Living Up to Expectations
If you follow sports at any level, you are surely familiar with the experience of a team that has great talent and therefore great expectations. When you have a talented team, you expect them to behave a certain way: to win the big games, and to play with excellence even in the less important games. Every year we evaluate whether our team had a good year by the expectations we had for them at the beginning of the season. For many teams, the expectation is to win the championship. For the Chicago Cubs (and this year, the Bears), a great season would be one where they made the playoffs!
Just as it is with sports teams, so it is with life. The writer of Hebrews had high expectations for Christians, knowing that we are meant for great things. The only way we can live up to those expectations and achieve the great things God has planned for us is to be constantly striving to grow in faith. If we become lazy in our faith, bad things can happen, just as a talented sports team has bad things happen when they get lazy in the fundamentals.
Meant for Better Things
This was the essence of the warning we read about last week. The writer of Hebrews reminded his hearers that there are two kinds of people: genuine believers and those who are just playing the game of faith. Those who are truly followers of Christ will necessarily live differently, and those who are not will eventually be revealed by the way they live. The warning we looked at last week was pretty scary—he said that those who are merely playing the game (they might even be regular church attenders or even church leaders), but do not have real faith are actually in deep trouble. They may think they are in good shape, but the truth is that they have turned their back on the Lord and have no hope at all. They will be condemned. This is a difficult teaching, but one that is true and absolutely necessary. As he transitions into verses 9-12, however, the author strikes a different tone.
9 Dear friends, even though we are talking this way, we really don’t believe it applies to you. We are confident that you are meant for better things, things that come with salvation. (Hebrews 6:9, NLT)
We see the gentleness of his tone in the way he begins. This is the only place in the book of Hebrews where he uses the term “dear friends.” He is not speaking here to an ignorant and lazy church, but to people whom he dearly loves. His goal is not to chastise them, but to encourage them to live up to their expectations as believers.
He tells them he believes they are true followers of Christ, unlike the people he described earlier in chapter 6. He also tells them they are meant for better things, things that come with salvation. So what are these better things, and what does it mean that they come with salvation?
As Christians, we are not meant to live a mediocre life, we are not meant to merely go through the motions. We are meant to live life abundantly, and that can only come when we are truly following the Lord. What the author is saying is that when we get saved (that is, when we become a Christian), we don’t merely say a prayer and go on our merry way. That is only the first step in the journey—our lives will begin to change as we live out our faith. When we become believers, we also become citizens of the Kingdom of God. We often think that the Kingdom of God is something future, but it’s not—it starts right now. And citizenship carries with it responsibilities which we must carry out.
Now I am not saying that we are saved by faith and good works (and neither is this passage). We are saved by faith, but those who are truly saved will also do good works. The person whose life isn’t changed does not have genuine faith. This is the consistent teaching of Scripture—that we are saved by grace, through faith, but that this faith has an outward effect on how we live.
Look at what Paul said in Ephesians 2:8-10,
8 God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. 9 Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it. 10 For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago. (Ephesians 2:8-10, NLT)
He says that we are saved by grace, through faith, and that God is the one who has done all the work of our salvation. But God doesn’t stop at merely saving us from our sin, He works in us to accomplish good things through us. At Dare2Share, the conference we take High School students to each year, they remind the students that life with Jesus starts now and lasts forever. We don’t wait until we get to Heaven to start living for the Lord. God loves us too much to leave us the way we are, so if we have a genuine faith, He starts working in us to bring about better things. What kinds of things should be present in the lives of believers? Look at what Paul says in Galatians 5,
22 But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against these things! (Galatians 5:22-23, NLT)
True believers are meant to bear that kind of fruit. These traits are the kinds of better things that God means for us to have. They come as a result of salvation, and as we seek the Lord in our lives they become even more evident.
See the Long Term
The author of Hebrews understood how difficult it was for the Hebrew church. He knew they were beginning to get discouraged in serving the Lord, because it seemed like they were being persecuted at every turn. He offers more encouragement in verse 10.
10 For God is not unjust. He will not forget how hard you have worked for him and how you have shown your love to him by caring for other believers, as you still do. (Hebrews 6:10, NLT)
He encouraged the recipients to continue caring for other believers, because by doing so, they were showing love to the Lord. Jesus said the same thing in Matthew 25 (in a verse that is the basis for our monthly Mission 25:40 projects). He said that when we serve others, we are ultimately serving the Lord. The writer of Hebrews goes on to say that when we serve others (and thus serve the Lord), God will reward us for our good deeds. Don’t misunderstand what he is saying. He is not saying that our salvation is a reward for doing good deeds. We are saved because of God’s grace and the faith that we have in Jesus Christ. These rewards are in addition to the salvation we are guaranteed through Christ. What he is saying is that we should persist in doing what is right even when it seems like no one notices, because God notices and will one day reward us for our good deeds.
