A sermon by Pastor Michael Pahl on November 18, 2018, called “Confident Faith, Courageous Love,” reflecting on Hebrews 10:19-25.
Here is a written excerpt from the introduction:
Fifteen years. It had been fifteen years since the first round of persecutions.
They were Jews, living in Rome. Jewish “Christians,” actually: physical descendants of Abraham, free children of Hebrew slaves in Egypt, covenanted to Yahweh at Mount Sinai through the Law of Moses—and believers in Jesus as Israel’s Messiah and the world’s true Lord.
That first round of persecution, fifteen years ago, that one had affected all the Jews in Rome. There had been some trouble in the city’s Jewish neighbourhood. The official verdict was that the trouble had been sparked by a slave named “Chrestus,” but word on the street said differently. A bitter dispute had broken out between Jews who did not believe in Messiah Jesus, and Jews who did. The trouble was over “Christus”—Christ—not someone named “Chrestus.”
It really didn’t matter how it started, though. The end result was the eviction of the Jews from Rome by edict of the Emperor Claudius. Their leaders were punished, they were forced out of their homes, and they were banished from the city with only the possessions they could carry.
Five years later—ten years ago—the Emperor Claudius died, and upon his death his edict was annulled. Jews began to move back into the city and buy back their homes. Even better, Judaism began to have favour again in the new Roman court, under the new young Emperor, Nero.
That first round of persecution faded into memory.
This time, things were different. This time it wasn’t the Jews who were targets of persecution, it was the Christians. Jewish Christians couldn’t catch a break in Rome: persecuted first as Jews, now as Christians.
They were easy targets for bullying, these Christians. From the perspective of most Romans, Christians were superstitious fools at best and seditious traitors at worst.
These Christians foolishly followed a crucified Jewish peasant from that backwater of the Roman Empire, Galilee. Even more bizarrely, they claimed this Jesus had been raised from the dead by God. Then they had the gall to insist that this crucified and risen Jesus was “Lord”—even Lord over the Emperor!
They had strange customs, too, these Christians. “Eating Jesus’ body” and “drinking Jesus’ blood” sounded like cannibalism to many, and who knew what went on at those gatherings they called “love feasts”?
Foolish ideas, bizarre and even treasonous claims, strange beliefs and rituals—and a very small minority. A few hundred, maybe a couple thousand at most—Christians were a mere speck of dust in the seven hills of mighty Rome’s one million inhabitants.
Like I said, they were easy targets for bullying, these Christians. And perfect scapegoats, too—which Emperor Nero used to his advantage.
Because young Nero had grown up, and the result was not pretty.
When he was first emperor, at only 16 years old, Nero followed the careful guidance of his guardians, including the famous philosopher-poet, Seneca. But within a few years things had begun to change. Extravagance, promiscuity, corruption, cruelty—these began to be the hallmarks of his reign.
Nero was constantly concerned about his image, wanting to be popular among the common people—and largely he was. He had a strong populist following. But his behaviour was becoming a problem—sparked by an erratic, even volatile temperament.
It was not a good time to be a mistrusted, even despised minority.
During the night of July 18, AD 64, a fire broke out in the city on one of those seven famous hills of Rome. The fire burned for a week. Homes, mansions, temples were destroyed. In fact, three of Rome’s 14 districts were destroyed, and seven more were badly damaged. It was devastating for the city.
A rumour began to spread almost as fast as the fire, that Nero had started the fire himself. He wanted to build a new Rome, so the rumour went, a glorious new Rome in his honour. He wanted to build a Golden House with a 30-meter tall statue of himself, the Colossus of Nero. Can you imagine it!
Nero acted quickly. To his credit he organized a relief effort, searching for survivors and bringing in food and supplies for the homeless and hungry. But he also ramped up the fake news, starting a rumour of his own: it was not Nero who started the fire, it was those Christians. A mistrusted and despised minority—perfect scapegoats.
And so, even as he was helping the victims of Rome’s inferno with his right hand, with his left he was rounding up the Christians, throwing them into prison, and executing them without trial.
In the end, whether Nero started the fire or not, he got what he wanted: Rome was rebuilt in his honour, with his Golden House and his 100-foot Colossus of Nero.
There’s a lot we don’t know about the Epistle to the Hebrews, the Bible book that our Scripture passage is from this morning. We don’t know who wrote it. We don’t know for sure when it was written, or to whom. But it’s quite possible that it was written to Jewish Christians in Rome just as I’ve described, some years after the Emperor Claudius had expelled Jews from Rome, and not long before the Emperor Nero executed Christians for burning Rome.
The letter is written to Jewish Christians. And it does mention both a persecution in “the early days” which resulted in imprisonment and confiscation of property, as well as a current round of suffering and hardships which could well turn ugly for those Jewish Christians (10:32-39; 12:1-4). The letter also describes how some of their number have turned their backs on Christ—still Jews, which was safe to be, but no longer Christians, which was a dangerous name to claim (e.g. 10:26-31).
I call it a “letter,” and it is. But the author himself calls it “a word of encouragement,” or “a word of exhortation” (13:22). That was a Jewish way of referring to a sermon. So the Book of Hebrews is really a sermon. (He also calls it a “brief” sermon—only an hour or so!)
“A word of encouragement.” How do you encourage people who have gone through real persecution, who are mistrusted and despised by those around them, who are in danger of even greater persecution, and who are seeing people leave their congregations because they can’t take the heat?
Our passage this morning sums up the central section of Hebrews, and so it sums up the heart of the author’s “word of encouragement” to these Christians. And even though we are not a persecuted minority (in spite of what many Christians today claim!), these words can be a tremendous encouragement to us also.
In a nutshell, the encouragement of Hebrews boils down to this: because of Jesus, we can have confident faith in God no matter what may come, and we can walk in courageous love for all no matter who they are.
Confident faith, and courageous love.