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“Soul Anchor”

Hebrews 6:13-20
Bob DeGray
January 6, 2002

Key Sentence

A hope anchored to God’s unchanging purpose cannot come loose.


I. God’s Steadfast Purpose (Hebrews 6:13-17)
II. Our Steadfast Hope (Hebrews 6:18-20)


        Before I met Gail, I’d never sailed a boat in my life. Since I’ve known her, however, I’ve had several exciting sailing experiences. One of them came fairly early, as Gail taught me to sail the same way her father taught her: she put me in the boat and pushed me off. After a lot of coaching I finally got the pointy part going forward - which was not near as easy as it sounds. Later I had the pleasant experience of turning that same boat upside down. I zigged when I should have zagged and I caught the wind wrong. Fortunately it’s a small boat, and I wasn’t far from a dock. But I was reminded that the unexpected is always about to happen on a boat.

        I’ve also enjoyed the sailing experiences we’ve had on the bigger boat Gail’s parents own in the Carribean. I’ve never really done the sailing, but even living on a boat can have its exciting moments. I remember a day when we anchored near an island in a nice but not completely protected harbor. We knew the wind would be coming up that night, and probably blowing on-shore, so we carefully set anchors fore and aft to keep the boat from drifting in to the beach or the rocks. But none of us - including Gail’s dad - was comfortable with the anchors we had set. We didn’t know what the seabed was like underneath us, whether there was mud or sand, whether it was stable. We lay in our bunks that night listening anxiously for any change in the wind driven creakings and clankings of a boat at anchor. And from time to time one of us would meet another of us on deck, trying to see if we were dragging the anchors. Fortunately my imaginations of an unexpected swim were unfounded. But it was disconcerting to wonder whether your anchor would hold.

        The author of Hebrews may have had a similar experience at one time, because he uses exactly this image to describe our hope as Christians. He says that we have an anchor lodged steadfastly, immovably in the promise of God and the work of Christ. He shows us that a hope anchored to God’s unchanging purpose cannot come loose. God has sworn that his purpose of blessing us will never change. Our hope is firmly grounded in this promise. We have it as an anchor for our souls.

I. God’s Steadfast Purpose (Hebrews 6:13-17)

        The first verses of our text focus on God’s steadfast purpose. Hebrews 6:13-17: When God made his promise to Abraham, since there was no one greater for him to swear by, he swore by himself, 14saying, "I will surely bless you and give you many descendants." 15And so after waiting patiently, Abraham received what was promised. 16Men swear by someone greater than themselves, and the oath confirms what is said and puts an end to all argument. 17Because God wanted to make the unchanging nature of his purpose very clear to the heirs of what was promised, he confirmed it with an oath.

        These verses are connected to the previous section by the concepts of hope and promise. The writer has already said that he wants his readers to be diligent so that they will be completely sure of what they hope for, that he wants them to imitate those who show faith and patience while they wait for what has been promised. Now he will make clear how the steadfastness of the promise anchors the hope.

        Where does the writer look for assurance? Back to Abraham, probably because so many promises fulfilled in Christ originated in God’s covenant with Abraham. The promises are recorded many times in Genesis, but once God gave the promise and then swore on oath that it would be fulfilled. It’s Genesis 22, right after Abraham obeyed God by his willingness to sacrifice Isaac. Genesis 22:15 “I swear by myself, declares the Lord, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.”

        From these verses, our text focuses on the fact that God took an oath with himself as the object. In fact the writer says that there was no one greater in whose name he could guarantee this oath, so he swore by Himself. And what was his oath? “I will surely bless you and give you many descendants.” God’s oath is his assurance that the outcome for Abraham, and his offspring will be blessing: literally “blessing, I will bless you.”

