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Promise Oath and Hope

Series: Hebrews

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on Sep 23, 1998

Hebrews 6:13-20

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Turn with me in your Bibles to Hebrews 6.  If I can take your attention back to Hebrews 5 for a few moments and remind you that beginning in Hebrews 5:11, after a section in which the author of Hebrews has thought about the idea of Christ as our High Priest and specifically Christ as a High Priest according to the order of Melchizedek, he’s concluded with that thought in Hebrews 5:10.  You’re expecting him to jump right into it in Hebrews 5:11 and he stops and he issues a warning.

If you will scan from Hebrews 5:11 down to verse 14, you’ll see that the first thing that he is concerned about is the apparent spiritual immaturity of this particular congregation.  Basically, he says they have been taught the basics of the faith, they have been taught those foundational truths of the faith, but they haven’t grasped them to the point that they are really ready to move on.  And so it’s almost as if they need to go back and have those things rehearsed again.  So he’s concerned about what he calls a dullness of hearing.  He’s not referring to an intellectual problem.  He’s not saying, ‘You folks are stupid in the congregation of the Hebrews.’  He’s saying that there’s a spiritual dullness which concerns him and some of the members of this congregation.  And then he goes on to say in verses 1-3 of chapter 6, having given that admonition, that warning, he goes on to exhort them to spiritual growth.  So having warned them about spiritual immaturity, he calls them to grow towards spiritual maturity.  But then again when you get to verse 4 of Hebrews 6, he’s back to a warning again.  And in Hebrews 6:4, 5, 6, 7, and 8, he issues a very, very stern warning against falling away from our original confession of faith and trust in the Lord Jesus Christ. 

It is a frightening warning and it’s parallel to the warning that you will see in Hebrews 10, when we get there.  But after that warning if you’ll look again at verse 9, 10, 11, and 12, he concludes that section of admonition and warning by a word of encouragement.  He encourages the Christians in this congregation that he thinks better of them, that he is encouraged not to think the worst about their situation.  And so having gone through this long section of warning, we come to Hebrews 6:13-20.  In this passage, having spoken in the previous verses, 9-12, about evidences of the grace of God in the lives of these people, He now begins to speak about the ground of their assurance.  So let’s look at this passage together in Hebrews 6:13 to the end. 

Hebrews 6:13-20 

Father, we thank You again for the privilege of learning from Your word.  Open our eyes that we might understand it, and apply its truth to our hearts in our own special circumstances by the work of Your Holy Spirit.  We ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.

In this passage, the author of Hebrews wants to explain to us what the ultimate grounds of Christian assurance are.  He has issued two warnings, a set of warnings, to this congregation about the possibility of falling away from their original confession in Christ.  His purpose, as we said last week and the week before, was not to unsettle their assurance of salvation, but he knows that his warning was so straightforward, so blunt, so serious that there will be many Christians who are perhaps inappropriately disturbed about their own security in Christ.  And so he hastily says in verses 9-12, “Friends I see evidences of God’s grace in your life.”  And look at some of the specific evidences that he mentions.  For God is not unjust so as to forget your work and your love which you have shown toward His name in having ministered and in still ministering to the saints.  So in verse 10 he says, “I can see from the way you love one another, from the way you work for one another, for the way you minister to one another that God is at work in your lives.”  And again he goes on then to express his desires for the congregation.  We desire that each one of you show the same diligence so as to realize the full assurance of hope until the end.  So he makes it clear that he sees evidences of God’s grace in the lives of some of these Christians, and that his desire is for all of them to attain a full assurance of hope. 

So in verses 9-12 he talks about outward evidences of God’s grace in their lives.  But it’s very important to understand that their assurance is not to be based upon those outward evidences.  Those things evidence the work of God in their lives, but there is a surer ground for why they ought to be secure in their profession of the Lord.  And that is what he is talking about in this passage. 

Donald Guthrie says this about verses 13-20.  And I’ve got this quote in front of you in the outline, I think, and you may want to look at it:  “This section acts as a prelude to the exposition of the Melchizedek thing.”  Did you notice in the very last verse of the passage we just read he comes back to the theme of Melchizedek which he had left in Hebrews 5:10.  Finally, when we get to Hebrews 7:1, he’s going to start the subject that you thought he was going to start in Hebrews 5:11. This section is an introduction, a re-introduction to the theme of Christ as a priest according to the order of Melchizedek.  Guthrie goes on to say: “What the writer is concerned to show is (l) the solemnity of God’s promises; (2) His unchangeable character and, therefore, (3) the absolute certainty of His word.  This is really an explanation of the basis of the Christian’s full assurance of hope.  Having given these stern warnings, now he is going to explain on what basis a Christian may rightly have full assurance of the hope of the Lord Jesus Christ.”  

