Small Group Life in the Power of God's Promises
Let love of the brethren continue. 2 Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by this some have entertained angels without knowing it. 3 Remember the prisoners, as though in prison with them, and those who are ill-treated, since you yourselves also are in the body. 4 Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled; for fornicators and adulterers God will judge. 5 Let your character be free from the love of money, being content with what you have; for He Himself has said, "I WILL NEVER DESERT YOU, NOR WILL I EVER FORSAKE YOU," 6 so that we confidently say, "THE LORD IS MY HELPER, I WILL NOT BE AFRAID. WHAT SHALL MAN DO TO ME?"
The Hill-and-Valley Landscape of Hebrews
Last week I stressed that the book of Hebrews was like land with broad, deep valleys of doctrinal foundation and God-centered, Christ-exalting motivation, and periodic peaks of practical exhortation and living demonstration. Another way to say it is the writer teaches us about God and what he has done to secure precious and very great promises for our future, and then he tells us the kind of behavior that grows up from faith in these promises. So the book is radically, practically calling for outrageous choices and acts of risk-taking love, on the basis of promises that God will be all we need as we run the race for his glory.
We saw this in Hebrews 10:34 "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." In other words, the valley of truth concerning the infinite value of our "better and eternal possession" gives rise to the peak of love that risks the loss of property for the sake of prison visitation and does it joyfully - that's what seems outrageous.
Or another example is the valley we saw in Hebrews 12:4-11, where the doctrine of God's fatherly discipline in our suffering spread out as a valley of motivation leading to the peak of 12:12-14, where we are exhorted to pursue peace and holiness - the very two things that God is working in us by his discipline (12:10-11).
Valleys of Doctrinal Foundation Lead to Peaks of Exhortation
And so it goes through the book of Hebrews: valleys of doctrinal foundation lead to peaks of radical and practical exhortation.
We have it again in today's text. Look at verses 5-6,
Let your character be free from the love of money, being content with what you have [that's the peak of exhortation and radical freedom from the love of money. Now here comes the valley of foundation and motivation]; for He Himself has said, "I WILL NEVER DESERT YOU, NOR WILL I EVER FORSAKE YOU," 6 so that we confidently say, "THE LORD IS MY HELPER, I WILL NOT BE AFRAID. WHAT SHALL MAN DO TO ME?"
The way to be free from the love of money is to know and believe and be satisfied by the promises of God summed up in "I will never desert you nor will I ever forsake you." If God will never leave me or forsake me, I don't need to crave money as the source of my security and happiness; God will be there for me and meet every need. He doesn't promise wealth. He doesn't even promise freedom from financial stress. He promises to be there. "I will never desert you or forsake you."
In verse 6 the writer gives the practical conclusion we can draw from this promise: "So that [this is what results form the promise] we confidently say, "THE LORD IS MY HELPER, I WILL NOT BE AFRAID. WHAT SHALL MAN DO TO ME? In other words, if God is really there for me, man is not the decisive shaper of my future, God is. That's why he says, "What can man do to me?" To which you might be tempted to say, "Good grief, man can do a lot to me. He can sue me, evict me, steal from me, slander me, even kill me."
What Can Man Do to Me?
But we have just walked through two chapters of illustrations of this sort of ill-treatment - chapter 11:35-38 where saints are "destitute, afflicted, ill-treated" (11:37); chapter 12:4-11 where Christians suffer painful discipline at the hands of hostile men (12:4). And right here in 13:3, "Remember the prisoners . . . and those who are ill-treated." So this writer is very aware that man can do plenty to us that hurts.
So when he says in verse 6, "The Lord is my helper, I will not be afraid, what can man do to me?" what does he mean? Man can put me in prison. Man can ill-treat me. Why then does the promise, "I will never desert you and I will never forsake you" (in verse 5) cause him to feel so confident and fearless in verse 6? The answer is at least threefold. 1) Man can do nothing to separate us from the love of God (as Romans 8:35-37 says "Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? . . . In all these things we overwhelmingly conquer."). 2) Man can do nothing that God does not design for our holiness and peace (Hebrews 12:9-10). 3) Man cannot do anything to us that, by faith, does not lead to everlasting joy with God (Hebrews 10:34).
