In the Epistle to the Hebrews, and the 1st Epistle of Peter, the pilgrim character of Christianity is emphasized. In both these Epistles converts from Judaism are addressed. Judaism, be it remembered, was a God-given religion, but an earthly one; it set up an established system on the earth, and produced anything but a pilgrim character in those who were under it. Bearing this in mind, the divinely given suitability of the contents of these Epistles becomes evident.
Seeing that the public profession of Christianity has gravitated to the level of Judaism, and that the great desire of the majority is to establish systems down here, or to perpetuate those that have been established, these Epistles have a very loud voice from God to us today, and we do well to take good heed to them.
In Hebrews, chapter 3, we are warned by Israel’s failure, through unbelief, to enter God’s rest in Canaan. In chapter 4 it is stated that though Israel did ultimately enter Canaan under Joshua, at no time did they enter into God’s rest, proving from the Psalms that the rest of God is still future, a rest now vastly widened in scope and meaning, being a heavenly and not an earthly one.
In connection therewith we find three striking exhortations, setting forth our responsibility as pilgrims going to the rest; and also a plain statement of the three great helps for our journey, by means of which we may be triumphantly carried through.
“Let us therefore fear” (v. 1). Not, of course, with a fear that is slavish, but rather filial. In the gospel of God’s grace fear is excluded—“perfect love casts out fear” nor is there an “if” to tarnish its brightness. Responsibility is connected with God’s government; holiness marks it. The pilgrim path is one of testing; the world is alluring, and the flesh not only weak but treacherous. In such a connection an “if” very appropriately comes in, and fear becomes a necessity. Godly fear is not a blot upon a Christian’s character, but rather an adornment.
“Let us labour, therefore” (v. 11). The idea of working to earn the rest does not enter into this expression. The word in the original is not the usual one for “labour” but one translated elsewhere “be diligent” (Titus 3:12), and “endeavouring” (Eph. 4:3). The force of the expression is, “Let us be diligent therefore to enter into that rest.” No moral feature is a greater asset than diligence. Just as with a schoolboy diligence and application are more valuable in the long run than brilliancy, so with a saint are they more valuable than shining gifts. Let us remember that though to bring in human effort in connection with salvation mars the grace of God, to use the doctrines of grace as an excuse for lazy Christians is equally harmful in the opposite direction.
“Let us hold fast” (v. 14). To hold fast our profession is the very antithesis of apostasy, against which such solemn warnings are uttered in this Epistle. It implies steady perseverance, and maintenance of the Christian name and character in the face of both the opposition of Satan and the seductions of the world.
Were we writing for anxious sinners we should impress upon them that there is nothing to fear because of the full character of the grace of God: we should tell them that there is nothing to do because Christ has done it all: and we should urge upon them, not the necessity of their holding fast, but rather that having been taken up on the shoulders of the Good Shepherd, He will hold them fast. But the very things which as anxious sinners we are not to do, we ARE to do as saints and pilgrims. In this connection nothing is more appropriate than godly fear, the result of recognizing the difficulties of the journey and our own weakness, coupled with diligent endeavour in pursuing the way, and steady perseverance in maintaining our pilgrim character, and the confession of Christ’s name in connection with it.
Lest the contemplation of our responsibilities might have a depressing effect upon us, and tend to produce in our hearts an unworthy fear which would be dishonouring to God, the Spirit of God immediately directs our thoughts to the resources which are ours upon the journey.
The first of these is the WORD OF GOD. It is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart. Many different properties are possessed by the Word of God, as we learn from such Scriptures as Acts 20:32, and 2 Timothy 3:16; but the one feature singled out for special mention here is its cutting and discerning power. It acts upon the soul as x-rays act upon the body, and the most secret thoughts and motives are exposed.
Such action is in the highest degree good for us. Have we not found again and again that our greatest difficulties are in connection with ourselves? We frequently speak of the difficulties of the path, but sometimes forget that the real difficulty lies within us.
Sooner or later therefore practical questions arise which demand a spirit of self-judgment and careful scrutiny of one’s motives. Those who have most conscientiously set themselves to the task best know how difficult it is. How perplexingly do fleshly motives lurk behind even our most spiritual desires! What strange mixtures of opposing principles do we find within!
At this juncture the Word of God comes to our rescue, laying bare and unravelling the tangled skeins of our thoughts and motives. It unerringly distinguishes between soul and spirit, discerns the thoughts and intents of the heart and presents us with a standard by which we may test ourselves. It gives us also, especially in the Old Testament, many most useful sidelights from the lives of saints of old, permitting us to see the principles on which they acted and the mistakes they made. Thus are we warned as well as instructed, and brought consciously into the presence of God. The way in which the Spirit of God in verses 12 and 13 almost insensibly glides in thought from the Word of God to God Himself has often been noted. Should it not teach us the great importance of reading God’s word not only for information or to be able to help others, but that we may thereby be brought under the all-seeing eye of God, to be searched and humbled and helped.
Should we shrink from this process it is well to remember that the Word of God is closely connected with the PRIESTHOOD OF CHRIST. This gracious provision is evidently introduced here in order that two things may be specially emphasized. In verse 14 the emphasis lies upon the greatness of the Priest. As to His office, He is not only a Priest but a High Priest, nay, even more, a great High Priest. As to His position, He has “passed into,” or as it should read, “passed through the heavens”: that is, the heavens are conceived of as chambers, inhabited by angels or other intelligences, and leading to the highest heaven, the immediate presence of God. Through all the heavens, past every created being, the great High Priest of our profession has passed, never stopping until He took His seat at the right hand of God. As to His person, He is Divine and human—Jesus—the SON or GOD.
In verse 15 the emphasis lies upon the grace of the Priest. He is touched with the feeling of our infirmities. The three italicized words should be carefully noted. Infirmities, not sins; for His temptations here were wholly apart from sin. While infirmity merits sympathy, sin merits nothing but condemnation. Further, He is concerned with the feeling of our infirmities, not with the knowledge merely. When trouble assails us and sympathy is offered by our fellow-Christians, we quickly know the difference between that which flows from knowledge merely and that which springs from the feeling begotten by having been already in similar circumstances. Apart from sin, He has been “in all points tempted like as we are.” And then with the feeling of our infirmities He is touched. He regards us not with the cold interest of the philosopher, but with the warm affection of the Lover of our souls. The warm tide of the sympathy of our great High Priest is ever flowing. Could anything be sweeter than this?
Lastly, there is the THRONE OF GRACE. The effect of the Word of God is to make us conscious that we need it. The effect of the priesthood of Christ is to embolden us to draw near and avail ourselves of it. Every Hebrew must have been familiar with the idea of God having a throne, but to them it was the symbol of everything that was awe-inspiring. To us it is the very symbol of grace. What has wrought the change? God’s Priest sits upon that throne! He came forth as Apostle, declaring the rights of that throne, He died as Surety fully meeting its claims, and now as Priest He has taken His seat upon the very throne that He vindicated, crowned with glory and honour. It has become a throne of grace. From that throne is dispensed the mercy and grace needed by us, and sufficient to carry us along the whole of our pilgrim way to the rest of God. The whole of our pilgrimage is our time of need, with our entrance into the rest the last trace of need will vanish for ever.
Careful remembrance of the three exhortations will make us more practical and diligent in utilizing the helps so graciously provided. Let us then more thankfully expose ourselves to the searchings of the Word of God; more diligently cultivate the habit of communion with our great High Priest about everything; and more boldly and frequently approach the throne of grace in definite and believing prayer. So shall we be carried happily through our pilgrimage into the rest of God.
Our Calling 1913, p. 43