You may notice that this sermon is rather short. That’s because I read Hebrews in its entirety, only giving these brief thoughts before and after that reading. Since Hebrews is a written sermon, I felt it was necessary to hear it read during our gathering for worship on the Lord’s Day, as its original recipients likely first heard it.
Imagine that you are a Jewish Christian in the first century gathered for worship with your fellow Christians on the Lord’s Day.
Several years ago, you came to believe that Jesus of Nazareth is the long-awaited Messiah, the Christ, the Seed of woman, the Offspring of Abraham, and the Son of David. As revolting as the very thought once seemed to you, you now look with mixture of love and horror at Jesus’ crucifixion, for it was there that Isaiah’s perplexing prophesy was fulfilled: God’s suffering Servant bore His people’s sins, becoming a curse to free us from the curse of sin. Now, instead, of worshiping with your fellow Jews on the Sabbath, you gather with other Christians, many who are also Jewish, on the first day of the week, the Lord’s Day as you now call it. You do this because Jesus rose back to life on that day, and this weekly gathering is a perpetual reminder to your whole church that you worship a living Savior, who will come again to judge the living and the dead.
Several years ago, whenever you were still a new Christian, you felt the fires of persecution firsthand. Like your Lord, you were mocked and reviled. Many of your brothers and sisters in Christ were thrown in prison and would have starved to death if the church did not take turns bringing them food, yet each visit brought fear that you would be imprisoned as well. Your property was even plundered by those whose minds have been darkened by the ruler of this world to hate the God of light. Some gathered with you still bear the scars of the beatings they received for bearing the name of Christ.
Those days passed, replaced by years of tense but still welcome calm and peace, but now the embers are glowing once more. The empire is filled with stories of how the emperor is going (or has gone) mad. Persecutions, though they never fully faded away, are becoming more frequent and more extreme. You hear of new martyrs for Christ are being made each day, and anti-Christian sentiment is growing among your own neighbors. You can tell by their glances and how they hurry their children away from you. You refuse to offer sacrifices at the emperor’s temple and to join the rest of the city in the feasts and festivals throughout the year. You’ve made it abundantly clear that you are not like your fellow citizens. You are more foreign to them than many of the actual foreigner who pass through, and though you have only sought their good, they do not trust you.
Of course, the Jews are ancient and stubborn enough that everyone knows about them. Long ago, Rome realized that it would either need to exterminate the Jews entirely or carve out worship exception for them so that they would not be forced to worship the emperor. If they were isolated in Judea, the first option might have been worth the expense, but they were scattered throughout the empire, making the second option necessary. To make matters worse, because many Jews viewed Christians as heretics and blasphemers, they often incited the Gentiles against Christians.
As much as you hate to admit it, you and your fellow believers have begun to wonder whether it might be best to return to Judaism, which would at least give you legal protection from any coming afflictions. In answer to all these fears and doubts, one of the elders has announced at the Lord’s Day gathering that instead of preaching himself he will be reading a letter from the pastor that you all had sent out on mission several months ago. Seeing the persecution taking place elsewhere (especially through ministering to the imprisoned Timothy) and receiving word from the other elders of your church’s fears, your pastor wrote down a word of exhortation, a sermon to be read to his beloved congregation. Holding that sermon in his hands, the elder begins to read:
Long ago, at many times and in many ways….
This life is a race that we must run with endurance by looking to Jesus, who is our reward and greater than even the great cloud of witnesses that chapter 11 described. We keep from growing weary by considering Jesus, by setting our eyes upon Him, and drawing near to Him and His throne of grace. That is why we are calling our journey through this great sermon within God’s Word: Consider Jesus. That is the supreme point of Hebrews. Look to Jesus. Meditate on Jesus. Follow Jesus. Suffer with Jesus.
And as we come to the spiritual banquet set before in the presence of our enemies, we find a visual sermon that preaches the same message: the once-for-all sacrifice of God’s beloved Son to purify God’s people of their sins for all time.