The Full Assurance of Hope
The goal of this letter of exhortation is not only to motivate people by the fear of apostasy, dangerous though this is, and vital though it is that we pay attention to these warnings. But more importantly, he wants his audience to come. It is not the fear of negative consequences that will get us to the end victoriously so much as the joy and confidence that comes from the full assurance of hope.
It is this “full assurance of hope” that will create people who are “not slothful, but followers of them who through faith and patience inherit the promises” (12). The fact that we must “through faith and patience” inherit the promises is just another way of saying that those who are saved will persevere. We don’t inherit the promises this side of eternity. Our inheritance (cf. Eph. 1:11) is yet to come and it is entered into through a life of faith and patience (endurance). But this also indicates that the path to the inheritance is not an easy path. It is one which involves a life of faith, believing God’s promises even when external circumstances make them look impossible (cf. Rom. 4:17-24). If you want to know what a life of faith looks like, peak ahead to chapter 11! We walk by faith, not by sight (cf. 2 Cor. 5:7), and sometimes that is hard. Now this doesn’t mean that we walk in blind faith, as if there is no basis for it. We will come to this in a moment. But that does not mean that faith is not faith – we are required to look outside of ourselves and our resources and our circumstances for the confidence that we will finally inherit God’s promises and that can undoubtedly be sometimes very difficult.
And also there is that word “patience.” It is translated “long-suffering” in Eph. 4:2, and it is used in Jam. 5:10 in the context of enduring affliction. It means that we have to take the long view as we follow Christ. In the short term we have to deny ourselves, and that this can sometimes feel unbearably long. We must be patient, however, for at the end is the inheritance.
All in all, we are exhorted to be diligent in pursuing this full assurance. It takes effort to acquire the “full assurance of hope” – it does not just happen by accident. You just won’t wake up one morning to discover you are holy. You won’t just become the kind of person who endures. If we want to be that kind of person, we must apply God’s word to our lives. We must be men and women who live by the truths that we claim to believe.
But what is this hope we are encouraged to pursue? Hope in the book of Hebrews is never something merely subjective. It is especially not to be thought of in the sense of wishful thinking. Rather, Biblical hope is the joyful and confident expectation that God will keep his promises. Hope therefore is fixed on something outside of us, not on something inside of us. This is why the author of Hebrews describes it as “the hope set before us” (18). Hope is not grounded by anything within us or about us; it is grounded in something outside us. And in this passage we have ground after ground for the hope to which we are called. God does not ask you to hope in nothing. He doesn’t ask you to rest your confidence upon a vacuum of positive thinking. Instead, what we are shown here is that the Christian has the very best reasons to be hopeful. In this text, we have the foundation and the fruit of the full assurance of hope. We will look at both of these things, but before we do so, let’s consider the setting.
The Setting of God’s promise to Abraham
In these verses, we are reminded of the reaffirmation of God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis 22 after he had shown himself willing to offer Isaac upon the altar. I find this fascinating that the oath appears for the first time here, after Abraham’s radical obedience. Abraham received God’s promise in Genesis 12 and 15, but God did not attach the oath to the promise until this point: “For when God made promise to Abraham, because he could swear by no greater, he sware by himself, saying, Surely blessing I will bless thee, and multiplying I will multiply thee. And so, after he had patiently endured, he obtained the promise” (13-15). The point of verse 15 is not that Abraham obtained the fulfillment of the promise, but that he obtained the promise itself – not indeed that God had not promised these things to him already, but that he had not given him the promise in this particular form, namely, a promise with an oath.
There is such a lesson for us here. God had given Abraham many reasons to believe that he was going to come through, including the symbolism involved in the covenant ceremony in Genesis 15, where God by walking through the pieces of the animals (which had been part of the sacrificial offering attached to that ceremony) was basically saying that he was willing to subject himself to their end if he did not hold up his end of the covenant. But the fact that God gives him an even greater reason (the oath) to believe after his remarkable example of obedience shows us that God often seals our obedience with even greater assurance. Which means that if you are struggling with assurance of God’s favor in the present, the problem is not God, but the problem may be a lack of obedience in your life.
