Remember those who led you, who spoke the word of God to you; and considering the result of their conduct, imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. Do not be carried away by varied and strange teachings; for it is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace, not by foods, through which those who were so occupied were not benefited. We have an altar from which those who serve the tabernacle have no right to eat. For the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the holy place by the high priest as an offering for sin, are burned outside the camp. Therefore Jesus also, that He might sanctify the people through His own blood, suffered outside the gate. So, let us go out to Him outside the camp, bearing His reproach. For here we do not have a lasting city, but we are seeking the city which is to come. Through Him then, let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that give thanks to His name. And do not neglect doing good and sharing, for with such sacrifices God is pleased. Hebrews 13:7–16
It takes strength to love. It takes strength to risk yourself with strangers. It takes strength to take the suffering of prisoners into your life, when you may have enough of your own. It takes strength to keep your marriage vows when the going gets rough and it is not the way you dreamed it would be. It takes strength to turn away from the promises of money. Where to get this kind of strength and how do you keep it?
Let’s look at verse 9: “Do not be carried away by varied and strange teachings; for it is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace, not by foods, through which those who were so occupied were not benefited.”
I ask you: is your heart strong? I don’t mean your physical heart. I think the writer means here the non-physical, non-material you. The thinking, feeling, willing, hoping, fearing, trusting, longing, raging, grieving, rejoicing you. The inner you – what Paul meant when he prayed in Ephesians 3:16 that you would be strengthened in the “inner person.” Are you strong? It has nothing to do with your muscles or your pulse or your measurements or your cholesterol or your white blood count. Are you strong – the inner you?
Do you want to be? Verse 9 says, “It is good for the heart to be strengthened.” This is good. Therefore it is something we should want. It is something you should, right now, desire and seek. The strength of heart to be the kind of person described in the opening of our text, Hebrews 13:1-5. Not the power to put on a show. To clean the outside of the cup and leave the inside weak and dirty. But strength of heart. Strength that is real enough – strong enough on the inside that it shapes the outside naturally. Do you want that? I do. Let’s look to God now in his word to work it in us.
Verse 9 tells us in a word where to turn for strength of heart and where not to turn. Turn to grace and do not turn to foods. “Do not be carried away by varied and strange teachings; for it is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace, not by foods, through which those who were so occupied were not benefited.”
There are many religious and secular food routines. Religious food routines like fasting and sacrament and vegetarians and various kinds of abstinence. And there are the secular routines of food supplements and vitamins and antioxidants and organic diets, and fat-free, sugar-free, caffeine-free, chemical-free foods. And sometimes, not all the time, these things become obsessive. They take on a life-consuming importance. Slowly and subtly the promises they make for our well-being become the promises we hope in and the promises we live by.
But over against this misuse of foods, God says (in verse 9), “It is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace, not by foods.” So beware of teachings and thought processes that elevate diet and nutrition and food to a place where they are the real strength-givers and health-givers and hope-givers in your life. And instead learn to have your heart strengthened by grace – day after day, morning noon and night.
How do you eat grace? How do you do that? If you don’t eat food to strengthen your heart, how do you eat grace? If you wake up in the morning and feel guilty and defiled because of something ugly you did yesterday, or you feel like a failure because of how poorly something went yesterday, what do you do? The “strange teaching” might say, “Eat a good breakfast. Get the right nutrition pumping through your blood. Do some exercise and get out into the sunlight.” But God says, “Get your heart strengthened by grace.” On a morning like that, eat grace for breakfast.
How? Well, consider verse 10. Picking up on this issue of being strengthened by grace and not foods, he says, “We have an altar from which those who serve the tabernacle have no right to eat.” He’s referring to the priests in Jerusalem who have rejected Jesus as their Messiah, but who go on “serving the tabernacle” which was meant to point to Jesus as the final sacrifice and the cross of Jesus as the final altar of sacrifice (Hebrews 9:26; 10:12). So the altar he has in mind is the cross where our final sacrifice was offered once for all for our sins. That is where our food is found. That is the table where grace was prepared.
If you want to know where your breakfast of grace was prepared, the answer is (verse 10): We have an altar – the breakfast of grace was prepared on the altar of the cross where Jesus died for our sins. If you want to be strong in your heart, when your heart is groaning with a sense of sin and failure, before you go to the kitchen to eat food, go to the altar to eat the blood-bought grace of forgiveness and hope.
