Remember Those Who Are In Prison
An October 6 report from Middle Eastern Concern reads like so:
Being alerted of “suspicious activities,” police came to the house of a Christian couple on September 21, arresting both after they found Christian materials. The couple have three children. At an October 5 press conference, a Somaliland police colonel stated that two individuals had been arrested for being “apostates and evangelists spreading Christianity,” with the case to be forwarded to the relevant court. He also threatened that “whoever dares to spread Christianity in this region, should be fully aware that they won’t escape the hand of the law enforcement officers and that the spread of Christianity will not be allowed and is considered blasphemy.” He encouraged citizens to report those spreading Christianity to the police. The arrest and detention of the couple has caused great fear among the local Christian community, with many believers fleeing abroad.
Persecution takes many forms—ridicule, threats, oppression, discrimination, imprisonment, torture, death. Persecution stems from various motives—authoritarian leaders feel threatened, communities want to preserve their traditions, businesses don’t want their oppression of others exposed. Persecution has impacted the church in different ways—sometimes making the church stronger; other times causing them to scatter. Persecution is also to be expected. Jesus said, “A servant is not greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you.”
But no matter that it comes, no matter the form it takes, no matter the motives or the temporary impact—persecution cannot destroy Christ’s unshakable kingdom. That unshakable kingdom we reviewed last Sunday—he called it Mount Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. We belong to that city now. No matter what comes at the Christian—even persecution—we can take heart because Christ’s kingdom is unshakable. Christians may suffer and die in the path of obedience, but that doesn’t mean we lose. The opposite is the case. Christ’s kingdom is unshakable.
But until heaven comes on earth, enduring persecution is not easy. It’s not easy when you’re thrown in jail, and your eight and ten-year old children have to flee. It’s not easy when you’re a mother, alone in prison, wondering how your infant child is getting fed, hurting also because your baby has been forced into a Muslim family when you wanted her to grow up singing the songs of Zion.
Christians suffering persecution need help. We’re going to talk some about that today as we look at the first three verses of chapter 13. One way we’ll then apply the sermon is praying specifically for some brothers and sisters experiencing persecution right now. We will join many other churches doing the same today. Before we get there, though, let’s read verses 1-3—which is the next section in our study through Hebrews—and see how the Lord instructs us. God’s word says this:
1 Let brotherly love continue. 2 Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. 3 Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body.
You may notice the sudden, rapid-fire commands: “Let brotherly love continue. Do not neglect hospitality…Remember those in prison…” In coming weeks we’ll encounter a few more. It has a different feel from the rest of the letter. Chapters 1-12 contain long discourses on Christ being greater than the angels, greater than Adam, greater than Moses. He’s the greater High Priest. He inaugurates a greater covenant; and through that covenant we’ve come to a greater mountain, Mount Zion.
Now we get a bunch of commands. This has led some to conclude that chapter 13 amounts to an addendum—that the real ending was chapter 12, and chapter 13 must’ve been tacked on later and somewhat artificially. But that view misses the mark. The Holy Spirit guiding these apostles doesn’t add anything artificially. This letter actually looks a lot like the other letters inspired by the Holy Spirit in the New Testament—rich, robust teaching on how God saves through Jesus followed by the outworking of those truths in the specifics of our lives.
Moreover, every command grows from the gospel truths mentioned earlier in Hebrews—and we’ll try to develop a few of those connections as we go along. But more immediately, consider how he ended chapter 12: “Therefore, let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.”
Chapter 12 ends on the note of offering to God acceptable worship. Verses 1-19 of chapter 13 now give us a few examples of what that acceptable worship includes from day to day. It’s not an addendum; it’s the application. He’s telling us what our worship (or service) ought to look like 24-7. For those who belong to Mount Zion—chapter 13 tells us how to practice our heavenly citizenship on earth.
Let Brotherly Love Continue
The first thing he gives us is, “Let brotherly love continue.” Our worship doesn’t please God, if we neglect brotherly love. “Whoever loves God must also love his brother”—1 John 4:21. Now, consider a few things about this command.
For starters, it’s not spoken to Christians who haven’t loved each other at all. Remember how he commends them in 6:10? “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.” Their love for God expressed itself in serving, loving the saints; and they’re still doing it.
But he doesn’t assume that love continues automatically. We must work at it. Brotherly love is hard. It’s not convenient. It requires great emotional strain some days. People in the church aren’t always easy to love—I know that firsthand because I’m not always easy to love. According to Jesus in Matthew 24:12, our love can grow cold in the face of trials. So we must continue cultivating it. That’s also why he added in 10:24, “Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works.”