I. God swore a promise to Abraham and Abraham received the promise.

Now I’d like to point your attention to two or three things.  First, in verses 13-15, the author of Hebrews begins this section explaining the basis of our hope by going to the story of God’s assuring of Abraham in Genesis 22.  Now you may want to turn back to Genesis 22 and keep your finger there for a moment because I want you to look at this passage closely.  Notice that  verse 14 here in chapter 6 is a direct quote from Genesis 22.  And verse 13 is a direct allusion to a verse in Genesis 22.  So clearly Genesis 22 is on the mind of the author of Hebrews as he begins to explain to us the basis of Christian assurance. 

And what’s significant about that?  What happened in Genesis 22?  The offering of Isaac at Mt. Moriah and the substituting of the ram instead of the sacrifice of Isaac.  Okay, so it’s a very significant point in the life of Abraham and in the life of people of God.  Verses 13 and 14 in Hebrews 6 are based upon a reference to Genesis 22:16 and 17.  Look at those verses in Genesis 22.  There we read in verse 15: “The angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time from heaven, and said, ‘By myself I have sworn,’ declares the Lord, ‘because you have done this thing, and have not withheld your son, your only son, indeed I will greatly bless you and I will greatly multiply your seed as the stars of the heavens and as the sand which is on the seashore and your seed shall possess the gate of their enemies.’”  But do you hear the echo of those verses?  When God made the promise to Abraham, ‘since He could swear by no one greater, He swore by Myself saying I will surely bless you and I will surely multiply you.’  That is the passage that the author of Hebrews goes to in Hebrews 6:13-15.  Here we see a reiteration of the covenant promise that God had given to Abraham in Genesis 12, in Genesis 15, and in Genesis 17.  Why is it reiterated here?  Because this is a tremendously significant point in the life of Abraham in terms of reflecting and evidencing his trust in God. 

Abraham as the father of the faithful, we are told, had believed God’s promises to him despite all the evidences to the contrary drawn from his own circumstances.  He was old, his wife was past the child-bearing years, and yet Abraham believed that God was going to give him not only a son, but descendants that would be as the stars of the sky or as the sand on the seashore.  Abraham believed the Lord’s promises made to him in Genesis 12 and 15.  And so, when the Lord came to him after he had finally had his own son Isaac, and said to him, “Abraham, take your son, your only son, Isaac, who you love and go to the land of Moriah and offer him as a sacrifice.”  Abram believed the Lord would still fulfill His promise to him.  So he obediently went to make the sacrifice and yet the Lord as we know in His grace spares Isaac, provides a substitute and teaches Abraham a very, very important lesson. 

And it is in that context that the Lord speaks these words to Abraham.  “Abraham, I swear to you that I will bless you and I will multiply to you.”  Now that promise there in Genesis 22:17 is not new.  The language is almost the same as Genesis 12, and we could go to other passages where it is similar to as well.  But what’s new there?  The swearing, the oath that God gives is new.  Abraham has almost sacrificed his son, and the angel of the Lord cries out and says what?  “Abraham, Abraham, touch not the lad.”  And so Abraham with the knife in his hand, puts the knife down, sees the ram in the thicket and the ram is offered instead of Isaac as a substitute.  Now the Angel of the Lord comes again in Genesis 22:15, and says to Abraham.  “Abraham, I swear to you that I will bless you and I will multiply you.”  So the quote here in Hebrews 6 comes from the context of this great event and imagine how much of a reinforcing effect this would have had on Abraham’s faith.  Abraham has originally been commanded by God to sacrifice his son, the hope of the covenant.  Then God has provided a ram in the thicket bush and spoken to him in the form of the angel of the covenant, saying, ‘Abraham don’t touch your son.  Don’t lay a finger on him.  Spare him.  I have a substitute.’   And then the Lord comes again in the form of the angel of the covenant and says to Abraham, ‘I swear to you that I will fulfill the promise.’   Image the impact on Abraham of hearing the angel of the Lord who had just cried out to spare his only son, Isaac.  And now he is swearing, he is reinforcing the covenant promise that God made to him all the way back in Genesis 12, by an oath.  Abraham’s obedience and patience had been tested through the great experience of Genesis 22.  His faith had proved sound and so he obtained the promise.  He was made a great nation.  Isaac was spared and was the line, the seed of the line of promise. 

