Hebrews 6:13-20 - God Gives An Oath And A Promise For Our Encouragement
Our text is Hebrews 6:13-20,
For when God made a promise to Abraham, since he had no one greater by whom to swear, he swore by himself, saying, “Surely I will bless you and multiply you.” And thus Abraham, having patiently waited, obtained the promise. For people swear by something greater than themselves, and in all their disputes an oath is final for confirmation. So when God desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he guaranteed it with an oath, so that by two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us. We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain, where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf, having become a high priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.
Last week we considered Hebrews 6:9-12. In those verses we saw that the author of Hebrews had made a diagnosis of their spiritual condition. They were struggling but he encourages them by saying that he was confident of better things concerning them, things that accompany salvation. He then commends them for their love for the LORD and its outward expression of love towards others; but he wants them to show the same diligence to the full assurance of hope until the end and he wants them to imitate those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.
Hywel Jones says, “It is not only the writer who desires the Hebrews to be full of hope and faith. God does too. In fact, the writer’s desire is a reflection of God’s. God wants to banish all uncertainty and doubt from His people so that they will have ‘an anchor for the soul’, and he has taken a most unusual step in order to do so. He has added an oath to his promise and so provided his people with two linchpins for their faith and hope.”1
As the author of Hebrews looks at this church and seeks to diagnose their condition he must have been happy when he could see their love for God and for His saints. The author writes, “For God is not unjust so as to overlook your work and the love that you have shown for his name in serving the saints, as you still do.” There is sluggishness in the church but he sees this grace. This church is distracted but he has witnessed this grace in action. Therefore, there is reason to be sure of better things, things that belong to salvation. Thomas Brooks once said, “He will not long be a babe in grace who lives out that little grace he has.”
Faith, hope and love are three graces that are present when a believer and a congregation is healthy. There are times when a believer or a congregation may be strong in one of these graces and weak in the others. That is what we see happening in this church. Therefore the author of Hebrews says Hebrews 6:11-12, “And we desire each one of you to show the same earnestness to have the full assurance of hope until the end, so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.”
I wonder if when you read that these Hebrews were to be “imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises” if you expect that the author would now insert Hebrews 11? You remember what Hebrews 11 is all about don’t you? It is an entire chapter of examples of men and women who lived by faith and inherited the promises. By faith Abraham…; By faith Sarah…; By faith Jacob…; By faith Joseph…; By faith Moses…; By faith the walls of Jericho fell…; By faith etc.
The is not what the author does. Instead, he begins by speaking about the God who made promises to Abraham and then he gives reasons why we can have hope and faith in the purposes of God just like Abraham did. God has made promises to His people but do we trust that he will fulfill them?
As a pastor I like to be around older people who have experienced a lot of life. We have some members in our congregation who have faced wars and some who lived through the Great Depression. I love to learn from them and imitate those traits of patience, confidence, and trust in the providential care of God. They have lived through difficult times and they have experienced God’s faithfulness and care. I can learn a lot from them, but what I need to learn from them the most is to put my hope in the same God they do. There is no technique, no procedure, no worldly wisdom, no secret wisdom to learn. We endure by clinging to God’ promises and hoping in the LORD.
Hebrews 6:13-14 says, “For when God made a promise to Abraham, since he had no one greater by whom to swear, he swore by himself, saying, ‘Surely I will bless you and multiply you.’”
Some years ago we rented out our home under a ‘land contract’. I went to a lawyer and had the forms drawn up and we all signed them and I thought that I was covered from any big problems. However, I soon learned a painful and expensive lesson. At one point the couple stopped making their payments. They tore up the house and they left. In the end, even though the papers were signed and everything seemed so official, we ended up paying for the damage to the home and covering thousands of dollars in their unpaid utility bills. Much to my surprise the contract that we signed meant very little in the end.
