What Can Man Do to Me

Sermon preached on Hebrews 13:5-6 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 3/10/2019 in Novato, CA.

Sermon manuscript

Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
Hebrews 13:5-6

“What Can Man Do to Me”

Faced with the troubles in this world for a Christian, we must ask ourselves what is really important to us.  What do we value most?  There’s the famous saying by missionary Jim Elliot, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.”  Elliot showed that conviction to the full in his martyrdom, when he was murdered by the Ecuadorian natives he was evangelizing.  Even more to the point, Jesus said (Luke 12:34), where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.  And so, let us ask ourselves this question today. What treasure will you set your heart upon?  Today’s passage will help us reflect on that question.

In thinking about what our heart treasures, we see in these verses the temptation to set our heart on earthly wealth and material possessions.  It’s the contrast presented in verse 5 between covetousness versus contentment.  Those are basically two sides of the same coin, but let’s talk first about this concern regarding covetousness.  Verse 5 gives the command, “Let your conduct be without covetousness.”  This word for being “without covetousness” is literally about not being a lover of money.  It’s a compound word in the Greek: a-phil-arguros: literally not-love-silver.  As such, we see the theme from this chapter, regarding love, continuing to be developed.  Verse 1 called for brotherly love, in the Greek: philadelphia; verse 2 for love of strangers: philaxenia; and here it calls to not love money: aphilarguros.  So, there’s one big theme going on here: what to love and what not to love.  

Well, besides seeing that theme, understanding the literal word here helps clarify the point here.  When it talks of covetousness here, the emphasis is not in the specific 10th commandment sense of wanting to take something that belongs to your neighbor.  Rather, it’s the more general love of money.  It’s setting your heart on wealth and earthly treasures.  It’s the inordinate desire for physical and material wealth, not necessarily in the sense of wanting something that belongs to someone.  Such love of money might make you crave what belongs to someone else.  That’s one expression of such love of money.  But it can also be expressed in other ways too, like someone who works and works and works at the expense of other duties and enjoyments, just so he can accumulate more and more and more wealth.  This is making wealth and material goods an idol of the heart.

Interestingly, notice that verse 5 specifically draws attention to our conduct.  The word for conduct here is about how you go about living your life.  It’s the manner of how you conduct yourself.  And so, it’s a word that’s more about the actions than your heart.  And so, by pairing this with a concern of having a love of money, it shows the connection between our hearts and our actions.  Of course, the ultimate way to change our actions is by changing our hearts.  Our hearts will be expressed in our actions.  Yet, by noting that we need to be concerned with the conduct that comes from a love of money, we are reminded that sometimes we can minister to our hearts by acting in line with what we know to be right, even if our heart still wants to go after what we know to be wrong.  So then, as we seek for our heart to be valuing the right things, may we look that our actions line up with that.

So then, verse 5 turns to the opposite of such inordinate love of money.  It calls us to have contentment with what we do have.  Whenever you have a negative prohibition, the opposite is the positive duty that is implied.  And so, if you aren’t to be consumed with greed for more and more wealth, the positive duty is to have contentment.  As Paul says in 1 Timothy 6, godliness with contentment is great gain.  Paul goes on there to say that if we have food and clothing, we shall be content.  This, of course, doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t work hard to get ahead in life.  It doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t save money for emergency funds and for bigger life expenses like cars and college, or for retirement.  But it does get to the heart. Do you live life with a sense of satisfaction in the midst of your hard work to make ends meet and even advance your wealth in a good sense?  Or are you making the accumulation of wealth your chief end and not able to find any real satisfaction or peace because you constantly chase after the wind by racing after riches?

Well, as much as this passage raises this concern about contentment vs love of money, so far today we’ve only scratched the surface of this passage.  By considering contentment vs covetousness, we’ve only begun to appreciate what’s in view here.  You see, verses 5 and 6 bring this into a more specific focus by the quoting of two Old Testament verses.  When you look at the context of both these verses in the Old Testament, there is a common theme that ties them together.  They both are said in the context of dealing with enemies.  They were both verses that spoke to God’s people who were facing opposition from enemies.  That’s really important because it shows that when Hebrews talks here about not being a lover of money but being content with what we have, that it has this theme in mind.  This so clearly ties in with the main theme of Hebrews.  Remember, Hebrews was written to a church that had already experienced persecution, and some of them were being tempted to turn away from the faith.  Hebrews writes to encourage them to stand fast under such afflictions and keep the faith.

