Better and Abiding: The Double Perfection that Brings Joy
I love the book of Hebrews. Over and over again, almost on a daily basis, this letter has rocked my world. I’ve been deeply convicted by the Holy Spirit only then to be reminded by this book of the glory of having had my sins finally and forever forgiven. I’ve been stunned by the majesty of Jesus, our Great High Priest, only then to be overwhelmed by his meekness and mercy. Continue reading . . .
I love the book of Hebrews. Over and over again, almost on a daily basis, this letter has rocked my world. I’ve been deeply convicted by the Holy Spirit only then to be reminded by this book of the glory of having had my sins finally and forever forgiven. I’ve been stunned by the majesty of Jesus, our Great High Priest, only then to be overwhelmed by his meekness and mercy.
And yet of all that I find in Hebrews, nothing has touched me as powerfully as what I read in chapter ten, verses 32-39, and in particular, verse 34. Quite honesty, it leaves me breathless and even a bit confused. Here it is:
“For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one” (Heb. 10:34).
I’m breathless at the thought of how these people were able to conduct themselves the way they did. I’m confused because it makes no sense. That is to say, it makes no sense from a purely human point of view. I am utterly unable to explain what happened in the hearts of these men and women without appealing to the sovereign, supernatural, invasion of divine grace in their lives. What we are reading in v. 34 is so contrary to our normal way of thinking, so counter-intuitive, so utterly counter-cultural that if it doesn’t leave you shaking your head and wondering if perhaps someone tinkered with the text then you simply aren’t paying attention.
Look at it again, closely: “For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one.” How do you account for that? What could possibly have happened to these people that would enable them to “joyfully” accept the plundering of their property?
Needless to say, v. 34 does not hang suspended in mid air. There is a context within which this verse must be read. Something had happened in the lives of these Christian men and women that we need to understand if we are going to make sense of v. 34.
According to vv. 32-33, it was persecution, pure and simple. Our author draws their attention to those earlier days immediately following their conversion to faith in Jesus as the one who in every conceivable way is “better” than everything and everyone that preceded him in the Old Testament. He describes their conversion by saying they had been “enlightened”. In other words, if I may use the words of the Apostle Paul from 2 Corinthians 4:6, “God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”
So the first thing that happened is that God’s loving light invaded their darkened hearts and minds and gave them sight to see the beauty and majesty of the glory of God revealed in Jesus. When God’s grace takes hold of us, the lights go on!
But it doesn’t end with us. It’s not just that we are filled with the light of God’s grace. We are then, in turn, to shine forth as lights in a dark and depraved world so that others might see what God has done. Or, again to use the words of Paul in Philippians 2:15, it is in this “crooked and twisted generation” that we are to “shine as lights in the world.” God first shines his light into us and then we in turn shine that same light into the world by the way we live and proclaim the gospel and especially by the way we respond to suffering and persecution.
Almost immediately after these people had been “enlightened” with the saving light of God’s redeeming grace, they “endured a hard struggle with sufferings” (v. 32b). The language of our author is fascinating and instructive. The word translated “endured” is a reference to war and means “to stand one’s ground” or “to remain on the battlefield” instead of running away in cowardice. He then switches to an athletic metaphor, using a word here translated “hard struggle.” You’ll recognize the Greek word: athlesis, from which we get our English word, “athletic”.
This “hard struggle with sufferings” took two forms: public “reproach” and “affliction.” The word “reproach” pertains to one’s character. They slandered you. They dragged your name through the mud. They accused you of horrific sins that you have not committed. They ridiculed you for your faith. This is the same word he will use in Hebrews 13:13 to describe the “reproach” that Jesus himself endured. It’s our author’s way of saying that these believers had so identified with Jesus that they endured the same sort of public humiliation to which he was exposed.
Notice that he says they were “publicly exposed” to such verbal mistreatment. The word translated “publicly exposed” is related to our English word for “theater,” with the idea of making a spectacle of someone or holding them up for derision. The word “affliction” pertains more to maltreatment of one’s body. They beat you, they deprived you of shelter and food, and then they threw you into prison without justifiable cause.