This has not always been the case. There was a time when promises were made with a handshake, covenants were made with a promise, commitments were guaranteed by someone’s personal word. The author of Hebrews describes a time in this text when this was the case. “God is an oath-giving God who seals His oaths with His own word and by His own name.”2
The quote that is used in Hebrews 6:14 is taken from Genesis 22:17. In it we see that God had given Abraham a promise that he would become a father of many nations; yet, Abraham had to patiently wait in faith for the promise to be fulfilled by the LORD. Abraham trusted that the LORD was good to keep His Word and so he walked by faith and hoped (had a confident expectation) in the promises that God had given to him.
It all began in Genesis 12 when the LORD said to Abram (when he was seventy-five years old), “Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12:1-3) By faith Abraham took his wife and all of their possessions and they departed.
In Genesis 15 the LORD comes to Abram again and reminds him of His promise. We read these words in Genesis 15:1-6, “After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision: “Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” But Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “Behold, you have given me no offspring, and a member of my household will be my heir.” And behold, the word of the Lord came to him: “This man shall not be your heir; your very own son shall be your heir.” And he brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” And he believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness.”
After this, in Genesis 15:7-21, we see that the LORD establishes a covenant with Abram. The LORD tells Abram to bring a heifer, a goat, a ram, a turtledove, and a young pigeon. Then Abram was told to cut them in half and they were to be laid out over against each other. This was not a sacrifice pertaining to sins; rather, this is a blood covenant that Abraham would have been very familiar with. Once this was done to the animals the two parties would agree upon the blessings and the responsibilities of the covenant and they would walk through the middle of the animals together. In doing this they were saying that if either party involved did not live up to this covenant their fate would be similar to these animals.
Interestingly, in this particular case Abram was not allowed to be a participant in this covenant. God caused a deep sleep to come upon him. During this time the LORD spoke of the offspring that would be given to Abraham. He also promised that they would be given a land and would come into possession of it after they had been slaves for 400 years. Then after these things had been spoken a covenant was established but it was the LORD alone who walked among the slaughtered beasts. The LORD Himself was promising to do everything that was stipulated in this covenant. The LORD Himself was agreeing to all of the responsibilities and liabilities of this covenant.
We read of this in Genesis 15:17-21, “When the sun had gone down and it was dark, behold, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your offspring I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates, the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites and the Jebusites.”
At this point, it is important to remember that Abraham still did not have any children. Abraham would have to receive all of these things by faith and continue to wait patiently for the LORD to fulfill the promises that He had made. Then when Abram was ninety-nine years old the LORD came to him again and said, “I am God Almighty, walk before me, and be blameless, that I may make my covenant between Me and you, and may multiply you greatly.” (17:1-2) The LORD then changes Abram’s name to Abraham and speaks to him of the everlasting covenant that he had with the LORD. The LORD tells Abraham that he and Sarah would have a child within the next year. In faith Abraham believes the LORD and he circumcised all of the males in his family just as the LORD had commanded.
Then in Genesis 21 Abraham and Sarah have a son and they named Him Isaac just as the LORD had commanded (17:19). God had fulfilled this promise to Abraham. Yet, even after all of these things have happened we still have not arrived at the moment when the LORD says to Abraham, “Surely I will bless you and multiply you.”
This moment will occur in Genesis 22 after the LORD tested Abraham. The LORD comes to Abraham and tells him to take Isaac to the land of Moriah and offer his son, Isaac, to the LORD. The very next morning Abraham loads up the animals and begins the journey. Abraham had waited so long for the promised son and now the LORD had asked him to sacrifice him. As perplexing as this must have been Abraham obeyed and acted in faith. He brought wood and fire for the sacrifice but he did not bring an animal to sacrifice. Yet, he would say to his servants as he and Isaac left to go up the mountain, “Stay here with the donkey; I and the boy will go over there to worship and come again to you.” (22:5)
Issac asked his father, “Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burn offering?” (22:7) Abraham responded in faith, “God will provide for Himself the lamb for a burn offering, my son.” (22:8)
The faith of Abraham was tested even as he bound his son on the altar of wood and as he reached out his arm with the knife to slaughter his son (22:10). But in that moment the angel of the LORD stopped Abraham and provided a ram for the sacrifice. Then the angel of the LORD called to Abraham a second time from heaven and said, “By myself I have sworn, declares the LORD, because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surly bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed because you have obeyed my voice.”