I think this is one of the reasons why Paul will write, “And not only so, but we glory in tribulations also: knowing that tribulations worketh patience; and patience, experience; and experience, hope: and hope maketh not ashamed; because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us” (Rom. 5:3-5). You see the progression here? Tribulation produces endurance which in turn produces experience [approved character], and experience produces hope. There it is again. Hope doesn’t just turn up out of nowhere – most often it is produced by the faithful endurance of fiery trials. But the progression doesn’t stop there – the Holy Spirit blesses those who have gone through the fire and come out on the other side with new and fresh inundations of the love of God in the heart. And that is the ultimate experience of hope, when we become utterly and deeply convinced that God’s loves us. We need Christians like that; we need that ourselves, for this is the surest way to produce bold and courageous men and women for Christ. For if the history of the church has shown us anything, it has shown us over and over again that the boldest believers have always been those who are absolutely confident of Christ’s love for them.
The Foundation: Four Reasons to Hope in God’s Promises
God’s Word (13-15)
The main point of the text is that Abraham’s hope was not based on his own wishes but on God’s word, a word which came to him in the form of a promise sealed with an oath (13, 17). But this is not only true for Abraham, it is true for us as well. The point I want to make at this juncture is that our hope ought to be based on God’s word to us. It is not something we come up with. It is not based on our wishful thinking. It is based upon God’s objective and sure and steadfast word.
And this was not just a promise to Abraham: it is promise to you and me as well. Those who belong to Jesus by faith in every age are among those who are “the heirs of promise” (17): “which hope we have” (19). Which leads to the question: how can a promise which is relayed in an ancient text (in the case of Genesis, 3500 years; and in the case of Hebrews, 2000 years) give me confidence that I am actually hearing the word of God? Do we really know that we have God’s promise today in the Bible? How do we know that Moses was actually relaying factual information about God and Abraham and these promises?
To which I would remind you that we have two reasons to be confident: the witness of Christ and the witness of the Holy Spirit. We have the witness of Christ to the authority and dependability of the OT, vindicated by his miracles and ultimately by his resurrection from the dead. And we have the witness of the Holy Spirit to the authority and dependability of the OT to all who have been born again. He is a witness to this word (cf. Heb. 3:7).
And because of the witness of the Holy Spirit, this is not just a word which God spoke to Abraham thousands of years ago, but it is a word which he continues to speak for those who have ears to hear. Let us not be “dull of hearing” (5:11). Let us eagerly hear the promises which God has made to those who believe in his word.
What is the promise? It is this: “Surely blessing I will bless thee, and multiplying I will multiply thee” (14). Now strictly speaking, that was a promise to Abraham. But all who belong to Christ are heirs of this promise in the sense that they inherit the blessing which ultimately comes through Jesus Christ, the seed of Abraham. This was the apostle Paul’s point in his letter to the Galatians. He writes, “Know ye therefore that they which are of faith, the same are the children of Abraham. And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the heathen through faith, preached before the gospel unto Abraham, saying, In thee shall all the nations be blessed” (3:7-8). He then goes on to say, “Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree: that the blessing of Abraham might come on the Gentiles through Jesus Christ; that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith” (3:13-14). In other words, this is the promise of salvation from sins through Jesus Christ unto eternal life.
Surely there is no greater blessing than this. In fact, all mankind’s hopes are empty buckets compared to this.
But the first point I want to make here is that the content of our hope, if it is to be Christian, must be based on and determined by God’s word. It is to the Bible that we must look if we would have solid and lasting and true and courage-building and joy-sustaining hope. But this is not the only foundation we have for hope in this text.
God’s heart (16-17)
We noted that God’s word which creates our hope comes in the form of a promised sealed with an oath. God did not have to give the oath; his mere promise would have been sufficient. But God gave Abraham – and us – multiple places on which to rest our hope in him. In other words, the foundation for our hope is not only God’s word but also God’s heart. We see here a willingness on God’s part, his desire, for those who follow his Son to have hope. Which tells me that if you are a believer in Christ, God does not want you to go around wondering if he loves you and will keep you or not. He wants you to be secure in him.
You see this in the next couple of verses: “For men verily swear by the greater: and an oath is to them an end of all strife” (16). Why do we have to raise our hands and swear to tell the whole truth? And why do men (at least, in days past) swear by God that their word is true? The whole reason for this lies in the necessity of giving people a reason to believe that what you are about to say is in fact the truth. We attach penalties to lying under oath – we want people to understand that this is a serious thing. And why? Because we want words spoken in the context of the oath to be “an end of all strife” – “final for confirmation” (ESV). The purpose of the oath is to encourage people to speak the truth and to encourage people to believe what is spoken.
