“But recall the former days when, after you were enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to reproach and affliction, and sometimes being partners with those so treated. For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had 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 is promised.”
Suffering from Dominance and Prosperity
The Christian Church in America suffers from about 350 years of dominance and prosperity. What I mean by dominance is that in most of American history being Christian has been viewed by the wider culture as normal and good and patriotic and culturally acceptable and even beneficial. What I mean by prosperity is that being Christian has generally resulted in things going well for us American Christians. Since the Christian ethos has been dominant, it has also been a pathway to success. And what I mean by suffering — that we are suffering from 350 years of dominance and prosperity — is that this has deeply ingrained in us a massively unbiblical mindset, namely, a mindset of at-homeness in this world and in this age. This has not been good for us. We are suffering from it, prosperous though we be.
We have been dominant and we have been prosperous, and therefore we have come to feel at home in this world, and have developed a deeply ingrained assumption that things should go well for us, and that this is our world and our age, that being a good Christian and being well thought of must go together, and that poverty and sickness and suffering and death is the worst thing that can happen in a land of Christian wealth and health and ease and upbeat, success-oriented vitality.
And so we have developed a form of Christianity to support this ingrained expectation of acceptance and comfort security and prosperity. This form of Christianity begins by focusing on our felt needs (not our eternal ones that we may not even be aware of), and it makes its appeal on the basis that Christianity will make life a lot better for us in this world. It has not been a call to suffer as an alien, but a call to prosper as a respected citizen — and to be very indignant and angry if someone reveals out Christianity as a liability and not an asset.
There is enough truth in this to make it plausible. If you act like a Christian, you won't have illicit sex and so you probably won't get AIDS or another STD — that's better. If you act like a Christian, you won't drink to excess and so you will be spared the devastation of alcoholism — that's better. If you act like a Christian, you will work hard and be thrifty and will probably do better in business — that's better. If you act like a Christian, you will be kind and generous and so at least a few people will respect you — and that's better.
But we have gotten these things out of proportion — we have elevated the relatively minor this-worldly spin-offs of faith so highly and made them so dominant in our thinking and expectations that the New Testament pattern of Christianity seems almost incredible to us and we can hardly grasp what it was like to be Christian in the beginning, and what God may be calling us to today.
This text fills me with a longing to be free from domesticated, comfort-seeking, entertainment-addicted, prosperity-loving, security-craving, approval-pursuing Christianity, set free from this distorted, unbiblical, powerless Christianity by the power of hope. I hope it does the same for you.
The writer tells the church to "recall the former days, when, after being enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings." The word "enlightened" is used at least two ways in the New Testament: it can mean that the one enlightened sees more clearly or shines more clearly. For example, it can mean that light "goes on" in the heart and truth is seen clearly that once was dark (as when Paul prayed that the Ephesians would have the eyes of their hearts enlightened to know God — 1:18). Or it can mean that what is enlightened (doesn't see more clearly but) shines more clearly (as when Paul says that Christ lightened life and immortality, that is, Christ brought them to light; he made them shine more clearly — 2 Timothy 1:10).
What does it mean here in Hebrews 10:32? It's pretty clearly a reference to their conversion. And both meanings seem to be very relevant from what we know about that conversion. On the one hand to become a Christian means (from 2 Corinthians 4:6) that God says, "Let there be light," in our hearts and "the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ" fills us with confidence of his reality and worth. So we are "enlightened" in the first sense — we see the glory of God and the reality of Christ more clearly. Lights go on in us.
But then the New Testament talks about how becoming a Christian means we also shine like lights in the midst of a crooked and perverse world (Philippians 2:15). We don't just see the light of God's glory more clearly, we begin to reflect it. God shines into us and we shine out to the world.
So I take Hebrews 10:32 to point to these two things. These Christians had come to see the light of the gospel of the glory of God as true and infinitely valuable; AND they had then begun to shine in the world as a witness to this truth and value. The first experience set them free from the world and the second made them stand out from the world, and be useful as a witness to the world.
