How to Please God

How to Please God

During these past two weeks we’ve looked back at some of those whom the author of Hebrews has recognized and acknowledged as exemplars of faith. And as we’ve done so, we’ve noted some of the characteristics entailed in having confident,[1] successful[2] faith:

First, we aren’t called to have great faith, but to have faith in a great God who is also good and powerful and who can be trusted to keep the promises he has made;

Second, though God will keep every promise he has made, the fulfillment of some of those promises may have to wait until after we die to come to fruition;

Third, our faith has been designed by God to be a communal faith, a shared faith, that will only be made complete when the fulness of all those whom God has called—past, present, and future—turn to him;

Fourth, within this vast community of faith, this “cloud of witnesses,” we find examples of courage and strength that encourage us to be faithful ourselves even if the outcome and fruit of our faith similarly ends up being for the benefit of future generations.

Within this cosmic understanding of what faith in our gracious and loving Father, Son, and Holy Spirit requires, we’re reminded that our dear LORD desires more for us than we desire for ourselves. Though we may be content to live according to our old, fallen nature, God ever prods us to live according to our newly created and holy nature in and through the sacrifice that Jesus Christ has made for us and by means of the Holy Spirit he has sent to seal[3] and indwell us[4] so that our reconciliation to our heavenly Father will carry us even beyond death. For ultimately the end of our faith is that we might see God and become like him, holy and pure. As we saw last week, because we’re “surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses,” God in Christ calls us to “throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles [a]nd…run with perseverance the race marked out for us”[5] by fixing our eyes upon him. Our earthly lives may seem to be a long and arduous and painful marathon but in the end we will see that the reward of being embraced by our loving and heavenly Father who has ever cheered us on will prove to be more than worth any sacrifice we  have made as we cross the finish line.

In all of this teaching what is being spelled out for us is how placing our faith in God can lead us to better love him with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength and our neighbor as ourselves.[6] And in the closing words in this closing chapter of Hebrews 13, we find numerous exhortations to this end. Starting with verse 1, we’re provided with the general principle, “Keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters.” And what follows this opening verse are some specific examples of how we can keep on loving one another as those who, together, are part of the one family that God in Christ has created. So we read in verse 2 that one way we can keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters is this: “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers,…” With this exhortation we’re reminded that though not everyone whom we meet may believe that Jesus is the Christ, God’s Son sent by him to save the world, our dear God has made each and every person we will ever meet in his image. Therefore we’re called to care even for strangers; we’re called to care even for those whom we don’t know. But further, since the emphasis in this chapter is about how we’re to “keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters,” this verse is a reminder that if, for instance, we were to have the opportunity and privilege of visiting the Mugaris in Zimbabwe, every believer we meet from their church—though initially a stranger to us—would nonetheless be our brothers and sisters. In other words, in the body of Christ we are all family even upon first meeting one another. As part of the body of Christ we all belong to him and therefore we are to extend hospitality even to strangers.

The rest of verse 2 goes on to provide a reason for showing hospitality to strangers, “for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.” This is such a curious statement to make—or perhaps one that is especially curious for those of us who live in the western world and consequently either don’t really believe in or neglect spiritual realities that are hidden to our eyes. Yet viewed from Scripture’s perspective, even our earthly world is peopled, so to speak, or populated with spiritual beings. Now though I suspect that our passage is alluding to Abraham’s entertaining angels,[7] one of my favorite accounts in Scripture that highlights the coexistence and co-mingling of the natural and supernatural world occurs in the life of Elisha the prophet. Once when he found himself the target of the King of Aram, who was at war with Israel, Elisha’s servant was understandably frightened since they were surrounded by foreign horses and chariots. But Elisha told his servant not to be afraid, reminding him, “Those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” And so we’re told that Elisha prayed, “‘Open his eyes, Lord, so that he may see.’ Then the Lord opened the servant’s eyes, and he looked and saw the hills full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.”[8] We simply can’t know which of his angels the LORD may be using to carry out his purposes. But to wonder whether or not we’ve encountered an angel isn’t the point for whether angel or stranger, brother or sister in Christ or foreigner, Scripture calls us to treat everyone we encounter with the dignity, honor, and worth that has been bestowed upon them by our Maker and LORD.