Now God does not need to be encouraged to speak the truth. He always does that; it is impossible for him to lie (18). So why append the oath? Our author tells us why: “Wherein [that is, in giving the promise] God, willing more abundantly to shew unto the heirs of promise the immutability of his counsel, confirmed it by an oath” (17). God doesn’t do it for himself; he does it for our sakes. The promise is there and the oath is there because God is more abundantly willing (not barely willing, not doing this because he has been cajoled to do so) for the heirs of promise to see how trustworthy his promise is. He doesn’t just want us to be aware of his promise, but he wants us to bank our lives on it, and he wants us to do so in a way that glorifies and honors the reliability of his word.
In other words, God’s heart is not for you to be dangling at the end of despair, barely hanging on to a thread of hope. Rather, his heart for you, believer, is to have a robust and steadying hope as you endure through faith in the promise. Beware of judging God in the wrong way: beware of thinking that he doesn’t care about you and your joy, or that he somehow gets some kind of delight over the depths of sorrow that you have had to navigate. He does not: he wants the heirs of promise to delight in the surety of their hope in his word.
But even this is not all that we are pointed to for the basis of our hope. Not only are we called to hope in God’s word, not only by God’s heart, but also by God’s faithfulness.
God’s truth (17-18)
As we’ve already noted, God’s word alone is enough. The promise guarantees that it will be performed. God never goes back on his word. However, he wants to give us many proofs of his faithfulness. He wants to give us more than one reason to believe that he will keep his word. He wants us to rest completely in his faithfulness to his promise. And so we have “the immutability of his counsel” (17) which is then confirmed by an oath, “that by two immutable things, in which it was impossible for God to lie, we might have a strong consolation, who have fled for refuge to lay hold upon the hope set before us” (18).
“Two immutable things.” How many things do you know that are unchangeable? In this world, everything is characterized by mutability. But there is one thing we can bank on remaining unchanged and that is God’s word. His word is true and remains true. “Let God be true and every man a liar” (Rom. 3:4). There is nothing that can happen which can unravel God’s plans. There is no power than can force him to take back his word. There is no wisdom that can outmaneuver God. God himself is unchanging (Mal. 3:6). Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever (13:8). There is nothing within God that will cause him to change. He will never change in his affections toward his people or in his faithfulness or in doing good to them.
God’s Son (19-20)
All of this would not be possible apart from the work of Christ. Our hope is a gospel hope. There is no hope apart from hope in Christ. This is why the apostle Paul will write that those who are “without Christ” also have “no hope” and are “without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12).
And so we actually stand in a better position than Abraham. The promise and oath pointed forward to Christ. Abraham could only look ahead and long for the coming Christ. But we can look back and see that promise fulfilled: “which hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and steadfast, and which entereth into that within the veil; whither the forerunner for us entered, even Jesus, made an high priest forever after the order of Melchisedec” (19-20). This is what Christmas tells us, isn’t it? Jesus has come in fulfillment of the promise and on the cross he purchased the blessing promised to Abraham: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ who hath blessed us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ” (Eph. 1:3). He has come and finished his work, and has entered into the inner sanctum, into the very presence of the Majesty on high, there to intercede for us and to present the eternal efficacy of his work before the Father for us.
Abraham has great reason for confidence in God’s promise to him. He obtained the promise itself; we have the fulfillment of it in the person of Christ. We have even greater reason to hope.
Why is Christ our hope? Why does Paul describe Jesus to Timothy as “our hope” (1 Tim. 1:1)? He is our hope because all the promises of God are yes and amen in him; in other words, all the promises of God for our good find their fulfillment in Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 1:20). God cannot be good to wicked and evil men and women; our sins must be atoned for. He cannot stand to be defiled by our sin; our sins must be removed and their power over us crushed. We need to be forgiven and to be justified and we need to be made holy. And we need this, not merely to assuage a guilty conscience and to free us from bondage inducing sins, but so that we might have the freedom of access into the favor and fellowship of God forever. Only Jesus Christ our Lord can make that happen. And he not only can make that happen but he has made that happen by becoming the perfect priest and the perfect propitiation. That is why our hope is in him. That is why your hope should be in him. It is why the Heidelberg Catechism opens this way:
Question 1. What is thy only comfort in life and death?
Answer. That I with body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own, but belong unto my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ, who, with his precious blood, hath fully satisfied for all my sins, and delivered me from all the power of the devil; and so preserves me that without the will of my heavenly Father, not a hair can fall from my head; yea, that all things must be subservient to my salvation: and therefore, by his Holy Spirit, he also assures me of eternal life, and makes me sincerely willing and ready henceforth to live unto him.