The Result Was Suffering
And the result was suffering. Verse 32: "But remember the former days, when, after being enlightened, you endured a great conflict of sufferings." It is not unnatural for the world to see the shining of Christian truth and Christian love and hate it. Just before Jesus said, "Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good deeds and give glory to your Father in heaven" (which sounds like a positive response), he also said, "Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account" (Matthew 5:16, 11). In other words, some are enlightened by your shining; others are incensed by your shining.
In the former days, after the Hebrew Christians started to see the glory of Christ and to shine with the glory of Christ, they also started to suffer for Christ. That's what Christianity meant. Receive Christ and receive suffering. Evidently they thought things or said things or did things that were not politically correct in those days and the upshot was that some of them got arrested and some others got in trouble because they stood by those who got arrested.
The Way in Which They Suffered
Verses 33–34 explain the way they suffered: "“sometimes being publicly exposed to reproach and affliction, and sometimes being partners with those so treated. For you had compassion on those in prison.”"
So there were two ways that these early Christians suffered: one was that some of them got arrested and put in prison, and the other was that the other Christians were willing to share their suffering by showing public sympathy.
This sympathy cost them a lot. Their property was seized and plundered. Verse 34: "You had compassion on them in prison, and accepted joyfully the plundering of your property." The scene evidently is that some were put in prison. Others had to decide whether to show their solidarity with them or not. They remembered the teachings of Jesus, perhaps, and went to the prison. Jesus said, "I was in prison and you came to me . . . inasmuch as you did it unto one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me" (Matthew 25:36, 40). Hebrew 13:3 says, "Remember those in prison as though in prison with them. Identifying with the offenders, those with culturally unacceptable views, cost them their possessions."
How This Might Look Today
Let’s try to get real and practical here in America today. I stepped back and I said: Ok. Lord, today, any corresponding situations to this in America, in Atlanta? And I thought of one, two, three, four, five. And they are all triggered by this very moment in my life. In fact, this moment in Atlanta and last Thursday and last Friday. And I will just . . . I’ll mention to you, you test whether you think these are contemporary experiences of the text, because they are for me and I commend them to you.
First I will name them, and then I will come back and talk about them.
- Ronnie Smith, killed a year ago in Libya, and his surviving wife Anita and their son, unreached peoples being talked about downtown.
- Slavery, human trafficking. And it is on my front burner because Louie is — and this is on his front burner. It is on the students’ front burner.
- Lecrae confessing his abortion in his new song, “Good, Bad, Ugly.” Randy Alcorn losing his job over the abortion issue.
- Race. I saw Selma on Thursday night. I lived Selma. I was on the wrong side. MLK day tomorrow. Are you doing anything? Mark in that day tomorrow. Change the world that I live in. The John Piper of age 19, or 15, and the John Piper of today, are worlds apart on the race issue. And I am so ashamed of the South I lived in. So ashamed of me. I am not pointing any fingers. John Piper’s language was deplorable at age 14, 15, 16. My mother washed my mouth out with soap one time, bless her heart.
- Your fire chief in Altanta
Ronnie and Anita Smith
Ok, so let’s just come back to those because these are all so unbelievably real. First, Ronnie Smith, in Texas, 33 years old, loving the Libyan people, heading out there in order to bring compassion and love to the Libyan Muslim peoples, and he is shot dead last December a year ago, leaving behind Anita and Hosea. His wife is now a single mom. So put that in this text. I am going to go talk about Jesus and hope to a people that are so unreachable because it is so against the law. I am going to teach chemistry to make it happen. And he gets thrown into the prison of death and his wife, because she is so supportive and ready to stand with him, she loses her husband. That is a pretty significant property to be plundered.
