Hebrews 13 Commentary
vv.1-6 Show hospitality (13:2). The word rendered “entertain strangers” (philoxenia) connotes treating a person, perhaps a stranger, nobly and magnanimously in the context of one’s home, joyfully seeking to bring that person refreshment. In the ancient world it was expensive to stay overnight at an inn, and such establishments usually had poor reputations. Thus, an aspect of Jewish and early Christian piety, as well as etiquette in the broader Greco-Roman culture, involved taking people in for an evening.
The supreme paradigm for hospitality in early Jewish literature was the hospitality of Abraham, shown to his heavenly visitors (Gen. 18:2 – 15), which is probably alluded to in Hebrews 13:2: “for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it.”
Hold marriage as honorable and keep the sexual relationship pure (13:4). Another motif common in early Christian ethical teaching was the need to keep the marriage relationship in proper perspective. The institution of marriage was assaulted from two sides in the ancient world. Some felt chastity in marriage was unreasonable. For example, in some corners of Greco-Roman culture men were expected to take mistresses as their confidants and sexual partners.
Correspondingly, the marriage bed (koite), used here as an idiom for the sexual relationship, is to be guarded or “kept pure.” The defilement that the author has in mind is expressed in the explanatory “for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral.” The former word, “adulterers” (moichoi), is more focused than the latter, referring specifically to those who betray their marriage vows. The latter, “the sexually immoral” (pornoi), refers to all those involved in sexual activity apart from the sanctity of the marriage relationship. Together the two words cover the gamut of illicit sexual behavior. For those so involved in dishonoring marriage and defiling the marriage bed, the judgment of God awaits.
Be content with your financial status (13:5). The sins of sexual impurity and covetousness are linked in several New Testament passages (e.g., 1 Cor. 5:10 – 11; Eph. 4:19; 1 Thess. 4:3 – 6), probably because their prohibitions are given side by side as the seventh and eighth of the Ten Commandments. Both the sexually immoral and those greedy for money pursue a myopic self-gratification that takes them outside the bounds of God’s provision. Such greed amounts to accusing God of incompetence as a provider of one’s most basic needs and, therefore, is incompatible with commitment to God himself (cf. Matt. 6:24). Consequently, Christians are exhorted to keep their lives “free from the love of money” and to “be content” with what they have.
The basis for such contentment is God’s promise of his ever-present help: “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” No Old Testament quotation perfectly corresponds to this quote in Greek, although several approach correspondence (e.g., Gen. 28:15; Deut. 31:6 – 8; Josh. 1:5), and various theories have been offered as to how the author was using his source material. Perhaps he conflated two Old Testament passages or used a Greek translation no longer in existence. Nevertheless, the significance of the promise is clear: God keeps his covenant to provide for his people. Therefore, believers need not worry that their needs will go unmet.
Why do we believe that the prescriptions concerning hospitality, for instance, or sexual ethics, love of money, and church leaders should be followed today? Are these perhaps just throwbacks to a social structure that has long since passed from the scene, disintegrating in the light and heat of modern learning?
Perhaps the most graphic departure from these guidelines found in Hebrews 13 is in the area of sexuality. For many in modern culture the sanctity of the marriage bed is a nonissue. Adultery and sexual immorality are so widely accepted in the Western world as to barely raise a yawn, much less an outcry. In some circles the love of money is seen as a virtue rather than a vice, and in a democratic society, who wants to talk about submission to leaders or anyone else?
Early Christian teachers had a body of Scripture we call the Old Testament, parts of which were written more than a millennium prior to its use by the earliest Christ-followers. Certainly, many of the contemporaries of first-century believers would have considered the Ten Commandments outdated. The view that people of the first century generally were prudish is naïve from a historical perspective. Sexual immorality in a wide variety of forms was rampant. The prescriptions concerning the purity of the marriage bed in Hebrews 13:4, therefore, would have been considered absurd to many. Yet Jesus himself and the authors of the New Testament practiced interpretation and application of the “much-older” Testament, bridging the contexts between the messages found in their scrolls and their own world. Thus, we have a precedent for bridging the context between the world of an ancient body of literature and a later time period.
vv.7-19 Some of the recipients of Hebrews are perhaps being drawn away from Christian fellowship and doctrine to theological expressions heralded within a community practicing Judaism. They are embracing aspects of Jewish community life and thought that are at odds with the gospel of grace through Jesus Christ. The author asserts that such ceremonial foods have no “value to those who eat them.” They are not the true means of grace and spiritual strength. When he states, “We have an altar from which those who minister at the tabernacle have no right to eat” (v. 10), he reiterates the demarcation between those who participated in the old covenant religion and the members of the new covenant. Although it is not clear exactly what he has in mind regarding the Christian’s “altar,” this much is certain: The participants of the new covenant draw spiritual sustenance and life from a source unavailable to those of the tabernacle, and that source is the sacrifice of Christ.
