VI. THE IMPOSSIBILITY OF FAILURE
“But, beloved, we are persuaded better things of you, and things that accompany salvation, though we thus speak: for God is not unrighteous to forget your work and the love which you showed toward His name, in that you ministered to the saints, and still do minister. And we desire that each one of you may show the same diligence to the fulness of hope even to the end: that you be not sluggish, but imitators of them who through faith and patience inherit the promises. For when God made promise to Abraham, since He could swear by none greater, He sware by Himself, saying, Surely blessing I will bless you, and multiplying I will multiply you. And thus, having patiently endured, he obtained the promise. For people swear by the greater: and in every dispute of theirs the oath is final for confirmation. Wherein God, being minded to show more abundantly to the heirs of the promise the immutability of His counsel, interposed with an oath: that by two immutable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we may have a strong encouragement, who have fled for refuge to lay hold of the hope set before us; which we have as an anchor of the soul, a hope both sure and resolute and enduring and entering into that which is within the veil; where as a Forerunner Jesus entered for us, having become a High-priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek.” — Heb, vi. 9–20 (R.V.).
Solemn warning is followed by words of affectionate encouragement. Impossibility of renewal is not the only impossibility within the compass of the Gospel. Over against the descent to perdition, hope of the better things grasps salvation with the one hand and the climbing pilgrim with the other, and makes his failure to reach the summit impossible. Both impossibilities have their source in God’s justice. He is not unjust to forget the deed of love shown towards His name, when the only-begotten Son ministered to people and still ministers. Contempt of this love God will punish. Neither is He unjust to forget the love that ministered to His poor saints in days of persecution, when the Hebrew Christians became partakers with their fellow-believers in their reproaches and tribulations, showed pity towards their brethren in prisons, and took joyfully the spoiling of their goods. The stream of brotherly kindness was still flowing. This love God rewards. But the Apostle desires them to show, not only faithfulness in ministering to the saints, but also Christian earnestness generally, until they attain the full assurance of hope. The older expositors understand the words to express the Apostle’s wish that his readers should continue to minister to the saints. But Calvin’s view has, especially since the time of Bengel, been generally accepted: that the Apostle urges his readers to be as diligent in seeking the full assurance of hope as they are in ministering to the poor. This is most probably the meaning, but with the addition that he speaks of “earnestness” generally, not merely of active diligence. Their religion was too narrow in range. Care for the poor has sometimes been the piety of sluggish despondency and bigotry. But spiritual earnestness is the moral discipline that works hope, a hope that makes not ashamed, but leads people on to an assured confidence that the promise of God will be fulfilled, though now black clouds overspread their sky.
An incentive to faith and endurance will be found in the example of all inheritors of God’s promise. The Apostle is on the verge of anticipating the splendid record of the eleventh chapter. But he arrests himself, partly because, at the present stage of his argument, he can speak of faith only as the deep fountain of endurance. He cannot now describe it as the realisation and the proof of things unseen. He wishes, moreover, to dwell on the oath made by God to Abraham. Even this, if not an anticipation of what is still to come, is at least a preparation of the reader for the distinction hereafter effectively handled between the high-priest made without an oath and the High-priest made with an oath. But, in the present section, the emphatic notion is that the promise made to Abraham is the same promise which the Apostle and his brethren wait to see fulfilled, and that the confirmation of the promise by oath to Abraham is still in force for their strong encouragement. It is true that Abraham received the fulfilment of the promise in his lifetime, but only in a lower form. The promise, like the Sabbath rest, has become more and still more elevated, profound, spiritual, with the long delay of God to make it good. It is equally true that the saints under the Old Testament received not the fulfilment of the promise in its highest meaning, and were not perfected apart from believers of after-ages, God’s words never grow obsolete. They are never left behind by the Church. If they seem to pass away, they return laden with still choicer fruit. The coursing moon in the high heavens is never outstripped by the belated traveller. The hope of the Gospel is ever set before us. God swears to Abraham in the spring-time of the world that we, on whom the ends of the ages have come, may have a strong incentive to press onwards.