It was a long process for Abraham to get to this point. Through it all he believed what God had said. His confidence had its ups and downs, but Abraham remained faithful and trusted in what God had promised. He believed that God could not lie and that He does not change His mind.
What helped Abraham to continue in belief through all of those difficult, confusing and mystifying days?
We are told that Abraham patiently waited because of two things. First, God had made a promise. Secondly, God had sworn an oath. We read of this in Hebrews 6:15-18, “And thus Abraham, having patiently waited, obtained the promise. 16 For people swear by something greater than themselves, and in all their disputes an oath is final for confirmation. 17 So when God desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he guaranteed it with an oath, 18 so that by two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us.”
Let us consider these two things: promise and an oath. It should be enough that if God promises something we ought to believe it whole-hardheartedly. God’s promises are based upon the unchangeable character of His nature and of His purposes. He administrates all things by His sovereign and eternal will. The LORD promises concerning the things that He has determined to do from before the foundation of all things and nothing thwarts His will. God’s promises are guaranteed because He cannot lie. He says what He intends to say and He says what He will do. Truthfulness is part of His attributes and therefore there is no variation or shadow of turning in Him.
One way that I have considered the promise and the oath that we see in this text is to consider it in the context of human relationship of marriage. If a young couple begins to date and they fall in love then at some point they will begin to talk about their commitment to each other. The young man may promise to love this young lady and speak of his commitment to care for her the rest of his life. These words cultivate joy, excitement, and an increase in anticipation and expectation within the woman.
This young man has made a promise. He has professed to her, to his family, to her family, and to others ofhis desire to love her and care for her.And all of this will eventually lead to a covenant being established upon an oath. The couple will covenant with each other and agree together ‘to have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death do you part, according to God's holy law, in the presence of God you are making this vow.’
The bride was overjoyed when she first heard that this man had promised to love her and that he wanted to care for her for the rest of his life. But that was only one part of the process. If this was his boast for years on end she might grow weary and impatient with the man who seemed to be all talk with no further commitment to get married. The promise given is intended to lead them to take a marriage oath and to establish a marriage covenant that would unite them together forever. And it is within the context of that promise and that oath that all of the promises that are ever made can reach their fulfillment by the grace of God in that union.
The word promise means, ‘To make an announcement, to profess, to make a promise’. Sometimes we make a commitment, an announcement, we profess something so that we have motivation to accomplish it. This is not what God does. He makes promises that will be fulfilled. He never waivers in His resolve to accomplish what He has said.
Nor does He have to promise the same thing over and over again as if to re-commit Himself to the purpose He has or so that He does not forge the promises that He has given. No, we read in verse 13, ‘For when God made a promise...He swore by Himself…”. These verbs are in the past tense. The LORD makes a promise and we can believe that it will be done no matter how long it takes because He only has to promise it once and it will be done. In fact, even if we do not see the fulfillment He is working everything to that end. He will fulfill His promise even if it leads to His own harm (Psalm 15:4). Which it does in Christ as we see in Hebrews 6:19-20, “We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain, where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf, having become a high priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.”
The word oath means, ‘to swear, to affirm, to make an oath, to limit and restrict’. An oath brings with it great freedom and also some limits. There is great freedom within the marriage covenant that bring many blessings. There are also limitations within the marriage that restricts the couple and limits them as God has designed (Hebrews 13:4). Similarly, God has made promises, and He has made an oath, and He is bound to fulfill them.
We are told that God has done all of this for the sake of the heirs of the promise. He lacks no commitment or motivation to fulfill what He has promised, but we often are weak, prone to doubt and often we fall into hopeless despair. Therefore, we read, “...when God desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he guaranteed it with an oath, so that by two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us.”
