The Present Power of a Future Possession
The Present Power of a Future Possession
Hebrews 10:32-39: "Remember the former days when after being enlightened you endured a great conflict of sufferings, partly by being made a public spectacle through reproaches and tribulations, and partly by becoming sharers with those who were so treated. For you showed sympathy to the prisoners and accepted joyfully the seizure of your property, knowing that you have for yourselves a better possession and an abiding one. Therefore, do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what was promised. For yet in a very little while, he who is coming will come, and will not delay. But, my righteous one shall live by faith; and if he shrinks back, my soul has no pleasure in him. But we are not of those who shrink back to destruction, but of those who have faith to the preserving of the soul."
V erses 24 and 25 remind us that we Christians should gather together regularly and not neglect assembling into groups where we can consider each other, our weaknesses and potential, our strength and our peculiarity, so that we may stir up one another to love and good works. Without that kind of regular exhortation toward one another, stirring each other up to love and good works, we will all drift back into apathy. We will come to love, expect, and depend on more and more comforts and ease and security--all of which get in the way of love in a world like this, with flood lands making thousands homeless and 85,000 refugees disappearing. These refugees were either slaughtered or are on a death march, who knows where, most of the women and children unable to care for themselves. In a world like this, if you drift back into apathy and comfort and ease and surround yourself with all the cushions of western life, you can't love. Therefore regular exhortation about love and good works is essential.
Willing to serve the suffering
How does God, through you in your small groups, beget and sustain the kind of people who don't run from suffering and need? Whether it's cancer in our midst, a broken marriage, depression, a lonely person, or whether it's refugees in Africa, whether it's flood victims in South Dakota, North Dakota, or Canadawho are the people who don't retreat into the TV room but do something that's costly? Where do people like that come from? How are they created and how are they sustained over the long haul? That's what this text is about.
Look at verses 32 and 33. Something tragic had happened. "Remember the former days when after being enlightened"--that means converted to Christ. Their eyes had been opened, and they were granted to see him and love him and trust him. "You endured a great conflict of sufferings." Something terrible had happened. "Partly by being made a public spectacle through reproaches and tribulations, and partly by becoming sharers with those who were so treated." Some people were involuntarily sucked in and made miserable, and others chose to embrace it with them. What's going on here? Verse 34: "For you showed sympathy to the prisoners." The first group is thrown in jail, and they didn't get all of them. So, you didn't get thrown in jail in the first wave of the persecution; what are you going to do? Watch TV? Show sympathy for the prisoners . How would they do that? I visited a castle last week in Duralton , Scotland, built in 1220. The castle has a chapel on the first level. Underground, beneath the chapel is the dungeon. There is a little window, and a hole on the left-hand side of the dungeon called the pit. Prisons in those days were not places with bars and air conditioning, TV and food. Prisons were pits with no food unless someone brought it to the prisoners. Nobody in those days was feeding prisoners except their relatives. Put yourself in the early Christians' place. What are you going to do? If they know we are Christians, they are going to do something to us, too. But, they are in the pit.
Willing to suffer with the suffering
The text says they showed sympathy to the prisoners. They felt what it must be like in the pit, and they said, "We have to go." So they went, and here's what happened: "You joyfully accepted the seizure." Another version says "plundering." You can't tell from the word whether it's official confiscation of property, or whether it's unofficial vandalism. One way or the other, their property was ruined and taken. So, some were imprisoned and others aligned themselves with them voluntarily and paid a huge price for it.
Now, imagine your small group. Half of a small group went to jail, and the other half had a meeting and prayed, and they made decisions about costly love. They went and identified with the prisoners, and while they were gone people wrote, "Christians get out!" all over their houses and took their furniture and burned it in the streets. It's as though you would take a weekend and go over to the Red River where flooding has occurred and join the men sandbagging, and you come home, and your house has spray paint all over it, "Christians get out! We hate Christians!" And you gather your small group in a circle and sing a song of joy that you had been counted worthy of such abuse for the sake of the Name (Acts 5:41). The author of Hebrews says that is how they responded: "You joyfully accepted the seizure of your property knowing that you have for yourselves a better possession and an abiding one."