But, if the oath of God to Abraham is to inspire us with new courage, we must resemble Abraham in the eager earnestness and calm endurance of his faith. The passage has often been treated as if the oath had been intended to meet the weakness of faith. But unbelief is logician enough to argue that God’s word is as good as His bond; yea, that we have no knowledge of His oath except from His word. The Apostle refers to the greatest instance of faith ever shown even by Abraham, when he withheld not his son, his beloved son, on Moriah. The oath was made to him by God, not before he gave up Isaac, in order to encourage his weakness, but when he had done it, as a reward of his strength. Philo’s fine sentence, which indeed the sacred writer partly borrows, is intended to teach the same lesson: that, while disappointments are heaped on sense, an endless abundance of good things has been given to the earnest soul and the perfect man. It is to Abraham when he has achieved his supreme victory of faith that God vouchsafes to make oath that He will fulfil His promise. This gives us the clue to the purport of the words. Up to this final test of Abraham’s faith God’s promise is, so to speak, conditional. It will be fulfilled if Abraham will believe. Now at length the promise is given unconditionally. Abraham has gone triumphantly through every trial. He has not withheld his son. So great is his faith that God can now confirm His promise with a positive declaration, which transforms a promise made to a man into a prediction that binds Himself. Or shall we retract the expression that the promise is now given unconditionally? The condition is transferred from the faith of Abraham to the faithfulness of God. In this lies the oath. God pledges His own existence on the fulfilment of His promise. He says no longer, “If you can believe,” but “As true as I live.” Speaking humanly, unbelief on the part of Abraham would have made the promise of God of none effect; for it was conditional on Abraham’s faith. But the oath has raised the promise above being affected by the unbelief of some, and itself includes the faith of some. St. Paul can now ask, “What if some did not believe? Shall their unbelief make the faith” (no longer merely the promise) “of God without effect?” Our author also can speak of two immutable things, in which it was impossible for God to lie. The one is the promise, the immutability of which means only that God, on His part, does not retract, but casts on people the blame if the promise is not fulfilled. The other is the oath, in which God takes the matter into His own hands and puts the certainty of His fulfilling the promise to rest on His own eternal being.
The Apostle is careful to point out the wide and essential difference between the oath of God and the oaths of people. “For people swear by the greater;” that is, they call upon God, as the Almighty, to destroy them if they are uttering what is false. They imprecate a curse upon themselves. If they have sworn to a falsehood, and if the imprecation falls on their heads, they perish, and the matter ends. And yet an oath decides all disputes between man and man. Though they appeal to an Omnipotence that often turns a deaf ear to their prayer against themselves; though, if the Almighty were to fling retribution on them, the wheels of nature would whirl as merrily as before; though, if their false swearing were to cause the heavens to fall, the people would still exist and continue to be people; — yet, for all this, they accept an oath as final settlement. They are compelled to come to terms; for they are at their wits’ end. But it is very different with the oath of God. When He swears by Himself, He appeals, not to His omnipotence, but to His truthfulness. If any jot or tittle of God’s promise fails to the feeblest child that trusts Him, God ceases to be. He has been annihilated, not by an act of power, but by a lie.
We have said that the oath met, not the weakness, but the strength, of Abraham’s faith. If so, why was it given him?
First, it simplified his faith. It removed all tendency to morbid introspection and filled his spirit with a peaceful reliance on God’s faithfulness. He had no more need to try himself whether he was in the faith. Anxious effort and painful struggle were over. Faith was now the very life of his soul. He could leave his concerns to God, and wait. This is the thought expressed in the word “enduring.”
Second, it was a new revelation of God to him, and thus elevated his spiritual nature. The moral character of the Most High, rather than His natural attribute of omnipotence, became the resting-place of his spirit. Even the joy of God’s heart was made known and communicated to his. God was pleased with Abraham’s final victory over unbelief, and wished to show him more abundantly His counsel and the immutability of it. “The secret of the Lord is with them that fear Him, and He will show them His covenant.”