Although Christians should not participate in the Jewish cultic meals, they have their own appropriate “sacrifices” to offer (13:15 – 16). These offerings are to be made “through Jesus,” since Christ, the mediator, has made it possible for believers to come before God in worship (9:9 – 14; 10:1 – 14). The writer details two spiritual sacrifices in 13:15 – 16. (1) He exhorts the readers to “continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise,” which he explains as “the fruit of lips that confess his name.” The words translating “sacrifice of praise” occur in the LXX of Leviticus 7:12 and speak of the highest form of peace offering under the old covenant. This thank offering was voluntary and could only be made after the expiatory offerings had been presented and the worshiper was ritually clean; its primary purpose was to express gratitude to God. However, the author’s explanatory comment concerning the “fruit of lips” shows that he has in mind a metaphorical application of this language found in the Psalms, where the “sacrifice” is the prayer of thanks (e.g., Ps. 50:14, 23; 107:22; also 2 Chron. 29:31).
The Christ-follower is also to offer a sacrifice of good deeds (13:16). Already having emphasized the necessity of good works in the form of ministry to others (e.g., 10:24; 13:1 – 3) — activities in which these believers had been engaged in the past (6:10; 10:34) — the author reminds them again to be faithful in this regard. The word translated “share with others” (koinonia) emphasizes a life in the covenant community, in which members meet the practical needs of one another. As the life of faith pleases God (11:6), so the sacrifices of praise and practical ministry give him pleasure.
Just as the first six verses address Christian living “out in the world,” the next thirteen address life “in the church.” At least three issues are paramount here with regard to a leader’s role. (1) Leaders are responsible for living in such a way that their lives are worthy of imitation. (2) They must lead the way in holding to right doctrine, which will lead to right identification with Christ and his church. (3) They are responsible for caring for those under their charge, and those under their charge are responsible for facilitating their leadership.
Notice the orientation of this passage, however. These remarks are addressed to the church members in response to their leaders!
Church leaders, especially those who serve as the “main minister” or “pastor,” have difficult jobs. In many contexts they are expected to wear the multiple hats of social coordinator, superb orator (several times a week), sensitive and insightful counselor, administrator, motivator, teacher, evangelist, mender of relationships, “marryer,” and “buryer” — all the while cultivating an exemplary personal, spiritual, and family life. The pressure to spend hours in study, hours in the community, hours in visiting prospects, hours in counseling, hours in training the staff, and hours in prayer all add up to unrealistic expectations on the part of the church. The effect can be overwhelming.
(1) Church members are to keep in mind the example of godly leaders, scrutinizing the outcome of their manner of life and imitating their faith. In our application, therefore, we must reflect on those in our church life whom we should be holding up as examples worthy of imitation.
(2) Church members are to respond to leadership by embracing right doctrine, valuing the Christian community and Christian thought more than the comfort and community offered by other groups that do not believe the gospel. Believers are to respect and yield to their leaders in this regard, being teachable when it comes to Christian instruction.
(3) Believers should offer to God “thank offerings” for the sacrifice of Christ and should perform practical ministry to one another in the community of faith. The impetus for such worship and work is the work of Christ, who has redeemed and leads the community.
(4) Finally, members of the church should reflect on the effects of their responses on the church’s leadership. Does a relationship with you or me facilitate their difficult work or hinder it? This does not mean that members of a church are to give their leaders a “blank check” or uncritical deference in all situations. The leaders need accountability and members of the church must exercise spiritual gifts. However, when leaders are living within biblical guidelines and teaching faithfully the central tenets of the Christian faith (the focus here is on the sacrifice of Christ as the communication of God’s grace), church members should seek to make the leaders’ ministry a joy. Application, therefore, involves reflection on how this can be accomplished. When leaders are ministering faithfully and members of the church are following with right attitudes, it is to everyone’s “advantage” (v. 17).
vv.20-25 The writer begins his closing in verse 22, urging the readers to bear with or “put up with” his “word of exhortation,” a rather diffident request that is rhetorical in nature. The expression “word of exhortation” is probably a technical phrase referring to a sermon (cf. Acts 13:15, where Paul and companions are invited to give a “message of encouragement” in a synagogue service; the same expression is used in both places: logos parakleseos). This understanding is not diminished by the next statement: “for I have written you only a short letter.” The Greek text does not contain the word “letter” and would be better translated, “I have written to you briefly.” The author is referring to the writing down of his sermon. That he has written “briefly” is a literary convention of the day, a polite statement included at the end of a correspondence.
All commentary drawn from: Guthrie, George H. “Hebrews 13:1 – 25” In The NIV Application Commentary: Hebrews. By George H. Guthrie, 433-11. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, © 1998.