The Present Power of a Future Possession
But remember the former days, when, after being enlightened, you endured a great conflict of sufferings, 33 partly, by being made a public spectacle through reproaches and tribulations, and partly by becoming sharers with those who were so treated. 34 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. 35 Therefore, do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. 36 For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God, you may receive what was promised. 37 For yet in a very little while, he who is coming will come, and will not delay. 38 But my righteous one shall live by faith; and if he shrinks back, my soul has no pleasure in him. 39 But we are not of those who shrink back to destruction, but of those who have faith to the preserving of the soul.
Good Works May be Unsafe and Costly
Three weeks ago we looked at Hebrews 10:24-25, which says that Christians should be sure to meet together in groups where they can "consider each other" and "encourage one another" and so stir each other up for love and good works. Without this regular encouragement and stirring up we all drift toward apathy and comfort and security. But in a world like ours, love and good works will be costly. They will interrupt our material comforts and jeopardize our worldly security and demand the end of apathy. Love is not cheap. And good works are often unsafe and costly.
We live almost next door to a flood-ravaged people. We read of 85,000 missing Rwandan Hutu refugees, mostly women and children, feared slaughtered or marched to death. In our own fellowship there is disease and depression and pain and loneliness. In this kind of world, a crucial question is not only: Does God rule these things? Our answer to that is an unshaken, Yes, because the Bible makes it abundantly clear. "Who has made man's mouth? Or who makes him dumb or deaf, or seeing or blind? Is it not I, the LORD?" (Exodus 4:11). "The wind and the sea - and the rivers - obey him" (Mark 4:41). The world is not out of God's control. When Job had lost everything and seen the purpose of God, he said, "I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted" (Job 42:2). That's our answer: Yes - floods, refugees, cancer - God rules all these things.
But that is not the only crucial question. Here's another one: how do we become a kind of people who break out of apathy, and throw off the need for ease and plenty, and risk our possessions and our lives in the cause of love and good deeds? How do we stir up each other to be people like that? That is what is needed in a world of misery like ours. That's what this text is about.
Whenever God does a thing, he has more than one purpose in doing it. If I were interviewed, like some have been, and asked, "Is the flooding the wrath of God?" I would say, "It is both judgment and mercy, as always - mercy for those who will have it as mercy, and judgement for those who won't." God is not simple. He is complex. He does many things at one time. He has unique, differing purposes for millions of people. And ten thousands of thousands of plans for how today's events will bear fruit in 50 years. Do not judge the purposes of God prematurely.
If God shows his power and justice, on the one side, to bring flood or disease or war or death, he shows his power and mercy, on the other side, not only by wakening people to their need for him, but also by stirring people up to love and good works. And our question this morning is how he does that? And how we may join him in it? Indeed this sermon is an effort to join him in that.
Choosing to Share the Suffering of Others
In Hebrews 10:32-33, the writer describes a painful and tragic situation of persecution and imprisonment. It had happened some time ago in the church he is writing to, and he wants them to remember it.
Remember the former days, when, after being enlightened [= converted to Christ], 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.
Notice that there are two ways that they suffered. One was directly by a "great conflict of sufferings" - some kind of persecution that arose, evidently. The other was by choosing to share in the sufferings of others - "becoming sharers with those so treated." Now the key question that I am interested in here is how did these younger Christians become the kind of people who would choose to be sharers with the sufferings of others?
The answer is given in verse 34: "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." They showed sympathy to the prisoners - that shows what the persecution and suffering involved and how they became sharers with the sufferings of others. Some were imprisoned, and the others broke out of apathy, walked away from comfort and security, and risked their possessions and lives to identify with the prisoners.
The result was more persecution. Their property, verse 34 says, was seized. Other translations say that their possessions were plundered. It may have been an official act of government. Or it may have been an unofficial act of violence. In any case, they lost some or all of their possessions because they were stirred up to love and good works. Keep in mind that this is what verses 24-25 tell us small groups are all about. We are to meet together to stimulate one another to love and good works. This is the illustration of what those love and good works look like. When some suffer, others leave comfort and security and take risks and share in the lives of the hurting. This is what love and good works mean.
Now the question is: How did they become that kind of person? And what can we do to stir each other up to be that kind of person? The last part of verse 34 gives the answer: "[You] accepted joyfully the seizure of your property, knowing that you have for yourselves a better possession and an abiding one."
First of all notice that this love, and this chosen suffering was not a morose, gloomy, miserable duty that they did because Christians are supposed to. It says that they joyfully accepted the seizure of their property. It's as if you were to carry food and clothing to flood victims and then go home and find spray-painted all over your house, "Christians get out!" and your windows broken and all your cabinets and drawers rifled. And instead of being mainly angry and discouraged, you gathered around you some friends - your small group - and prayed and sang a song of joy in God that he had counted you worthy to suffer for the Name (Acts 5:41).
That is evidently what they did, according to verse 34. They joyfully accepted the confiscation of their property. But how did they become people like this? This is utterly against the way humans are by nature. We love safety and comfort and ease and fun and lots of possessions and money and free time to do what we want to do. And if we get that we rejoice, and if we don't, we complain. But here are people who rejoice when they lose possessions and share in sufferings. So somehow there is an indomitable joy, and this joy seems to be one of the keys to love and good works.
Because We Know We Have a Better and Abiding Possession
Then comes the all-important clause in verse 34 to explain the source of this indomitable, love-producing joy: "knowing that you have for yourselves a better possession and an abiding one." The key to indomitable joy that produces love and good works that share the loss of property others have experienced is "knowing that you have for yourself a better possession and an abiding one." When you know that you have a better and a lasting persuasion, you are not paralyzed by loss. If that better possession is great enough, you will even be able to rejoice in loss.