Third, it was intended also for our encouragement. It is strange, but true, that the promises of God are confirmed to us by the victorious faith of a nomad chief from Ur of the Chaldees, who, in the morning of the world’s history, withheld not his son. After all, we are not disconnected units. God only can trace the countless threads of influence. Abraham’s strong faith evoked the oath that now sustains the weakness of ours. Because he believed so well, the promise comes to us with all the sanction of God’s own truth and unchangeableness. The oath made to Abraham was linked with a still more ancient, even an eternal, oath, made to the Son, constituting Him Priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek. The priesthood of Melchizedek is said by the Apostle to be a type of the priesthood founded on an oath. It was becoming that the man who acknowledged the priesthood of Melchizedek and received its blessing should have that blessing fulfilled to him in the confirmation by oath of God’s promise. Thus the promises that have been fulfilled through the eternal priesthood of the true Melchizedek are confirmed to us by an oath made to him who acknowledged that priesthood in the typical Melchizedek.
Yet, nevertheless these vital points of contact, Abraham and the Hebrew Christians are in some respects very unlike. They have left his serene and contemplative life far behind. The souls of people are stirred with dread of the threatened end of all things. Abraham had no need to flee for refuge from an impending wrath. His religion even was not a fleeing from any wrath to come, but a yearning for a better fatherland. He never heard the midnight cry of Maranatha, but longed to be gathered to his fathers. If any similitude to the Christian’s fleeing from the wrath to come must be sought in ancient days, it will be found in the history of Lot, not of Abraham. Whether the Apostle’s thoughts rested for a moment on Lot’s flight from Sodom, it is impossible to say. His mind is moving so rapidly that one illustration after another flits before his eye. The notion of Abraham’s strong faith, reaching out a hand to the strong grasp of God’s oath, reminds him of people fleeing for refuge, perhaps into a sanctuary, and laying hold of the horns of the altar, with a reminiscence of the Baptist’s taunting question, “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” and a side glance at the approaching destruction of the holy city, if indeed the catastrophe had not already befallen the doomed people. The thought suggests another illustration. Our hope is an anchor cast into the deep sea. The anchor is sure and resolute and enduring — “sure,” for, like Abraham’s faith, it will neither break nor bend; “resolute and enduring,” for, like Abraham’s faith again, it bites the eternal rock of the oath. Still another metaphor lends itself. The deep sea is above all heavens in the sanctuary within the veil, and the rock is Jesus, Who has entered into the holiest place as our High-priest. Yet another thought. Jesus is not only High-priest, but also Captain, of the redeemed host, leading us on, and opening the way for us to enter after Him into the sanctuary of the promised land.
Thus, with the help of metaphor heaped on metaphor in the fearless confusion delightful to conscious strength and gladness, the Apostle has at last come to the great conception of Christ in the sanctuary of heaven. He has hesitated long to plunge into the wave; and even now he will not at once lift the veil from the argument. The allegory of Melchizedek must prepare us for it.
 Compare chap. vi. 4 and chap. vi. 18.
 Chap. x. 34.
 σπουδήν (vi. 11).
 Chap. vi. 13.
 Chap. xi. 1.
 Chap. xi. 40.
 SS. Legg. Alleg., iii., p. 98 (vol. i., p. 127. Mang.). With Philo’s τῇ σπουδαίᾳ ψυχῇ compare the Apostle’s σπουδήν (chap. v. 11).
 Rom. iii. 3.
 Chap. vi. 16.
 Ps. xxiv. 14.
From the Epistle to the Hebrews by Thomas Charles Edwards, D.D., Principal of the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth. Printed by Hazell, Watson & Viney, Ld., London and Aylesbury in MCMIV. Digitally produced by Marcia Brooks, Colin Bell, Nigel Blower and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team at http://www.pgdp.net. Lightly updated to the language of the 21st century by D. N. Pham. (c) 2013.
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To the Hebrews - T.C. Edwards
ON THE BOOK SHELF
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