/ Shepherding / Jeffrey A Stivason

The Heart of Christ

The book of Hebrews is an incredibly valuable book. It is a superb theological text. Of course, it’s not a complete theology, but the theology in the book is impeccable.  For example, in the first three verses of the first chapter, we learn that the Son of God shares in the effulgence of God’s glory because He too is God but, as Son, He is the exact representation of the Father and is therefore a different person. A wonderful and foundational text for building a Trinitarian theology. What is more, Hebrews teaches us about the priesthood of Christ and all that means for our salvation. It is theologically rich.   But this sermon is also packed full of pastoral lessons.

Before I mention one of those lessons, allow me to remind you of the problem. The context may deepen the impact of the lesson. Put bluntly, people were leaving the church at Rome. I don’t mean that they were leaving the First Reformed Church of Rome and going to the Second Reformed Church of Rome. No, these people were thinking seriously about leaving the Faith. They were poised to return to Judaism. That statement almost rolls off the proverbial tongue, but it shouldn’t. These people were flirting, even dating, apostasy. Some had ceased attending worship (Hebrews 10:25). The people who remained were dull of hearing and spiritually sluggish (Hebrews 5:11; 6:12). By now, these people should have been teachers but instead they were getting more out of their first grader’s church school material!

As a minister, it would be easy to think the worst of these people and act in a way unbecoming of the Lord’s Servant, who ought to be gentle, not quarrelsome, and patient to the point of enduring evil while correcting opponents. It would be far simpler to declare these spiritual vagrants as a lost cause and to invest the remainder of one’s spiritual capital in the remnant of the congregation. But the Preacher of Hebrews will do no such thing.

Consider chapter three of Hebrews. In verse 12, the preacher has to say some hard things to some in the congregation. He must warn them of having an “unbelieving heart” which could lead them to “fall away from the living God.” But notice how he begins the verse. He writes, “Take care, brothers…” Brothers. He is charitable toward these people who are poised to desert the Faith. He has not prejudged them but instead stands ready to minister to them. But how is he able to do such a thing?

The answer is simple. It’s in the way he thinks about them. The preacher believes that no matter how weak in faith the congregation may be, no matter how difficult the temptations, no matter how challenging the internal conflict, these believers are never in the mental state they were in prior to being Christian. Consider Westminster Confession of Faith chapter 18 and section 4. There he writes about believers who have neglected the means of their preservation “by falling into some special sin which woundeth the conscience and grieveth the Spirit.” They have given way to temptation and God has withdrawn His light. And then we read these words,

[yet] are they never utterly destitute of that seed of God, and life of faith, that love of Christ and the brethren, that sincerity of heart, and conscience of duty, out of which, by the operation of the Spirit, this assurance may, in due time, be revived; and by the which, in the meantime, they are supported from utter despair.

The believer, no matter how spiritually low, is never in the mental state they were in prior to being Christian. And the Preacher treats them as such. We must not paint these people tempted to desertion with a hagiographical brush. These people were dull, dense, deserters. Do not dress it up. Do not make it better than it was. But when the Preacher warns them against apostasy in Hebrews 6, he writes, “Though we speak in this way, yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things – things that belong to salvation” (Hebrews 6:9). That is the attitude of the Pastor.

But allow me to ask again, how does the Pastor maintain such an attitude? How does he keep this mind-set toward these difficult people? The answer is not complicated. He has trained himself to see Christ in others first. Too often the first thing we see in others is their faults, their problems, their difficult life rather than the Christ who indwells them. Train yourself to see differently. Train yourself to see Jesus in your brothers and sisters first. In so doing, you will be able to minister to him who is “never utterly destitute of that seed of God, and life of faith, that love of Christ and the brethren” though he may look harried and hobbled even as he walks in the wrong direction.

Jeffrey A Stivason

Jeffrey A Stivason

Jeffrey A Stivason (Ph.D. Westminster Theological Seminary) is a pastor (Grace RPC, graceingibsonia.org) and NT professor at RPTS in Pittsburgh, PA. He is also editor at placefortruth.com.

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