Evidently the non-Christian world surrounding them saw this light in their lives and hated it and did everything they could to snuff it out. Jesus told us to expect this to happen. In the Sermon on the Mount, and virtually in the same breath, Jesus said, “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 5:16), but he also declared, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matt. 5:11). So not everyone gives glory to the Father when they see Christians shining. Some try to kill them.
We don’t know what provoked this persecution. It may be that these Christians simply stopped engaging in the sinful activities that formerly characterized their lives. They stood out in a crowd and said No, and this offended those with whom they used to run wild. Or perhaps their vocal testimony to the glory of God as revealed in Jesus and his atoning sacrifice was deemed “politically incorrect” and the civil authorities took action to silence them.
It would appear that the opposition they encountered was official, that is to say, it came from the political authorities of that day. We know this because it resulted in some of them being thrown in prison. In fact, just as there were two forms of persecution, v. 33 seems to suggest that there were three groups of Christians who suffered: some suffered “reproach and affliction,” some were thrown into prison, and others got in trouble simply for “being partners” with them. They stood by them. They embraced them in solidarity. They didn’t turn and run away in fear but said, “We are here for those you are abusing. We stand with them. They are our brothers and sisters in Christ. We are not afraid to declare ourselves partners with them.”
We should also take note of the fact that this word translated “partners” is the rendering of the Greek word for fellowship! We talk about Christian “fellowship” today but usually mean no more than that we shared a meal together or hung out in a small group or enjoyed sitting next to another Christian in a church service. But for these people it went much deeper. Their unity and sense of community displayed itself in their open and willing identification with those who suffered worst of all.
So again, this is not just an angry mob rising up to torment Christians or some disgruntled co-workers harassing them at their place of employment. This is official, political opposition on the part of the governing powers. And instead of hiding in cowardice, others stepped forward and went to the prisons where their brothers and sisters were being held, perhaps to bring them food, perhaps to encourage them, and undoubtedly to pray for them. And they made no secret of the fact that they too were Christians.
It’s entirely likely that those arrested had been severely beaten and were left untended and hurting. In any case, the rest of the Christians had to make a decision: Do we keep our mouths shut and lock our doors and say and do nothing? Or do we go to our Christian friends and provide the help they need and in doing so very likely expose ourselves to the same mistreatment they’ve suffered? Let’s not forget, we’ve got families too. What will become of our homes and possessions and our jobs and our reputation if we step out to help them?
Their choice is described in v. 34. Evidently, when the light of God’s grace shone in their hearts to give them the knowledge of Jesus Christ, among the many things that they experienced was a transformation from being selfish and self-protective to being compassionate! They were so burdened by the burdens of their fellow believers that they simply couldn’t remain silent or keep still. The compassion that Jesus himself displayed toward the sick and hurting and abused and the outcasts of his day came alive in their hearts as well.
What some might consider reckless and irresponsible behavior on their part, the Bible calls compassion!
Nothing is said explicitly in our passage, but human nature tells us that those who decided to partner with their imprisoned brothers and sisters probably faced considerable opposition for doing so. You can almost hear some in that Christian community saying something like this:
“This is none of our business. We’ve got our own lives to think about. We’ve got families to protect. Besides, God has ordained the governing powers and we are supposed to be submissive to their authority. Surely there has to be another way of helping these people, a safer way, a way that won’t put our lives and possessions in jeopardy. But if you go down to that prison and identify with those who got arrested you will only provoke the civil authorities and stir up even more anger. How can we possibly carry on the work of the ministry if all our people are in prison or if we suffer the loss of money and livelihood? And besides all that, why didn’t they behave themselves more discreetly? Couldn’t they have borne witness to Christ in silence or at least without drawing so much attention to themselves? Why should we let their extravagance and stupidity put our lives in jeopardy?”
That certainly sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? But many weren’t convinced. Compassion and love and the gospel of Jesus Christ trumped what at first sounded like common sense.
To be continued . . .