How is the Church to differ from the world? In this sermon, Alistair Begg explains several characteristics that should distinguish God’s people. Scripture calls us, for instance, to be radically content in all circumstances. Church leaders, meanwhile, are to be driven by a care for God’s people and His glory. Finally, strange teachings—especially those that contradict the Gospel—must be rejected. Instead, we are to embrace the disgrace that comes from siding with the crucified Christ.
Now to the book of Hebrews and to chapter 13. I think you would understand that it is probably appropriate that we try and finish Hebrews by next Sunday evening. And therefore, if you were present this morning, you will know that we were moving through the early verses of this thirteenth chapter and dealing with some of these marks of Christian lifestyle: the love that is to be shared among us, the hospitality that is to be shown to strangers, the sympathy which is to be expressed to prisoners, the purity which is to be part of our marriages. And it was at that point that we concluded, and therefore, it is at that point that we pick things up―namely, with the striking statement here in verse 5: “Keep [yourselves] free from the love of money and be content with what you have.”
This, as I said this morning, is a call to a radical lifestyle, and it is a dramatic statement. And the writer is urging this spirit of contentment upon his readers on the basis of the presence of God and the provision of God. These first-century believers, buffeted by all kinds of trials, aware of their own potential for mishap and failure, are to be strengthened and encouraged with the promise of God’s presence, with the ability to affirm the truth, “The Lord is my helper; why should I be afraid?” In other words, “Why would I put my confidence in money when my confidence ought to be in God alone? Why would I put strength in that which can so readily pass through my fingers when, in point of fact, I am held in the firm grasp of the hand of my heavenly Father?”
And as we mentioned this morning, such a call points again to the dramatic way in which the Christian church will be able to make its presence felt in an era of discontentedness. Somebody has written as follows: “Money can buy medicine but not health, a house but not a home, companionship but not friends, entertainment but not happiness, food but not an appetite, a bed but not sleep, a crucifix but not a Savior, the good life but not eternal life.” And this matter of contentedness is, I think, a more pressing and urgent issue for many of us than we are even prepared to admit. In moments of honesty, when our lives are laid bare before the gaze of the Scriptures, then we are prepared perhaps to contend with this. But most of the time, many of us conceal it even from ourselves―the potential for discontentedness. Seneca, the Roman statesman, on one occasion said, “Money has never yet made any[body] rich.” “Money has never yet made any[body] rich.”
Now, I can’t stay long on this this evening, but I want to acknowledge a couple of things with you: that the call to contentedness and to contentment with what God provides is not inconsistent with a reasonable desire to improve my circumstances and to use all lawful means to do so. One of the things that can emerge from this kind of proverbial statement is a sort of lethargy in approach to life. And one of the questions that I’m constantly on the receiving end of when mentioning a principle such as this is “Well then, what place does ambition have, if any, in the life of the Christian? Is it wrong for me, then, to seek to improve my lot in any way?” And the answer is no, it is not, provided that my desire to do my best, to be a first-rate worker, is simply that, and that I am leaving in the care of God what may emerge from that rather than lusting fretfully after promotion or advancement or money for its own sake. Contentedness means not that I am unable to seek to advance, but it means that whether I advance or not, I remain content with my lot. It doesn’t consist in being lazy and lethargic and neglecting the business of life; it is rather a sense of satisfaction with God as my portion, with whatever he pleases to appoint for me. It is opposed to covetousness or the inordinate desire for wealth.
And in a selfishly ambitious, acquisitive, materialistic society, Christian contentment―as Christian marriage, as Christian love―is a quality of great evangelistic worth. People are always asking, “How can I make an impact in my world?” Be contented. When everyone else is groaning, griping, complaining, and is a miserable person as a result of what’s going on in terms of the bonus figures or whatever else it is, it is not that you are immune to that, but it is that you have determined, “The Lord is my portion. What can a man do to me? It is the Lord who helps me. I have food, and I have clothes. Therefore, I can be content.” It’s an immense challenge in the exhortation. And these quotes from the Old Testament will repay your careful study.
