An Exposition of Hebrews
by A. W. Pink
The Apostle’s Prayer
(Hebrews 13:20, 21)
"Now the God of peace, that brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, through the blood of the everlasting covenant; make you perfect in every good work to do His will: working in you that which is well pleasing in His sight, through Jesus Christ." Though this be in the form of a prayer yet it presents a succinct summary of the entire doctrine of the epistle. The "blood of the everlasting covenant" stands over against "the blood of bulls and of goats," that "great Shepherd of the sheep," risen from the dead, is in contrast from Moses, Joshua, David, etc., who had long ago died; while "the God of peace" presents a striking antithesis to Jehovah’s descent upon Sinai "in fire." Let us briefly consider these three things again, but this time in their inverse order.
"Through the blood of the everlasting covenant." We consider that this clause has a threefold force, that it is connected—both grammatically and doctrinally—with each of the preceding clauses. First, it is through the blood which He shed for sinners that Christ became the great Shepherd of the sheep—He was so previously by ordination, but He became so actually by impetration—the sheep were now His purchased property. Second, it was through or because of the atoning blood that God delivered Christ from the grave, for having fully satisfied Divine justice He was fully entitled to deliverance from prison. Third, it was through or by virtue of the pacifying blood of Christ that God henceforth became "the God of peace" unto His people, the whole controversy which their sins raised having been satisfactorily settled. And Christ shed His precious blood in fulfillment of the stipulations of the Everlasting Covenant, or that agreement which He entered into with the Father before the foundation of the world.
"That brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep." "The Father is frequently said to raise Christ from the dead because of His sovereign authority in the disposal of the whole work of redemption, which is every where ascribed unto Him. Christ is said to raise Himself or take His life again when He was dead, because of the immediate efficiency of His Divine person therein. But more is intended here than an act of Divine power, whereby the human nature of Christ was quickened. The word used is peculiar, signifying a recovery out of a certain state: a moral act of authority is intended. Christ as the great Shepherd of the sheep was brought into the state of death by the sentence of the Law, and was therefrom restored by the God of peace, to evidence that peace was now perfectly made. The bare resurrection of Christ would not have saved us, for so any other man may be raised by the power of God; but the bringing of Christ from the dead through the blood of the everlasting covenant is that which gives assurance of the complete redemption of the Church (condensed from Owen).
"The God of peace." He is such first, because He takes this title from the Covenant itself (Isa. 54:10). He is so second, because as the supreme Judge He is pacified, and that because His law has received perfect satisfaction from our Surety. He is so third, because He is, in consequence, reconciled to us. Having accepted the person, obedience, and soul-travail of Christ, God is at peace with all His people in Him. Because He is at peace with them, He freely pardons all their iniquities and bestows every needed blessing upon them. When God removes from us all penalties and evils, and gives unto us all the privileges and good of the justified (such as the Holy Spirit to break the power and reign of sin in us) it is as the "God of peace" He does so; yea, as the supreme Judge, acting according to the principles of His government constituted in the everlasting covenant, by virtue of the merits of Christ and of our interest in Him.
God is also called "the God of peace" because He is the Author of that tranquility which is felt at times in the hearts and consciences of His people, as He is also the Lover of that concord which obtains in measure among them upon earth. Owen suggests a further reason why the apostle uses this Divine title here. "He might have also herein an especial respect to the present state of the Hebrews, for it is evident that they had been tossed, perplexed, and disquieted with various doctrines and pleas about the law, and the observance of its institutions. Wherefore, having performed his part and duty in the communication of the truth to them for the information of their judgments, he now in the close of the whole applies himself by prayer to the God of peace: that He, who alone is the Author of it, who creates it where He pleaseth, would, through his instruction, give rest and peace to their minds" (John Owen).
So completely is God appeased that there is a new covenant procured and constituted, namely, the Christian Covenant, called here "the everlasting covenant." First, because it shall never be repealed and continueth unalterable, the called obtaining by it the title and possession of an eternal inheritance (Heb. 9:15). Second, because Christ’s atoning blood is the foundation of this covenant, and as the virtue of it never ceaseth, therefore is it made effectual to secure its end, namely, the eternal salvation of sinful men who are converted and reconciled to God. This new covenant is also designated "the Covenant of Peace:" "I will make a covenant of peace with them" (Ezek. 37:26). First, because in the same this peace and reconciliation is published, and offered to us: "The word which God sent unto the children of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ" (Acts 10:36 and cf. Ephesians 2:17), because in this covenant the terms of this peace between us and God are stated: God binding Himself to give to sinful men forgiveness of sins and eternal life upon the conditions of repentance, faith, and new obedience.
