July 23, 2017
Hope is an essential part of our lives as humans. Without hope we fall into despair and we lose the will to live and to strive for things of value. Yet, while hope remains, we will endure almost unimaginable terrors.
Even so, for hope to be genuinely meaningful, it must be grounded in something that is firm and reliable. If hope is not grounded in something absolute, it is merely wishful thinking and is easily undone.
There is a long list of human examples that we might give — the assurance of a parent’s love that allows a child to take risks and achieve goals; a safety net under a trapeze artist giving him or her confidence in their sport, of even the hope that comes from a stable paycheck, which allows one to sometimes endure a miserable job because it will provide for the family.
But my aim this morning is not to encourage your earthly hopes, because all of these are fleeting. Loving parents die, nets rip, and companies (and even governments) go belly up.
My aim this morning — the author’s aim in the text as he writes — is to encourage our eternal hopes — hopes that are grounded in God and in his promises as the author addresses the question, why can we ground our assurance in God?
In the previous passage, he has already told us that we need to be “dedicated to a full assurance of faith,” knowing that is done by maturing in faith…but what is the foundation for this maturity? What is your faith ultimately grounded in?
Peter tells us in 1 Peter 3:15 that we must always be prepare to make a “reasoned defense” — an apologia — for the hope that we have…in other words, Christian hope is rational and defensible and as we look to our passage this morning, we find that hope is grounded in two things.
1) The Covenant of God
2) The Character of God
Now, I need to say up front that the author does not explicitly use the word, “covenant” here — he will a little later in the text, but here he speaks of the promises of God. Yet, the Biblical reference to promises is always found in the context of a covenant. In other words, the promises of God are only ever extended to those with whom God is in a covenantal relationship. Ultimately this is a reference to God’s election — those whom he predestined in Christ and for Christ (Ephesians 1:4-5) from before the foundation of the world, and those we say with the Apostle Paul that all of the promises of God are yes and amen in Christ (2 Corinthians 1:20).
All of this is language of covenant. Thus, to understand how this passage fits into what the author is saying, you need to have an understanding of a covenant in the first place. For those who have gone through premarital counseling with me, you know we spend some time on this given that marriage itself is a covenant and not a contract…much like the covenant (not contract) between God and man.
The big difference between the two are that contracts can be fulfilled and once fulfilled, are no longer binding. For example, in the years I worked as a carpet installer, I had contractual relationships with Sears and Home Depot, then later with Sherwin Williams. Their part of the contract was to pay me an agreed rate per square yard of carpet that I installed. My end of the contract was to install the carpet and warranty that installation for between one and two years, depending on which company it happened to be. Once they paid me, they were done. Once I installed the carpet and the warranty had expired, my end of the contract was complete and we both went away happy.
That’s how a contract works.
A Covenant, on the other hand, has stipulations and penalties like a contract, but is binding until death (which is why we say, “till death do we part” in wedding vows.
In Genesis 15, we see the Ancient Near Eastern depiction of a covenant binding ceremony. Animals were taken, divided in half, with a bloody pathway made to walk through, communicating the message, “If I fail to live up to my responsibilities in the covenant, may what happened to these animals happen to me.” Yet, God substituted himself and walked through the path in Abraham’s place.
People sometimes ask me, why did Jesus have to die? There are lots of parts to that answer, but one of those parts is that Jesus was fulfilling the promise God made to Abraham in Genesis 15, saying covenantally, “When you and your seed fail to live up to your end of the covenant, may what happened to these animals happen to me instead of you.”
Now, in verse 14, the author cites God’s affirmation of the covenant language found in Genesis 22:16. In this case, God has commanded Abraham to take Isaac, the child of promise, to the mountain and offer him as a sacrifice (for those in Confirmation Class, memorizing Micah 6:6-8, here is the context of that passage). We will revisit this again when we get to Hebrews 11, but let is suffice to say here that God stops Abraham’s sacrifice because a greater sacrifice is planned…that of God’s son, not Abraham’s — “the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul…”
And in the context of Genesis 22, God swears by his own name to confirm the covenant.
Let’s go back and look at verse 13 again…
“For when God was promising Abraham (insert, “confirming the covenant”), since he had nothing greater against which to swear, he swore against himself, saying, ‘I will surely bless you and multiply you.’ In this way, remaining patient, he obtained the blessing.”
Now, verse 16 deals with the swearing of God that affirms the covenant:
“For men swear agains that which is greater, and for all of them, an oath is taken for the final validation of the lawsuit” (reflecting the legally binding nature of a covenant — which is, by the way, why marriages are public events with guests and witnesses to the vows being made.
The thing is that the purpose behind making a vow is that the one (or the thing) by which you vow is that which is meant to hold you accountable. So, when people make foolish statements like, “I swear by my mother’s grave,” they aren’t really saying anything more than “I’ll swear by this banana.” That is because a piece of stone laying in the ground can no more compel you to fulfill your vow than can a piece of fruit.
Heidelberg Catechism addresses the whole matter in questions 99-102 and it forbids us from taking oaths in any name but in God’s name because no man or creature can compel your obedience and no man or creature is worthy of such honor…only God.
Yet, in whose name shall God swear if he wants to add force to the covenant being made? There is none equal to God nor is there any Greater than God and no one can compel his will.
By the way, that is why the sin of witchcraft is so evil, for it seeks to use the natural order to compel the will of God. It is also part of the sin or Wesleyanism or Neo-Arminianism, for it views God as restraining his will in the area of salvation to give man a perfect free-will in this area, God submitting his will to man’s. But the God of the Bible submits to no one; everyone and everything submits to God.
“In which he abundantly desired to exhibit to the heirs of the promise (believers!) his unchangeable purpose, he guaranteed it with an oath in order that through two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, that we who take refuge in him should have mighty encouragement to grasp the hope presented before us.”
What are the two unchangeable things? God’s Promise and God’s Oath.
To speak about “unchangeable” with respect to God speaks to two things: his character as God but also in the unchangeable nature of the promises that he makes to us. Yet, if God’s promises to us are unchangeable, that also means that his condemnation of the children of Satan is also unchangeable, for they have been created for the express purpose of God glorifying himself in their destruction.
Maybe I can drive this home by presenting it this way…
If God’s promises are unchangeable, it only goes to follow that these promises are guaranteed to those who God has chosen to covenant with — a specific people with specific names that have been written in the Lamb’s Book of Life from before the foundation of the world, and (to quote Paul) ‘That God’s purpose of election might continue…’ Notice too that ‘purpose’ is singular — God’s will is perfectly unified and all things flow out of his singular purpose of glorifying himself through his Son, Jesus Christ.
And so, the oath of God cries out across the generations to the people and the author continues in verse 19, stating with assurance that “we have an anchor for the soul” It is first and reliable and it is an anchor that enters through the curtain (a reference to the Holy of Holies).
And how did the anchor get there? Verse 20:
“A forerunner has entered for us — Jesus — according to the order of Melchizedek — who has become the eternal High Priest.”
In a storm, ships drop their anchor to prevent themselves from being lost at sea. This is a picture of the church dropping anchor in the storm of this fallen world and we can be confident in the hope that we have because the anchor has been fixed by Christ into the Holy of Holies of God. While some will still neglect their faith and thus be swept overboard, we, the true church, will not be moved because we are anchored in God.
And that provides a hope that is grounded in God by his covenant (promises) and by his unchangeable character. And this grounding gives purpose and meaning to all we do as it is sure and unchanging because one thing God cannot do is lie.