We have all done our fair share of waiting since the coronavirus came on the scene. We wait for our test results. Then, depending on the outcome, we may have to wait for our time under quarantine to end (assuming, of course, that we are spared the worst effects of COVID-19). We waited eagerly for the development and approval and availability of a vaccine. Then, we waited (or are still waiting) for our turn to get the shots. But most of all, we are waiting for things to improve to the point that we can get back to business as usual.
We have endured a long and contentious election season, and though the election itself is behind us, still we wait for the healing of divisions and the restoration of unity. We have lived for generation after generation with the scourge of racial discrimination and injustice, and while progress has surely been made, the waiting and the working continues to secure equal justice and opportunity for all.
Rarely is waiting something we enjoy. Some of us have a harder time with it than others, especially when we are waiting in the thin places of life—places of pain and suffering, of persecution and deprivation, places of bondage and hopelessness, in the miry clay of life’s pits, the whelming floods of life’s waters, the scorching flames of life’s fiery furnaces. It can evoke from us that familiar cry, “How long, O Lord?”
The believers to whom the letter to the Hebrews was addressed were in one of those thin places…and waiting. At least some of them were; others had grown tired of waiting and suffering and thrown in the towel. We cannot be entirely certain of their circumstances, but it is possible they were suffering through the persecutions that Nero initiated while emperor.
Whatever the case, they were in desperate need of encouragement. They needed a word from the Lord to sustain them and fortify them in the faith, a word to embolden them to “not throw away their confidence” or “shrink back” but to endure and persevere (Heb 10:35, 39). And so do we.
Hebrews is a fine example of (and source of ) real pastoral encouragement for believers in every age who stand in such need. So much that passes for pastoral encouragement today often amounts to nothing more than sanctified cheerleading. Don’t get me wrong: We all appreciate and need to hear the admonishments to hang in there and keep on keeping on. Posters of kittens hanging by a single claw to a tree limb and poems about never quitting have their place. In the end, however, all such things amount to little more than tossing someone a lifeline that is not secured to anything on the home end. That is far from being what the author of Hebrews did.
For more than nine chapters of the letter, he goes to great lengths to tie off his message of pastoral encouragement to something weighty: the supremacy of Jesus to deliver and to save above all other contenders. He uses the scriptures to methodically tie tight knots, one after the other. Jesus is better than the angels. Jesus is better than the lawgiver. He is the better Sabbath rest and the great high priest. He is the maker of a better covenant and the all-sufficient sacrifice. And it is only in and through and by and because of Jesus that we can “draw near with a true hear in full assurance of faith” (Heb 10:22a).
Then, as we come to the closing verses of chapter 10 (vv. 32-39), the pastor calls them to remember their former days of endurance and perseverance in the face of struggles and suffering. He is saying to them, “You’ve been here before.” Maybe it wasn’t Nero then, but Claudius who was persecuting you. Or to us today: Maybe it wasn’t a global pandemic before, but a great economic recession. Maybe it wasn’t the frustration and fatigue of teaching and mentoring students under COVID conditions and great social upheaval, but the challenge of doing your work while facing acute family struggles, financial difficulties, health problems and myriad other commitments.
“Recall the former days…when you endured a hard struggle…sometimes exposed to reproach and affliction, and sometimes being partners with those so treated” (vv. 32-33). Remember the grace God gave that enabled you to stand firm in those times, and remember the truths in which you stood. “You knew you had a better possession and an abiding one” (v. 34b). So don’t throw away your confidence, “which has a great reward,” not just in the days to come but right now.
Remember how your confidence sustained you and secured you before. Not a confidence in yourself. Not a confidence, ultimately, in those around you. Not a confidence in fate or a change and improvement in your circumstances. But a confidence in Christ alone. A confidence in his sufficiency, in his faithfulness, in his love.
This is the confidence of which Habakkuk spoke in 2:3-4,“Yet a little while, and the coming one will come and will not delay; but my righteous one shall live by faith, and if he shrinks back, my soul has no pleasure in him” (vv. 37-38). It is the confidence of faith. And this is our heritage as members of the household of faith—a heritage that the author of Hebrews proceeds (in 11:1-40) to review as testimony to how this confidence, this faith, sustained God’s servants in their seasons of waiting.
And so we wait…but not as those who have no hope. We tire, we cry out, but we persevere. This is what we do because this is who we are. Because this is who Jesus is, “who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb 12:2b). May our confident waiting bring glory to his holy name.
Thomas L. Fuller is associate dean of Beeson Divinity School and director of the Thriving Pastors Initiative.
This devotional reflection was originally shared with Beeson Divinity School faculty and staff at their mid-year workshop on January 25, 2021.