The next example of how we can keep “keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters” is provided in verse 3: “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.” Scripture ever calls us to have a deep regard and empathy for other believers. As those who live in a country that protects the right and freedom of its people to worship, we’re fortunate not to have to worry about being put in prison simply for seeking to live our lives as followers of Jesus. Yet I think of former seminary students from China, who were once an active part of our Linebrook family, and about the stories they told and the dangers they faced simply for gathering to worship our Savior and Lord, Jesus Christ. For many believers across the ages, worshiping Jesus has been cause for imprisonment and beatings. And though as Jesus’ disciples we here in the United States may occasionally experience a level of isolation or even mocking for professing our faith in him, again, this is nothing when compared with the beatings and violent attacks that has ever come upon people of faith—as we saw represented by those in the faith chapter of Hebrews 11—and that has ever been the lot of those who have been martyred in the name of Jesus Christ. This verse reminds us that those brothers and sisters who have been imprisoned and mistreated for their faith are a part of us for together we are one body with Jesus as our head. Therefore we’re called to care for them “as if [we ourselves] were suffering.” This is how strongly God calls us to care for and identify with each other. And this teaching is nothing other than what Jesus taught in the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats. In that parable it’s clear that the treatment we extend to “one of the least of these brothers and sisters” of Jesus, our King, who may be hungry or thirsty, or a stranger, or in need of clothing or sick or in prison is treatment we extend to Jesus himself.[9] And if we don’t extend this hospitality then it’s as if we’re denying Jesus this hospitality for this is how strongly he identifies with those who are his. This is why Paul, too, teaches “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.”[10] As believers who belong to Christ we belong to one another and therefore are called to “Rejoice with those who rejoice; [and] mourn with those who mourn.”[11] We’re to identify and be one with each other as much as Jesus himself identifies and is one with all who are his.

Therefore showing hospitality to strangers (verse 2) and caring for believers who may be in prison and mistreated (verse 3) are two ways we can “keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters” as stated in verse 1. Starting in verse 4, we see that upholding the sanctity of marriage is another way we can do so: “Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral.” This particular mandate is, of course, grounded in the Ten Commandments that the LORD gave to Moses.[12] The particular instruction for sexual purity from Scripture is such a challenge for us for it requires the polar opposite of what our hypersexualized society encourages and upholds as its ideal. Whereas God has provided clear constraints within which we can celebrate our sexual, spiritual, and physical nature, our society has come to view sexuality as something to be explored and experimented with. Within a relatively short amount of time, we as a society have gone from upholding heterosexual marriage—to upholding heterosexual interactions outside of marriage—to upholding same-sex interactions—to distinguishing between those who are cisgender, that is, who identify with their biological birth sex—to upholding those who are transgender, that is, those who do not identify with their birth sex—to upholding pansexual preferences whether male, female, or bisexual. Yet in the area of sexuality, as in all areas, Scripture calls us to uphold and adhere to the standards and norms that have been disclosed by God for it is only in so doing that we will be able to keep on loving love one another as brothers and sisters in the way that he intended.

Another area in which we are to choose God’s values and ways over those of our society is that of money. As stated beginning with verse 5, “Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have,…” This exhortation is consistent with what Paul elsewhere tells Timothy, his “true son in the faith,”[13] saying,

But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. 10 For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.[14]

Now neither of these passages is suggesting that having money, whether little or much, should be viewed as a problem. We’re not being asked to do away with money for money in and of itself isn’t the root of all kinds of evil. Rather the love of money is the problem. If it’s the case, as Jesus taught, that where your treasure is, there will your heart be also,[15] then if your treasure is in accumulating more and more money, you’ll sacrifice everything and everyone and anything to get some more. But the author of Hebrews calls us instead to keep our lives free from the love of money and to be content with what we have. Why? Because we as believers, as the verse goes on to state, have a God who has said about those who are his, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.”[16] These are the words Moses spoke to Israel when he, at 120 years old, could no longer lead them. Therefore he commended them to the LORD their God and to Joshua to whom Moses would pass the leadership baton. These words were—and are—a reminder that God always keeps every promise he makes; he would never leave them; he would never forsake them. And how much more is this the case with those now living who believe in his Son and are sealed and indwelled by his Holy Spirit?

This is why “we say with confidence,” verse 6, “‘The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can mere mortals do to me?’[17]” Keep in mind the context of believers who are being imprisoned and mistreated by “mere mortals” for the crime of believing in and living for Christ. The quotation being applied here comes from a psalm that begins and ends with a refrain concerning God, “His love endures forever.”[18] If the Lord is indeed our helper—and Scripture refers to both the Holy Spirit and Jesus Christ as our helper[19]—then we can indeed be content in every circumstance, even those in which we are suffering, for God is ever with us; God is ever in us; God is ever for us. As David reminds us, because the LORD is our shepherd, we lack nothing.[20] Therefore any harm a “mere mortal” can do to us is nothing when compared with the eternal life and love and care we who turn to Christ receive from our gracious LORD. As Paul puts it, “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?”[21]

