I admit that I was (and am) an athletic misfit, but I suspect I wasn't the only one always picked last for kickball in school. Did you ever eat alone in the cafeteria? Were you ever rejected by the "cool kids" in high school?
We all need to know that we are accepted, valued, and loved, but deep down most of us struggle with a visceral sense of rejection and pervasive lack of assurance that can't be explained away by painful childhood memories. To go through life and have no recognition of ever being slighted or rejected may be more demonstrative of a narcissist than a normal person. Being assured that we are accepted is something we all desire but struggle to obtain. The student with good grades fears doing poorly. The athlete knows there is someone better and that his or her days are numbered. The salesperson dreads the annual review.
We all struggle to belong, to know where we "fit in." It happens even in churches. When you walk through the doors of a church, you immediately wonder, "Do I belong here? Will I be accepted?" When you look around it seems that others have their acts together: their marriages are strong, they are successful in their careers, their kids do well in school. They look better, dress better, and behave better. It is clear God accepts them. Right? Wrong. The guarantee of our acceptance doesn't come from fitting in or being accepted by others, but by God's own promise to accept us when we flee to him for refuge and safety.
Hebrews 6:13-20 provides the basis of God's promise and reminds us that our assurance is guaranteed by his own oath. Throughout the letter, the author of Hebrews encourages his readers to put their hope in Jesus, because he is superior to the other anchors they would have looked to in their previous lives as Jews. Jesus is superior to Moses, the Aaronic priesthood, and the sacrificial system. In 4:11-6:20 the author pauses to emphasize the importance of being diligent to enter God's rest (4:11), to hold fast to one's confession (4:14), and to draw near (4:16). What follows is a strong warning in 6:4-8 not to fall away, but with it all hope for assurance seems to be stripped away. While he desires that we have full assurance of hope until the end (6:11), you and I may be left quaking in fear that we may not be accepted. It is then we are reminded of the basis of our assurance: not our performance, but God's promise.
God's Promise Encompasses God's People (Heb.13-15)
To encourage us with God's acceptance, the author points us to Abraham. Who better if one wishes to talk about faith and patience and to see how God calls people to himself? While time does not permit a full review of the patriarch's life, we see God's initiation in Genesis 12: calling 75-year-old Abram, childless and pagan, to journey from Haran to an unknown land and to receive an unseen progeny. In Genesis 15 God makes a unilateral covenant with Abram after promising the aged man that his descendants will be as numerous as the stars. Abram believes the Lord, and he counts it to him as righteousness (15:6). Abram takes the fulfillment of God's promise on himself, and Ishmael is born to Hagar when Abram is 86. The sign of God's promise, circumcision, is given in Genesis 17. Some years later, when Abraham is 100, Isaac is born.
Throughout these years, God remained faithful to Abraham who at times was faithless. The great test of trusting God came later, in Genesis 22, when God commanded Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, the heir of the promise. Abraham, waiting patiently on God's promises, obeyed, for he believed God would raise Isaac from the dead (Heb. 11:17-19). It is tempting to praise the patient faith of Abraham, who waited more than twenty-five years for God's promise to be fulfilled. We’who find waiting twenty-five days for our vacation to commence intolerable, twenty-five minutes for our TV show to begin to be exasperating, or even twenty-five seconds too long for the microwave to reheat our coffee’may be in awe of Abraham and think it wise to emulate the patriarch. To do so would imply that to be assured you belong, just endure twenty-five years of waiting for a promise.
Yes, Abraham did wait patiently and that is important, but it is not the patience that the writer here wants us to see, but the promise he so patiently desired to obtain. God's integrity and faithfulness is the theme of the passage and the source of our assurance. What Abraham obtained was God's promise, and that promise is the source of our confidence and to that promise we should look. That promise is not just for Abraham, but also for you and me.
The call of Abraham is not merely ancient history. It is more than extolling an exemplary life. It is not just that Abraham received what was promised, but that the promise and subsequent oath extend to us today. While Abraham obtained the promise by receiving Isaac back on Mount Moriah, in Hebrews 11:39 we read that Abraham and others did not receive what was promised. Which is it? It is both, as they received a token of what was to come. Isaac was not Abraham's final goal nor was he the promise of acceptance. Isaac was the token of the one who was to come, the offspring promised to Abraham in Genesis 15 and 22.
When Abram gazed at the starlit sky millennia ago (Gen. 15:3), the stars he counted were you and me, counted as his children as we are in Christ. In Galatians 3:16 Paul points out that the promise made to Abraham in Genesis was one made to Christ. He is the offspring God promised and the one Abraham sought. We are included in that promise, as we are numbered among those offspring who are in Christ (Gal. 3:26). As we are in Christ, we are all children of God through faith. This means we, in Christ, are heirs of the promise made to Abraham (Gal. 3:29). The starting point for our assurance is built on a promise made four thousand years ago to Abraham, sealed two thousand years ago when Christ died and rose again, and applied to us today. When you struggle to wonder if God accepts you to be a part of his family, of his church, remember that it is based not on your performance, but on his promise’a promise made certain by his oath.
God's Promise Is Assured by God's Oath (Heb. 6:16-18)
Why would God swear an oath? We do so because we are by nature untrustworthy. We have to swear on a stack of Bibles, or our mother's grave, or cross our heart and hope to die (odd contrivances, to say the least) to affirm our veracity. An oath is a solemn declaration that carries with it a curse if one's word is not fulfilled; it constrains us to follow through. Is God untrustworthy or capricious? Of course not.
