Writings: All Writings

The Legend of the Golden City

The Sufficiency of Christ in the Book of Hebrews

Presented in chapel at Great Lakes Christian College

Author: John C. Nugent

09/01/09+ Share

Is the work of Christ truly sufficient to meet humanity's deepest needs? No book of the Bible grapples with this question more than Hebrews. This sermon sets forth and unpacks a Tolkienesque allegory that seeks to capture the essence of this book's urgent message.

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I've been given a particularly challenging assignment: preach a single sermon on the entire book of Hebrews in such a way that (a) sets forth the big picture of what this complicated book is about, (b) doesn't get so specific that I steal the thunder of the upcoming speakers on specific texts, and (c) is not mechanical like an introductory commentary but at least somewhat sermonic and inspirational for the broader community. In short, I have been asked to provide a sermonic introduction to Hebrews—a sort of lecture/sermon hybrid, which is oddly appropriate given that most scholars consider the book of Hebrews itself to be precisely that. So I have come up with an illustrative allegory that I hope will take you into both the narrative world of Hebrews and perhaps, for some, the story of your own faith journey.

In up river country, life is hard. It is hard because it is lived under the constant threat of wild beasts that sniff out humans and devour them. All the people can do is migrate from place to place until one child comes up missing and then another as they are sniffed out once again. Indeed life is hard in up river country, yet not without hope. For there is a legend of a golden city where there are no beasts and where people live securely under the benevolent reign of the lord of that city.

Though this legend sustained the hope of some, it seemed but a pipedream to others; that is, until the benevolent lord sent a messenger to an up river chieftain inviting all people to take refuge in the golden city. This messenger imparted to the chieftain three documents that were essential to the wandering tribe's hopeful pilgrimage: a map leading down river to the golden city, floor plans for rafts to transport them there, and instructions for routine river washings to conceal the tribe's scent from the devouring beasts.

Realizing that this journey would last many seasons and would require many rafts, the chieftain convened a tribal council. He invested this council with responsibility for piloting the rafts and for seeing to it that the people would wash regularly so as to keep the devouring beasts off of their scent.

The chieftain then assembled the entire tribe to prepare them for their journey. He renewed their hope in the golden city, he explained how repeated washings would keep beasts away from their trail, and he informed them of the glorious waterfall at journey's end, which leads to the golden city. After much deliberation, the assembly gave their assent and their hope-filled journey began.

After many seasons and many trials, including the death of their beloved chief, they reached the end of their map. The majestic falls towered above them and pounded the pool beneath.

As they tied off on the river bank they were immediately greeted by an ancient tribesman who was appointed by the benevolent lord to prepare them for their journey's end. This ancient tribesman led them down into the water and instructed them to pass through the majestic falls. On the other side, he promised them, is the path to the golden city. Moreover, he informed them of the mysterious power of the majestic falls whose cleansing properties would forever mask their scent from the devouring beasts. They would no longer need to wash in the river; they need only stay on the path.

Leaving the ancient tribesman behind, the weary tribe passed through the cleansing waters together. Words could not describe how invigorating this washing was. They splashed, they played, and they laughed as the crashing waters flooded over them and purged all memories of the devouring beasts that had dominated their fright-filled past. So with the energy and innocence of children, they emerged from the waters to behold the glorious city that lay before them. Wiping their eyes of lingering water and seeing clearly as if for the first time, they caught a glimpse of the city's golden rays emanating from beyond the distant horizon.

To their surprise, the final path, which they had imagined to be only a short walkway, as if to a small village hut, was actually a vast stretch of indeterminate length—scaling large mountains and passing through broad valleys as it works its way up to the city of gold. Though not quite prepared for a finish like this, the tribesfolk embraced the path with joy, for the cleansing that they had just received and the light that they now beheld.