Now, the love he has in mind isn’t what our culture might call “love.” This particular love grows out of our union with Christ. Notice that it’s brotherly love. Throughout Hebrews, Jesus is the Son of all sons (Heb 1:2). But jump through the letter and all of a sudden we discover that God sent his unique Son to make us sons (and daughters) too. In 2:10, God brings many sons (and daughters) to glory through Jesus’ sufferings. Then in 2:11, Jesus is not ashamed to call us brothers, sisters. He then calls us God’s children in 2:13; and then throughout the letter that’s what he says we are.
Meaning, through our union with Christ, God brings us into his family. When you trust in Jesus, God adopts you into a new family alongside many other brothers and sisters saved by Jesus’ blood alone. Those brothers and sisters then look at the way Jesus loved them—they look at him entering our pain, identifying with our sufferings, taking initiative to rescue us, enduring great trials to see us holy in the Lord, laying down his life while we were still his enemies. We see all that familial affection that turns into sacrificial action—and it compels us to do likewise. We love, because he first loved us.
D. A. Carson puts it so well,
…the church itself is not made up of natural “friends.” It’s made up of natural enemies. What binds us together is not common education, common [ethnicity], common income levels, common politics, common nationality, common accents, common jobs, or anything of the sort. Christians come together, not because they form a natural collocation, but because they have been saved by Jesus Christ and owe him a common allegiance. In the light of this common allegiance, in light of the fact that they have all been loved by Jesus himself, they commit themselves to doing what he says—and he commands them to love one another. In this light, they are a band of natural enemies who love one another for Jesus’ sake…The reason why Christian love will stand out and bear witness to Jesus is that it is a display, for Jesus’ sake, of mutual love among social incompatibles. That is also why we must work at it, why we must beware of the erosion of love.[i]
Love erodes when we develop self-righteous attitudes about each other. Love erodes when we assume things about each other that are not true. Love erodes when we elevate personal preferences over biblical fidelity. Love erodes when we divide ourselves around skin-color, class, or other man-made social identities. Love erodes when we refuse to forgive and harbor bitterness over offenses. Beware of the erosion of love.
Persevering in brotherly love is a necessary mark of authentic Christianity.[ii] Brotherly love is a necessary mark of a healthy church. A church’s maturity isn’t measured simply by what we confess but also by how much we love. How are you working so that brotherly love continues? Brotherly love will characterize the coming kingdom. The heavenly Jerusalem is a city of love that abides forever. Would you say that the relationships in our church serve as a visible pointer to that coming city? Wherever they don’t, we’ve got work to do.
We’re not talking about some kind of weak emotionalism. It’s also not dispassionate duty. The love we learn from Jesus is different. Christian love is a genuine affection, a familial affection, for another’s ultimate good in God, such that we spend ourselves sacrificially to see them obtain that good.[iii] That’s the love we find in Christ for us. How are you growing in your affection for each other’s good in God? How are you then sacrificing to see each other obtain it?
Christ’s love is boundless. It touches every area of life for the believer and every relationship he or she has to others in the church. Once you are family—the family who will dwell forever on Zion together—you can’t help but love this way. We bind up the brokenhearted, encourage the weak, pray for the sick, refresh the missionary, feed the brother looking for a job, turn back the one going astray, serve the mom who needs a break, admonish the lazy, comfort the depressed. We’re not an event that happens on Sunday; we’re a people who gather to love each other as family throughout the week.
One way that happens is by showing hospitality; and that’s the next command we encounter in verse 2: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”[iv] The ESV adds “to strangers.” They’re basing that on the word’s etymology—the two words for “love” and “stranger” get smashed together. Hospitality conveys “love for the stranger”; and there’s something to that. But in similar verses like Romans 12:13 they simply translate it, “show hospitality.”
I bring that up to say this: if your translation includes “to strangers,” most likely it’s referring to other servants of God outside the current fellowship. Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 25:38 mentions his followers welcoming “the stranger” and feeding them and clothing them; and in context the stranger is “the least of these my brothers.” Or in 3 John 5, we find a similar use of stranger: “It is a faithful thing you do in all your efforts for these brothers, strangers as they are…”
Now, this doesn’t mean we don’t show hospitality to non-Christian people. We certainly should; and there are other places in Scripture where we find that sort of care exemplified. But the New Testament repeatedly stresses that special priority should be given to those belonging to Jesus. Galatians highlights this priority as well when it says, “As we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, especially to those who are of the household of God” (Gal 6:10). Because of our union with other brothers and sisters in Christ, we have a special family obligation not shared with the rest of the world. We have a special family obligation to serve believers through hospitality—and in and through that special obligation we become witnesses to the world.