So the way that Hebrews describe the bondage to money being broken is by the power of truth. We are freed from the love of money by coming to see and believe that the promises of money cannot compare with the promises of God. And we come to see this not only because what God promises is superior but also because of the teaching behind the promises that give them credibility and power - like the substitutionary death of Christ for a sinner like me which gives me confidence that God can treat me with such grace without being naïve and unjust (Hebrews 2:9; 9:26; 10:14).
Connection Between Hebrews' Motivation and Small Groups
Now today is Small Group Sign-Up Sunday. And I want you to see the relationship between small groups and the way the book of Hebrews motivates the peaks of practical exhortation - like freedom from the love of money.
One could say that the way we get free from the love of money and the way we love each other (verse 1), and show hospitality to strangers (verse 2), and care for prisoners and wounded (verse 3), and shun adultery and fornication (verse 4) - the way we do all that is by trusting the promise of God never to leave or forsake us and to be there for us to take care of us no matter what this lifestyle of covenant-keeping love costs.
Yes, that is absolutely right. But what would be missing from that simple strategy of becoming like Jesus and being pure and radically loving by trusting the promise of God? What would be missing is a small group of people who help keep you connected with the promises and the power of God.
In other words, Yes, trusting God's promise in verse 5 is the key to being freed from the love of money and being liberated from selfishness to love each other and strangers and prisoners, and to keep your sexual lives pure. Yes, trusting the promises is the key. Being satisfied with all that God promises to be for you in Jesus is the power that breaks the bondage of illicit sex, and love of money and indifference to the suffering, and fear of strangers.
But the reality is that we are constantly being tempted not to see the preciousness of the promises of God. We tend to drift away from them. That is why this book was written and that is why this book, more than any other, perhaps, urges us toward the kind of small group relationships where we can remind each other and exhort each other about the promises of God.
Encourage One Another Day After Day
Let me remind you where Hebrews makes this connection between us and the promises of God. One place is Hebrews 3:12-13: "Take care, brethren, lest there should be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart, in falling away from the living God. But encourage one another day after day, as long as it is still called 'Today,' lest any one of you be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin." In other words, Yes, it is the promises of God that are the key to holiness and love and victory over sin. But we need people in our lives to "encourage us day after day" with those promises. We are not meant to be isolated promise lovers.
Remember the old 19th century song:
Standing on the promises that cannot fail,
When the howling storms of doubt and fear assail,
By the living Word of God I shall prevail,
Standing on the promises of God.
Yes, that is absolutely right. But, the dreadful fact is that the howling storms sometimes knock us off the promises of God. And the pleasures of the world lure us off the promises of God. And the devil himself tempts us off the promises of God. And the anxieties and pressures of life wear us out so that we neglect the promises of God. And God's remedy for this is not isolated heroism, but small groupings of believers caring for each other's souls and pointing each other to God 's promises again and again.
Stimulating One Another to Love and Good Deeds
The other place (besides 3:12-13) where the writer tells us to do this for each other is Hebrews 10:23-25,
Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful [that's the key! - holding onto our hope in the promises of God will free us from the love of money and from fearful indifference to strangers and prisoners and hurting, and will keep us sexually pure] and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more, as you see the day drawing near.
So you can see there are at least two keys, not just one. One is that we hold fast to our hope. We must trust the promises of God that he will never leave us or forsake us. But the other key is that we need help to do this. And not just Sunday morning. And not just from a pastor. It says in verse 25 "encouraging one another" - this is a mutual speaking and helping in some smaller setting. And it is all the more urgent as the day of God's judgment draws near because the spiritual stresses and temptations are going to be so much greater (2 Timothy 3:1).
The Dynamics of Small Group Ministry, According to Hebrews
So let's go back to our text, Hebrews 13:1-6. This text doesn't mention small groups. What it does is describe the dynamics of how ministry can happen in a small group. First it gives some of the practical nitty-gritty areas of life that small groups should be concerned about. Verse 1: love for each other. Verse 2: hospitality to strangers (refugees, homeless, pastors at the pastors' conference, groups that need an overnight place, new people who need a small group and can't find an open one near their home). Verse 3: compassion for prisoners and the ill-treated - that is, anyone who has hit really hard times in the path of obedience. Verse 4: faithfulness in marriage (no adultery) and chastity outside marriage (no fornication). Verse 5: freedom from the love of money.