Now, he then goes on in verse 7 to address another matter. In Christian deportment, there needs to be an understanding of the characteristic of leadership and of our subsequent submission to leadership. After all, we are experiencing these events and these opportunities within the context of a living faith. And so he says, “I want you to remember your leaders.” Now, we’re going to see more about this when we get to verse 17, and that will be next Sunday morning, God willing. But for now, let’s just stay with this seventh verse.
Notice the characteristic of these leaders. Incidentally, the tense here makes it clear that the writer is reminding them of those who led them in earlier days but who have now completed their service. And he points to three particular marks of this leadership, and they are these.
Number one, the word they spoke. The word they spoke. He says, “When you think about those leaders, remember them in relationship to the word of God which they spoke to you.” This above all things, within the framework of the shepherding of God’s people, is an absolute essential. That is why it is wrong, the Bible says, to appoint to leadership in the local church men who are inadequate with the Scriptures―men who are unable to use the Scriptures for the guidance and encouragement of God’s people. That is why they are to be “apt to teach,” so that they in turn will be able to be characterized by this very principle: that they were men “who spoke the word of God to you.” After all, if they were unable to speak the word of God to you, then they would not be able to give you the kind of guidance that he has just provided in relationship to love, contentment, marriage, and so on.
And you would in turn be vulnerable to what he’s coming to in verse 9: “all kinds of strange teachings.” How is it that God provides for his flock so that they will not be torn apart by various wolves? It is by providing leaders who speak the word of God—that far more than their own opinion, far more than their own little hobby horses, far more than their own agenda, the people say, “That guy spoke the word of God to me.” And that would be enough! That would be fine. If that was our benediction, if that was our heritage, then everyone who is at work in the Christian church should be content with that: “I remember him. He spoke the word of God to me. I remember his Sunday school class. I remember the notes in my Bible. I remember the things I wrote in my flyleaf when he said that on such and such a day. He spoke the word of God to me.”
If you have animals, they love it when you feed them, don’t they? And they know you. They know your movements, and they’re happy, and they’re biddable. I was with a lovely collie dog yesterday afternoon, and wherever his master went, the dog went, and whatever little gesture he made, the dog was all there beside him. Why? Because of the relationship that they had. And he led, and he guided him, and he provided for him, and he fed him. And as a shepherd feeds the sheep, so the leaders feed the flock.
So, the word they spoke. Secondly, the life they lived: “Consider the outcome of their way of life.” He’s not urging them simply to observe their way of life but to see what the outcome has been of this kind of pattern of existence. They had run the race unwavering to the end, and the implication was simply this: “If you consider the way in which they have done this, you in turn may run the race right to the very end.” Because, after all, in chapter 11, he’s already told us that these individuals were all “living by faith when they died.” What good is a lot of talk unless there is a life that backs it up? That’s the great challenge. That’s why Paul says to Timothy, “Watch your life and [your] doctrine closely.” ’Cause if you’re just a talker, and you don’t have a life that goes with it, then you have no credibility amongst the people of God.
Thirdly, not simply the word they spoke, the life they lived, but the faith that they displayed: “And imitate their faith.” They went forward by faith. He’s gone through a whole host of them, and the readers would be adding to that number all kinds of names. Moses was probably a frightening fellow to walk behind, but he certainly wasn’t dull. And it may be frightening at times to get behind visionary leadership, but provided that they are men who will speak the word of God to you, who have a way of life that is in accord with the word that they speak, if they have vision and faith and anticipation, then imitate that faith. That’s what he says! They are there as examples in order that you might follow them.
