When Does God Swear?
For when God made the promise to Abraham, since He could swear by no one greater, He swore by Himself, 14 saying, "I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply you." 15 And thus, having patiently waited, he [Abraham] obtained the promise. 16 For men swear by one greater than themselves, and with them an oath given as confirmation is an end of every dispute. 17 In the same way God, desiring even more to show to the heirs of the promise the unchangeableness of His purpose, interposed with an oath, 18 in order that by two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we may have strong encouragement, we who have fled for refuge in laying hold of the hope set before us.
God's purpose in this text is to press upon our minds and hearts this morning his desire and purpose for us to have "strong encouragement" to hold on to our hope in him and not to drift into false hopes offered by the world. Look at verses 17 and 18:
In the same way God, desiring [Notice this! What is God's desire for you?]—desiring even more to show to the heirs of the promise the unchangeableness of His purpose, interposed with an oath, 18 in order that by two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we may have strong encouragement [This is his desire for you. This is what God wants to work in your heart this morning through his word], we who have fled for refuge in laying hold of the hope set before us.
The Power of God's Presence
God is here this morning and by his word he is working to bring this about—"strong encouragement" to hold on to our hope in him so that we are not deceived and lured away into the fleeting and suicidal hopes offered by the world.
Notice that the paragraph (verse 13) begins with "for" or "because." The writer is giving support for what went just before, namely, verses 11-12. Let's remind ourselves what he said there:
We desire that each one of you show the same diligence so as to realize the full assurance of hope until the end, 12 that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.
So the aim of verses 11-12 was the same as it is here: God wants you to have the full assurance of hope—no weak and flimsy hope, but a strong, full, confident hope—lest you become "sluggish" or "dull" and begin to think that the Christian hope is not as real as the hopes offered by the world. That's the danger this book warns against over and over. Don't be sluggish in the way you fight to keep your hope strong and vivid and compelling and alluring.
Why? Because, as verse 12 says, it's only "through faith and patience that we inherit the promises." "Faith is the assurance of things hoped for" (Hebrews 11:1). And we maintain that assurance—that faith—through "diligence" (6:11). Drifting in the Christian life is deadly. Little by little the Christian hope of glory, the greatness of eternal life with God, the preciousness of rescue from hell, the forgiveness of sins, and the pleasures at God's right hand—little by little all this can begin to fade, and suddenly you may find yourself like Esau (12:16-17), so callous to spiritual reality that all you can do is cry about the penalty, but not about the precious beauty of what you have lost. He could no longer truly repent.
God is working to keep that from happening for the heirs of the promise. That's what verses 13-20 talk about. It's all about the "strong encouragement" he wants us to have this morning to lay hold on hope and not grow sluggish.
God's Pursuit of Our Encouragement
So let's look at what God has done to give you strong encouragement this morning. And let's pray that our hearts would receive this great work of God to give us the soul-preserving encouragement that we need.
The writer begins on common ground with his readers: the authority of the Old Testament. And I think this ought to be common ground with us since, as we have seen on Wednesday nights, Jesus sanctioned the truth and authority of the Old Testament. In verse 13 the writer of Hebrews refers to a promise and an oath that God made to Abraham. Let me read this for you from Genesis 22:16-17.
By Myself I have sworn, declares the LORD, because you [Abraham] have done this thing, and have not withheld your son, your only son, 17 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.
The writer of Hebrews saw two things in this Old Testament text: he saw a promise and he saw an oath. The promise was that Abraham would be blessed and that his descendants would multiply and that they would be triumphant over their enemies. And the oath was in the words, "By myself I have sworn, declares the Lord." So God promises and he takes an oath. Now this sets the writer to thinking about all the encouragement for hope there is in this Old Testament text.
Why Gentiles Can Be Hopeful
The first thing for us to figure out is why we Gentile believers should be encouraged by this promise and oath made to Abraham and his descendants. Let me give you several reasons.
1. Genesis teaches that Abraham is going to become the father of many nations (Gentiles). In Genesis 17:4, God says, "Behold, My covenant is with you [Abraham], and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations." So already in Genesis there was the concept of descendants of Abraham that were not Jews.
2. Hebrews 3:19 shows that many physical descendants are not in fact heirs of the promises made to Abraham and his descendants. It says that they "were not able to enter [God's rest] because of unbelief." In other words, being a physical descendant does not guarantee anything if faith is missing. This suggests that what it takes to qualify as a descendant of Abraham and an heir of the promise is not the ethnicity of Abraham but the faith of Abraham.
3. Which is supported by the context of Genesis 22 where the promise and the oath were made. They were made in direct response to Abraham's obedience of faith in offering Isaac (Hebrews 11:17). "Because you have done this, I will bless you." In other words, the essence of the qualification for this promise and oath in Genesis 22:16-17 is not Abraham's Jewishness but Abraham's faith.
Which is exactly what the present context of Hebrews 6:12 implies. It is by "faith and patience" that we inherit the promises, not ethnic Jewishness. And then in verse 18b, what qualifies us to inherit the promises of God's blessing is "fleeing [to God] for refuge." "That we may have strong encouragement who have fled for refuge." Abraham had only one hope in offering up his son—that God would graciously and miraculously raise him from the dead and fulfill his promise. That was Abraham's faith, and that is why God confirmed the covenant and promise with him, and why he is the father of a multitude of nations. The promise of Abraham is inherited by faith. That's how he inherited it (6:15), and that is how we Gentiles inherit it. As Romans 4:16 says, "The promise is certain . . . to those [Gentiles and Jews] who are of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all [Jew and Gentile]."
