We are on the threshold of entering into the New Year, 2021! We are often called as pilgrims in the Bible. Life is a journey that is set on a goal. The year 2020 has witnessed precarity, pessimism and loss of lives around the globe.
The outbreak of COVID-19 continues to jeopardize human lives. While we are still facing the brunt of the COVID-19, the outbreak of new mutant virus infuses disgruntlement and deadly fear into our minds and hearts as we face the dawn of the year 2021.We are dismantled by the forces of regression such as lethargy, negativity, fear, mediocrity and complacence.
Further, there are challenges that confront the core of human existence: the disruption of the meaning of life; the disintegration of family values. At this juncture, we are reminded to perceive that life is a journey set on destination. In order to sustain our life in this year, I would like to highlight some insights from the Epistle of Hebrews.
Predicament of the Faith Community in Hebrews
Prior to gaining some insights, we need to gain some understanding of the community depicted in Hebrews. The community to which the Epistle was written was settled in Rome. The community was set on a pilgrimage. Though the community had a great legacy of the glorious past, it was beleaguered by predicament and problems.
There is clear evidence in the Epistle that the community was experiencing hostility and social alienation (Hebrews: 10:32ff); they were ridiculed and humiliated and socially abused.
It is striking to note that public hostility was a continuing phenomenon (3: 12-14; 4; 10; 19-24). Further, the members of the Hebrews’ community were designated as strangers and exiles; they lacked basic rights in the land in which they were living.
In addition, there were other serious problems which corroded their identity as faith –community. They include: 1) drifting away (2:1,3); 2) shrinking back (10: 38);3) Falling away (3;12; 6:6)’;4) falling short (4:1, 12-15) and 5) forsaking their faith (6: 4-8; 10: 26-31). In this precarious situation, the writer injects dynamism and purpose into their lives.
Progression: A Sustaining Movement
Having enumerated a long list of faith-heroes who succeeded in their pursuit towards the goal, the writer now injects dynamism into the lives of the members to help them progress towards the intended goal. His passionate appeal in this direction is: “Let us move or progress” (4:11, 16; 10:22). The journey is not merely to be content with how you begin; but the importance is to perceive as to how you reach the destination. In this perspective, the lives of the faith-heroes can shed enlightenment and empowerment to those who are engaged in the faith journey (ch.11).
The most astonishing fact concerning faith-ventures is perpetuity. Hence, the writer necessitates the principle of progression in ch.12.1-3 to reach the intended destination. In particular, 12:1, he says, “we are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses… let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” The writer here illustrates the principle of progression. This truth is interestingly depicted as a race.
The notion of a race is a well-known event in the Greco- Roman context. The conception of journey as a race, in the writer’s mind, serves to accentuate the principle of progression in the journey. The truth that the life is a race demands discipline, determination and dedication without which, the race cannot take place. The race is set towards something which is better. There is something better that awaits us. (11:16).
It is important to note that the writer has repeatedly used the word “better” in Hebrews. The better calls for something qualitatively different. What counteracts the better is the lesser? The lesser points to something which is inferior. It is the truth of the gospel that provides insights into betterment. When it is read through the lens of the scripture, it becomes clear that the vision of the minority coheres with the truth. The majority consciousness, though seems to be veracious, is fallacious.
It is alarming to note that the majority-consciousness always precludes the people of God from progressing well towards the better. The majority could be only mute spectators whereas the minority are active participants who risk their lives to move further. The problems that relate to the majority include sin, unbelief, elementary teaching, lethargy, stagnation, disillusionment, distraction and mediocrity.
The faith-narratives teach us that we need to move on. Moving on in this context speaks about action-oriented life. This necessitates that one’s eyes need to be focused on Jesus Christ who is the model of faith and faithfulness. Let us progress and make a difference in life!
Perseverance: A Sustaining Faith
Another important factor that needs to be realized in one’s pursuit of goal is perseverance. Life is like a race which is replete with problems, difficulties and challenges. When these hard realities confront us, we become spiritually lethargic. Since the power to move or progress is precariously enervated and entangled by difficulties, the race faces impediment.
In order to counter this problem, the writer accentuates the principle or virtue of perseverance in v. 2. From the writer’s perspective, faith is called as perseverance. What is faith? Is it an element of blindness and uncertainty? Some construe faith as impassive or inactive. Others reduce faith merely to confessional or creedal statements.
Faith is the perception of reality whereby we perceive the dimensions of God’s truth. When one looks at the faith in the lives of heroes found in ch.11, one can understand that it was their conviction that held on to the truth. Faith entails one’s conviction or commitment which is based on the right understanding of God.
In other words, faith is seen as an empowered conviction as characterized by the lives of the heroes. In order to illuminate this dimension, the writer cites the life of Jesus Christ as model. In the writer’s perception, Jesus Christ is called as ‘the author and perfecter of faith’.
In midst of abuse, testing and suffering, Jesus Christ demonstrated his undivided faith and faithfulness to the Father. He never shrank from his empowered action to embrace the mission of the cross. It was his conviction and faithfulness that propelled him to face the destiny of God.