And then, of course, in verse 8—probably the best-known verse in the whole of Hebrews! One that is quoted all the time. You find it on little text cards and in people’s windows and on little plaques all over the place. Most of the time people would be hard-pressed to tell you where it comes from or what is the context in which it is set: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” Well, here is where we find it. And why do we find it here? Well, because it fits perfectly here. No matter how good these leaders were, no matter how able they were with the Word of God, no matter how good their way of life, no matter how compelling their faith, they weren’t always available for consultation; they weren’t always perfect in their guidance. And therefore, it is imperative that we turn people always to the Lord Jesus Christ, who “is the same yesterday and today and forever.” His help is the same―his grace, his power, his guidance, all permanently at the disposal of his people. And it is ultimately the task of leadership to see those whom they lead attached not to themselves but attached to the Lord Jesus Christ.
Now, it is at that point that he then goes in verse 9 to give this next striking exhortation: “Do[n’t] be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings.” Now, why does he say that? Well, he says that because they had the potential to be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings. And in the verse that follows―indeed, the verses that follow―it becomes apparent just exactly what was going on. He says, “It[’s] good for our hearts to be strengthened by grace, not by ceremonial foods, which are of no value to those who eat them.”
So what were the “strange teachings”? Well, the strange teachings were essentially this: people were coming around and teaching―and this lingered from Judaism―that adherence to an external religious code was the key to maintaining a close walk with God. Now, Paul refutes this in other places. For example, in Galatians 3:3, he says, “Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?”
Loved ones, it is very important that we, as they, understand this. It is a strange and perverted and unhelpful notion to think somehow or another that spiritual growth and maturity is that which comes about as a result of slavish observance of externals. Spiritual maturity comes along the pathway of understanding, appreciating, receiving, and enjoying the grace of God. It is grace at the beginning, grace in the middle, and it is grace at the end.
Now, I can’t take the time to go through all the references that I have before me, but for example, Colossians 1:6. He refers to the Colossian believers there, and he says, “The gospel that has come to you … is bearing fruit and [it’s] growing, just as it has been doing among you since the day you heard it and understood God’s grace in all its truth.” To Timothy, as a young pastor, he says, “[Here is the gospel:] by the power of God, [he] saved us and called us to a holy life―not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and [his] grace.” The beginning of Christian experience is grace. The gospel is the sole channel through which the grace of God is mediated to men and women.
How was it that we came to know Christ? Did we earn God’s favor? Absolutely not! What were we able to offer in order that he might draw us to himself? Absolutely nothing! So if our beginning was all as a result of God’s saving grace, would it be any surprise that our continuing would be on the very same basis? And it is a strange and devious and dangering emphasis that leads us to externalism―ceremonial foods and all kinds of man-made rigmarole.
Grace. “Do not be carried away by all these strange teachings. It[’s] good for our hearts to be strengthened by grace,” and “not by ceremonial foods”; they’re “of no value to those who eat them.” “Let them go ahead and eat them,” Paul says in Corinthians. “If they got a thing about that, that’s fine. I don’t want to get stalled on that,” he said. “But it’s of no value to them.”
And then he says, “And while we’re at that, let me just mention this matter of the altar.” “We have an altar from which those who minister at the tabernacle have no right to eat.” This shouldn’t be any difficulty to us. We’ve been going through Hebrews together. All the way through he has been emphasizing the sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice for sin. We’ve seen this in the old covenant and the new. We’ve seen the way in which he is the Great High Priest—that all the other priests had to offer sacrifices repeatedly, again and again and again, for their own sins and then for the sins of the people, but it was all pointing to this Christ who would come, and he would once and for all offer a sacrifice for sin. Now he is reiterating the same point as he draws his letter to a close. “We’ve got an altar,” he says, “from which those who minister at the tabernacle have no right to eat.”
Now, what is this? Well, it is simply this: that those who remained committed to the strange teachings of ceremonial foods and external rigmarole barred themselves from participating in the offering of Christ. For by their very activity they were denying the fact that Christ’s once-and-for-all sacrifice had fulfilled what was foreshadowed on the Day of Atonement.