These people are my heroes. I love this text. I love it. I want to be like this so much. Don't you? Don't you want to be like this? Don't you want to be free from your love of things? Yes, you do. What's the key? How do we become like this? What's going on here?
The key word is joyfully. They joyfully accepted the confiscation of their property. So many of us love safety and comfort and ease and fun, and we love lots of time to do our own thing. If anybody gets in the way of that, we murmur, murmur, murmur. Why aren't these people like that? What planet did they land on this selfish earth from? "Knowing," (v. 34) "that you have for yourselves a better possession and an abiding one." When you know that you have a better and a lasting possession, you are not paralyzed by loss. Now that's not nearly strong enough is it? When you know that you have a better possession and one that lasts forever, you're not paralyzed by anger when you lose something. That's not nearly strong enough either, because it's not just that they weren't paralyzed, (and I didn't write it, Christian hedonist that I am, God wrote it) it says they rejoiced. Evidently, there must be a possession which is so much better and long lasting that if you have it, and you lose something in the name of it, that's okay.
Loving our treasure
So what is this possession? Well, it's everything the book of Hebrews is about. This book is written to help believers love their treasure, their reward, so deeply that this lifestyle emerges. From the end of Chapter 10, everything left in this letter is about living by faith by falling in love with this possession. What is it? Well, it's the triumph over death (2:15). It's the final resting for the saints (4:9). It's the subduing of all of our enemies that Christ accomplished (10:13). It's the perfection we enjoy by the one sacrifice, Jesus Christ, and it's the ultimate goal of drawing near to God and having him be our God forever. That's the new covenant. "I will be among them. They will be my people. I will be their God forever." That's our treasure, our possession. God, our God, our portion, our Savior, our Refuge, our hope, our King. A better possession and an abiding one is not a thing. Don't ever try to get your hope from a thing in heaven, or from a gift instead of the giver. Our true possession is fellowship with God. It's being accepted by God and being loved by God and being embraced by the Father. And, it's better. Don't miss those two words. Don't fly over words when you read the Bible. Stop and meditate. The two words I'm pointing you to are "better" and "abiding." We have a better possession, verse 34, a better possession and an abiding one. I love to link that up with Psalm 16:11. At the end of the Psalm it says, "Thou wilt show me the path of life; in thy presence is fullness of joy." Mark the word fullness. "At thy right hand are pleasures forever." That's lasting. If you take those two words, fullness and forever, and compare them with verse 34, you see how they correspond: We have a better possession and an abiding one. Better corresponds to fullness and abiding corresponds to forever. What's the reward? It's God. "In thy presence is fullness of joy. At thy right hand are pleasures forevermore."
So, what is the key to love, the key to going to the prison or going to the floods, or going to the refugees or crossing the street or going to the person that you don't know what you'll say to them because their marriage is so broken? The key to doing it even when you don't know what to do is indomitable joy, rooted in knowing we have a better and abiding possession that is so awesomely satisfying and so completely sure that come what may we have to love like we've been loved.
Knowledge by faith
Let's look at the word knowing (v. 34). You have to know. You can't just say, Maybe there's something after the grave. Maybe it's better and maybe it's long. You won't love long like that, and not in dangerous situations. You will make the most of this life for your private self because you're just not sure that this might be the end of the line, baby. If you don't get as many toys as you can have in this life, then you blew it. You have to know that we are only passing through this life. It is two seconds, a vapor's breath, and then eternal joy. If you truly believe that, you will be one great risk taker. So how do you know? That's what the Book is for--and not just Hebrews, but this whole Book. "Whatever was written in previous times was written for our instruction that we might, through the steadfastness and encouragement of the book, have hope" (Romans 15:4). Christianity is all about freeing you to take risks by putting a massive unshakable hope under your life in a better and lasting possession. So, in Hebrews, it's Christ. It's all Christ. Christ is the one who, through his death and resurrection, destroyed the powers of death. He became the high priest who opens the way into the throne of grace. He ever lives to make intercession for us. His blood cleanses my dirty conscience so that I can approach the living God, clean in his righteousness. He obtained an eternal redemption, and he perfects us for all time. He makes all of our enemies a footstool for his feet. He's coming again a second time to save those who are eagerly waiting for him, and he's become the mediator of this glorious covenantwhich means our sins are forgiven, the law is written on my heart, and God is my God. It is all Christ. If you say, "How can they know?" It's Christ. Christ is the foundation of your knowing. He's done it all. You can't earn this possession. You can't merit this possession. You can't work for this possession. Christ bought it. He has it in his hands. Free. There's only one way you can get it. Love it. Want it. The cost of food in the kingdom is hunger for the bread of heaven instead of the white bread of the world. The cost of food in the Kingdom is hunger for the bread of heaven. Do you want it this morning? Are you hungry? Or are you satisfied with yourself, and your television, and your computer, and your job, and your family? And that's it. God isn't important. Suffering isn't important. Pray that God would waken hunger in your life.
