Holiness in Action

Holiness in Action

In our final look at the book of Hebrews, we have some closing exhortations from the author of this book to the churches he’s writing to—and the reason I’ve continually referred to the author as “the author” is because we don’t actually know who wrote it. And the audience is probably Jewish converts to Christ who have undergone and may still be in danger of undergoing persecution.

Chapter 13 of this epistle provides some examples of what holiness looks like in action. So despite the emphasis we’ve seen about our final end being heaven, it’s clear here that our earthly lives also matter for we are called to live as kingdom people—as holy people—as people who seek to emulate God’s kindness and care.

Verse 1 begins with the general admonition to “Keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters” and in the verses that immediately follow we’re provided with further descriptions of what a loving life looks like. Love is the heart of holiness in action. To be holy means we’re to love as God would have us love; that we’re to embrace all who follow the LORD as though they were part of our biological family. This was true even during the Old Testament period as we saw a few weeks ago as Rahab was adopted into the family of Israel for the kindness and protection she showed to the two Israelites spying out the land. And this becomes even more evident during the New Testament period when even the Gentiles, non-Jewish followers of God, are grafted into God’s family tree by means of Jesus’s sacrifice. So though we aren’t related to one another by the blood of our parents, grandparents, or more distant ancestors we might hold in common, we are nonetheless related to one another by blood—and the blood we hold in common is nothing less than the blood of Jesus Christ.

He is the one who has made access to our heavenly Father possible;

He is the one who by his perfect obedience was able to take on the judgment of the curse for us and die on our behalf;

He is the one who rose from the dead and so annihilated death itself;

He is the one who, after ascending to heaven, sent and sealed us with his own Holy Spirit that we might never be separated from his love, not in this life, not in the next;

He is the one who even this morning is ruling at our heavenly Father’s right hand.

His blood is what makes it possible for us to call one another brothers and sisters. So we are now; so we will be for all eternity. Nothing can or will ever change that.

And in verse 2 we’re exhorted to extend Christ’s love not only to each other but to all with whom we come in contact. “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers.” In a time in which “hotels” or inns weren’t nearly as ubiquitous as they are now—and those that existed could be dangerous—the safety that hospitality provided was very important. But this exhortation applies to us as well. We, too, are called to generously welcome and receive even those we may not know. Holiness in action is mindful of others. It seeks to reach out to and serve others for this reflects God’s nature and we are called to be like him for we are his children. And the second part of verse 2 makes the unusual observation that we’re to extend hospitality to strangers “for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.” There are a few instances of this having occurred in the Old Testament—Abraham,[1] Gideon,[2] and Samson’s mother and then father.[3] And though it’s mind-boggling to consider how this could happen, it’s a reminder that there’s but a thin veil separating heavenly and earthly life.

Verse 3 returns to concrete examples of what loving each other as brothers and sisters looks like. First we are to “Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.” When Scripture speaks of “remembering,” the sense isn’t simply to think about others but to act on their behalf. Christianity is a religion of empathy, isn’t it? We’re called, to the best of our ability, to try to understand and share the feelings and experiences of those around us as if they were our own. We’re called to try and put ourselves in the shoes of others and respond accordingly. This is the second part of the summary of the law—we’re to love our neighbors as ourselves. It’s a wonderful rule of thumb! If we’re not sure how to act in a given situation, it may help to try and consider how we might like to be treated were we to find ourselves in the very same situation. To quote Paul, we’re to “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.”[4] This, too, is holiness in action; this, too, is part of our imitation of God in Christ.

As we’ve noted before, probably the most powerful example of empathy is Jesus’ identification with those who are his, as illustrated when the risen Christ appeared to Saul—whose name was later changed to Paul—when he was persecuting Christians. Paul tells of hearing a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” and when Paul asked, “Who are you, Lord?” the answer he received was, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting….”[5] Jesus so identifies—he so empathizes with all who are his that to harm someone who is a Christian is to harm Jesus himself. We see this as well in Jesus’ teaching of the parable of the sheep and the goats[6] where he makes clear that however we treat the “least of these”—whether the hungry, or the thirsty, or the stranger, or one needing clothes, or the sick, or those in prison—is how we treat Jesus, our king, himself. Our unity, our oneness with Christ is such that however we treat other believers—whether cruelly or kindly—is how we treat our Savior and Lord, Jesus. So by his Spirit which he has given us we belong not only to him but also to each other; by his Spirit we are family; by his Spirit we are set apart as children of our heavenly Father. This being set apart for God is what makes holiness in action possible.

