Hebrews: discipleship when winning feels like losing

The blue glaze of the TV beckoned us on a chilly Monday night. I shifted in my seat, balancing my Bible, a notebook, and a glass of hot tea. Peering over his glasses, the commanding teacher walked us through plans for reinventing our finances. We would come out of this class astute with wealth and thus demonstrate true obedience to God. Our small group listened intently as he quoted Hebrews 12:22, “Now, discipline always seems painful rather than pleasant at the time, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.” We wanted the self-discipline that led to financial prosperity. We wanted this training in wisdom.

This wisdom is often entangled in American culture where nearly any financial gain signals success. Abundance of wealth becomes the proof of wisdom and out of this develops the path of discipleship. To be sure, there is wisdom in understanding the use of finances. American society is built on a game of advertising, consumption, and debt. It is beneficial to understand and resist this game. But what happens when our resistance is not built on the discipleship of Jesus?

Hebrews is written to an audience torn between two cultures: the dominant Roman culture and the tolerated Jewish subculture. Sandwiched between these is the newly forming community of Christianity, born out of the experience of divine power through Jesus. This experience initially propelled them into new community despite the cultural shame of rejecting their previous way of life.[1] This new community countered Roman and Jewish cultures, facing disgrace and resisting pressure to conform.[2]

Now, in Hebrews, the resistance of these Christians has waned, the loss of status and honor has mounted. This community faces deep questions of whether the hostility they experience is worth it; some have abandoned the community. Those who have “fallen away” have succumbed to the pressure to return to a more acceptable way of life. [3]

In context, Hebrews is a message of Christian endurance, a willingness to remain separate from the surrounding cultures and persist faithfully in the truth. Hebrews guides Christian communities toward perseverance by reminding them of the superiority of Jesus. Jesus’ life is an example of faithfulness that meets with extreme resistance, to the point of death, and yet he is undeterred.[4] He is their example even though they have not yet experienced the same level of hostility. They follow his path.

Because of Jesus’ faithfulness, they are now adopted as God’s legitimate sons and daughters. This unparalleled gift of adoption will result in them entering into God’s “rest” (4:1) when they “inherit salvation” (1:14) at the future return of Jesus (9:28). For the author of Hebrews, the only appropriate response to this lavish gift of God is gratitude expressed as perseverance. Both communally and individually they are to praise the generosity of God, express loyalty to God above other powers, and willingly perform the good deeds God asks of them.[5] They are to meet together in community, affirming the truth and encouraging one another (10:23-25). They are to boldly approach God in prayer, asking for resources and support (4:16).[6] They are to work together to relieve the pressures that weigh on the community (6:9-10). As members of God’s household, their attitudes and their actions express gratitude.[7]

This gratitude to God does not assure their prosperity; the surrounding cultures remain hostile. Yet, God is not impotent. Even in hostility, God can transform, inverting evil into a path for receiving honor. God gives their suffering recognition and dignity.[8] Those who perpetuate hostility are not let off the hook, it is still sinful (12:3). God surpasses any evil power, though deliverance may not be revealed until on the other side of death.[9]

What does Hebrews 12:22 mean in light of all of this? It is not a verse offering a path to earthly prosperity. It is a verse about perseverance and the high cost of following Jesus. It is about faithfulness to God above all, even earthly success. Without the clear message that sometimes winning feels like losing in this world, we are missing the discipleship of Hebrews. Without this message, we are in danger of falling away.


deSilva, David A. “Hebrews.” In Hebrews, the General Epistles, and Revelation, edited by David A Sánchez, Cynthia Briggs Kittredge, and Margaret P Aymer, 87–114. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2016. Accessed February 13, 2021. http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&scope=site&db=nlebk&db=nlabk&AN=1370555.

[1] David A deSilva, “Hebrews,” in Hebrews, the General Epistles, and Revelation, ed. David A Sánchez, Cynthia Briggs Kittredge, and Margaret P Aymer (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2016), 88, accessed February 13, 2021, http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&scope=site&db=nlebk&db=nlabk&AN=1370555.

[2] Ibid., 99.

[3] Ibid., 88.

[4] Ibid., 106.

[5] Ibid., 111.

[6] Ibid., 97–98.

[7] Ibid., 95.

[8] Ibid., 94.

[9] Ibid., 99.