        One key point we need to take from this is that God’s ultimate plan and promise is for good for his people. It’s easy for us to forget that God is working for good. In fact our lives and the lives of those around us and events in the world and the tragedies we witness daily on TV can easily persuade us that nothing is good and that nothing good is happening. We need someone to come along and swear with an oath “I promise you good”, just as the readers of this letter needed it, and as Abraham needed it. That’s what God does - for you and for me - he promises us good.

        Recognize that this oath didn’t make the promise any more or less sure from God’s side, but it provided reassurance for Abraham to hear God say it. Abraham had waited fifty, sixty, seventy years for God to give him a son through whom the promises could be fulfilled. He waited in faith - way back in Genesis 13 it says that Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness. He waited patiently - at least that’s what this writer tells us. And eventually he obtained the promise: Isaac was the child of promise. Then came this test: Isaac on the altar. Abraham’s faith and patience were rewarded when Isaac was given back to him as if from death. The oath itself was almost a reward, an even more emphatic re-statement of the promises in light of this new obedience.

        When we look for someplace to anchor our hope, we do well to start here - that God has sworn by himself to bless. In verses 16 and 17 the writer proceeds to compare human and divine oaths and to point out how much greater an oath from God is than an oath from men: “Men swear by someone greater than themselves, and the oath confirms what is said and puts an end to all argument. 17Because God wanted to make the unchanging nature of his purpose very clear to the heirs of what was promised, he confirmed it with an oath.”

        The reason human oaths are used to end arguments is because human speech is unreliable. It’s because of sin - that people are naturally liars. But in any culture where people generally fear God or authority or both, swearing by a greater thing helped to assure truth. This was especially true in Hebrew culture where lying while making an oath was considered a violation of the third commandment against misusing the name of God. Human oaths were an assurance of carrying out one’s word.

        So when God wanted to make the unchanging nature of his purpose clear, not just to Abraham, but to all the heirs of the promise, he choose to swear by an oath. In fact the unusual Greek word translated ‘wanted’ indicates a strong, passionate desire, not just a passing fancy. He wanted to communicate so strongly and he wanted to be so clear that he chose to use this human tool - the oath - to cement in human minds his commitment to his purpose - from generation to generation.

        This means that God’s purpose to bless is just as steadfast toward us as it was toward Abraham and his physical descendants. In fact we are Abraham’s descendants, though most of us not by physical lineage. But all of us who have believed are his descendants by spiritual lineage. Paul makes this clear in Galatians 3. “Consider Abraham: He believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness. Understand, then, that those who believe are children of Abraham. The Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: "All nations will be blessed through you." So those who have faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.” God’s purpose is to bless us, the Gentiles, when we believe. By faith we are children of Abraham, and therefore God’s oath and all his promises are steadfast toward us. We can count on a God who means what he says. We can count on a God who couldn’t find anything greater than his own name and his own character to swear by.

        One of the Jewish writers of the Talmud said it this way: “Lord of the world, if you had sworn by heaven or by Earth, I would have been able to say: as heaven and earth shall pass away so also your oath shall pass away. But now that you have sworn by your great Name, as your great Name lives and abides eternally, so shall your oath continue secure in all eternity.” We have God’s steadfast, unmoveable promise, confirmed by his matchless oath that his purpose to bless us will not fail.

II. Our Steadfast Hope (Hebrews 6:18-20)

        Verses 18 to 20 are the highlight of the section because they connect this steadfast promise to our steadfast hope. 18God did this so that, by two unchangeable things in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled to take hold of the hope offered to us may be greatly encouraged. 19We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure. It enters the inner sanctuary behind the curtain, 20where Jesus, who went before us, has entered on our behalf. He has become a high priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.

        What are the unchangeable things in which it is impossible for God to lie? R. Kent Hughes, with many others, points to his word of promise and his oath. Hughes says “His promise to Abraham, and to us, can do nothing other then come true because God’s word is truth, John 17:17, and because God does not lie, Titus 1:2. He is the author of truth, the essence of truth. His oath, though unnecessary, is the double assurance. Truth has sworn by itself that its truth shall truly be fulfilled. There is no more possibility of God’s promises failing us than of God falling out of heaven! His word is eternally sealed with the double surety of promise and oath.”