The context of this oath flows from Abraham's obedience in trusting the promise given him, leading to his willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac. The promise God made to Abraham was solemnized by the oath on Mount Moriah. This is where Solomon would build the temple, where the Holy of Holies would rest, behind the veil that the high priest would cross once a year on the Day of Atonement. The oath was the confirmation that all God promised would come true, not just for Abraham but also for you and me. As Hebrews 6:16-17 tells us, the oath, based on God's unchanging character, is the final confirmation for Abraham and all the heirs of the promise. As we believe God's promise, all doubt is removed.
The promise and oath, two unchangeable things (6:18), are our assurance. But we live in a world in which confidence comes by performance, and assurance comes when we have achieved a standing or status. We constantly check to see if we are acceptable to others, living often in fear as standards change. Even the most astute fashion maven will attest to the time he or she was behind the curve. For my wife, her awakening came as the seventh grade came to a close. In the warm June sun, all the popular girls were sporting plaid shorts. When September came, she knew exactly what to wear’the plaid shorts that only a few months before were all the rage’only to find out when she arrived for the first day of class that the standards had changed. Gone were the plaid shorts and in were the new fall maxi-skirts.
Nothing was wrong with the shorts, of course; it's just the way of fashion. But we are all, every one of us, fearful adolescents wanting acceptance. Here the good news of the gospel comes to us: God has sworn an oath and he will not change. The basis of our acceptance is not our plaid shorts, but God's oath and the certainty that God never changes. Francis Johnson's hymn "Father, Long before Creation" points us to this truth:
Though the world may change its fashion, Yet our God is e'er the same;
His compassion and His covenant Through all ages will remain.
God's own children, God's own children Must forever praise His name. (1)
The oath, which God swore to Abraham, is where we must flee (6:18). The author of Hebrews comes to the application of this truth, making it personal for us. When Christ is our refuge, when we seek acceptance in him, that's when we are able to hold fast. As we look to him, we no longer need to worry. Rather than replaying our past performance, seeing only failures, we have God's attestation made to Abraham applied to us, and that is real hope.
God's Promise Is Grounded in a Firm Hope (Heb. 19-20)
Our hope is not fleeting but is likened to an anchor. In the ancient world, the anchor was a common picture of hope, flowing from the idea of commerce that came from the sea and the wealth it brings. The early church adopted the anchor as one of its first symbols of the faith, so it is often found in the catacombs with the inscription, "Hope in Christ." (2)
We long to find security in ourselves or in our culture. We tether our hopes and dreams to our education, connections, wealth, and status. With those we will all drift, subject to the winds of time and the subjective attitudes of our own hearts. Like a ship at sea, we are inclined to drift. The secure promises of God are what we need.
In 1637, the Puritan preacher Samuel Rutherford wrote to William Gordon of Earlston a letter that speaks of this anchor of hope, written to an earnest young man: (3)
I rejoice in the hope of that glory to be revealed, for it is no uncertain glory that we look for. Our hope is not hung upon such an untwisted thread as, "I imagine so," or "It is likely," but the cable, the strong tow of our fastened anchor, is the oath and promise of Him who is eternal verity. Our salvation is fastened with God's own hand, and with Christ's own strength, to the strong stake of God's unchangeable nature. (4)
While an anchor sinks beneath the dark waves, attaching itself to what is immovable, the anchor of hope given to us by God's promise extends into the heavens, to the inner place behind the veil. Our security is found where Jesus has gone, and with this we are brought back to the argument of where this letter left off in 5:10: Jesus is better. He is better than the Aaronic priesthood, because he is a high priest after the order of Melchizedek. For that reason God's promise is a sure hope.
The final image in our passage, the forerunner, is that of a pioneer or a lightly armed soldier who would scout the enemy position. It was also a nautical term for a small vessel launched from a larger ship to carry the anchor and line to moor the ship more securely, perhaps even taking the lines into the harbor, beyond the breakwater, to guide the ship to safety. Our certainty of hope is that the oath God swore four thousand years ago was sealed and guaranteed on the cross and by the empty tomb. Christ has entered the Holy of Holies, not in the temple on the mountain where Isaac was given in obedience, but in reality’in heaven where he intercedes for us today. He is the high priest and the sacrifice for us, and for that reason we are secure, we have hope. Our tether is secure because the anchor is attached to the ark, God's footstool, in the heavens.
When you question whether God can or will accept you, recognize that there is nothing you may offer to garner his pleasure, nothing but his promise, his oath. Your acceptance is assured and certain, for it is firmly rooted in the completed work of Christ. This truth is expressed in a wonderful hymn recently rediscovered from Gadsby Hymns, "The Christian's Hope Can Never Fail." The final stanza declares:
For this reason, you may be assured that you are accepted. God has called you and made an oath sealed with the blood of Jesus Christ. You are his and you belong.
2 [ Back ] See Charles A. Kennedy, "Early Christians and the Anchor," Biblical Archaeologist 38 (September-December 1975), 115-24.
3 [ Back ] For more background on William Gordon, see http://www.puritansermons. com/ruth/rwhyte12.htm.
4 [ Back ] Letters of Samuel Rutherford (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1973), 386-87.