A most important practical question is, How do we come to be interested in this Divine peace and reconciliation? A threefold answer may be returned: by ordination, impetration, and application. First, by the Father’s eternal decree or foreordination, for as to who should enter into the same has not been left to chance; hence, God’s elect are termed "the sons of peace" (Luke 10:6). Second, by the Son’s impetration or paying the purchase price: "having made peace through the blood of His cross, by Him to reconcile all things unto Himself" (Col. 1:20). Third, by the Spirit’s application, who subdues our enmity, bends our stubborn wills, softens our hard hearts, overcomes our self-righteousness, and brings us into the dust before God as self-condemned criminals suing for mercy. It is at our conversions this Divine peace is actually conveyed to us, for it is only then that God’s wrath is removed from us (John 3:36) and that we are restored to His favor. Further grace is given us day by day as those already reconciled to God.
A final reason may now be advanced why God is here addressed as "the God of peace," and that is, to afford us valuable instruction in connection with prayer. It is very striking to note that in more than half of the passages where this particular Divine title occurs, it is where He is being supplicated—the reader may verify this for himself by consulting Romans 15:33 and 16:20, 2 Corinthians 13:11, Philippians 4:9, 1 Thessalonians 5:23, 2 Thessalonians 3:16, and here. Thus, it is employed for the purpose of encouraging us in our addresses at the Throne of Grace. Nothing will impart more confidence and enlarge our hearts more than the realization God has laid aside His wrath, and has only thoughts of grace toward us. Nothing will inspire more liberty of spirit than to look upon God as reconciled to us by Jesus Christ: "Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ: by whom also we have access by faith into this grace wherein we stand" (Rom. 5:1, 2).
"Make you perfect in every good work to do His will, working in you that which is well-pleasing in His sight, through Jesus Christ." Before taking up the coherency of this sentence let us point out the great practical lesson it contains. No matter how diligent the minister has been in his pulpit preparations, nor how faithfully he has delivered his message, his duty is by no means then fully discharged: he needs to retire to the closet and beg God to apply the sermon to those who heard it, to write it on their hearts, to make it effectual unto their lasting good. This is what the great apostle did. In the body of this epistle he had exhorted the Hebrews unto many good works, and now he prays that God will enable them thereto. The same thing holds good for those in the pew. It is not enough to listen reverently and carefully, we must also entreat God to bless unto us what we have heard. It is failure at this point which makes so much hearing unprofitable.
Though the apostle’s prayer be brief, it is a most comprehensive one. It makes known the method by which Divine grace is administered to us. The grand fountain of it is God Himself, as He is the God of peace: that is, as in the eternal counsel of His will, He designed grace and peace unto poor sinners, agreeably to His goodness, wisdom, justice and holiness. The channel through which Divine grace is communicated, and that in a way suitable in His death and resurrection. God would have us know that while He is Himself the Giver, yet it is our Surety who merited for us every spiritual blessing we enjoy. The nature of this Divine grace relates particularly to our sanctification or perfecting, and this is expressed under the two heads of this prayer, namely, the grand end to be ever kept in view, and the means whereby that end is attained.
Having dwelt at some length upon the solemn manner in which the apostle addressed the Throne of Grace, we now turn to contemplate the import of his prayer, observing the two things here asked for the Hebrews. The first was that God would "make them perfect in every good work to do His will." This will require us to enquire into the meaning of this petition, to ponder its extensiveness, and then to mark its implications. Different writers have given various definitions to the "make you perfect," though they all amount to much the same thing. Thos. Scott gives "rectifying every disorder of their souls and completely fitting them for every part of His holy service." Matthew Henry enters into more detail: "A perfection of integrity, a clear mind, a clean heart, lively affections, regular and renewed wills, and suitable strength for every good work to which they are called."
Owen rendered it "make you meet, fit and able." And adds "It is not an absolute perfection that is intended, nor do the words signify any such thing, but it is to bring the faculties of the mind into that order so as to dispose, prepare, and enable them, so that they may work accordingly." The Greek word for "make you perfect" is rendered "fitted" in Romans 9:22, "framed" in Hebrews 11:3, and "prepared" in Hebrews 10:5, where the product of Divine workmanship is seen in each instance. In the case before us it is the gracious operations of the Holy Spirit in connection with the progressive sanctification of the believer. Personally, we regard the definition of Scott (given above) as the best: the most accurate and elucidating.
