This week we are in for a treat — an Easter text: Hebrews 12:4-24 (25-29). Could you preach this text as if it were an Easter sermon? Yes, for each Sunday commemorates the Resurrection of our Lord — it is why we meet on the first day of the week (Mark 16:9). Something must be said for respecting the church calendar, though. We are in the season of Pentecost, not Easter Sunday, which climaxes a particular narrative resonating through the season of Pentecost. So, let us preach the text in situ.
Decisions will likely need to be made regarding the text. For starters, it is twenty-five verses long, spanning four identifiable sections. Preaching all the verses will prove challenging and likely taxing for your auditors. At the same time, it is a single pericope, so capturing both the scope and onus of the text will be essential, lest your listeners get lost in the forest of your sermon.
The first hearers of the Preacher’s sermon, that is, the actual congregation to which the book of Hebrews was preached, were embroiled in a struggle of some kind. They were being harassed in some way and it was taking a toll on their hope and endurance (10:26-39). They needed a fresh vision of what it means to be a Christian, a fresh vision of faith, indeed, a fresh vision of the faith itself.
The Preacher says, listen, your, “struggle with sin” (12:4), is not unexpected. It has been that way in past, is now, and ever will be so for Christians this side of glory. However, rather than adding a quip like, “Suck it up, buttercup,” the Preacher edifies his congregation by showing them they are joining in suffering with Christians of all times and places and, thereby, linking them with the faithful roster from chapter 11.
They, and we, need to know the Christian faith—such as it does not capitulate with Zeitgeist—always comes with a price of being maligned, persecuted, marginalized, blamed, you name it. The cost may be emotional, intellectual, familial, financial, social, political, or judicial. But there is a cost for those who swear allegiance to Christ above all things. Yet, one thing is certain, there are those who have been baptized who are not willing to pay a price. Theirs is, “convenient Christianity,” or, “comfort Christianity.” They will follow Jesus insofar as… and their conditions and limitations follow, like contractual disclaimers freeing them from obligation.
Nonetheless, for those, “who hear the word and keep it” (Luke 111:28), there will be weariness with which to contend. Scouring the congregation with law is not going to be the answer. The Preacher is concerned about those who have grown weary, see few blessings, and yet continue to serve and give. Yes, the Preacher is concerned about them and how they may be just one day from giving up hope and not coming back.
In response to their fatigue and embattled spirits over incessant hardships, Thomas G. Long, discovers the Preacher does two things: First, he once again asks the congregation to remember the example of Jesus. In the footrace image which dominated the previous passage, Jesus was viewed as the lead runner, and the congregation was invited to draw inspiration from the endurance of Jesus (12:2). Here the metaphor is not racing, but battle. Once again the disciple is invited to imitate the master.
The battle has been engaged, says the Preacher, and just think how Jesus—as a lone soldier—took on Satan and all his evil hoards, plus Caesar and the machinations of his violent empire, and yet, “strode to victory.” This same Jesus Christ is for you and is with you. Take heart. Fear not, He says, you have not even shed a drop of blood thus far (12:4).
Second, the Preacher provides a framework of meaning for their suffering, both individually and collectively. To rephrase Long: All suffering is painful to the body and a challenge to the spirit, but the kind of suffering that destroys the person is suffering we think has no purpose. People can endure intense distress and pain if they know it is not meaningless and hopeless. Christ’s victory through death and over death inspires, encourages, and compels us for what is true about Christ is true for those united to the persevered-through-death-into-resurrection-Christ. Here, again, we are back to baptismal identity, meaning and significance (see Romans 6:3-11).
Perhaps surprisingly, the Preacher, reaching back to Proverbs 3:11-12, says their hardship and suffering is not random, but is actually the expression of God’s parental love. That makes it a good thing. How so? The Preacher explains it, firstly, is a sure sign we are God’s children and if His children, then dearly beloved by Him who has our sanctification and glorification in view. The only children who are undisciplined are those who are unloved and abandoned (12:8). That is not the Christian. Secondly, we should see we received the same discipline from our parents for our own good. This, too, was done out of great love and commitment, even though we could not discern how it could be good for us at the time (12:9-10). Thirdly, there is a cost/benefit consideration: it is worth it — God’s discipline allows us to “share his holiness” (12:10) and taste the “peaceful fruit of righteousness” (12:11).
This may require a bit of explaining by way of comparing human parenting. Until bizarre recent developments, good parenting operated by way of passing on an inheritance — the faith of the family, foundational values, and devout living. Parents disciplined their children in, “the way, the truth, and the life,” of Christian blessedness because it was the best thing for their souls, their neighbors, and the world, and they did so out of love.