Again, I cannot belabor this point tonight. I feel that I’ve made it enough in going through. But if the sacrifice of Christ was a once-for-all sufficient sacrifice for sin, if the altar of the Christian is on a hill called Golgotha, if the issue of redemption is settled in a moment in time, then those who demand of others the continuing sacrificial elements in order to receive grace, forgiveness―whatever it might be―bar themselves from participation at the altar of Christ. Now, I’m not saying that. The Bible is saying that! You’re sensible people. You cannot keep going to the altar again and again and again and again if you understand that once on an altar, on a hill called Calvary, the issue of sin was dealt with.
And that’s why people come to me all the time, they say, “Well, where is the altar in here?”
I say, “Well, there is no altar in here.”
“Well, what are you doing? Shouldn’t you have an altar?”
“Yes, we do have an altar.”
“Where is it?”
“Well, nowhere that you can see.” But it’s here in Hebrews 13: “We have an altar from which those who minister [to] the tabernacle have no right to eat.”
You see, the Christians―remember that this is written in an historic context to a group of people―the Christians had none of the visible apparatus which in those days was associated with religion and worship. They didn’t have sacred buildings. They didn’t have spires, steeples. They didn’t have altars. They had no sacrificing priests. That’s why the pagan neighbors called them atheists! Because they came around, they said, “You don’t have any of the stuff! And if you really believed in God, you’d have all the God stuff. And since you don’t have the God stuff, presumably you don’t have God.” That’s exactly what happens in here: “Well, what did you build here? You don’t have any of the God stuff. You should have God stuff! If you don’t have all that stuff, you can’t be legit.” So what do you say to that? Most of you stumble and bumble, I know. Here’s the answer: yet “we have an altar [at] which those who minister [to] the tabernacle have no right to eat.”
You see, the Jewish people were criticizing these individuals for their commitment to Jesus Christ. They were criticizing them as having no visible means of support. After all, the whole sacrificial system of the Old Testament had been turned on its head, because the believers said, “Over! Done! Jesus did that. This was all pointing forward. Jesus came, he did it. One sacrifice for sins; we’re done. We will celebrate Communion, the Lord’s Supper, as a symbolic recollection of what Jesus did upon the cross, but we’re not gonna continue to slaughter things and bring them around here and put them all over the place.”
“Because we don’t need to.”
“Well, yes, you need to.”
“Why do you need to?”
“Because if you don’t have that, you don’t have God.”
“Oh yes we do! Because, you see, God has come in the person of Jesus Christ, and he has paid a once-and-for-all sacrifice for sins, and he is now seated at the right had of the Father on high. He’s gone right into the Holy of Holies, and he’s made it possible for us to come.”
“Oh, I can’t understand that. I think I have to go to this man and tell him my sins.”
“No, you don’t!”
“Because there is one mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus. And if you meet the man Christ Jesus, you’ll never need to go to another man and tell him about your sins, because once you tell him about your sins, there won’t need the other guy!”
And that’s the point! That’s the whole point! And that’s grace, you see. That’s liberation. That’s wonderful. That’s not bells and smells and rigmaroles. That’s a revolution! That’s the gospel.
Now, I’m perfectly happy with this. Indeed, I feel myself to be in the best of heritages. Because history records that when Archbishop Laud came to Scotland to attend upon Charles I in 1633, he found “that its benighted inhabitants had ‘no religion at all that I could see—which grieved me,’” he said, “‘[so] much.’” Now, what did he mean by that? That my forebearers did not have all the falderal. They did not have all the rigmarole, and the altars, and the curtains, and the bells, and the jiggery-pokery. They just had a Bible. And that’s… Incidentally, we need a Bible for up here that sits here all the time. And that will be what we point to. For in the Scriptures, then, we have Christ, and in Christ we have one Savior for sin and a once-for-all sacrifice. And in this book we’re pointed up and beyond these strange teachings, which hold men and women in a fierce and fiendish grasp from which we need to pray their liberation.