The work of Divine grace in the elect begins when they are born again by the quickening operations of the Holy Spirit, and this work of grace is continued throughout the whole of their remaining days upon earth. Perfection of grace is not attained in this life (Phil. 3:12, 13), yet additions to our present attainments in grace are to be diligently sought (2 Pet. 1:5-7). No matter what spiritual progress has, by grace, been made, we are never to rest satisfied with it: we still need to be further strengthened for duties and fortified for trials. A child grows until it becomes fit for all manly actions, yet further progress is attainable after the state of manhood is reached. So it is spiritually. God requires from us the mortification of every lust, and an universal and impartial obedience from us, and therefore we may perceive how perfectly suited is this prayer to our needs.
Next, we turn to consider the extensiveness of this petition: "Make you perfect in every good work." This comprehensive expression includes, as Gouge pointed out, all the fruits of holiness Godwards and of righteousness manwards. There is to be no reservation. God requires us to love Him with "all our hearts," that we be sanctified in our "whole spirit, and soul, and body," and that we "grow up into Christ in all things." Many will do some good, but are defective in other things—usually in those which are most necessary. They single out those duties which make the least demand upon them, which require the least denying of self. But we shall never enjoy sound peace of heart till we are conformed unto all the revealed will of God: "Then shall I not be ashamed, when I have respect unto all Thy commandments" (Ps. 119:6). Then pray daily to be Divinely fitted unto every good work, especially those which you will find the hardest and most exacting.
"To do His will." Here we have a Scriptural definition of what is a "good work:" it is the performing of God’s preceptive will. There are many things done by professing Christians which, though admired by themselves and applauded by their fellows, are not regarded as "good works" by the One with whom we have to do; yea, "that which is highly esteemed among men is abomination in the sight of God" (Luke 16:15). Of old the Jews added their own traditions to the Divine commandments, instituting fasts and feasts, so that the Lord asked "who hath required this at your hand?" (Isa. 1:12). We see the same principle at work today among the deluded Romanists, with their bodily austerities, idolatrous devotions, arduous pilgrimages, and impoverishing payments. Nor are many Protestants free from self-appointed deprivations and superstitious exercises. It is not the heeding of religious impulses, nor conforming to ecclesiastical customs, but doing the will of God which is required of us.
The rule of our duty is the revealed will of God. The "works" of man are his operations as a rational creature, and if his actions are conformed to God’s Law, they are good; if they are not, they are evil. Therefore a man cannot be a good Christian without doing God’s will. If it be God’s will that he should refrain from such an act or practice, he dare not proceed to do it: see Jerermiah 35:6, Acts 4:19. On the other hand, if it be the revealed mind of God that he should do such a thing, he dare not omit it, no matter how it cross his inclination or fleshly interests: "To him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin" (James 4:17). his not enough that we thoroughly understand the will of God: we must do it; and the more we do it, the better shall we understand: John 7:17.
"Make you perfect in every good work to do His will." Various things are clearly implied by these words. First, that we are imperfect or not qualified unto every good work. Yes, even after we have been regenerated, we are still unprepared to obey the Divine will. Notwithstanding the life, light and liberty we have received from God, yet we have not ability to do that which is well pleasing in His sight. This is indeed an humbling truth, yet truth it is: Christians themselves are unable to perform their duty. Though the love of God has been shed abroad in their hearts, a principle of holiness or new "nature" communicated to them, this of itself is not sufficient. Not only are they still very ignorant of God’s will, but there is that in them which is ever opposed to it, inclining them in a contrary direction. Nor do the Scriptures hesitate to press this solemn fact upon us: rather is it frequently iterated for the humbling of ourselves before God.
Second, yet our spiritual impotency is not to be excused, nor are we to pity ourselves because of it; rather is it to be confessed to God with self condemnation. Third, none but God can fit us for the performing of His will, and it is both our duty and privilege to ask Him so to do. We need to diligently beg Him to strengthen us with might by His Spirit in the inner man, to incline our hearts unto His testimonies and not to covetousness, to so bedew our souls that we will grow in grace; for the new nature in the believer is entirely dependent upon God. "Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think any thing as of ourselves; but our sufficiency is of God" (2 Cor. 3:5). If we need Divine grace to think a good thought or conceive a good purpose, much more do we need His strength to resolve and perform that which is good. Therefore did the apostle pray for supplies of sanctifying grace to be given unto the Hebrews, to enable them to respond to the will of God in the duties of obedience required of them.