Finding Refuge In God
So it doesn't matter this morning whether you are Jew or Gentile. It doesn't matter what ethnic background you have. What inherits the promise of Abraham is humble, desperate fleeing to God for refuge (verse 18) and holding fast to the hope that God freely gives to all who trust in him.
Now back to the promise and the oath. The writer of Hebrews saw two things in Genesis 22:16-17. He saw a promise and an oath. The promise is not just to Abraham. You can see that in Hebrews 6:17. The writer speaks of "the heirs of the promise." These are the ones who take refuge in God. These are the spiritual descendants of Abraham. This is you and I, if we trust him. And the promise is that we will be blessed. "I will surely bless you" (6:14). And he means ultimate blessing, forever and ever with God in eternity, forgiven, accepted, purified, glorified, capable of unspeakable joy, triumphant over all our enemies: sin and guilt and shame and death and hell and Satan. This is God's promise.
That is great for our encouragement—that by faith we inherit this kind of future. But what caught the writer's eye mainly in Genesis 22:16 was not the content of the promise, but the oath that backs it up. "By Myself I have sworn, declares the LORD." So when God says, "I will surely bless you," it is not just a promise; but a promise and an oath. Two things, not just one thing.
He asks himself, Why did God do this? Why did he add an oath to a promise? He certainly did not have to in order to establish his word. Why, then? His answer is given in verses 17b-18, "He interposed with an oath, in order that by two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we may have strong encouragement"—the encouragement of unshakable hope. He did it to show how much encouragement of hope he wants us to have.
A Caring King
As Barnabas and I were driving to Pizza Hut yesterday, I said, "It is an amazing thing that God is so passionate about our being people who have unshakable hope. Not many kings have this kind of passion for their people." It would not be hard to imagine—many people do imagine!—that God were the kind of God who said, "Get out there and do what I tell you to do, and stop thinking about whether you have hope or not. Do what's right because it's right, and stop dwelling on the future. Do what you're supposed to do and stop wondering about how it's going to turn out in the end." It is so easy to imagine a God like that, that we should be astonished that God is not like that. He is utterly committed to working for our hope. He insists that we be people of confident hope, not of worry and uncertainty. He wants us to think about the future, and to be totally confident and assured about how it will turn out. That's what this text is about.
So he adds an oath to a promise. "By myself I have sworn" (Genesis 22:16). And that sends this author into orbit. He does what we should do when we read the Bible. He starts thinking and meditating. In verse 16 he says, "For men swear by one greater than themselves, and with them an oath given as confirmation is an end of every dispute." In other words, when you want to stress the validity of your promise you pick out some great value (the Bible, your Mother's grave, God) and you swear by it. "On my mother's grave, I swear it did not steal your purse."
Why do you swear on something great and valuable? Because what you are saying in an oath is this: If I prove false—if I am lying—then let my dead mother be a liar. Or: Let God be false. Or: Let the Bible be condemned. So the degree that you value and esteem the basis of your oath, to that degree your word can be trusted.
How God Takes an Oath
Then the writer looks at the way God took his oath in verse 13. He says, "For when God made the promise to Abraham, since He could swear by no one greater, He swore by Himself." Do you see what God was doing here? He was saying: Now I want to give my people strong encouragement (when John Piper preaches to them on November 10, 1996). So I will add an oath to my promise to show them how much I want to undergird their hope. So what shall I swear by? I could swear by the sun and the moon. They are great. Or I could swear by the world, or by my people Israel whom I love, the apple of my eye. Or I could swear by all the angels of heaven—by Gabriel and Michael. But no, none of these is great enough to give the level of encouragement and hope I want my people to have.
These are all valuable to God. But there is one thing he values and esteems above all. There is one Reality that he is less likely to dishonor and to shame than any other. There is one Person whose worth and honor and dignity and preciousness and greatness and beauty and reputation is more than all other values combined—ten thousand times more, namely, God himself. So God swears by himself. "Since He could swear by no one greater, He swore by Himself."
Who God Is Grounds Our Hope In What He Promises
If he could have gone higher, he would have gone higher. Why? To give you strong encouragement in your hope. In verse 18, the writer says that God has spoken "by two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie." The reason God cannot lie is that God cannot hate God. God can no more lie than he can stop being God.
What God is saying in swearing by himself is that it is as unlikely that he will break his word of promise to bless us as it is that he will despise himself. God is the greatest value in the universe. There is nothing more valuable or wonderful than God. So God swears by God. And in doing that he says: I mean for you to have as much confidence in me as it is possible to have. For if more were possible, it says in verse 13, he would have given us that.
Now this is our God. The God who is reaching as high as he can reach to inspire your unshakable hope.
So I close with this appeal rooted in verse 18: flee to God for refuge. Turn from all the fleeting, superficial, self-defeating hopes of the world and put your hope in God. There is nothing and no one like God as a Refuge and a Rock of hope. Just think of it! God Almighty desires for you to have unshakable hope and confidence about your future—a hope that is as strong as it can possibly be. Flee to him and he will give it to you.