In the excerpt below from his Commentary on Hebrews in the Biblical Theology for Christian Proclamation commentary series, Tom Schreiner discusses the biblical and theological theme of “sojourners and exiles” and its relationship to the warnings and exhortations throughout the book of Hebrews.
The warnings given to the readers fit with their status as sojourners and exiles. In that sense the readers are like the Israelites who were in the wilderness before finding rest in the land of Canaan (3:12–4:13). The readers are on a journey to enter their heavenly rest, but they face perils on the way, just as Israel did on the way to the land of promise. The readers are warned not to harden their hearts and rebel against God. Israel gave way to unbelief and disobedience, and the readers must not follow their example. Unbelief and disobedience threaten because the wilderness period is exasperating, exhausting, and trying. Believers long to be in the heavenly city and to enjoy their heavenly rest, but instead they encounter the pressures and opposition of life in the world.
Their experience as “foreigners and temporary residents” (11:13) is also comparable to the patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. These men also received promises that were not realized during their lifetimes, but they persevered knowing that a homeland, a city awaited them (11:10, 13–16; 12:22; 13:14). But life in the wilderness, life as exiles, is frustrating and can be dispiriting. Chapter 11 was written so the readers would keep trusting in God and would put their hope in him until the promises were realized. The readers should understand that life as exiles is not unique to them. The saints who preceded them also lived without seeing the final fulfillment of the promise. As exiles they must put their trust in God’s promises for a happy future, believing that he will bring to pass what he has pledged.
A specific window into life in the wilderness is provided in 10:32–34. The readers experienced all kinds of sufferings: verbal abuse and discrimination, the plundering of their possessions and economic deprivation. Perhaps they wanted to come under the umbrella of Judaism since it was a legal religion in the Roman Empire. Then they would be free from the constant attacks that plagued them. The author encourages them to endure in faith. Life as exiles, life in the wilderness, is like growing up as children in a family (12:4–13). God is using their time in the wilderness to educate and train them.
The author uses here metaphors from education and physical training. They are in God’s school and are being trained like athletes. God’s purpose and design are for their holiness so they will be mature Christians. As parents discipline their children, so they will live productive and fruitful lives, so God is using the time in exile to form the character of his children.
God knows they are in the wilderness, and Jesus himself has experienced the sorrow and anguish of human life (2:17–18; 4:14–16; 5:7–8). The warnings and encouragements in the letter are intended to bring them to their heavenly rest, to the city to come. The days of exile and wandering will soon be over, and thus the readers must follow the example of Jesus and the saints who preceded them, trusting and obeying God until the end.
Furthermore, they have access to God’s presence through the atoning work of Jesus. They can enter God’s presence with confidence and joy, knowing that he will grant strength and grace for every trial (4:14–16). They shouldn’t shrink back from God in fear but come with boldness since Jesus is their great high priest who has cleansed all their sins (10:19–22).
About the Author:
Thomas R. Schreiner is the James Buchanan Harrison Professor of New Testament Interpretation, Professor of Biblical Theology and Associate Dean of the School of Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky.
See our interview with Tom Schreiner about the Hebrews commentary here.