"Working in you that which is well-pleasing in His sight." This is both in elucidation and amplification of that which has just preceded, intimating how God makes us perfect or fits us unto every good work. The previous petition expressed the grand end for which the apostle prayed, namely, the progressive sanctification of his readers; here, he expresses the means by which this was to be accomplished in them. This is effected not by moral persuasion and instruction only, but by an actual and effectual inworking of Divine power. So perverse are we by nature, and so weak even as Christians, that it is not sufficient for our minds to be informed by means of an external revelation of God’s will; in addition, He has to stimulate our affections and propel our wills if we are to perform those works which are acceptable to Him. "Without Me ye can no nothing."
"Working in you that which is well-pleasing in His sight." This respects the gracious operations of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of the regenerate. It presents a striking and blessed contrast between the unsaved and the saved. Of the former we read, "The prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience" (Eph. 2:2); whereas of the latter it is said "It is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of His good pleasure" (Phil. 2:13). First, God puts within us the will or desire unto that which is good, and then He bestows His strength to actually perform. These are quite distinct, and the latter is never commensurate with the former in this life. The distinction was clearly drawn by the apostle when he said, "For to will is present with me, but how to perform that which is good I find not" (Rom. 7:18): yet even that "will" or desire had been wrought in him by Divine grace.
Only as these two truths are clearly recognized and honestly acknowledged by us—the Christian’s spiritual powerlessness, and the efficiency of inwrought grace—will we rightly ascribe unto God the glory which is His due. To Him alone is due the honor for anything good which proceeds from us or is done by us: "By the grace of God I am what I am: and His grace which was bestowed upon me was not in vain; but I labored more abundantly than they all: yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me" (1 Cor. 15:10). Not only do we owe to God the new nature which He has placed within us, but we are entirely dependent upon Him for the renewing of that new nature "day by day" (2 Cor. 4:16). It is God who worketh in His people spiritual aspirations, holy desires, pious endeavors: "from Me is thy fruit found" (Hos. 14:8). The more this be realized, the more will our proud hearts be truly humbled.
"Make you perfect in every good work to do His will, working in you that which is well-pleasing in His sight." By linking the two sentences together we are taught the most important lesson that there cannot be conformity to the will of God in the life, till there be conformity to Him in the heart. Herein we see the radical difference between human efforts at reformation and the Divine method. Man concentrates on that which is visible to the eyes of his fellows, namely, the external: "Woe unto you scribes and pharisees, hypocrites! for ye make clean the outside of the cup and the platter, but within they are full of extortion and excess" (Matthew 23:25 and cf. 27). Not so with Him who looketh on the heart: He worketh from within outward, fitting us for an obedient walk by effectually exciting the affections and empowering the will. It is thus that He continues and carries on to completion His work of grace in the elect.
Ere passing on to the next clause, let it be duly pointed out that while it is due alone to the gracious operations of the Spirit that we understand, love, believe, and do the things which God requires from us, it by no means follows that we are warranted to lie upon a bed of ease. No, far from it: we are responsible to use every means which God has appointed for our growth in grace and practical sanctification. Those who are fondest of quoting "for it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of His good pleasure," are usually the slowest to emphasize the preceding exhortation: "work out your own salvation with fear and trembling" (Phil. 2:12). We are commanded to give all diligence to add to our faith the other graces of the Spirit: 2 Peter 1:5-7. Then let us shake off our carnal security and lethargy: use the means and God will bless our endeavors (2 Tim. 3:16, 17).
"That which is well-pleasing in His sight." First, let us endeavor to live day by day in the consciousness that all we do is done in the sight of God. Nothing can escape His view. He observes those who break His law, and those who keep it: "The eyes of the Lord are in every place, beholding the evil and the good" (Prov. 15:3). How it should curb and awe us to realize that God is an observer of every action: "in holiness and righteousness before Him" (Luke 1:75). Second, let this be our great aim and end: to please God. That is sound piety, and nothing else is. Pleasing man is the religion of the hypocrites, but pleasing God is genuine spirituality. More than once does the apostle inculcate this as the right end: "Not as pleasing men, but God"; "that ye might walk worthy of the Lord unto all pleasing" (Col. 1:10).
Third, let us see to it that all our works are so ordered as to be pleasing to God. In order to this our actions must square with the rule of His Word: only that which is agreeable to His will is acceptable in His sight. But more: it is not sufficient that the substance of what we do be right, but it must issue from a right principle, namely, love to God and faith in Christ; "For without faith it is impossible to please Him" (Heb. 11:6), yet it must be a faith that "worketh by love" (Gal. 5:6)—not as forced, but as the expression of gratitude. Finally, as to the manner of this: our good works must be done with soberness and all seriousness: "serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear" (Heb. 12:28)—as becometh a menial in the presence of His Majesty. Remember that God actually takes delight in such works and those who do them: Hebrews 11:4—what an incentive unto such!