In verse 4 holiness in action is applied to marriage and sexual behavior in general: “Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral.” Whereas of our own fallen nature, unguided by God, we might be in agreement with the current social mores of our society, as those who have given our lives over to God, we’re called to live by his social mores. In the opening chapters of Genesis, sexual relations within a monogamous, heterosexual relationship is presented as God’s ideal. In Genesis 2:18, after having made Adam and placed him in the Garden of Eden to work and take care of it, the LORD states, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.” And so he makes the first woman for this first man. Earlier in Genesis 1—these opening chapters aren’t chronological—we’re told that “God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. 28 God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.’” So, again, the norm established by God was for a man and woman, equally made in God’s image, to equally care for the world their Creator had made.

And this monogamous male-female ideal was undergirded and upheld when the LORD gave Moses the law. “ You shall not commit adultery” makes it into the “Top 10” commandments indicating how important marriage is in God’s eyes. But the very fact that God’s people have to be told not to commit adultery is also telling. What it tells us is that since the time of the Fall, human values differ from God’s values so much that something a basic as the sanctity of marriage needs to be taught to us. And this revelation given to Moses over 1500 years before the time of the New Testament continues to need to be taught by the author of Hebrews and, 2000 years after the New Testament period, it continues to need to be taught to us today because our ways are still not God’s ways. And part of the point in Genesis is that whether married or single, whether we have children or do not have children, it is not good for us to be alone for we were created not only for God but for each other and so we need one another’s help to live the lives God in Christ calls us to live. We, together, are God’s family and should treat one another as such.

Having mentioned the importance of marriage, the next holiness in action item is the importance of maintaining a proper perspective on material goods. In verse 5 we’re told, “Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have.” Again, this may be an emphasis here due to context of persecution since such persecution could have resulted in the loss of money and property. Persecution may provide the occasion to highlight the outlook that should typify those who seek to emulate our Savior and Lord, Jesus Christ, who, “though he was rich, yet for your sake…became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.”[7] Again, the servant Jesus is the highest example we have of holiness in action, of seeking to live our lives for God’s sake and for the sake of others rather than seeking to build earthly kingdoms for ourselves.

Because money is able to address so many of our needs—food, clothing, shelter, transportation—and desires—entertainment, vacation, sparkly things that make us happy—it’s so very easy to want more and more of it; it’s so very easy to love it. But we should strive to find a balance. Though we should work to provide for our needs and the needs of those around us, we shouldn’t make the acquisition of money beyond the meeting of our needs our goal. We shouldn’t make money our god. As Jesus reminds us in his Sermon on the Mount, “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”[8] And the apostle Paul also states how this truth has guided his life as he declared with confidence, “12 I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. 13 I can do all this through him who gives me strength.”[9] Life’s meaning isn’t found in what we may have or not have; life’s meaning is found in who we know. And if we know the One who made us and everything that exists in this world, we have the highest possession of all.

As the author of Hebrews tells us in the second half of verse 5, the reason for keeping our lives free from the love of money and the reason for being content with what we have, is “because God has said, ‘Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.’” So the point here is that if we know God in Christ, we are able to be content in all circumstances because we can rest in the assurance that he is always with us; he will never leave us; he will never forsake us. This biblical truth was first expressed in the Old Testament, the source of this quote, when Moses was passing on the baton to Joshua to take possession of the land originally promised to Abraham. Moses twice tells Joshua concerning the nations that were current occupants of the Promised Land: “The Lord will deliver them to you, and you must do to them all that I have commanded you. Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the Lord your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.”[10] As was the case with the faithful during Old Testament times, so it is now. God is with those who are his.

In verse 6 a second Old Testament example of faith in God is provided in a quotation from King David.[11] Hebrews’ author notes that because God will never leave or forsake those who are his, “So we say with confidence, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can mere mortals do to me?’” In the case of David, he was testifying to a time when his very life was at stake and yet the LORD took care of him as reflected in a repeated refrain from this psalm of David, “His love endures forever.”[12] Again, the idea here is if God is for us—and he is for us!—then who can be against us? No one, I tell you!