We find hospitality emphasized throughout Scripture, but it’s especially emphasized for the church. When the Spirit creates the new community in Acts 2, when the gospel takes root in the people, what do we see them doing on a daily basis? Breaking bread together in their homes, receiving their food with glad and generous hearts. In the letters, we find it commanded. Here, Romans 12:13, which I mentioned earlier. Also 1 Peter 4:9, “Show hospitality to one another without grumbling.” In 1 Timothy 3:2 and Titus 1:8, God makes it a character qualification for pastors. Meaning, the elders must set the example so that the whole church grows in hospitality. It’s a big deal.
Table fellowship is some of the closest fellowship. It’s family fellowship. One place I love taking people to is Galatians 2. Peter, as a Jew, was eating with the Gentiles; and by eating with the Gentiles he was showing that salvation is by faith in Christ alone. Jew and Gentile alike—people from different ethnicities who were once hostile to each other—they can share in the closest fellowship because of their common union to Christ. But then, when his Jewish buddies show up, who are rather proud of their Jewishness, Peter withdraws and separates himself from the Gentiles; and Paul rebukes him for not walking in step with the gospel over how he acted at a meal.
Eating together for Jesus’ sake is a big deal. Who we’re willing to invite into our homes and serve a meal shows how well we understand the gospel of grace. By showing hospitality you become a visible expression that all our social divisions have been overcome by the unity we share in Christ. By showing hospitality, we also provide a structure for discipleship, building unity, growing relationships, learning about needs, ministering to the poor, refreshing missionaries passing through town.
Home isn’t a place to escape from others; it’s “a place to extend grace to others”—I’m indebted to Dustin Willis for pointing that out.[v] Home is a hub for ministry to each other in one of the most intimate of settings, not a place to avoid each other. Hospitality serves the mission of the church in a big way. If you want to impact the world for Christ, get off your online echo-chamber and start caring for people face to face.
Hospitality is our response to God’s hospitality. Besides his generosity in creation, we too were once cut off and strangers to his covenant. But through Christ he worked to make us guests at his table. We’re to be a hospitable people because that’s what our heavenly Father is like.
Here’s another motivation, though: “for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” We get several stories in the Old Testament of people showing hospitality to God’s messengers. They didn’t know it at first, but as the events play out, it happens that those messengers were really angels. Most famous is probably the three visitors coming to Abraham in Genesis 18. He urges them to wash their feet, take a rest, have some bread. Then he gets Sarah and both prepare these angels a rich feast.
What’s the point of verse 2? Is it, “Show hospitality to see angels”? No, they weren’t aware they were angels when they served them. The point is that by showing hospitality, you’re acting like Abraham’s children participating in the advance of God’s kingdom. Think about where else angels have appeared in Hebrews. Jesus’ name is superior to angels. Angels worship Jesus. Angels gather for a celebration on Mount Zion. But we also learn in 1:14 that angels are “ministering spirits sent out to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation.” By showing hospitality, we participate in God’s heavenly purposes to bring salvation to the nations. By showing hospitality, we engage in an activity incredibly blessed by God and which he uses to build his kingdom. By showing hospitality, we participate in the very things angels are gathering to celebrate on Mount Zion.
So, how are you practicing hospitality? Some of you are doing a great job. You’ve offered your home to other believers needing a place to stay. You have people over regularly. Even if that means messy rooms and late nights, you make the sacrifices to minister to others. Others of you have invested in preparing the mission house from month to month. This letter was written by one of the guests to commend you. It says,
Dear Redeemer Church Family,
Hospitality is…the art of making others feel welcome, comfortable, and at home. It’s the talent for spreading warmth and kindness that will be remembered always. Your hospitality was all this—and so much more. Thank you for allowing us to stay in your mission house. We are blessed. May you continue to use this gift to bless others!
That’s it! Hospitality team and others who’ve joined them—way to go! Let’s now make that happen even more. Listen, for some of you, it’s not so much that you’re avoiding people; you just want to impress people. You might have this mindset that turns opportunities for hospitality into entertainment. It’s all about performance. The house has to be worthy of Instagram before we have anybody over.
Look, a clean table and bathroom might serve your guests, but let’s not paralyze care with unrealistic expectations. [People came over to our house this week and I had a sewer machine running in the front yard. It was the best stinkin’ welcome ever!] A clean home doesn’t commend us to God; Christ does, and he’s why we’re getting together in the first place.
Maybe you’re single. Maybe you don’t have a home to invite people into yet. You can still show hospitality “by helping others create a hospitable environment…”[vi] Destin did that here by leading a team of greeters from week to week. His efforts made our Sundays more hospitable for guests. Hospitality isn’t limited to your own home. It extends to contexts outside your living spaces too. Showing hospitality is about opening your life to others and saying, “You’re welcome here. As Christ welcomed me, so I welcome you.”
Remember Those in Prison
Lastly, he adds this in verse 3: “Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body.” One way brotherly love expresses itself is hospitality; another way is remembering those in prison and remembering those who are mistreated.