And think how significant recounting this story would have been to the congregation of the Hebrews.  He goes back and he goes to this great figure of the faith, Abraham.  And he says, ‘Look at how he believed despite the evidence to the contrary and he obeyed when he didn’t understand what the Lord was doing in his life, and he was patient knowing that the Lord would provide.’ 

In fact, if you were to turn over to Hebrews 11:19, the author of Hebrews there is going to tell you that when Abraham went to Mt. Moriah, he was so convinced that God was going to be faithful to His promise that he assumed that after he sacrificed Isaac that God was going to raise him from the dead.  It’s not just that Abraham expected a substitute to be given.  Abraham was so convinced that God was going to do His will that he was prepared for God to raise Isaac from the dead.  And so the author of Hebrews picks this story to show to the people that God is faithful to His covenant promises.  And He is ready to back those covenant promises up even to the point of making an oath.  God swore a promise to Abraham and Abraham received that promise.  

The author of Hebrews wants this congregation to know that it is not an uncertain thing to bet the bank on God.  It is not an uncertain thing to place all your trust in God.  It is not an uncertain thing to trust in God your life, the most precious things that you have.  There is nothing uncertain about that and God knows how frail we are and so he is ready even to swear those promises to us.  And so the author of Hebrews points this to us. 

Now let me say something about Abraham’s obedience.  It may seem here as if we are saying that Abraham by his obedience merited God’s response, and merited assurance.  But listen to what Thomas Brooks says.  “Though no man merits assurance by his obedience, yet God usually crowns obedience with assurance.”  Do you hear what he’s saying there?  He’s saying God is not obliged to give us assurance because we are obedient.  And we don’t earn assurance of our salvation because of our obedience, but there is this intertwining of assurance and obedience, such that when we are faithful, when we believe and when we are obedient in our faith, the Lord usually crowns that faithfulness with an assurance of the hope in us.  That’s important to see because in this passage it’s going to be made clear by the author of Hebrews that one of the reasons that God swears His oath and promise is to reinforce the people’s failing and weak trust in His word.  It’s not because God is untruthful, it’s because people are weak in their trust in Him that He adds this oath of confirmation.  But in Abraham’s case when was it that God swore this oath?  Was it at a point in Abraham’s life when he was disobedient?  No.  This was his supreme act of obedience, and it was because God was pleased with Abraham’s faith that He gives to him this extra dose, this extra confirmation of assurance. 

So there are a number of things that we can learn from this passage.  Having issued stern warnings, the author of Hebrews first speaks about the evidences that accompany assurance, and then He talks about the basis of assurance.  That’s what He’s talking about here in Hebrews 13-18.  And it is clear that God’s concern for Abraham was that he be assured that God was going to be faithful to His promises.  And so He gives him promises, He gives him a covenant, He gives him oath, He piles on reasons for Abraham to trust Him.  And, of course, that’s because God is concerned for all His people to have assurance of the hope that is in them.  That’s explicit in the very next verses.

Notice verse 17, “In the same way God desiring even more to show to the heirs of the promise the unchangeableness of His purpose.”  So His concern is for all of the heirs of the promise to be assured with their salvation.  And so He interposes with a note.  He piles on reasons for the people of God to trust the promises that He’s made to them in the word.  The first thing that we see here in this passage is God swearing a promise to Abraham and Abraham receiving that promise.  The author of Hebrews has shown you that picture in order to assure you that that is how God has faithfully dealt with the people of God in the past, and you may expect Him to deal with you in the same faithful way.  Why?  Because you are children of Abraham and you are the recipients of the promises of Abraham in Christ.  Now we’ll get to that part later.  But he wants you to be assured of these promises that the Lord has made to you.