They forged ahead in hope, leaving behind the comfort of the rafts and the security they once felt in their repeated washings. With thoughts of the majestic falls still fresh in their minds, they embraced each new turn in the winding path with a spirit of adventure and excitement. At each mountain peak they beheld the city's glow and drew new energy from its shimmering rays. Yet following each summit was a nadir from which vantage point neither the glistening city nor the majestic falls was clearly in view.

During such valleys the tribesfolk grew restless and would occasionally stray from the path, only to return later with disturbing news that unsettled the tribe. Some reported sightings and soundings of devouring beasts, which raised doubts and fears that perhaps the effects of tribe's great washing were beginning to fade. Or, what is worse, perhaps the beasts were onto their path and would soon overtake them before they reach their destination.

Others reported more perplexing news. Due east and down slope flows the same great river that originally led them to the falls. On this river of old, they reported, fellow tribesmen continue to make their way to the golden city and continue to wash themselves in the river thereby guaranteeing their safety from the beasts.

These disturbing reports sent shockwaves throughout the tribe. Were they truly safe from the devouring beasts? Was it really true that their single washing at the majestic falls had permanently masked their scent? Perhaps, they surmised, that washing was strong enough to cleanse them for only a short while, after which occasional re-washings would be necessary to maintain its protective potency.

Though the ancient tribesman had insisted that the great washing was sufficient and that all that remained was to stay on the path, the tribesfolk couldn't help but wonder whether something more was needed. A great debate therefore ensued that halted all progress along the path. All the tribesfolk could think of was the threat of the beasts, the washings they experienced on the rafts, and the now-questioned cleansing at the majestic falls.

Could it be that the time-tested rafts are the most effective way to the city after all? They appear to be headed in the same direction. Could it be that the lord of the city placed the path alongside the river precisely so those on the path could access its cleansing properties as needed? Should the tribe devise some sort of system to transport water from the river to the path so its travelers could wash themselves along the way thereby benefiting from the best of both routes? The tribe found itself at an impasse, mired in doubt and unable to proceed.

And so it was with the audience of the book of Hebrews. Though we cannot be sure who wrote Hebrews or who exactly the audience was, there is ample evidence within the text to reconstruct the basic dilemma that beset this congregation or cluster of congregations. For lack of a better term, I refer to these troubled Christians as the Hebrews—the name that was later appended to this book, perhaps due to the predominance of Old Testament themes within it. This group should not be confused with the Israelites who were also called by this name in the Old Testament.

Like the tribesfolk of our story, these Hebrews were beset by a theological conundrum that threatened their common life and mission. As Christians, they had been baptized into Christ and had received the forgiveness of sins. But as they continued in the way of Christ they began to question whether the cross of Christ was sufficient to cover their ongoing sin. It's as if they believed that their original baptisms cleansed them of all prior sin, but that they needed additional practices to deal with their post-baptismal sin.

They were plagued by guilty consciences and were scrambling for some way to avert eternal judgment and secure their resurrection status. To do this, they looked back to the old covenant through the lens of the various Judaisms of their day. We cannot be sure if the Temple was still standing when Hebrews was written, but we know for certain that the Jewish people observed a variety of practices in the first century by which they intended to deal with ongoing sin in their life including but not limited to sacrifices, offerings, baptisms, and the laying on of hands. This meant that right alongside the Christian communities that were scattered throughout the ancient world were a number of non-messianic synagogues that, by their mere existence, perpetually bore witness to means of dealing with sin independent from the work of Christ. All of this is complicated by the fact that during this time the line between Christians and Jews was not as clear as it became a century or two later.

Some Hebrews were tempted to leave the Christian community and take refuge in non-messianic Jewish alternatives. Others sought to merge Christianity with certain non-messianic Jewish practices or at least to supplement the way of Jesus with them. It is into such confusion that the author of Hebrews speaks the incredibly rich sermonic letter that we now read. The author's assessment of their situation is stated succinctly in Hebrews 5:11-6:3:

"…though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic elements of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food; for everyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is unskilled in the word of righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, for those whose faculties have been trained by practice to distinguish good from evil. Therefore let us go on toward perfection, leaving behind the basic teaching about Christ, and not laying again the foundation: repentance from dead works and faith toward God, instruction about baptisms, laying on of hands, resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. And we will do this, if God permits." 