Think of then how this ties in with whether or not someone is a lover of wealth and material things.  When persecution comes, a Christian often has to decide if they will hold onto their faith in face of losing some or all of their earthly treasures.  Think about, for example, what financial loss might have come to Christians back then when persecuted by enemies of the faith.  Their boss might say to them that having a Christian working for him is bad for business, so give up the faith or your fired.  Or, a Christian business owner might lose his customers if they say that they don’t want to support the business of a Christian.  If the government decides they are a nuisance to society, they might not only arrest them, which will stop their ability earn a living, but they might also confiscate their assets at the same time.  This kind of thing was not just hypothetical; remember back in 10:34, Hebrews said how in the past some of them had already had some of their possessions plundered for the sake of Christ.  And so, this context of Christian persecution from enemies colors our understanding here about not being a lover of money.  Will you so let go of your earthly goods to continue in the faith?  Will you keep the faith knowing that if you do, our enemies might make us suffer great loss of wealth and earthly treasure?  This was not hypothetical back then, and frankly there are examples of this sort beginning to happen even today in our own country.

So then, we see in verse 5 the first quote.  “I will never leave you nor forsake you.”  There are similar statements in various Old Testament verses, but the way this is worded seems to refer to what was spoken to Joshua, twice in Deuteronomy 31 and one more time in Joshua 1.  There, when Joshua is about to lead the people to conquer all the pagan enemies in Canaan, God tells Joshua not to be fear but to be courageous.  Why? Because God assured Joshua that he would be with him. God would go before Joshua and fight for Israel.  God would go with Joshua and give him the victory over these enemies in the Promised Land. God would not abandon Joshua to these enemies.

I love how that is emphasized here.  It doesn’t come across in the translation, but when it says here “I will never leave you nor forsake you”, there are five negations used in the Greek.  The major English translations don’t give that to us, but thankfully the hymn How Firm a Foundation does.  Remember, the line that says this:  “The soul that on Jesus hath leaned for repose, I will not, I will not desert to his foes; That soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake, I’ll never, no, never, no, never forsake.”  Five negations in the Greek: “I’ll never, no, never, no, never forsake!” God will not forsake us to his and our enemies.

If that’s not wonderful enough, notice how this assurance is used.  Verse 5 says that instead of love of money we should be content with what we do have.  What does he have him in mind when he say we should be content with what we have?  Does he mention food and clothing?  Does he mention our health or our family and friends?  No, he doesn’t mention any of those things.  He instead immediately quotes this: That God will not forsake us.  If our contentment is in worldly treasures, we can lose those.  Sometimes Christians have had to go even without food or clothing.  Sometimes even loved ones disown us. But the world cannot take our Lord away from us.  He said he will be with us until the end of the age.  Hebrews reaffirms that promise here.

So, this again, really shows what Hebrews is getting at.  In the face of Christian persecution, where is your treasure?  If your heart is fixed on material things, the world can take it all away.  In fact, as a Christian, persecution might indeed strike at those material things.  We will either decide in faith that Christ is more valuable, or we will show that we are really a lover of money and recant the faith to save our earthly wealth.  I hope the right choice is obvious!

So then, verse 6 builds on this point with a quote from Psalm 118:6.  But notice how verse 5 transitions to that quote of a psalm.  It says therefore “We may boldly say.” “Boldly say”.  It’s saying that because God will no never, no never, forsake us, we can have such boldness.  That’s right out of the original quote that was spoken to Joshua.  Because in that quote given to Joshua, the full quote begins in Deuteronomy 31:7 with God telling Joshua to be “strong and courageous”.  Joshua was to be brave in the face of their enemies, because God would not forsake them.  That’s similar to another quote found throughout the Bible to encourage God’s people, where God tells us, “Fear not, for I am with you.”  So, verse 5 is saying that we don’t need to fear our persecutors, no matter what they do to us, no matter what they take from us.  

Rather, we can be strong and courageous to say what Psalm 118:6 says.  “The LORD is my helper; I will not fear. What can man do to me?”  This is the same psalm that goes on to speak of the salvation God would bring in the stone which the builders rejected.  It’s the same psalm that goes on to say what they declared over Jesus on Palm Sunday, “Hosanna!  Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord”.  In other words, it’s a psalm that finds the confidence in this quote in the Messiah who would come to save his people.  And so earlier in this psalm, when stating the confidence that we see quoted here in verse 6, it described the opposition.  The psalmist described how the nations surrounded him to destroy him.  That’s when he boldly said what we have quoted here in verse 6, “The LORD is my helper; I will not fear. What can man do to me?”