Verse 7 addresses yet another way for us to keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters, namely, “Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith.” Those who speak God’s word to others need to be remembered; they need to be prayed for. And, ideally, their lives should match their teaching. They should be able to say, “Do as I do and do as I say to the degree that what I do and say is consistent with what God’s word teaches.” Or to use Paul’s version of this, “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.”[22] This Christ whom we love and believe in and follow, verse 8, “is the same yesterday and today and forever.” All who have spoken God’s word have believed in the same God. And though these leaders may come and go, our LORD is ever with us. He is consistent. His character never changes. He is always great. He is always good. He is always holy. He is always just. He is always compassionate. He is always merciful. He always hates sin. He always hates evil. These are but a few of the things he has revealed about himself by his living and written Word. And so we can take heart and imitate those who speak God’s word and have placed their faith in God’s Son.

For it is through this Son, “[t]hrough Jesus,” that we are beckoned to follow the words found in verse 15: “[L]et us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise—the fruit of lips that openly profess his name.” One of the ways to imitate the “leaders who spoke the word of God to you” mentioned in verse 8 is to similarly “offer to God a sacrifice of praise.” I’ve always loved this phrase because it recognizes that there are times in our lives when praise is a sacrifice; there are times in our lives when praise for our dear Lord doesn’t flow naturally from our lips; there are times in our lives when we may not want to praise God due to some hardship or suffering or sadness we’re undergoing. Yet we’re called to praise him all the same for regardless of how we feel, God is ever worthy of praise and so we’re called to offer a sacrifice of praise to him at all times. At all times we’re reminded that we’re to value him even more than we value ourselves. This is the “fruit of lips that openly profess” Jesus’ name for to know him is truly to love and praise him.

And as is often the case, we’re called not simply to love and offer a sacrifice of praise to God in Christ but in verse 16 we’re similarly called to love and offer a sacrifice to others as we’re told, “And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.” We were made for God and we were made for each other. We were made to love and praise God and we were made to love and do good and share with others. And because this is the reason for which God made us, when we do these things, when we offer such sacrifices of love, praise, and service, God is pleased.

So when do we please God? We please him when we keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters (verse 1);

And how do we please God? By showing hospitality to strangers (verse 2);

How do we please God? By remembering those in prison and those who are mistreated (verse 3);

How do we please God? By honoring marriage and avoiding all sexual immorality (verse 4);

How do we please God? By keeping our lives free from the love of money and being content with what we have (verse 5);

How do we please God? By remembering those leaders who spoke the word of God to us and imitating their faith (verse 7);

How do we please God? By continually offering him a sacrifice of praise (verse 15);

How do we please God? We end where we began. We please God by loving one another as brothers and sisters, not forgetting to do good and sharing what we have with others.

And we know that these are some of the ways in which we can please God because these are some of the ways he has told us we can please him in his Word. God is pleased when we believe in him; God is pleased when we believe in the Word he’s left us by his prophets, his Son, and his apostles. So, dear brothers and sisters, let us seek to please God by doing our level best to love him with all of our heart, soul, minds, and strength and by doing our level best to love our neighbor as ourselves. This is how we please God. And so let us pray.

[1] Sermon preached on August 11, 2019 on Hebrews 11:1–3, 8–16.

[2] Sermon preached on August 18, 2019 on Hebrews 11:29–12:3.

[3] 2 Corinthians 5:5: Now the one who has fashioned us for this very purpose is God, who has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.

[4] 2 Timothy 1:14: Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you—guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us.

[5] Hebrews 12:1.

[6] Matthew 22:34–40:34 Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. 35 One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: 36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” 37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” Jesus is quoting Deuteronomy 6:5: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” and Leviticus 19:18: “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.”

[7] Genesis 18. See also Judges 6:11ff (Gideon) and Judges 13 (Manoah and his wife).

[8] 2 Kings 6:16–17.

[9] Matthew 25:37–40: 37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ 40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

[10] 1 Corinthians 12:26.

[11] Romans 12:15.

[12] Exodus 20:14: You shall not commit adultery.

[13] 1 Timothy 1:2.

[14] 1 Timothy 6:6–10.

[15] Matthew 6:19–21: 19 Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. 20 But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

[16] Deuteronomy 31:6.

[17] Psalm 118:6–7.

[18] Psalm 11:1, 2, 3, 4, 29.

[19] Παράκλητος, ου, ὁ. As stated in the Greek online dictionary run by Bill Mounce, this word means “counselor, intercessor, helper, one who encourages and comforts; in the NT it refers exclusively to the Holy Spirit and to Jesus Christ.” <>

[20] Psalm 23:1.

[21] Romans 8:31–32.

[22] 1 Corinthians 11:1. See also 1 Corinthians 4:16: Therefore I urge you to imitate me.