II. Why the heirs of promise can rest assured.

Then in verses 16-18 he looks more explicitly at this two-fold ground of the Christian hope.  Why is that heirs of the promise can rest assured?  Because of the promise and because of the oath.  Look at the passage here in verses 16-18.  He begins by basically giving an illustration.  He says, “For men swear by one greater than themselves and with them an oath given as confirmation is an end of every dispute.”  And so by mentioning human oaths, the author of Hebrews is trying to remind us of the superiority of a divine oath.  The Author of Hebrews knows that human oaths are given and taken because we are not perfect, and because we have a tendency to tell falsehoods.  And sometimes we even have to have legal sanctions when oaths are broken because human beings have a tendency to be false when it is not to their advantage.  So the author of Hebrews by bringing up the subject of human oaths, is reminding you implicitly of the superiority of an oath given by God. 

For instance, there are two ways in which you will see this superiority.  First, human oaths are taken precisely because of our character flaws.  Human oaths are taken because we can’t implicitly trust one another.  And so legal authorities make us take an oath because we know when we take those oaths, there may be consequences if we are unfaithful in what we say under that oath.  So the oath is there because of human character flaws.  But God does not take this oath because He is untrustworthy.  God takes this oath because our faith is weak.  Isn’t that incredible.  God condescends to take an oath not because there is something lacking in Him, but because there is something lacking in us.  God, whose fault it is not that we do not trust in Him, yet is willing to go the extra mile precisely because He loves His people and He takes this oath on top of His promise. 

But there is a second way that a divine oath is superior to a human oath.  And that is in a human oath. The very origin of oath taking in the world is men standing before the highest legal tribunals of their land acknowledging that there is something transcendent to which we are all accountable.  And though we may lie to one another and though we may lie to civil authorities, yet taking an oath is a recognition that there is a transcendent power in the universe to which we are all accountable and which will call us to account.  So when a human takes an oath, for instance in the United States, and says something to the effect that we ‘swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth so help me God,’ that language is acknowledging a transcendent order to which we are all accountable. 

Now God can’t call upon a transcendent order higher than Himself, and so the very mention of a human oath reminds us that because nothing transcends God, God pledges Himself in this oath.  He commits Himself in this oath, in this pledge to Abraham and to the heirs of the promise.  Then He begins to talk about the divine oath in Hebrews 6:17.  This divine oath is given because of the weakness of faith in the heirs of the promise, and it is given to them in order to do two things. 

First of all note that it is given to assure them of the promise.  Look at the phrase.  God desiring even more to show to the heirs a promise so that He is desiring to convince believers of the security that they have in His promise.  You see how important this is to God.  You see how ready He is to go the extra mile in order that we might have a full assurance of the hope that is in us. 

And secondly, He does this in order to convince them of the inviability of His promises.  Notice the phrase, “The unchangeableness of His purpose.”  In order to convince them of the unchangeableness of His purpose He interposes with an oath.  And by these two unchangeable things, the oath and the promise, our hope rests on solid ground.  Look at verse 18.  “By two unchangeable things in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have taken refuge would have strong encouragement to take hold of the hope that is set before us.” 

Listen to what Donald Guthrie says: “This is the sheet anchor of the Christian’s conviction.  He knows his assurance depends not on the stability or strength of his own faith, but on the absolute trustworthiness of God’s word.”  If our assurance is built upon only our confidence in our faith, I promise you that your assurance will fluctuate.  Because if you’re honest with yourself, you will see the weakness of your faith from time to time.  Sometimes by God’s grace we are strong in faith, and we’re enabled to believe in hope against hope.  But other times our faith trembles.  So if our assurance is founded on our faith, our assurance is going to be up and down and up and down.  But if our assurance is founded on God’s promise and evidenced by the works of grace that the spirit is doing in our lives, if it’s founded on God’s promise, then it’s solid, then it’s constant, then it’s steady.  And that’s what God wants these Hebrews to have.  He wants these Hebrew Christians to be steady.  He wants them to be strong in the assurance of the hope which is in them.  So here we see the true ground of assurance.  God’s promise, God’s covenant, God’s oath, that’s where our trust is.