Here in these verses we are described in two ways. First, we are heirs of the promise. We are not servants who earn the promise, but we are heirs who receive it by the grace of God through faith. Secondly, we are those who have fled for refuge…to the hope set before us. To us, God desires to ‘show more convincingly...the unchangeable character of His purpose’ which has been guaranteed with an oath. And to these people who are fleeing for refuge we are to have ‘strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us’.
Do you see in these two things the prescription for a congregation who is struggling in faith and hope? We can have great faith and hope because God has made us heirs according to the unchangeable character of His purpose. We can have great faith and hope as we hold fast to the gospel promises that are set before us.
Why are these heirs of the promise also fleeing for refuge? The language that is used here reminds us of the cities of refuge that the LORD set us in the Promised Land. If a person had committed a capital offense they could flee to a refuge city for safety until it could be litigated. These cities were spread out throughout the land to provide close proximity throughout the land. The roads to these cities had to be kept up and maintained for safe and quick travel.
Similarly, every heir of the promise is a sinner who has transgressed the law of God. We are guilty of sin and are condemned men and woman. We flee to Christ who is our hope for refuge. But how can Christ help us in this condition? If we are guilty, how can He save us from the wrath of God? If we flee to Him won’t the verdict be given – guilty!
We spent a great deal of time talking about the promise given to Abraham this morning. One of the reasons this is important is because the covenant that God made with Abraham is a covenant of Grace. In this covenant God was the one who put Abraham to sleep and then He walked through the slaughtered animals without Abraham.
In doing this the LORD committed Himself to fulfilling the covenant demands given to Abraham and his children. He also committed to giving them a Promised Land to dwell in. He also committed to the covenant ramifications if it was broken.
God’s people, under the Mosaic Covenant, broke God’s commands and sinned. They were guilty and deserved death. Yet, Jesus, who is the seed of Abraham, came and lived in perfect obedience. And He also took upon Himself the sins of the people who had transgressed against the LORD and deserved death. He took upon Himself the consequences of those sins and like the animals in Genesis 15 His body was torn and He was killed.
Like Abraham, all who believe the promise become partakers in the covenant of grace and are considered righteous because of Christ’s obedience. Through Christ all nations, not just the Jews, are blessed and are adopted into God’s family and become heirs of salvation. Through Christ, we all look to the eternal Promised Land that we will inherit by faith and this is the hope that we profess as exiles and sojourners here in this foreign land. We have fled to Christ for refuge.
Then we read at the end of our text, “We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain, where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf, having become a high priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.” (19-20)
Here another analogy is used to convey the steadfast hope and faith a believer is to have. This speaks of big ships that would struggle to make their way into the harbor of safekeeping because they lacked propulsion and rudder steering. Because of this they would send out a smaller ship, called a forerunner, to go into the harbor with a rope and tie it to a large stone that was placed at the shoreline of the harbor. These stones were called in Latin ‘anchoria’ and in Greek as ‘agkura’. When the rope was secure to the stone it was held sure and steadfast. The crew in the large boat outside of the harbor would pull themselves into the harbor of safekeeping by pulling on the rope until they arrived at their destination. No matter from what direction the storm and winds would blow against the boat they would be able to get into the harbor of safekeeping every time if they would not let go of the rope.
Jesus, our high priest, has gone into the innermost place of the Temple. He has gone before us on our behalf where He now is High Priest over a better covenant, with better sacrifices, with better promises. He has gone before us and we are faithfully and confidently drawing closer and closer to Him. This is our hope and our confident expectation. When we struggle to believe we are to remember the promise and the oath that has been made. Christ is our High Priest forever after the order of Melchizedek. The promise made to Abraham was fulfilled when God gave him children and the Promised Land; and yet, it is fulfilled in a greater way in Christ. Through Jesus all nations can be saved and we are holding steadfast to the promise of eternal life and an eternal kingdom in which we will one day enter into and find our eternal rest. Therefore, do not grow weary but persevere to the end.
1Hywel Jones, Let’s Study Hebrews, p. 65
2Albert Mohler Jr., Christ-centered exposition of Hebrews, p.94-95