Moral Exhortations in Hebrews 13

Keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters. Hebrews 13:1

When interpreting the moral exhortations of New Testament letters, I try to keep these principles in mind:

  • they flow from the letter’s theological teaching about Jesus and the saving work of God
  • they are directed at Christians, not the world
  • they are primarily concerned with life within Christ’s own community of faith (i.e., the church)

Chapter 13 of the Letter to the Hebrews contains a number of admonitions that are best read within this framework. The author often couches many of his instruction in the themes and liturgical language that he has used throughout his letter.

Welcoming Christians from Other Places – Verse 2 directs Christians to welcome their brothers and sisters from other places: missionaries on their journeys, Christians traveling from other cities, or perhaps even believers fleeing from persecution. Endurance in persecution is a major theme of this epistle. The various parts of Christ’s one worldwide church are connected to each other. Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.

Christian Solidarity in Persecution – Verse 3 directs Christians to care for their brothers and sisters suffering at the hands of a pagan imperial or civic power. The outside world is not friendly to Christ and his people. When one of Christ’s family suffers persecution, all suffer. Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering. (See also 10:32-34)

Marriage and Sex – Verse 4 reminds Christians to live by a distinctively Christian sexual ethic, one that commonly differentiates them from their non-Christian neighbors. Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral. (See also 12:16)

Contentment and Greed – Verses 5-6 instruct Christians to trust and love God, not money. In 10:32-34, the author reminds his readers that faithfulness in persecution can lead to financial loss. Greed is a kind of idolatry. Find contentment in things that the rich don’t value. Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” So we say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can mere mortals do to me?”

Godly Teaching and Examples – Verse 7 directs church members to follow their leaders’ Godly teaching and example. Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith. (See also 6:12)

Holding Fast to Church Doctrine – Verses 8-10 remind Christians that the church’s most important teachings don’t really change. Whatever strange diet the false teachers had in mind, the meal Christians share at Christ’s altar is greater than anything the Law of Moses could offer. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings. It is good for our hearts to be strengthened by grace, not by certain foods, which are no benefit to those devoted to them. We have an altar from which those who minister at the tabernacle have no right to eat.

Sharing Christ’s Suffering – Verses 11-14 encourage Christians to suffer shame and rejection as Christ did. The high priest carries the blood of animals into the Most Holy Place as a sin offering, but the bodies are burned outside the camp. And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood. Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore. For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.

Worship – Verse 15 teaches Christians to perpetually offer a sacrifice praise in its communal worship. Although the word “sacrifice” ordinarily refers to offerings of meat, grain or oil, at the Christian Eucharist we simply offer our praise and thanksgiving for the one, final, bloody sacrifice which Christ offered on the cross. Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise—the fruit of lips that openly profess his name. 

Generosity – Verse 16 reminds Christians to share their possessions with their brothers and sisters in need. And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.

Submission to Church Order – Verse 17 instructs church members to submit to their leaders’ authority. Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you.

Obviously, many of these instructions could have wider applicability. Our hospitality and generosity, for example, are not confined to our Christian brothers and sisters. The moral teachings of the New Testament epistles, however, arose in a specific context. The letters are addressed to a church that lives in the overlap of the ages. The new age has dawned in Christ, even as the old age remains. The Christian church lives with one foot in each age, and the letters’ ethical teaching reflects that fact.