Now, we should wrap this up, ’cause we have the baptisms. But let me just go one stage further: “The high priest,” verse 11, “carries the blood of animals into the Most Holy Place as a sin offering, but the bodies are burned outside the camp.” The people understood this. They took the bodies of the beasts outside of the camp, because they were symbolic of all of the sin that had been laid upon them. And so, he says, it is in account of this that Jesus also suffered outside the city gate. Remember that his cross was raised outside the city wall. The Easter hymn puts it perfectly:
There is a green hill far away,
Outside a city wall,
Where the dear Lord was crucified,
Who died to save us all.
What was going on out there? “God was reconciling the world to himself … not counting men’s sins against them”—2 Corinthians 5:.
But didn’t God count men’s sins against someone? Yes, he counted them against his Son, the Lord Jesus. First Peter 2:24: “He himself bore our sins in his [own] body [in] the tree.” That’s why when Jesus cried from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” the answer of heaven would have been, “Because, Jesus, you stand in the place of sinners, you bear the guilt of sinners, you absorb the punishment of sinners, you bear my wrath.”
That’s why we would urge people to come to the cross in repentance and in faith, so that they might be able to say,
O safe and happy shelter,
O [rescue] tried and sweet,
O trysting place where heaven’s love
And heaven’s justice meet!
Where does the justice of God that must punish sin and the love of God that makes a way of escape find its expression in a moment of time? On the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ. And those who have discovered the reality of grace at his cross know that there is nothing to be gained from ceremonial foods, external rigmaroles, and all kinds of nonsense. And presumably, those who continue in it have neither heard the message, understood the message, or embraced the message. They are more to be pitied.
Now, you will notice that “Jesus … suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood.” He didn’t suffer first to make us happy, ’cause many of us haven’t been particularly happy recently. And if he suffered to make us happy, then something’s gone skew-whiff. He suffered to make us holy. And that’s why “through many dangers, toils, and snares” we have come, because he is conforming us to the image of his Son. His purpose was to redeem a people that would look like Jesus. “It is by means of the cross of Christ,” says Paul in Galatians 6, “that the world has been crucified to me and I have been crucified to the world.” And the world doesn’t go away on its own. It clings to us like a limpet. It seeks to draw out of us all of our spiritual juices. It’s like the thorns in the parable of the sower, just entangling us and squeezing the very life out of us, if it could. And so the reminder is that “the grace of God”—Titus 2:11—“that brings salvation has appeared to all men[, teaching] us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age.”
And then the exhortation in verse 13. In light of this, he says, then “let us … go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore.” That’s why I called this evening “The Privilege of Disgrace.” I needed to at least get here; otherwise, the title was irrelevant. “The Privilege of Disgrace.”
It’s a paradoxical statement, is it not? Everybody would regard disgrace as disgraceful. How could disgrace ever be a privilege? Well, Moses knew it was a privilege. He chose rather to suffer affliction with the people of God than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season, because he knew it was a great privilege to be named with God’s people. Daniel suffered the disgrace and ignominy, having come from a stellar background―the disgrace of ending up in jail, the disgrace of being thrown around in front of lions, the disgrace of being regarded as the offscouring of humanity. Paul, a guy with a great background, and a great mind, and great degrees, and great teachers, and great influence, is regarded as the “scum of the earth.” He said, “It’s a privilege.” “It’s a privilege.” And the writer says, “Listen, I want you to understand that it is a privilege.”
You see, the Jew would have regarded this as the ultimate revolution, because the Jewish mind thought always in terms of everything inside of the camp as being kosher and sacred and everything outside of the camp as being profane and unclean. And the writer says, “Let us … go to him outside the camp.”
“I can’t go outside the camp!”
“Yes, you can. And furthermore, yes, you must.”
“But inside the camp the precincts are sacred and they’re hallowed and they’re familiar, and I have all the things that are normal to me. Now you’re telling me I’ve gotta go out here into this vulnerable environment?”