So I met with Anita last Friday. They are making a movie to try to help you and all of us understand what it costs to reach the unreached peoples today. That is what I am talking about. I am talking about unreached peoples. Louie and Passion are down there trying to raise money for ten unengaged peoples. Amen. Praise God. It will cost these students their lives. Do they know that? They do know that. Louie knows that. It would cost them their lives to reach the peoples that remain. They are all in hard-to-get-at places with people who don’t want you to come with good news. They don’t think your good news is good news. You know, don’t you, that even in this country you use the phrase “blood of Jesus,” namely “God sends Jesus, ordains that he be put to death that you might go free from all your guilt and all your sin” — There are people who call that divine child abuse, and they think you are wicked for believing that. There are people who call themselves Christians who think you singing that song is evil. They strip the cross out of all their songs. It is blood talk. Or the term Son of God. Try that in Syria. Try it among the ISIS in Iraq. That is what will happen to you. You call him Son of God you are dead. And here we are singing it with our hands in the air. Do we know the world in which we live? Are you ready, America?
So to love the unreached peoples whether they call it love or not will cost your property, your husband.
Second, slavery. The End It Movement. Human trafficking, end it! Christ is on that . . . to end it. And if you get close enough to the real power-brokers in Venezuela, you are dead. You touch our multi-million dollar trafficking, you are dead. You are going to stay on the movement? We are not playing games here. This is not a comfortable movement. If you think it is a comfortable movement, you are out of touch with the world. You are just a little teeny, Southern, middle-class, I-fit-in kind of Christian.
Lecrae, Randy Alcorn, and the Pro-Life Cause
Third, Lecrae. Bless him, God. What will it cost him? How long did he think about writing that song that he had an abortion with a girlfriend from his past? He has told his wife, his mother. And he is going to sing about it in order to call all of you men and women who have done the same thing into the light of forgiveness — because it is a sin to kill a baby in the womb. I hope for the day when the safest place is the womb, not the most dangerous place. And so here is Lecrae, summoning with his song and his testimony into life. That is what going public means. That is how getting things out of your dark soul works. Such freedom, because of Jesus.
And Randy Alcorn. I love Randy. Randy and I and thousands of others started here in Atlanta, 1988, sitting in front of the abortion clinic saying: “No, no, end it. End it. We don’t kill our children in this country.” But, yes we do.. But we said: No. End it. Randy has so many injunctions against him. He had to quit his job because they were going to garnish his pay. He had to resign his pastorate. He has been living on minimum wage ever since because to this day he would be called to account for that kind of investment. We will have our goods plundered.
Ferguson, Missouri, Eric Garner, and now “Selma,” the movie. How can I not say it cost Jimmy Lee Jackson his life. It cost James Reed his life. It cost Viola Liuzzo her life. And three years later it cost Martin Luther King his life at the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis. It was not cheap to stand and believe that Christ calls us to racial and ethnic harmony, diversity, and justice.
I don’t live in Greenville anymore. I live in Minneapolis. Race is the biggest issue in Minneapolis. Over and over again the inequalities crop up. Don’t think this is a North-South kind of thing. It is a human issue. And then don’t think America, think tribal animosities that take out millions around the world, right? Ethnic hostilities, almost all hostilities in the world are ethnic hostilities. We have it so narrowed down to our little paradigm in America. We think black-white, and maybe fix some laws and this issue is over. But no — human beings hating other humans who aren’t like them is so endemic to our nature. Our only hope is Jesus and the power of his gospel. We find our identity from Jesus. And whatever color or ethnicity we are, we are in Jesus one hope, one Church. So it is just huge. And it will cost you, because I don’t care how many wonderful laws have been changed in the last 50 years. There are people saying snide, dirty, low down, demeaning things behind others’ backs at the place where you work to this very day. And how you respond to those slurs and those jokes and those prejudices will cost you.