        The objects of this double promise, the ones who benefit from it are those who have ‘taken refuge’ or ‘fled for refuge’. This not only makes the section relevant to the readers, but also includes the writer, and us, if we have fled for refuge to the God of the promises. The relatively rare Greek word used here was associated with fugitives from war or disaster, refugees seeking safety and protection from the perils that confronted them. In recent generations we have seen thousands of images of millions of refugees, beginning in Europe after World War II and continuing all the way down to Kosovo and Afghanistan. Most of these refugees have had no clear idea where they were going or certainty of comfort when they arrived there. But as Christians, though we are fugitives from the dangers of sin, the tragedies and perils of a fallen world, we flee for refuge to one whose promises of blessing are sure.

        Because of these promises, the author says, we who have fled to take hold of this hope should be strongly encouraged. The Greek is interesting in that it has more than just an amplified form of the word encourage, which is what you’d expect. Instead it has the actual word for brute muscular strength, so that it gives the impression of being strengthened in encouragement - taking encouragement vitamims.

        So what does it mean for us to be strongly encouraged? Think about it this way: what do you feel like when you are strongly discouraged? I’ve been a bit discouraged this week. I’m always a little down after the holidays because I try to pour so much into them that it leaves me empty. And I have to jump right in to be ready for Sunday and the next Sunday and the next Sunday. But as this week has gone on, and we’ve had some cool weather, and I’ve studied this passage, I’ve been more encouraged.

        Discouragement, for me, is this pervasive feeling that I don’t want to - don’t want to do anything that I ought to be doing or even like to do. Encouragement is the opposite - it is energy and motivation not only to do what I should, but to do what I enjoy. But this encouragement is specifically a reminder to look positively at the hope of my faith: to hold on to that hope more tightly - to constantly remember and believe that God’s purpose for me, the heir of Abraham’s promise, is to bless. His goal for me is blessing. Do I believe that? Do you? If we do, we have tremendous hope even if today is not very hopeful. We have hope for the future, hope for eternal life, hope for an eternal, intimate relationship with God that begins now. We who have fled from the discouragement of sin and of life in a fallen world should be greatly encouraged - made strong in encouragement - because of God’s steadfast purpose.

        What will it be like if we firmly hold on to this hope? It will be, the author says, an anchor for the soul. A soul anchor. This is a key thought in Hebrews - so much so that Michael Card, in writing songs from Hebrews, made this the title song of his album. Card says “Several years before the cross became a popular Christian symbol, it was the sign of the anchor that the first century Christians scratched on the walls of the catacombs. This symbol had come to be regarded as a sign of hope; that somewhere something could be trusted in the middle of the storms that characterized their lives. The writer of Hebrews knew that there was only one hope for the congregation to which he wrote, a fellowship which was about to experience a storm of their own. Those nameless believers 20 centuries ago who huddled amid the corpses in the catacombs, who carved the sign of the anchor into the soft stone walls by the flickering light of candles, seemed to know what we must remember, there is only one anchor for our souls; our hope in Christ Jesus.”

        In the same way R. Kent Hughes has called his commentary on Hebrews “An Anchor for the Soul”. He says “An anchor was everything to those at sea. A firm anchorage meant security. While anchored, the winds could blow, but the ship would not be awash or headed for the rocks. For this reason the famous catacomb of Priscilla is decorated with more than 60 anchors.” I’ve wondered if the popularity of the symbol was a result of this letter, which was known in Rome from an early date.