Think of what that quote affirms.  First it contains a confession of faith: The LORD God, the one true God who made all things and upholds all things – this one true God, not the false gods of the pagans which are but idols – this God, he is our helper.  The psalm in the also says it like this: The Lord is on our side.  This God is not on the side of our enemies.  He’s on our side. We are on his side!  This confession of faith is our confession of faith who know this God through Jesus Christ.  Then notice what comes next in the quote. “I will not fear.”  There’s a progression there.  Because of the confession, we need not fear.  Because God is our helper and on our side, there is no need to fear the enemies.  Even those in the world who would take everything that is ours. Even if we were to lose everything from a material sense in this world.  We need not fear. This is an expression and affirmation of confidence. It’s confidence that’s by faith, as much as anything we say in chapter 11 that was done by faith.  By faith, we have confidence that even if the world takes everything of our earthly treasures, we know that we are still the victors in Christ.  

See how that faith is expressed then at the end of this quote.  It says, “What can man do to me?”  On the one hand, we rationally can consider that and affirm that.  We can logically do the math.  We can compare what the world can do to us and can’t do to us.  As Jesus said in Matthew 10:28, the world might kill our bodies, but they can’t destroy our souls.  So, we can do the mental comparison and again affirm the truth of how his quote from the Psalm 118:6 ends.  We can affirm the ultimate truth, “What can man do to me.” But realize that statement isn’t so much a truth to affirm.  Rather, it’s a boast.  It’s a boast made by God’s people who already have affirmed that truth in their hearts.  Those who by faith have made the confession that the Lord is our help and on our side; those who because of that faith don’t fear the world; we say in confident defiance to the world and all our enemies, “What can man do to me!”  Brothers and sisters, we boast again today in the face of all those who would persecute Christians today.  We boast not in ourselves, not in our worldly accomplishments, not in our works or strength.  No, we boast in the LORD. To take it one step further, we can join with Paul like he did in 1 Corinthians 6.  There he heralded all his sufferings that he experienced for Christ.  He added those to his boasting, not to highlight himself, but to say that they showed his weaknesses.  And those weaknesses only served to show that his hope wasn’t – couldn’t be – in himself.  It was in Christ. Let those who boast, boast in the Lord!

And I hope today’s two verses have again pointed you to Christ and why we can boast in him.  We I read this quote to Joshua that he could be courageous because God will never forsake him, I thought of the experience of the second Joshua.  Who is the second Joshua? I refer to Jesus.  The names Jesus and Joshua in the Hebrew are basically variants of the same name, so that in the Greek they get translated into the same name.  That is fitting, because the Old Testament Joshua typologically accomplished what Jesus the Messiah accomplished in the New Testament.  Joshua and Jesus both lead God’s people in conquering the enemies of God.  And kind of like how we can speak of Jesus being the second Adam, we can think of Jesus being the second Joshua.

And so, compare what was said here to the first Joshua, with the experience of the second Joshua on the cross.  The first Joshua was encouraged that he’ll have victory by God not forsaking him.  The second Joshua, on the cross, won the ultimate victory, and he did it by being forsaken by God.  Remember the cry of the cross.  Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me!”  Yet in the irony of the cross, that’s when Jesus was giving the definitive blow against Satan, and really against all our enemies.  Jesus was forsaken there on the cross, so that we could give the boast of this Psalm 118.  Think about it.  Why would God be on our side?  Why would he help us sinners above any other sinners in this world?  Why would he not forsake us who have forsaken him in our iniquity in various ways?  Because of Jesus and the cross. By bearing sin, he was forsaken by God in our place.  On the cross, he set himself as an enemy of God, to bear the wrath of God, in our place.  He put himself in the judgment seat for us.  So then, if we, by faith, have that atonement applied to us, we have become God’s friends.  God is then on our side.  God is then our help.  God will then be with us always and forever.  God will then no never, no never, not ever forsake us.  

So then, we are more than conquerors in Christ Jesus!  Even if we are like sheep to the slaughter before this world, “If God is for us, who can be against us?”  In Christ, nothing can conquer us – not persecution, not famine, not nakedness, not even death. Indeed, what can man do to us?  We defy this world in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ!

And so, in conclusion, dear brethren, let us boldly value what we have: the Lord with us!  Let us boldly trust in what we have: the Lord with us!  Let us boldly boast in what we have: the Lord with us!  Amen.

Copyright © 2019 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.