This is good for us to remember, because there are many times when it feels like living for the Lord doesn’t gain us much. Think about it, doesn’t it often seem like those who lie, cheat, and steal have an easier time than those who seek to be honest? Isn’t it tempting to conclude that those who live immoral and indulgent lives are having more fun than those who seek to follow God’s morality for their lives? Doesn’t it seem like those who don’t give of their income to the Lord have more money to indulge their desires? Because of this, it might be tempting to conclude that serving the Lord isn’t worth the effort—that God doesn’t reward our obedience.
This passage reminds us that a just God both punishes sin and rewards obedience. The punishment for our sin was doled out upon Jesus. God doesn’t have to punish the sins of Christians anymore, but He will reward our good deeds. Those rewards may not come right away, or even in this life, but He will reward us for doing what is right. Our challenge is to look beyond the immediate, and see the long-term.
It’s kind of like exercising or eating right. It’s tempting to indulge your sweet tooth or to forgo exercise. Some days you just don’t feel like it. But we need to continue doing these things day in and day out because we know that one day we will be rewarded for our efforts. The same is true in the Christian life—our good deeds will be rewarded, so we must persist in doing what is right, even if it doesn’t feel like it’s accomplishing much in the here and now.
How to Do It
Ultimately, the writer of Hebrews gives a final and overarching exhortation to the believers.
11 Our great desire is that you will keep on loving others as long as life lasts, in order to make certain that what you hope for will come true. 12 Then you will not become spiritually dull and indifferent. Instead, you will follow the example of those who are going to inherit God’s promises because of their faith and endurance. (Hebrews 6:11-12, NLT)
He is calling them to persevere in the course in which they had started. He tries to encourage them by telling them that he had seen the way they had shown love to other believers and he challenged them to keep doing what they were doing.
The reason he tells them to do this is because it will keep them from becoming “spiritually dull and indifferent.” This is the great danger in the Christian life, that over time we can become dull and indifferent to the things of the Lord. To put a positive angle on it, the writer is telling them to persist in serving the Lord so that they will have spiritual insight and a passion for the things of God.
Hopefully you have had times where you were very passionate for the things of God, and hopefully you have had times where you felt like you had great clarity as you read the Bible, prayed for others, or had conversations about your faith. It is amazing how quickly that passion can fade and we can begin feeling distant from the Lord.
This passage gives a simple, though not necessarily easy, prescription for maintaining that spiritual vitality. The prescription is to keep doing the hard work of obedience, day in and day out. Specifically, he tells us to continue to work at loving others, and to follow the example of those who have gone before.
First, he says we should love others. We talk all the time about the importance of loving others, but people aren’t always clear on what that means. True love focuses on truly knowing a person, caring for them, and meeting their needs. True love is difficult because it is other-focused rather than self-focused.
The best picture of what true love should be like is a marriage. No marriage is perfect, but think about how we try to express love in a marriage relationship. In marriage, you take the time to talk to each other in order to understand what is going on in the other person’s life. It’s about more than just getting information; it’s about understanding the other person. In marriage you also do things to meet the needs of the other person. You might buy them a gift to make them feel special, you might write them a note to help them know how you feel about them, or you might get them something you know they need, even though they didn’t ask for it. Most of all, in marriage you support each other—you come alongside the other person when they are weak, and you rely upon the other person when you are weak. There is a trust and commitment that is forged over time.
While marriage is probably the most significant relationship in which we strive to show true love, it should not be the only one. We are called to love other Christians in this same way. We are to work at seeing each other, moving beyond simple pleasantries and taking the time to truly understand each other. We are to look for ways that we can show other Christians how much we appreciate them and to highlight the ways in which we see God working through them. We are to keep an eye out for the needs of other Christians and seek to find ways to truly meet those needs. Here are some practical ways to do that:
- Pay attention to people’s body language. People may say that they’re doing great, but their body language says something different. Take the time to recognize when someone needs encouragement, and then give it!
- Try to keep up with important happenings in the lives of those around you and anticipate their needs. Offer to mow the lawn for someone who will be out of town or to cook a meal for someone who is recovering from surgery.