The Hebrews author thus believed that these Christians were babies in the faith—stuck at square one, struggling with the reality of their own forgiveness, still obsessed with sin as if Christ had not dealt with it once and for all. They should have been conquering strongholds and freeing sin's captives, but they couldn't get out of their own way and were waylaid by their sense of inadequacy. Instead of sounding God's trumpet and leading others to salvation, they had become a skipping CD, replaying the same fragment of the same track over and over again.

But it is even worse than that. Not only had the Hebrews stunted their own growth, but they had nearly forsaken the faith altogether. Listen to the drumbeat cadence of warnings that permeate the sermonic letter:

"We must pay greater attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away from it. For if the message declared through angels was valid, and every transgression or disobedience received a just penalty, how can we escape if we neglect so great a salvation?" (2:1-3)

"Take care, brothers and sisters, that none of you may have an evil, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God." (3:12)

"While the promise of entering his rest is still open, let us take care that none of you should seem to have failed to reach it." (4:1)

"Let us therefore make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one may fall through such disobedience as theirs." (4:11)

"For it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, since on their own they are crucifying again the Son of God and are holding him up to contempt." (6:4-6)

"See that you do not refuse the one who is speaking; for if they did not escape when they refused the one who warned them on earth, how much less will we escape if we reject the one who warns from heaven!" (12:25)

The author responds to the Hebrews' looming apostasy with an exegetical tour de force that cuts to the theological heart of the problem, namely, the false claim that Jesus' means of dealing with sin is not sufficient to completely atone for sin. Yet rather than demonstrate Jesus' superiority to contemporary atonement alternatives, the author goes back to the root. He appeals to the original covenant that was mediated to the Israelites through angels, Moses, and the priesthood.

In the first ten chapters, the author of Hebrews argues from the Old Testament scriptures that because Jesus is superior to the original messengers of the old covenant (the angels), the chieftain of the old covenant (Moses), and the tribal council that carried out the atoning practices of the old covenant (the priesthood), that the Hebrews have every reason to be confident that the cleansing from sins that Jesus accomplished is all-sufficient to meet their salvation needs. They don't need Jesus AND the sacrificial system or Jesus AND another set of atoning practices. To follow "Jesus AND anything," according to Hebrews, is to play with fire and risk getting badly burned.

In terms of our allegory then, it was pointless for tribesfolk to leave the path and return to the rafts because the majestic falls had met all of their cleansing needs. Since they were quite safe from the devouring beasts, any additional washings were superfluous. They only derailed the tribe from the single track that leads all the way to the golden city.

Furthermore, the old river and its rafts were designed and intended by the benevolent lord to lead them only to the falls—a task that they fulfilled perfectly. They were never intended to bring them all the way to the golden city. Likewise, the river washings, which were ideally suited to keep the beasts at bay before the falls, were never intended to permanently cleanse them of their beast-attracting scent; only the falls could do that.

Though our allegory ends at this point, the sermonic letter of Hebrews continues. For it is not enough for the Hebrews to stop obsessing about their former sin problem and to give up all efforts to supplement Christianity with ceremonial forms of absolution. They must move forward in their faith and press on to maturity. In terms of our allegory, they must continue on the path in order to reach its destination. They must seek first the kingdom and not simply celebrate the founding events that made their inclusion in it possible. And so at the close of chapter ten and in the final three chapters, the author provides multiple concrete suggestions for moving forward faithfully. Here I highlight only one principle from each chapter, and these only in a skeletal way.