Knowing we have a better possession and an abiding one yields an indomitable joy--joy that satisfies the heart and releases you not to have to crave ease and comfort and security--so that you can go. What are the practical implications for us? In our small groups and over the telephone and in our families and among friends, we must do two things for each other. We must continually warn each other of the incredibly high price of throwing away our confidence in this possession. And we must continually direct each other's attentions and affections toward the superior value and preciousness of the promises of God. Those are the two things we must do for each other over and over again.
The consequences of fear
Let's look at the first one, the warning. Look at verses 38 and 39: "My righteous one shall live by faith." That's you he's talking about. "My righteous one shall live by faith and if he shrinks back"--there's the warning. We have to speak to each other like this. "If he shrinks back, my soul," God says, "has no pleasure in him." Verse 39: "But we are not of those who shrink back to destruction, but of those who have faith to the preserving of the soul." Now, don't blow this off as though what's at stake is just a few more rewards in heaven. No. What's at stake is hell. When God says to a person, "I have no pleasure in you," and when it says the shrinking back is unto destruction we're talking about hell, not loss of reward. Therefore, I say to you on Sunday mornings, and you say to one another, if you're on a trajectory away from God--I don't care how many decisions you made for him in the past; I don't care if you've served as an elder or a deacon or given $10,000 a year to this church for 20 years--if you're on a trajectory away from God, embracing sin as your portion and renouncing what God stands for, you're on your way to destruction. Turn, turn, turn! That's what we must say to each other. And that's what I say to you now. There are no flippant guarantees of security because of past decisions. The evidence of being born of God is you don't turn away and forsake him.
Rewards of confidence
Now here's the positive. You must also emphasize the positive. We spoke about the negative warning, and you must say that, but the vast amount of our time has to be devoted to the positive, namely verse 35, "do not throw away your confidence which has great reward." This is what we are to talk about, and you who are poets must write poems about, and you who are songwriters must write songs about.
Folks, we have to sing a new song as well as an old song because he is worthy. He is so great that poets and songwriters have to be released to sing the new song. We need to find ways of doing verse 35, telling one another, "Look, the reward is so great, don't throw this away."
I was praying with my son and his wife on the phone yesterday about a relative of theirs who's throwing it away. They were in tears because the marriage is being thrown away; God is being thrown away. Similar to what it says in James 5, we want to say to people, "Please don't commit eternal suicide. Wake up. [That's the negative.] God is so much better than these toys! Come on! Wake up! Wake up!" That's why we're in small groups, that's why we come to church, that's the meaning of preaching, that's the meaning of Sunday school, that's the meaning of everything--to help one another wake up to God in his infinite superiority over everything.
John Piper has been senior pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota since 1980. He is author of 11 books, including The Supremacy of God in Preaching (Baker, 1999).
Preaching Today Tape # 199
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I decided to keep this time reference, though we normally cut them if we can do so without violence. I thought the transition was too rough without it.
Was this a question? Should we make it, "No, they showed sympathy for the prisoners."
Have we checked the spelling on this?
Let's have the policy that if the meaning is clear we won't change the sense. I would not change what is originally a direct address to poets and song writers into a third person imperative.
John Piper is a theologian, pastor, and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary in Minneapolis, Minnesota.