themselves. But whether we’ve experienced it or not, we should look to empathize with our afflicted brethren. Instead of wanting to keep ourselves emotionally distanced from them, we should have an emotional sympathy with them.
Of course, we should have the wisdom to see that this too might be something that later comes back around to us. Maybe today you are the one comforting others and helping afflicted brethren. But maybe another time it will be you who needs such comfort. As Jesus said, let us do unto others as we would have done unto us. Let’s look to be there for our hurting brothers and sisters because we know we would want them to be there for us if we were in such circumstances.
Well, in mentioning Christ’s golden rule there, we remember how Christian all these commands are for today. The call to show brotherly love to our fellow saints, whether they be strangers to us, or imprisoned, or the mistreated, it reminds us of the love our savior has shown us. Jesus is the one who has loved us as strangers in order to make us brothers. Jesus is the one who has visited us in our spiritual chains and in our bondage to sin to free us from that. He did that by taking on our chains from sin on the cross. Jesus has come to us who were afflicted, bearing our affliction, even literally through all the scourging and physical torture he endured for us. Jesus did all this, for the joy set before him. For the joy of saving us, he endured the cross and despised the shame. As we read in Hebrews 2:14 and 4:15, he did all this, in the body, in human flesh, so he could truly sympathize with us. He sympathized with us on earth and at the cross. And he still sympathizes with us from up in heaven at God’s right hand.
In turn, Hebrews has told us that our response to this gospel is to be grateful Christian worship. Worship and service that we see here to be extended to how we show such love to others, especially our fellow Christians. Jesus said repeatedly in the Upper Room Discourse in John’s gospel that we should express our love to him by our love for our fellow Christians. That call for brotherly love is a call in general for our fellow Christians. And it also extends to those Christians who are strangers to us and to those who are prisoners and mistreated for Christ’s sake. By extension, we can think of how this applies to other circumstances where our brothers and sisters in Christ need our love and compassion and sympathy shown in practical ways.
As we have considered this today, maybe you’ve remembered what Jesus said in Matthew 25. How when Jesus comes back in glory at the end and gathers everyone to on the final day of judgment, how he will commend his people for how they showed him such brotherly love. Jesus describes how he’ll commend them for giving him food when he was hungry and drink when he was thirsty. Jesus will tell them things like, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.” Then Jesus will describe how his people will be confused. They’ll say, “When did we do this?” And Jesus will reply, “Inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.” So, then do you see why showing this brotherly love to our fellow Christians is a fulfillment of the grateful worship commanded in 12:28? Jesus says that to show this brotherly love unto our fellow saints in need, is to show that love to Jesus himself. Let us joyfully and gratefully love on our fellow Christians ultimately as a way to show our love for Jesus.
In conclusion, brothers and sisters, I hoe you see that today’s passage describes the importance for each of us to be investing in this community of believers who profess faith in Christ. In a book about standing fast in the faith until the end, we’ve seen in Hebrews that we need to have this concern not just for ourselves but for all of us here together. As we invest in the life of the body of Christ, it will be for their good. But it will also be for our good. As we cultivate an environment of love and care for each other, there will inevitably be a great reciprocal circle of care, where we bless others when they have needs and we in turn will be blessed when we have needs. All of this brings glory to God and so wonderfully pictures Jesus and the gospel. No wonder that Jesus said in John’s gospel that as we are faithful to be doing this it will complement our evangelistic efforts to world. For they will get to a see a tangible picture of the gospel love amongst us which Jesus showed to us in an even greater measure. Amen.
Copyright © 2019 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.