        An anchor for the soul: hope as an anchor for the soul. Isn’t that what you really want? The last thing any of us want is to have our soul be adrift in a storm, headed for some unknown shore that may or may not be covered with rocks. Unfortunately, there are many kinds of things that can do that to you. Relationship difficulties can set your soul adrift quicker than almost anything. If you are in anguish over a relationship with a spouse, with a child, with a friend, with a parent, you know it’s painfully hard on the soul. Even if relationships are solid, going through difficulties like illness, the loss of a loved one, the loss of a job, or the consequences of someone’s sinful behavior - all these have the potential to set your soul adrift.

        Doubt has that potential - struggling with whether this whole God thing is real and the promises true. Fatigue has that potential, dulling you to the hope you want to cling to, and making your whole world go grey. Sin has the same potential, turning your eyes and your hands away from the hope you’re supposed to cling to, the blessing God promises, instead reaching out for what he has clearly said is wrong. All these things can make you feel adrift.

        Where do we turn in times like this? We have to turn back and focus on the fact that we have an anchor for our souls. New American Standard says “This hope we have as an anchor of the soul, is a hope both sure and steadfast and one which enters within the veil.” This is a sudden and dramatic shift of images: just as you have gotten the picture of an anchor in your mind, you find that this anchor is grounded not in the sea bed, but ‘within the veil.’ It has taken hold someplace behind the veil, behind the inner curtain of the sanctuary, behind the cloth wall that separated the Most Holy place of God’s presence from contact with sinful men and a sinful world. It is there, in the presence of God that our anchor is set. In fact, the image is almost entirely transformed, so that now this anchor rope has become a lifeline which is carried into the presence of God and secured to the very throne of God, held in the very hand of God, sure and steadfast, firm and secure.

        And who is the one who carries that lifeline behind the curtain? It’s Jesus. Verse 20: “Where Jesus, who went before us, has entered on our behalf. He has become a high priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.” The idea that Jesus has gone behind the curtain is highly suggestive. Only the high priest could go behind the curtain and even then only once a year. Our high priest is there forever, ‘behind the curtain’, constantly in the direct presence of God. The connection between Christian hope and our exalted high priest is one of the major themes in this letter. Hope is based on the finished and yet continuing work of Jesus as our high priest.

        Jesus is described here as our forerunner, one who goes before us, a Greek word which occurs only here in the New Testament, a military term used of the scouts who went out in advance of an army. A forerunner, therefore, presupposes that others will follow. Remember that the veil of the Temple was split from top to bottom when Jesus was crucified. He has opened a way for us to follow. In fact, our forerunner left this message for us: “In my father’s house there are many rooms. . . . I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go to prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.” There is no doubt that we can and will follow - behind the veil, into the presence of God.

        Finally, it is a great encouragement to realize that all of this that Jesus has done, he has done ‘on our behalf’, a phrase that reminds of his sacrificial work. He has become high priest, not for the glory involved, but so that he might offer the perfect sacrifice of himself for his people.

        He has gone before us into death so that we might be spared death’s ultimate penalty, and he has gone before us into resurrection so that we might have assurance of eternal life through this living and eternal high priest. He has given himself as a sacrifice so that our anchor line might be secured firmly in heaven, so that we will not drift away, but find a sure and steady hope. He himself has become our soul anchor.

        R. Kent Hughes says: “if we are true followers of Christ, our boats will always be facing heavy seas and contrary winds. The disciples found this out when they obeyed Jesus and launched out into the night for the other side of Galillee. The reason that they encountered stormy waters was they were doing what he said.” There will be stormy seas, but Jesus died on our behalf to give us an anchor in heaven, an anchor of hope which speaks to our hearts when our souls threaten to go adrift.

         An old song puts it this way: “I can feel the anchor fast, as I meet each sudden blast, and the cable, though unseen, bears the heavenly strain between; through the storm I safely ride, till the turning of the tide. And it holds, my anchor holds. Blow your wildest, then, O gale, on my boat so small and frail; by his grace I shall not fail, for my anchor holds, my anchor holds.” Hold on to your hope in Jesus. It’s an anchor for the soul.