Closing words are hard—especially after a sermon. Usually it’s the time when everyone starts gathering together their newsletters and belongings to make a dash for the local IHOP. And sometimes—much to our collective horror—the pastor starts to seem to wind down only to get started all over again (not that I’ve ever done this) and you can only hope no one heard your stomach growling just now.
But while the closing words of New Testament letters often read like something of a formula, we can’t ignore the real gravity of their words.
The writer of the letter of Hebrews winds down his letter first by concluding some of his earlier thoughts regarding church leaders:
17 Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you. 18 Pray for us, for we are sure that we have a clear conscience, desiring to act honorably in all things. 19 I urge you the more earnestly to do this in order that I may be restored to you the sooner. (Hebrews 13:17-19)
Today’s world assumes that all hierarchy must be abusive. “Hierarchy promotes an underground,” I’ve heard it said—meaning that if some people have power over a larger group, the larger group becomes oppressed and/or embattled against their leaders. But the view promoted here in the Bible is of church leaders—pastors, elders—who show love to those in their care. Further, these leaders are under the ultimate authority of God, and will one day have to answer not just for themselves (and their families, for those that are married) but also those under their spiritual care. So it makes sense, then, that the writer would urge his readers to pray for them (v. 18). Now, you might have caught the phrase “restored to you sooner” in verse 19. What this means is unclear, especially since we don’t know who the author is. But there seems to be a deep relationship here, one currently challenged by geographic separation; he longs for reunion, one that could be expedited through God’s intervention.
Finally, now, he turns to the matter of the “benediction” of this letter:
20 Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, 21 equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.
22 I appeal to you, brothers, bear with my word of exhortation, for I have written to you briefly. 23 You should know that our brother Timothy has been released, with whom I shall see you if he comes soon. 24 Greet all your leaders and all the saints. Those who come from Italy send you greetings. 25 Grace be with all of you. (Hebrews 13:20-25)
You probably noticed the reference to Timothy—apparently he had been confined (imprisoned?) at some point, but some of the details here are left only to scholarly speculation. You might also have been amused that the author describes this sermon as “brief.”
What can we learn from the close of letters like this?
- First, that theology is deeply relational. Yes, the letter/sermon of Hebrews was complex, but ultimately was intended to be anchored in the day-to-day realities of human experience and Christian community.
- Second, that the application of Christian principles is an ongoing process. We tend to think of “amen” as the conclusion of “church”—but it’s really just the beginning. The benediction isn’t about the end of something, but about the commencing of the church’s mission. We would do well to think of the benediction as the starter’s pistol rather than the bell that concludes a school day.
- Finally, that worship and “equipping” are one and the same. We tend to associate worship with emotion so strongly that we fail to recognize the clear necessity that worship is both the goal and driving force of mission. John Piper once famously wrote that “mission is not the goal of the church; mission is. Evangelism happens because worship is not happening.” Even if you think he overstates his point, you must agree: worship lasts forever. Our mission is to reach the unchurched and to equip others to participate in the life of the kingdom.
We hope that you’ve enjoyed this journey through the book of Hebrews. We certainly have great things planned for the rest of the Spring as well as through the summer, so please stay tuned and keep tracking with us.