The Sanctity of Marriage
And then, lastly, Calvin Cochran. There is no such thing, according to the Bible — in God’s perspective on things — there is no such thing as same-sex marriage. Whatever the world says, whatever the Supreme Court this year decides, it doesn’t exist. One man, one woman, in covenant displaying Christ and the Church till death do us part is what God says marriage is. If this other thing happens we are just not going to call it that. And then add to that this: What if you believe with all of your heart that 1 Corinthians 6:10 says that those who live without repentance in same-sex relationships of a sexual kind will not enter the kingdom of heaven? And you have devoted your whole life to helping people get into the kingdom of heaven? You are not going to celebrate what keeps them out. You are not. And when you don’t celebrate it, you are toast. The plundering of your property is going to happen. Your job will go. Your bakery will go. Your photography business will go. It will cost you to love the sanctity and beauty of the marriage. God offers the world for their good. It will cost you, because it will not be called beautiful.
So if you would ask me: Is this text in the world today? Is it in America? Is it in Atlanta? I would say: Well, in five ways it is, 1) unreached peoples and the cost, 2) human trafficking and the cost, 3) pro-life and the cost, 4) racism and racial justice and the cost; 5) the beauty of and the sanctity of marriage and the cost. So it is pretty plain for me that this text is relevant.
The Radical Freedom We Need
What is plain from this text is that the key to this kid of love, compassion, courage, and sacrifice is radical freedom from our love affair with our possessions and our popularity. Where does that freedom come from? The text is very clear in answer to that. It comes from an all-satisfying hope in the treasure God is beyond the grave. And the answer is not that it comes from some superior kind of grace given to saints and martyrs. It comes from cherishing the reward of heaven more than life on earth. This is the other aspect of being "enlightened" (verse 32). Their eyes were opened to see the glory and worth of their future reward. Verse 34b: "You 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, hope, which has a great reward."
Right here is one of the main keys to why the church in America is so anemic. We are at home in this world. We love our possessions and our popularity. We love approval. But these early Christians were aliens and exiles whose true home was in heaven and in the age to come with Jesus. That world was so real to them and so precious that they did the unthinkable: they "JOYFULLY accepted the seizure of their property." It's the joy that's so jolting here. It's the joy. This gives fresh meaning to the Old Testament word: "The joy of the Lord is your strength" (Nehemiah 8:10).
There's only one explanation for this joy: they really saw and really believed! They were "enlightened" by God to see it! They believed two things about their possession in heaven: one is that it is better ("you yourselves have a better possession" — verse 34) and the other is that this possession is abiding. In other words they really believed that this world is inferior and this world is temporary. The one to come is superior and the one to come is eternal.
These were not words; they were realities. They were so real that when the house and the furniture and the clothes and the books burned, and the horses were stolen, they knew (the word in verse 34 is "knowing"!) that God was actually preparing them for an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison. They said with Paul in 2 Corinthians 6:10 — we "have nothing yet we possess everything."
The key to their joyfully accepting the plundering of their property in the midst of danger and loss was that they simply did not put much stock in this world. They had been transferred into the kingdom of God's Son (Colossians 1:13). They had passed from death to life. Their lives were hid with Christ in God.
They Found Two Things Everybody Wants
The two things that everybody wants they had found — but not in this world. Everybody wants the best happiness possible and the longest happiness possible. This is what the words "better and abiding" point to. They had a better possession and an abiding one. And the possession they had was a place at God's side in glory. "In your presence is fullness of joy and at your right hand are pleasures for ever more." Full and forever. Better and abiding.
If we are going to be courageous and fearless before our opponents, if we are going to live so that the worth of the gospel is manifest, if we are going to take the risks the early Christians took for Christ and his kingdom, if we are going to hope fully, then we are going to have to set our minds on things that are above not on things that are on the earth. We are going to have to focus our mind’s attention and our heart’s affection on the better and abiding worth of our reward in heaven — God.
As you enter a series of messages on hope and Jesus as the sum and apex of your present and eternal hope, I pray that the God of hope will release in this church and in this city a tidal wave of Christian compassion and courage, and that he would make Hebrews 10:34 a reality: you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property since you know you have a better and abiding one.