Now what can of fruit does this kind of hope produce? Well, the point of Hebrews 6 is that we need to navigate the dangers of apostacy and apathy and spiritual dullness. How do we do that so that we through faith and patience inherit the promises? What kind of people do we need to be? What kind of fruit of hope produces the kind of person that perseveres? Let me put it to you in two words: solace and stability.
The Fruit of our hope
Solace. “That we might have strong consolation, who have fled for refuge to lay hold upon the hope set before us” (18). Not just consolation but strong consolation! Not just assurance but full assurance! If we really believe that God has promised eternal salvation in Christ, and that all who believe on him are heirs of the promise, not because of anything good in them but because of the sheer mercy and grace of God in Jesus, then we don’t just need to be getting by. If we know that God will surely keep his word and keep his people, then we don’t need to be living in fear of men or devils.
There is this great picture here in the text. It is the picture of someone fleeing to one of the cities of refuge. Do you remember what he is talking about? Under the Law of Moses, there were six cities total that were cities of refuge: three on one side of the Jordan and three on the other side. They were spaced out so that you could get to at least one of them in a day’s journey. They were for those who killed someone unintentionally – the example given in Exodus is two men chopping wood and the axe head accidentally flies off the handle of one of the axes and kills the other man. Such people were allowed to flee to a city of refuge and remain there; as long as they remained there, the “avenger of blood” was not allowed to take their life. They were safe as long as they stayed there.
In the same way the Christian is one who has fled for refuge. And even though it is true that “here we have no continuing city, but we seek one to come” (Heb. 13:14), and that in the strictest sense the believer is still “looking for and hasting unto the coming of the day of God” (2 Pet. 3:12), and so in that sense we are still fleeing for refuge, yet in another sense, we have already obtained it, and I think that is the sense of the text here in Hebrews 6. Our refuge is in the hope that we have in Christ. Having laid hold of that, we have found refuge. We are like that manslayer who would have had to live in perpetual fear outside the walls of the city of refuge. But having found his place in it, he finds solace and comfort and peace and joy. That is what we find when we repose ourselves and our hopes in the Son of God, Jesus Christ.
And even though this hope is not in this world (for it “entereth into that within the veil” – a reference to the Holy of holies which was an earthly representation of God’s heavenly abode), yet this hope securely links us to that heavenly abode. And why? Because Jesus has gone before us and for us – he is the “forerunner” who has gone to prepare a place for us and to take us to himself (Jn. 14:1-3).
Our solace lies in the fact that our eternal future is not only secure, but that it is supremely satisfying. And in the fact that between here and there, between now and then, God is working all things for our good and his glory. God is for us; who can be against us? What greater solace could there be in that? He is our only hope in life and death – not our circumstances, not our accomplishments, not our earthly comforts and pleasures, not other people – but Christ, and Christ alone.
We need this because a person who is characterized by such consolation and peace will be exactly the kind of person who perseveres when he is surrounded by the threatening clouds of trials and tribulation which so often pressure us to jettison our faith and hope in Christ for something else.
Stability. Our hope in Christ not only gives us solace but stability. It gives us moral courage, and firmness when everything around us is giving way to fear and unbelief and sin. For this hope is “as an anchor of the soul, both sure and steadfast, and which entereth into that within the veil” (19). We don’t fix our hopes to changing things, which is what inevitably happens when you put your hopes in this world or in any aspect of this world. Rather, our hope is in Christ who changes not. Our hope is in heaven which is “an inheritance incorruptible, and undefiled, and that fadeth not away, reserved in heaven for you” (1 Pet. 1:4). No matter what changes here, no matter how many of our plans are thwarted, no matter how many times we are disappointed by the people around us, God remains the same for us.
And because of the stability that our hope in Christ brings, let us endure. This is the argument in Hebrews 12: “And this word, Yet once more, signifieth the removing of those things that are shaken, as of things that are made, that those things which cannot be shaken may remain. Wherefore we receiving a kingdom which cannot be moved, let us have grace, whereby we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear: for our God is a consuming fire” (27-29).
It is exactly why Martin Luther prevailed through all the obstacles to his faithfulness. As he put it in his hymn,
“Let goods and kindred go this mortal life also”
– why would you do that? Well, here is the reason:
“The body they may kill God’s truth abideth still his kingdom is forever.”
May the Lord make us more and more this kind of person: a person whose hope is an anchor for the soul, a hope which is grounded in the sure realities of God’s word, God’s heart, God’s truth, and God’s Son. And may it produce in us that solace and stability so that we become the kind of person who through faith and patience inherits the great and wonderful promises of God.