The Preacher’s sermon reached its conclusion with the declaration, “Our God is a consuming fire” (12:18-29), and Hebrews now takes on a different tone and style. He has proclaimed God’s two words of Law and Gospel. He moves on to the routine matters of congregational life, including items such as the parish ministry of hospitality, visitation of those imprisoned, stewardship, and the like. But he is a preacher, so there is plenty of preaching in here, too.
First up, the trajectory: “Let brotherly love continue” (13:1). To be sure, it has been there all the time. That is why he says, let it continue. Love for the brethren should be the hallmark of the Christian Church. It is basic to our witness to an unbelieving world (John 13:35). Then the Preacher unpacks his meaning: Let hospitality continue (13:1-2). The Preacher seems particularly concerned with hospitality reaching outside their close-knit community to include strangers at their table, “for by doing so, some have entertained angels without knowing it” (13:2). The congregation is pressed to reflect on the kind of hospitality they have provided.
This illusion to entertaining angels, of course, brings to mind several Old Testament stories, foremost the three visitors to Abraham and Sarah at Mamre (Genesis 18:1-15). No less significant are the “innumerable angels” ready at Mount Zion (Hebrews 12:22). The Greek noun for “messengers” here, ἀγγέλους (Hebrews 13:2, grammatically: Accusative, Masculine, Plural), can mean not only angelic beings from the ethereal realm but also envoys, messengers, ones who are sent. It is deliciously imprecise in 13:2. Some of those “angels” may have been other evangelists, preachers, or catechists. They, too, are Messengers of the Lord.
Verse 3 concerns those who are imprisoned. They are not to be forgotten. Likewise, those who have been maltreated and have suffered injuries or disabilities should not be forgotten as well, but also be included in their sphere of ministry.
Verses 4-5 address inappropriate desire, the handling of money and sexual relations. Matrimony is extolled and the marital act preserved exclusively so it may be “undefiled.” Ephesians 5 and 1 Corinthians 7 are in the wheelhouse of consideration when talking about holy matrimony as sacramental, opposed to merely being contractual. Ground this teaching in Christ and work the Gospel through it. Matrimony, within Christianity, pertains to sanctification: hence the reference to the union being undefiled or, positively, purified. Jesus our High Priest purified our hearts and bodies, so we may be His undefiled bride — the holy Church (10:22). Fornication and adultery are not merely attacks on matrimony and morality; they are denials of the sanctifying work of Christ who, through His resurrection, has ushered in a radically new power and potential for matrimony — holiness, when it takes place and abides in Christ.
The rest of the pericope (3:7-17) treats a problem related to worship and service. It begins and ends (13:7, 17) with a word about their “leaders” (νημονεύετε τῶν ἡγουμένων ὑμῶν — Remember your leaders!). Here there is a strong juxtaposing of law and gospel, works and grace which serve the preacher (today’s preachers) well. It seems as if the community focuses on procedure over substance. They have turned their expression of Christianity into a rule-based ritualistic religion, which the Preacher intimates happens when strength of character fails to assert the bold approach to the heavenly sanctuary made possible in Christ. This sanctuary overlaps in the here and now wherever there is the pure preaching of the Gospel and the Sacraments are administered according to the Gospel or, in other words, wherever Christ’s real voice and real presence are manifest.
The temptation is to factor to the lowest common denominator here and push everything related to form into “adiaphora” — something indifferent or non-essentials. Not so. The liturgy (λειτουργία) belongs to the Lord and consists of how He serves us during the Divine Service. It is the sine qua none of worship. Likewise, with the rites, the very means by which He serves us. The rites include the invocation, confession and absolution, prayers, reading of the Scriptures, sermon, praise and adoration, holy communion, and the benediction. How those rites are done constitute ceremonial acts that do have variation and, so, may be said to be matters indifferent. The point being is the λειτουργία lets God have His say and His doing in our midst (that is God’s desire), protecting the congregation from the whims of the pastor and the pastor from the penchant of the people. The rites bring God’s Word and Sacraments to us. How those ceremonies play out, however, may be a matter of discussion.
In the book of Hebrews, the Preacher is concerned they want to recast the New Covenant people in Old Covenant regulations where the priest gave redundant sacrifices, etc., that possessed no efficacy for those who observed them (13:9). That is, they did not convey the grace of God.
The solution to this worship problem, Thomas Long says, is to go to the new place of sacrifice, “to leave the old tent with its ineffective sacrifices and to go where the everlasting and truly cleansing sacrifice is made.” The Preacher says, “We have an altar from which those who serve the tent have no right to eat” (13:9), that is, those who operate by the Old Covenant, the Law of Moses to save them and to be their identity-maker, the cult of perpetual sacrifices. He states those people have no right to this altar of Jesus, who through His crucifixion made atonement for sin one and for all (Hebrews 10:12).
Has the Preacher made a Eucharistic reference? Is he talking about Holy Communion? He is certainly talking about the altar of the Cross, of that there is no doubt. However, the point of the passage has to do with worship and the sense seems to indicate, “not that [i.e. the Law] but this [i.e. Christ’s sufficiency].” The fruit of the Cross or Tree, if you will, is of course the body and blood of Christ which is the atonement itself, as well as the forgiveness of sins, life and salvation. Where do we find that in worship? The Sacrament of the Altar. From this altar, the congregation should take courage to stand, courage to engage, and courage to draw near to God our King.
Concordia Theology -Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching Hebrews 13:1-17.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Hebrews 13:1-17.