This isn’t just a mental awareness of their predicament; it’s to so consider their predicament that it moves you to compassion, sympathy, and acting for their good. Like the others, this too is connected to the way Jesus acts on our behalf.
Head back to 4:15. It says, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” Jesus chose to identify with our human experience. The eternal Son took to himself a human body. He experienced hunger, fatigue, weariness. He felt the enemy try to thwart his mission. He grew up with no place to lay his head. He experienced abandonment, abuse, grief, shame, betrayal—all that in a human body and never sinned. He felt the full brunt of temptation. He knows what you feel like in your body.
He sympathizes with our weaknesses, which means he has such a compassion for us that it moves him to act on our behalf. That kind of sympathy/compassion then plays out in the church. Go now to 10:34. Some Christians are in prison for their testimony. Some other Christians aren’t in prison, but it says this of them. Verse 33 says they became partners with those who were mistreated. Verse 34, “For you had compassion [or sympathy—same word applied to Christ in 4:15] on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property.”
The point is that the Christians not in prison had such a compassion for those in prison, it moved them to act on their behalf.[vii] Just like Christ’s compassion moved him to act, our compassion moves us to act for those in prison or mistreated.
We could also turn to Philippians for another good example. The Christians in Philippi get word that Paul is in prison. They consider themselves partners with Paul in the gospel, also sharers in his sufferings and troubles. So they determine to send Paul money and other gifts, but especially a person. They commission Epaphroditus to travel and minister to Paul’s needs. And this is no small trip—on foot, it takes at least six weeks to get from Philippi to Rome. Epaphroditus risks his life to get Paul the gifts in prison; he even falls ill while traveling and nearly dies. But he finally makes it to Paul. And when Paul receives their gifts, he calls them a “fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God”—same word used for “acceptable worship” in Hebrews 12:28. Remembering those in prison is one way we worship God.
Sometimes we use the expression, “put yourself in their shoes;” and I think that fits what we’re called to here. For those in prison for Jesus’ sake, put yourself in their shoes. For those mistreated for Jesus’ sake, put yourself in their shoes. You can imagine what it’s like to be imprisoned or to be mistreated, because you have a body too. He’s not talking about being part of the church-body; he’s discussing being “in body.” You know what it’s like to feel pain and hunger and loneliness and fear that your kids aren’t going to make it. You can imagine the agony of hearing your wife’s cries from the cell down the hallway and not be able to protect her or help her when the guards treat her roughly.
This passage is saying to put yourself in their shoes. Read the stories. Get on Voice of the Martyrs, Open Doors, Middle Eastern Concern, and read the stories. Stay in touch with missionaries and ask them what’s going on. To the extent you can, identify with the mistreatment of these brothers and sisters. And then act for their sake.
Serve them in ways that you’d like to be served given a similar predicament. Where it’s possible, visit them. Talk to them and encourage them from the word. When it’s not possible to visit them, pray for them. Don’t forget them but remember them. Write them a letter—send them a care package if their prison allows it. Ministries like Voice of the Martyrs can help you do that. Look for avenues to care for the families of those in prison. If you’re too far removed, support those who can help and care for the persecuted. If you know contacts on the ground, support their ministry. Care for them when they return home for rest. There are numerous ways to remember those in prison, those mistreated, and seek to support them.
One way we will do that now is by praying together for specific brothers and sisters experiencing persecution. In one of his imprisonments, Paul asked the church in Ephesus and then also in Colossae to pray for him. When the church is persecuted in Acts 4, they gather to pray for boldness and God shakes the place. In Acts 12, the church prays while James and Peter are in prison. It’s no small thing when we pray for those in prison and for those mistreated for the gospel’s sake...
[i] D. A. Carson, Love in Hard Places (Wheaton: Crossway, 2002), 61.
[ii] Rom 12:10; 1 Thess 4:9; 1 Pet 1:22; 3:8; 2 Pet 1:7; 1 John 3:16-17; 4:7, 20.
[iii] Mark 10:45; Rom 12:10; 1 Cor 9:19-23; 10:31-11:1; 13:4-7; 1 John 3:16; 2 Cor 8:9; 12:15.
[iv] This too is part of our worship. Romans 12 likewise sets hospitality within the context of worship, becoming a living sacrifice.
[v] Dustin Willis, Life in Community (Chicago: Moody, 2015), 150.
[vi] Lindsay Swartz, “Hospitality Matters: 5 Hospitality Tips for Single Women,” CBMW (September 25, 2016), accessed at https://cbmw.org/2015/09/25/hospitality-matters-5-hospitality-tips-for-single-women/.
[vii] George Guthrie, Hebrews, NIVAC (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998), 176.