“That’s exactly,” he says, “what we’re saying.”
“Because in Jesus all the old values have been reversed.”
And then he caps it off in verse 14: he says, “By the way, here we don’t have an enduring city, but we’re looking for the city that is to come.” With all their minds so fastened and focused on Jerusalem, their hearts clinging to what represented security to them, apparently—all of that old order was about to crash. These things all were part and parcel of the things that were “shaken” at the end of chapter 12: “Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful.” God is going to shake the heavens. He’s going to shake the earth. And all that will remain is the “city which ha[s] foundations, whose builder and maker is God.”
And amongst the group who read the letter there would have been those like Pliable who said, “No way! I like my security. I like my comforts. I like my familiar stuff. I don’t like this newfangled nonsense. And I am not going outside of the camp. I am not going to take my stand with Jesus Christ. That is disgraceful. Stand up behind a Galilean carpenter, with all these messianic claims, who, frankly, died on a cross—and the Bible says, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree’? That’s disgraceful! Why can’t I just stay with the nice religious stuff? After all, I believe in God. I believe that he knows me and cares for me. I believe enough, surely!”
Two thousand years later, what I’m saying to you is what I hear every single day: “Why would I have to identify with Jesus Christ? Why can’t I just continue to believe in God in my own way and with my own stuff?” Because God has not left that as an option. “Why do you have to get dramatic and have all those people, fully clothed, go down in that water and do all that disgraceful stuff? I’m not going to get involved in that disgrace.” Let me tell you something: until you do, you’ll never amount to anything for Jesus Christ that’s worthwhile. Until you are prepared to embrace the privilege of disgrace, you will live with the disgrace of not knowing the privilege.
Let us pray together:
O God our Father, we thank you for your Word. And we thank you that it cuts as a two- edged sword into our lives. And we pray that out of all of these words tonight, that you will speak into our lives; and as we hear the testimonies of some who are now to be baptized, that you, Lord, will call us, as these readers were called by the writer, to know the privilege of the disgrace that comes from identifying with the Lord Jesus Christ, no matter what our friends may say, what religious aristocracy may say, what the world may conclude. Let us tonight affirm again our desire to take the cross of Christ as the very shadow in which we live our lives. And thank you that what is seen is transient and what is unseen is real and lasts forever. May we embrace your loving-kindness as we’re embraced by the initiative of your grace. For we pray in Jesus’ name and for his sake. Amen.
 Hebrews 13:6 (paraphrased).
 Charles R. Swindoll, Strengthening Your Grip: Essentials in an Aimless World (Minneapolis: World Wide, 1982), 84. Paraphrased.
 Quoted in Swindoll, 84.
 2 Timothy 2:24 (KJV).
 Hebrews 11:13 (NIV 1984).
 1 Timothy 4:16 (NIV 1984).
 Colossians 1:5–6 (NIV 1984).
 2 Timothy 1:8–9 (NIV 1984)
 See 1 Corinthians 8:1–8.
 See Hebrews 10:12.
 See 1 Timothy 2:5.
 F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 379.
 Cecil F. Alexander, “There Is A Green Hill Far Away” (1847).
 Matthew 27:46 (NIV 1984). See also Mark 15:34.
 Elizabeth C. Clephane, “Beneath the Cross of Jesus” (1868).
 John Newton, “Amazing Grace” (1779).
 Galatians 6:14 (paraphrased).
 See Matthew 13:1–23; Mark 4:1‒20; Luke 8:4‒15.
 See Hebrews 11:25‒26.
 See Daniel 6.
 1 Corinthians 4:13 (NIV 1984).
 Hebrews 12:28 (NIV 1984).
 Hebrews 11:10 (KJV).
 Galatians 3:13 (NASB). See also Deuteronomy 21:23.
 See Hebrews 4:12.
 See 2 Corinthians 4:18.
Copyright © 2021, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.