Keep reading in verse 11. He explains that on the Day of Atonement in Leviticus 16, after the blood of the sacrificed bull and goat is taken into the holy of holies, and sprinkled there to cover the sins of the people, the bodies of the bull and the goat are taken outside the camp and burned (Leviticus 16:27). “For the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the holy place by the high priest as an offering for sin, are burned outside the camp.” The point he is making is that these sacrifices are not eaten, as with some other sacrifices. The nourishment the people received on the Day of Atonement was forgiveness and hope, not meat.
Yes, but all of that was meant to point to Jesus, the final sacrifice for sin. There was a lesson in that. The writer draws out the comparison in verse 12: “Therefore Jesus also, that He might sanctify the people through His own blood, suffered outside the gate.” In other words, Jesus has fulfilled the sacrifices of the Day of Atonement; they are completed in him; they find their final meaning in him. And the meaning is: All there was to eat on the Day of Atonement was forgiveness and hope. That’s all there is to eat from the altar of Calvary where the body of Jesus was consumed with suffering.
So the point is: When you feel like a failure, when you feel discouraged and hopeless and dirty, don’t turn to food. It’s a false remedy, and verse 9 says, it has not benefited those who walk in it. It only makes things worse. Instead go to the altar of grace. We have an altar. And there is food. And the food is grace – the grace of forgiveness and the grace of hope. The only way to be strong is to come back to this table again and again.
We have an altar – we have an old rugged cross. And there the Savior, Jesus Christ, serves inexhaustible helpings of grace. Do you want your heart to be strong? Do you want to be a strong person who has the resources to love each other, and take in strangers, and care for prisoners, and stay married or single and chaste, and not love money or the things money can afford? Then stay close to the altar and eat and eat and eat again – the grace of God.
The only strength that really matters in life is the strength of heart that comes from feeding on grace and trusting in grace. All the way through life, it is not health and physical strength that God delights in. The Lord takes pleasure in those who hope in his grace (Psalm 147:11). And when we come to die, no food and no diet will matter at all. One thing will matter: are we nourished at the altar of grace?
Not only does this writer tell us where grace is prepared, namely at the altar of the cross, he also tell us how to keep faith in grace stirred up. He says in verse 7: “Remember those who led you, who spoke the word of God to you; and considering the result of their conduct, imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” This writer really believed in the importance of heroes and models and biography (see Hebrews 11).
Not only should we remember that we have an altar where we can find grace every day, but we should also remember people who trust in grace and loved and spoke to us the word of God in grace and faith. Remember them, verse 7 says. Just like most times at a meal, social interaction is as much a part as the food served. Jesus is the bread of life (John 6:35) and he is the Living Water (John 7:38). He calls to us to eat and drink of him (John 6:54-56; Revelation 22:17). Fellowship with one another is to be like this, we are to partake of the grace of God within each other. Paul wrote,
You all are partakers with me of grace. Philippians 1:7
The next verse says, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” Do you see the sequence of his thought? In verse 7 he says “Remember leaders who in the past had faith, and now in the present you imitate that very faith.” Then in verse 8: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” Do you see the point?
Jesus is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. They trusted Jesus in the past. Now you, today and tomorrow, go on trusting Jesus. Why? Because Jesus is the same today when you trust him and he will be the same tomorrow when you trust him.
But do you see what this implies about grace and how it strengthens the heart? Something new is implied here that we didn’t see in verses 9-10. If Jesus were only important for what he did on the cross then it wouldn’t matter if he were the same today and tomorrow. All that would matter is that the past work on the altar of the cross is still valid. Does the blood still buy my forgiveness? But if Jesus is important not only because he died once to forgive my sins, but also lives to be with me and help me in the next two minutes and this afternoon and tomorrow, then everything hangs on whether the Jesus alive today is the same as he was when he died for me on the altar. The faith we are to imitate is faith in future grace, not just past grace. Faith that the living Jesus who helped yesterday will help today and tomorrow.
When I wake up in the morning and feel guilty and defiled because of yesterday’s ugliness, and hopeless because of yesterday’s failure, my heart needs to be strengthened by two kinds of grace, not just one. I need the grace of forgiveness based on a great past substitutionary sacrifice on the cross that covers all my sins. I also need the grace of promised help from Jesus today and tomorrow.
If I can have forgiveness, and if I can have the promise of omnipotent help from Jesus who is the same yesterday today and forever, my heart will be strong, and I will be able to carry on another day. Such is the glory of grace in the person of Jesus Christ.
If you do not know the forgiveness of your sins or have hope that Jesus will give you all the help you need today and tomorrow, then I invite you to turn from foods that cannot satisfy or help, and put your trust in the grace of Jesus.