Now is that where your trust is tonight?  Are you trusting in your faith, or are you placing your faith in Christ?  Is Christ the ground of your hope?  Are the promises of God the ground of your hope?  The promises of the covenant given us in Abraham repeated to us in the gospel, is that where your hope is?  Or are you trusting in yourself?  If you’re trusting in yourself, you’re in trouble.  If you’re trusting in Christ and the gospel, you’re in sure hands.  That is the sure foundation.  By the way, let me just say in passing, we see here an example of a lawful oath.  From the time of the Reformation there have been many Christians who believed on the basis of what Jesus said in Matthew 5:34 that no Christian ought to take an oath.  You may have met some Christian who said to you that because of their consciences they did not believe that they ought to take a legal oath and they would quote Jesus’ words.  Take no oath at all or make no oath at all.  And yet this passage indicates that God takes an oath and human oaths are mentioned in passing without condemnation of the practice of taking a human oath.  And so if you’ll pick up your hymnal and turn with me again to the back of the hymnal to our Confession.  You’ll find this on page 861.  I’d like you to look at these words in the chapter on lawful oaths and vows.  Our Confession summarizes what I think the author of Hebrews is saying precisely.  From The Westminster Confession, chapter 22, section 2: “The name of God only is that by which men ought to swear, and therein it is to be used with all holy fear and reverence.  Therefore, to swear vainly, or rashly, by that glorious and dreadful Name; or, to swear at all by another thing, is sinful, and to be abhorred.  Yet as in matters of weight and moment, an oath is warranted by the word of God, under the New Testament as well as under the Old; so a lawful oath, being imposed by lawful authority, in such matters, ought to be taken.”  

Now you may be wondering, why in the world would a Confession of Faith have a chapter on lawful oaths.  It’s because hundreds and hundreds and thousands of Christians from the 17th century on, didn’t think that it was lawful to take oaths.  And the reformers were saying ‘No, it is lawful to take an oath,’ and they in fact referenced passages like this in Hebrews:6.   So Jesus’ words are not an absolute prohibition on oaths of any kind.  Jesus’ words again, so often as He does, is appointing to what our motivation is in taking the oath.  At any rate, that’s just something in passing that you get for no extra charge as you work through Hebrews 6:16-18. 

III. The Christian hope stabilizes the soul.

One last thing as we close.  As you look at verses 19 and 20, you see the author of Hebrews giving you the pastoral application of all this teaching that he has laid out before you in verses 13-18.  And here you see that Christian hope stabilizes the soul.  In verse 19 he says, “This hope we have as an anchor of the soul.”   In other words, this kind of strong hope based on God’s word, God’s promise, God’s covenant, God’s oath, it steadies the heart, it steadies the soul.  That kind of hope steadies you in the walk of faith. 

And he goes on to say in verse 19 that it is a hope which enters the veil.  And it’s a very interesting thing here.  He says we have this hope as an anchor of the soul, a hope both sure and steadfast, and one which enters within the veil.  And so we shift metaphors.  One minute we’re on a shift in a stormy sea and we’ve dropped anchor.  We’re trying to stay stable so that we’re not dashed against some sort of a reef or rocks somewhere and then suddenly we’re in the holy of holies.  And you almost have this picture of this anchor being pitched inside the tent curtain into the holy of holies.  And it’s not a bad picture that you are tethered to a hope which has entered and anchored itself within the veil. 

But then he goes on to say something even more encouraging.  Look at his words in verse 20. “Where Jesus has entered as a forerunner for us.”  Now the encouraging word there is “forerunner” and then the total phrase “forerunner for us.”  If Jesus is a forerunner, then someone is following.  If Jesus is a forerunner for us, then you are following.  That’s what is so encouraging.  He is saying Jesus is already there.  He’s already in the heavenly holy of holies.  He’s already in the presence of the Father.  If you’re united to Him by faith, here’s your hope.  He’s already there, but He’s there as your forerunner, preparing the way.  You’re His follower.  If He’s the forerunner, He can’t be the forerunner unless you’re there with Him, too.  And so we have a sure hope the author of Hebrews says our hope must focus on the promises of God given to us in the Covenant, given to us in the gospel, and based on the priesthood of Christ. 

And then, of course, he gives that last, that final phrase, ‘having become a high priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.”  And then he’ll spend chapter 7 explaining to you what in the world he means by that.  May the Lord bless His words.  Let’s look to Him in prayer. 

Father, we do thank you for the truth of Your word.  Even in hard passages in which Your faithful authors writing the very words inspired by the spirit telling us difficult and deep things.  We know that they are meant for our spiritual edification.  We pray that you would strengthen our assurance, that we might be free to serve with all our heart and all our soul and all our might.  We ask these things in Jesus’ name. Amen.

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