Hence, Jesus, in the writer’s perspective, is called as the founder and perfecter of faith. In the context of suffering, one needs to show evidence of perseverance in faith. The evidence of faith is seen in terms of being tested. Someone says, “the faith that is not tested cannot be trusted.” It concurs the point that one must have an encounter with a crisis-experience.
Crisis in life calls forth a decisive moment either for betterment or regression. In the life of Jesus Christ, the cross brought a crisis encounter. But, Jesus gladly and willingly accepted the cup of suffering on the way to the glory. Hence, Jesus becomes the paradigm of faith.
It is the empowered action that constantly propels us to greater action. In midst of suffering and shame, one needs to know that his/her life ought to be driven out of faith. It is this faith-empowered action that sustains our journey and reaches out to the goal.
Our conviction needs to be challenged and fully committed to the vision of God. It is true to concur the reality that we live in a world torn by conflict and conviction. We find that the old and the young tend to surrender or relinquish their conviction or commitment due to peer pressure; some would opt for the politics of compromise in order to gain advantage or popularity.
The common problem that we find with church goers or Christians today is a ‘supine mentality’ which denies faith-ventures. In this perspective, the Epistle of James provides a further understanding: “… a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (2:18).
The writer of Hebrews also speaks about the deeds of faith in 13:2. (Hospitality). We are not only called to uphold the orthodoxy of faith, but also to validate the orthopraxis of faith! Let us not simply profess the orthodoxy of doctrines; let us also demonstrate the deeds of faith. Let there be correspondence between belief and behavior!
This is possible only through the faith dimension that sees the invisible things as visible and the impossible as possible. When your life of faith is activated by action, you can never be stagnant but moving further.
Promise: A Secured Confidence
When there is progression and faith-injected dynamism, the journey of the pilgrims reaches the destination. Herein the certainty of the future is made sure through the promises of God.
In Ch. 13, one can find two promises which guarantee the lives here on earth. One is found in 13:5 “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” This promise draws the pilgrims to experience the very character of God-faithfulness.
The presence of God is seen as a constant reminder of God’s sustaining faithfulness. It is the presence of God that makes life authentic and meaningful. It is this unshakable presence of God that guards over lives; it is not only the dynamic presence of God that secures us, but the very providence of God which makes life possible and energetic. God’s providence brings his perpetual care accessible to the whole world.
The writer of Hebrews makes clear that it is through this providential care that the whole universe is upheld and sustained. At the same time, there is a special providence of God which sustains the existence of human beings.
When human lives are pushed to the periphery and placed at the disadvantaged situation, God becomes the source, strength and power of life! Hence, one needs to claim the promise of God for the ongoing life in this pandemic situation.
The second promise is found in 13:8 “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever.” This is an important promise that points to God’s immutability (unchangeability) and faithfulness. The immutability of God is artistically displayed throughout the Epistle (Heb. 1:12 – Thou are the same). The writer reminds the truth that God is the same for ever. This makes clear that God is not subject to change because He is the God of eternity! This verse asserts the full divinity of Jesus Christ which closely corresponds to Psalm 102 which affirms the eternity of Jesus Christ: the eternity past, the eternity present and the eternity future.
At the same time, he is the same which points to Jesus’ own identity throughout eternity. Thus, the writer fully acknowledges the eternity of Jesus Christ. The writer’s conception of Jesus Christ as eternal and divine provides new dimension to his nature. What astonishes me is the immutable nature which keeps eternity, divinity and Identity in unchanging state. It is the core of Jesus’s eternity, divinity and identity which brings constancy of purpose, reliability and faithfulness to the people.
From these qualities cited above, one can derive the following corollaries:
1) He is Unchanging in His Personhood: He remains the same as he was in the past. Since his personality remains the same, he will continue to act upon our lives. When all human relationships turn against us, he will truly relate to us. He will never go wrong; he can be always trusted. He remains the same when changes alter the world.
2) He is Unchanging in His Plan: His plan will never be affected by the changes that the human beings encounter. He makes the promises and brings them into fulfilment. Human action cannot nullify the plan of God. There is nothing that is a surprise to God. When human plans and thought are subject to change, God’s plan will never change.
3) He is Unchanging in His power: God is the source of power. Although rationalists and philosophers tried to stamp out the power of God by reducing the nature of God, he remains the same.
The very resurrection of Jesus Christ points to the supernatural power of God; the transformation of the sinners, including Paul and the existence of the church unmistakably asserts the power of God. He is the God of unlimited power! He is able to create something out of nothing. He can turn death into life. There is no difficult thing that God cannot do.
Hence, there is a need to commit ourselves and to reaffirm our faith. Let us not be stagnant ponds, but be running streams, and breaking the barriers. Let us be channels through which we can flow the blessings of life to others. The presence, personality and providence of God be with you as you continue to witness to the reign of God in the Year, 2021!
Rev Dr K Balan is serving as the Principal of South India Biblical Seminary, Karnataka, India.