The next instance of holiness in action noted in verse 7 is, “Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith.” This exhortation assumes that those who were speaking God’s word were not only teaching it but also living it. Paul himself regularly exhorted believers to imitate him,[13] but he provided an important qualifier: Paul told the church in Corinth “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.”[14] And verse 8 in Hebrews 13 reminds us that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” Consistency in action is an expression of a person’s authenticity. Because he is God, Jesus has ever acted on behalf of those who are his. And those who follow Jesus Christ should have not only shared beliefs, based upon his teaching, but those who follow Jesus Christ should also have a shared lifestyle, a holy lifestyle, based on his example.[15]

Ultimately, Jesus Christ is not only the example but the means to our holiness. As verse 15 states, “Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise—the fruit of lips that openly profess his name.” Since Christ became the final offering to God, becoming a curse for us and dying and rising in our place, we are able to offer a spiritual sacrifice, a spiritual offering to God. And I love that the author of Hebrews understands that this can be a sacrifice for us at times; that it doesn’t always come naturally. But easy or hard, if we have given our lives over to God in Christ, another part of our holiness in action is that we express our gratitude to him—that we praise him—that we express our respect to him for, again, we belong to him.

And, having drawn our attention to the God-ward side of our lives, we’re not to forget that we were not only made for God but we were made for each other. Verse 16 states “And do not forget to do good and to share with others.” This, too, is part of our holiness in action. And notice, again, that the author of this epistle acknowledges that this, too, may be a sacrifice at times and yet this verse reminds us that “with such sacrifices God is pleased.”

Brothers and sisters, let us review what holiness in action looks like.:

Holiness in action means we are called to show hospitality to strangers;

Holiness in action means we are called to remember those in prison and those who are mistreated—that we’re to act on their behalf;

Holiness in action means we are called to honor marriage and keep our lives sexually pure;

Holiness in action means we are called to keep our lives free from the love of money;

Holiness in action means we are called to be content with what we have;

Holiness in action means we are called to remember that God will never leave us or forsake us;

Holiness in action means we are called to be confident that because we have the LORD as our helper, we needn’t be afraid of any situation or circumstance life may bring.

Holiness in action means we are called to remember our leaders and follow their example—especially our greatest leader, Jesus Christ;

Holiness in action means we are called to sacrificially praise God;

Holiness in action means we are called to sacrificially do good and share what we have with others.

I’d like to close this morning with the apostle Paul’s own statement of what I’m calling holiness in action—of having God’s perspective guide our perspective of our earthly lives. And it comes from the end of the eighth chapter of Romans:

31 What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? 33 Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. 34 Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? 36 As it is written: “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”

37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Let us pray….



Use Hebrews 13:20–21 as benediction: 20 Now may the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, 21 equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.

[1] Genesis 18:1–5 in which the LORD appeared to Abraham via three men;

[2] Judges 6:11–24.

[3] Judges 13:3–24.

[4] Romans 12:15.

[5] Acts 9:4–5. Paul recounts this encounter as well in Acts 22:7–8.

[6] Matthew 25:31–46.

[7] 2 Corinthians 8:9.

[8] Matthew 6:24.

[9] Philippians 4:12–13.

[10] Deuteronomy 31:5–6. The second occurrence is a few verses later in verses 7–8: “Be strong and courageous, for you must go with this people into the land that the Lord swore to their ancestors to give them, and you must divide it among them as their inheritance. The Lord himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged.”

[11] Psalm 118:6, 7.

[12] This refrain is found in verses 1, 2, 3, 4, 29 (final verse).

[13] I Corinthians 4:16: Therefore I urge you to imitate me. See also Philippians 3:17, 4:9; I Thessalonians 1:6; 2 Thessalonians 3:9.

[14] I Corinthians 11:1.

[15] Passages which speak of Jesus Christ as our example include Philippians 2:3–8 (servant attitude); John 13:12–15 (washing the disciples’ feet); John 15:9–11 (love as he loved); I John 2:6, I Peter 2:21 (live/walk as he did); Ephesians 4:32, Colossians 3:13 (forgiving).

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