God, it seems, is no different. We are disciplined so we will “grow up” to be like Christ: hence, sharing in His sufferings. And hence Jesus: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in Heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:10-12). We must have faith in God that this is so.
This is a pastoral issue, however, and not a universal doctrine. Sometime persecution results in straightforward death. What the Preacher says about pain and suffering is not universally applicable. There is tragedy. There is evil. There is senseless violence and inexplicable accidents and disease and disasters. The point the Preacher makes is that in this case, regarding the kind of persecution and hardship they were enduring, yes, the loving-disciplining hand of God is in it, and in this way they share in the sufferings of Jesus the Son and, so, thereby, they may rejoice that they are sons and daughters of the Lord.
In the next section (12:12-17), the latent mood of triumph through battle, victory in the race, gives way to a realistic image of the Christian laboring during the race. They are to persevere and not sabotage their own path with vices and ungodly behavior or, worse still, the irreligiousness of Esau, who found no chance for repentance.
The final section brings us to the portion of this text which finds appointment for Easter Sunday. This may seem like the end of the book of Hebrews, but it is actually where things begin. In order to urge his congregation to choose the high road, choose Jesus as better than any and all things Old Testament, as better than any confected religion or ethical system, to choose resurrection life in the here and now, or, as he puts it in vv.18-24 of chapter 12, “to travel to Mount Zion,” the Preacher labors to get them to understand they are already there, although “there” is not yet fully already here.
Think of a video travelogue that opens with the scene of a harried person driving in awful San Diego traffic. Suddenly the scene dissolves to a shot of a dreamy blue lagoon, a picture-perfect sailboat bobbing gently at anchor with a gorgeous exotic island backdrop. A narrator’s voice is saying, “Forget the traffic and tension, forget the phones and emails. You are not at the office anymore. You have come to the beautiful Pacific coastal region of San Diego—America’s Finest City.” The fact is you are already there, but you are far too busy with the cares of this world and the pursuit of everything else to even pause for a moment and realize, wait-a-minute, I get to live here and “here” offers an entirely wonderful way of living.
So, the Preacher begins, “You have not come to something that can be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest… you have come to Mount Zion and to the City of God!” (vv.18,22). In the Old Testament, Sinai is, of course, a good thing—the place of the giving of the Law. But the Preacher employs Sinai here as a negative sign, a symbol of everything going awry in religion when it is severed from the high-priestly ministry of Jesus Christ and His resurrection life.
But we are not at Sinai. No, with the victory of Christ Jesus over sin and judgment, with His vindication through resurrection, we have been taken to Mount Zion! This cannot be anything but the best of news. “You have come to Mount Zion.” The word translated “come” is significant. It is best translated “approach” and it is one of the author’s favorite words to refer to the bold and confident access to God now possible in Christ: “Let us therefore approach the Throne of Grace with boldness,” he says in 4.16. “Christ is able for all time to save those who approach God through Him,” he repeats in 7.25. Again he says in 10.22: “let us approach the House of God with a true heart and full assurance of faith.”
When we approach Mount Zion, what do we find? We find Jerusalem and Mount Zion were more than places; they were symbols of ideals in government, worship, and peace. They speak of the rule of God through Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit. They refer to the heavenly Jerusalem that is now the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. No one cries out in fear on Zion’s hill, as they did at Sinai, terrified God’s Word and presence bring death. No, this is the city of the living Christ, the living and victorious Son of God where His availing Word to us is not an exposing and condemning law, but rather a liberating and unburdening declaration of pardon and forgiveness. And with that forgiveness, the gift of the Holy Spirit and a warm welcome into His loving and friendly presence.
In the Courts of Zion, we see there is but one verdict, according to v.23: Not guilty. Those who have come to this city have passed through the gateway of the great high priest, Jesus, who has, “perfected for all time those who are sanctified” (10.14). He says, “I am the Gate.” And so, he is the gateway into the Temple of God. Down at Sinai, the laws are tough, and the judgments are harsh. No person can stand under them, and everyone must do some time. But here in Zion, the God who sent the Son is the Judge, and the Son, who was, “for a little while made lower than the angels,” has already done time on our behalf. He has done time under the Law, time under its judgment, time under its consequences and so has exhausted the power of sin and the just penalty for it. We, on the other hand, because our loving King did this for us (for it is the responsibility of a King to represent His people), we never have to visit Sinai to be crushed by its legal burden, but now, instead, are transported through Holy Baptism into a new kingdom, Zion, the Holy Church, the Kingdom of Heaven on earth, to be gently governed by the Holy Spirit, who moves and prompts us to live like resurrection people here and now.
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching Hebrews 12:4-24 (25-29).
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Hebrews 12:4-24 (25-29).