The first principle comes from the end of chapter 10 where the author cautions the Hebrews to avoid committing the reverse error of their deficient approach to sin. If the author has successfully convinced them that their sins have been forgiven once and for all through Jesus, then some may be tempted to take that for granted by sinning boldly. Anticipating this possible response, the author reminds those who would willfully persist in sin that the God who generously forgives his people also sternly judges them when they mock him by their lives. So after reminding them of God's prior judgment upon the Israelites for this very offense, he warns them, saying, "How much worse punishment do you think will be deserved by those who have spurned the Son of God, profaned the blood of the covenant by which they were sanctified, and outraged the Spirit of grace? For we know the one who said, 'Vengeance is mine, I will repay.' And again, 'The Lord will judge his people'" (10:29-30).

Following this sober warning, the author continues, in chapter 11, which is commonly referred to as the great hall of faith, to recount how the forerunners of Christian faith—including Abraham, Jacob, Moses, and Rahab—stayed on the path that God set before them in light of the hope he laid ahead of them. Though they, too, had occasion to doubt, they overcame those doubts and have become a model for the wavering Hebrews and all of us who follow.

Next, in chapter 12, the author reminds the Hebrews that their privileged relationship with God comes with responsibility. God has important work for his people and, if they neglect that work, God will discipline them like children. As they suffer discipline they must not lose heart. They must strengthen their resolve, purse the path before them in Christ, and remain reverently attentive to the one who has called them.

Finally, in chapter 13, the author paints a simple portrait for the Hebrews of what everyday faithfulness looks like. Having heard in chapter 11 of all the impressive accomplishments of their faith ancestors, they may be tempted to deduce that faithfulness always looks extraordinary. On the contrary, in this chapter the author encourages them to love one another, extend hospitality, remember those in prison, honor their marriages, exemplify financial contentment, imitate and obey their leaders, share their possessions, pray for gospel laborers, and keep faith in Jesus.

In Hebrew 4:12, the author describes God's word as "living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart." This passage means many things, and at least one meaning is the we today may find ourselves at different places within the story of Hebrews. Perhaps you are one of those who struggle with the reality of your forgiveness in Christ. You find it hard to move forward because you continue to doubt the all-sufficiency of his work on your behalf. Maybe you think you are being humble, and maybe you really are, but you need to press forward nonetheless because the story of God's salvation is not primarily about you and your sin; it is about God's undying love for a lost world and he wants to mobilize you, too, in service to his mission. My prayer for you is that the powerful message of Hebrews may help you get unstuck.

Perhaps you find yourself drifting in the opposite direction. You are so confident in Christ's forgiveness that you consider it a badge of spiritual maturity to flirt with sin and dabble in worldly desires. Since sin no longer masters you, you imagine you can put it to service on your behalf. In so doing, you deceive yourself, insult Christ, and put the Lord your God to the test. My prayer for you is that the book of Hebrews will engender in you a godly revulsion toward sin and a healthy reverence toward the awesome God who has called you to a life of holiness.

Perhaps you find yourself in collusion with the "Jesus AND something else" camp. There may be a certain form of worldly wisdom or spirituality to which you are drawn and in which you find enjoyment and fulfillment. Or maybe you find Christianity lacking in some dimension and needing to be completed by some philosophical stance, political posture, or particular set of practices. Not willing to let go of one or the other, you may be tempted to merge or supplement the gospel of Christ with this alleged missing component. My prayer for you is that the journey of Hebrews will convince you of Christ's all-sufficiency and convict you to truly explore the depths of Christ that you may discover in him what previously seemed to be lacking.

Or perhaps, you are one of those who crave heroic spirituality but lack the eyes to see it in ordinary acts of everyday faithfulness. You may need to embrace the spiritual maturity of loving your neighbor, greeting the stranger, visiting the imprisoned, honoring your spouse, obeying your leaders, sharing your possessions, praying for missionaries, and keeping faith in Jesus. Then my prayer for you is that the vision of faith that beams forth from Hebrews will capture your imagination and drive you to true spiritual greatness.

Wherever you find yourself in the story of Hebrews, my prayer for us all is the familiar exhortation of Hebrews 12:1-2: "Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God." It is in his name that we pray and that we live, amen.