- Make an effort to see the treasure of others and let them know what you see in them. Be specific. You’d be surprised how often others don’t see those traits in themselves.
- Meet practical needs in the lives of other Christians. Help someone do repairs on their house when they can’t afford to hire someone, help someone who’s moving, offer to babysit for the couple who needs some time alone, take time to visit with the person who is lonely.
- Take time to pray for and with other believers. When others know you are praying for them it helps them remember they do not walk alone.
The challenge for us as Christians is to work to truly see those around us because if we do, it will give us opportunities to show true Christian love to them. And when we work at loving each other, it will help us keep our spiritual passion and sensitivity.
The second prescription our author gives in this passage is to follow the example of those who have gone before. We love to hear stories of other peoples’ trials and successes, because it gives us encouragement when we face similar struggles. When we see the way they have persevered, it helps us to remember that we can persevere as well.
This is what the writer of Hebrews is telling us: look at how those who have gone before you have served the Lord, and do the same thing. If we will follow their examples, we too will be able to persevere and grow in our faith.
Think about some of the stories that we read about in the Bible. Abraham trusted and obeyed God even when he didn’t understand what God was doing. He knew the Lord would keep His promises so he obeyed, believing that God would carry through. Moses trusted God even when he felt inadequate to do so. He followed God’s leading through tremendous triumphs and tremendous heartache. In everything Moses continued to serve faithfully. David trusted God through years of hardship. He was told he would be the next king of Israel, and then spent years running away from the current king, who was trying to kill him. But David continued to do what he knew was right even though it didn’t seem to get him anywhere.
There are countless examples of those who faithfully followed the Lord in the Bible, and there are even more stories of Christians through the ages. There is something we see in common in these people’s stories—they persisted in living for the Lord because they believed that what God said was true. This belief carried them through difficult times and enabled them to keep carrying on.
When we face difficult times, or when we are tempted to take shortcuts in our relationship with God, we would do well to remember the stories of the men and women who have gone before. Their lives remind us that God truly is faithful—He always keeps His promises, and He will reward obedience—even if His plan isn’t exactly what we thought it would be.
We can gain this same kind of encouragement by looking at our own lives. If you have followed the Lord for any length of time, you can surely point back to times where you are glad you trusted His leading rather than your own judgment. There are surely times you can look back to and see that God’s way really was best! God’s track record reminds us that we can trust Him completely. We need to recall the examples of how others have served, and even how God has worked in our lives to spur us on, to help us to keep serving Him in the same way.
There is a trend within the American Church today of always wanting to find a new teaching, a new angle, or a new experience. People are always looking for the new thing that will spur them to greater heights in their faith. The problem is that, for the most part, there isn’t a shortcut to growth in faith. Eugene Peterson (who put together the Message Bible) wrote a book called, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction. That is an apt description of what the Christian life is supposed to be. We grow by continuing to do what God has called us to do, day in and day out. Some days it will feel like it isn’t getting us very far, but we must remember that God will reward our obedience, and will use the hard times to shape and fashion us into the people He wants us to be.
I needed to be reminded of this myself recently. I had had one of “those” days, and I felt inadequate and ineffective. I felt as though I was working really hard to follow the Lord, but that it wasn’t accomplishing anything. I sent a note to a couple of my students who I trusted and had become friends with through the years, and each of them sought to encourage me to keep going. One comment stuck out to me, however. One student reminded me how I had once told her to keep being faithful to God even when she didn’t feel like it was doing any good. I had told her that just because she couldn’t see God working didn’t mean that He wasn’t working. She said that very morning she had seen how God was working through her to impact the people around her—and that maybe I should take my own advice! It was exactly what I needed to hear—my own words repeated back to me, with evidence that they were true!
God wants to call us deeper, because He knows what we are capable of. He loves us too much to leave us the way we are. But just like an athlete with great potential, the process of becoming stronger requires a lot of hard work along the way. You don’t become like Abraham, Moses, or David overnight—it requires a long obedience in the same direction. It requires us to work at loving each other, even when it’s hard, to continue serving the Lord in the shadows, even when nobody seems to notice, and to continue doing the elementary things of the faith, even when it feels like they aren’t fun.
We are meant for more than just a mediocre life, we are meant for greater things. God wants us to live vibrantly and boldly for Him. And if we choose obedience each and every day, we will live up to God’s expectations for us—and will exceed our own.