This is the stuff of small group life: money, sex, care for the hurting, love of strangers. We believe this is the frontline strategy of spiritual care in our church. The pastoral staff and elders cannot be all the spiritual influence you need in your life. Our aim is to equip and encourage leaders of small groups that function as groups that love each other the way verse 1 says and are there for each other to fight the fight of faith in very practical and everyday ways. To choose not to be in some kind of small group is to choose to be a step removed from the ordinary caregiving design of our church.
But to be in a group that catches on to the dynamic of living by the promises of God will put you very much into the stream of care and power that we continually pray God releases among us. And O, how our society needs to see Christians loving each other like this! It will be a very powerful witness to the reality of the gospel.
A Small Group Encourages One Another's Ministry in Illness
Let's imagine a couple of conversations in a couple of small groups that meet weekly on Sunday evenings. This is the way I would see this text working.
A woman in the group gets sick and must be in the hospital for a few weeks. The group meets to pray for the sick one, and someone (in tune with what it says here in verse 3b, "since you yourselves also are in the body") says, "I can remember what it was like when I was ill, and I loved short frequent visits rather than long infrequent ones. So why don't we all agree that a different one of us will go to the hospital each day so that every day she can be encouraged." Most of the group agree. But one person gets up the courage to say, "I've never visited anybody in the hospital and I don't know how to do it. I wouldn't know what to say. I don't even know where to park, or how to find the room, or how you're supposed to act."
Then another person says, "I know exactly how you feel. I can remember the first time I went to visit my grandmother." And he walks through what it is like. Then another says, "When I was in the hospital, a couple people came to see me, and you know what they did? They just read me a few verses that they had read that morning in devotions that meant a lot to them. It was not 'a hospital text' - it was just what helped them through the day. And God used it to help me focus on him."
And then someone said, "If we're honest, we all feel this way. Even pastors wonder sometimes in difficult cases what they are going to say. But you know what the bottom line is? Will we believe the promise of Hebrews 13:5, 'I will never desert you nor ever forsake you So we can confidently say, "The Lord is my helper. What can man do to me?"' God is going to be in the elevator with you. He is going to walk down the hall with you. He is going to enter the room with you. And when you wonder what to say, he is going to 'be your helper.' That's what God promises. Let's trust him and do it. And let's share next week what God gave us to give her." Small groups help each other to love in the power of God's promise.
A Small Group Encourages One Another Toward Sexual Purity
Or in another group, the men and women might separate to pray, and in the small men's group a guy might say, "How do you guys fight sexual temptation. I'm single. The stimulations to think about these things are everywhere. And I don't want to give in. I want to be chaste. I want to be pure for the woman I hope God gives me some day." And back and forth the conversation goes as different ones share strategies of vigilance that help them triumph, more or less, over sexual sin.
And one of the more mature men says, "You know, one of the things that has helped me over the years - and I don't claim perfection - is the promise of Hebrews 13:5, 'I will never desert you nor will I ever forsake you.'" He pauses a long time, and then says, "If Jesus will never leave me, it means he would be with me at the bedside when I am committing adultery. He would be with me at the computer watching what I download from the Internet. And by the grace of God, I have come to the place where I love him so much I cannot imagine walking with him into that sin. If you really believe his promise - that he never leaves or forsakes - it's going to be really hard to feel his loving hand on your shoulder while you do the very thing he died to save you from."
And then the group prays that they would all really believe the promises of God.
I could recount other conversations about difficulties in hospitality and difficulties in money matters. But the dynamic is the same. People who know that they too are in the body, and who care about each other, and who know the promises of God, give practical counsel for how to live, and then back it up with the promises of God's future grace.
We need each other. I urge you. Move toward small group life in the power of the promise of God. This is normal and needful radical Christianity, and all the more as you see the final day drawing near.