What is this "better possession and abiding one"? Well, it's all the good news that we have been pondering for over a year in this letter. It's the triumph of Jesus over death (2:15), and the final rest for the saints in the age to come (4:9), and the subduing of all our enemies (10:13) and the perfect purification of our conscience (9:14), and the removal and forgetting of all our sins (8:12) - all of which is aimed at the ultimate and greatest reward of all, namely, that we shall be "near to God" (7:19, 25) and know God (8:11) and that he will be our God (8:10) forever.
In other words, "the better possession and abiding one" is not a thing. It is a person and a great salvation. A great relationship of acceptance with God and fellowship with God and enjoyment of God forever. Notice the two adjectives: "better" and "abiding." It is better than anything this world can offer. And it last longer than anything this world can offer. This is exactly the same double perfection described in Psalm 16:11 - "Thou wilt make known to me the path of life; in Thy presence is fullness [= "better possession"] of joy; in Thy right hand there are pleasures forever [= "abiding possession"]."
So Hebrews 10:34 is saying that the key to the indomitable joy that releases love and good works and that embraces suffering with those who suffer is knowing that you have this better and abiding possession. "Knowing!" Here's the key! You must have this confidence. It's this deep confidence about your future that frees you from the fear and greed that kill love and make you into a cookie-cutter human who has to have security and safety and ease and comfort.
So where does that "knowing" come from? That confidence? The answer to that is what this whole book is written to supply. Our confidence comes from Christ - what he did perfectly on the cross and at the resurrection, what he is doing now for us in heaven and what he will do for us at the second coming and to all eternity. Christ is the one who destroyed the power of death (2:15). Christ is the High Priest who opens the way to the throne of grace (4:15-16). Christ is the one who ever lives to make intercession for us (7:25). Christ is the one whose blood cleanses our consciences (9:14), and obtained an eternal redemption (9:12). Christ's death is the single sacrifice that perfects us for all time (10:14). Christ will make all his enemies a footstool for his feet (10:13). Christ will come again a second time to save all who are eagerly waiting for him. Christ is the mediator of a new and better covenant that insures the forgiveness of our sins, and the writing of the law on our hearts, and the presence of God in our midst forever and ever (8:6-11).
All that we ever hope for is owing to Christ. We receive it not by earning it or meriting it, but by banking on it. If we love it above all that earth offers, it is ours. So when verse 34 says that the key to indomitable joy in the face of suffering and earthly loss is "knowing that we have a better possession and an abiding one," it means that we know this because of Christ. Christ is the seal and the guarantee of our hope in all the promises of God.
Stirring Up One Another to Good Works Amid Suffering
What then are the practical implications of this for stirring up one another to love and good works in the face of great suffering? Two simple and great things:
one is that we must remind each other continually how terrible is the price of throwing away our confidence;
and the other is that we must remind each other continually how great is the reward of cherishing the promises of God above earthly things.
You see each of these in the next verses. Look at verses 38-39:
My righteous one shall live by faith; and if he shrinks back [there's the warning], my soul has no pleasure in him. But we are not of those who shrink back to destruction [there's the warning again], but of those who have faith to the preserving of the soul.
In other words, don't look at the temporary cost of love and shrink back from confidence in God's infinitely superior promises. Not only will you lose out on the promises; you will be destroyed. Hell is at stake here, not just the loss of a few extra rewards. Verse 39 says, "We are not of those who shrink back to destruction." That is eternal judgment. So we warn each other: Don't drift away. Don't love the world. Don't start thinking nothing huge is at stake. Fear the terrible prospect of not cherishing the promises of God above the promises of sin.
But mainly we must focus on the preciousness of the promises and help each other value above all things how great the reward is that Christ has purchased for us. We must say to each other what verse 35 says: "Do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward." And then we must help each other see the greatness of the reward. I believe that is the main task of preaching and the main purpose of small groups and all the ministries of the church - helping people see the greatness of what Christ has purchased for all who will value it above the world. Helping people see it and savor it, so that God's superior worth shines in their satisfaction, and the sacrifices that come from it.
Having God is Better than Money, Sex, Power or Popularity
We need to do this. We need to ponder the superiority of God as our great reward over all that the world has to offer. If we don't, we will love the world like everyone else and live like every one else. So take the things that drive the world and ponder how much better and more abiding God is: take money or sex or power or popularity. Think about these things.
First think about them in relation to death. Death will take away every one of them: money, sex, power and popularity. If that is what you live for, you won't get much, and what you get, you lose. But God's treasure is "abiding." It lasts. It goes beyond death.
It's better than money because God owns all the money and he is our Father. "All things are yours, and you are Christ's and Christ is God's" (1 Corinthians 3:22-23).
It's better than sex. Jesus never had sexual relations, and he was the most full and complete human that ever will exist. Sex is a shadow - an image - of a greater reality - of a relationship and pleasure that will make sex seem like a yawn.
The reward of God is better than power. There is no greater human power than to be a child of the Almighty God. "Do you not know that we shall judge angels (1 Corinthians 6:3)?"
It's better than popularity. Fame is a pipedream if you are only known by human nobodies. But if the greatest beings know you, that is a popularity of another kind. The greatest popularity is to be known by God (1 Corinthians 8:3; Galatians 4:9). And when it comes to angels: "Are they not all ministering spirits, sent out to render service for the sake of those who will inherit salvation" (Hebrews 1:14)?
And so it goes on and on. Everything the world has to offer, God is better and more abiding. There is no comparison. God wins - every time. The question is: will we have him? Will we wake up from the trance of this stupefying world and see and believe and rejoice and love? And suffer?