Faith in Deed: “The Portrait” – Hebrews 12:25-13:17

mona lisaDid you ever hear a story about someone and later, when you saw them, they looked NOTHING like what you PICTURED they would look like? A portrait can be an interesting way to put a face with a story – but sometimes it is the other way around (i.e. the portrait becomes famous long before any story is well known). One case of this reversal may be the famous “Mona Lisa” – a painted half-length portrait created by the Italian Master Leonardo da Vinci. Scholars have speculated about the story behind the picture over the centuries. Most agree that what we are viewing is the likeness of the twenty-seven year old Lisa del Giocondo née Gherardini, the wife of a middle class Florentine silk and cloth merchant named Francesco del Giocondo. The oil painting covers a wood panel of white poplar, and was likely painted between 1503 and 1506. It was acquired by King Francis I of France, so visitors can now see it among the permanent displays at the Louvre Museum in Paris, where it has been since 1797. The work has a complex structure behind it with an elaborate central Italian landscape in the background, but that is only half the story. In the foreground, the half-smile, half-smirk of Lisa del Giocondo hides the details of an interesting life behind her brush-softened face.

Lisa was the product of a man in his third marriage. Her father lost both of his previous wives during childbirth – and her birth was at a time of stress for him as he worried about the loss of yet another wife. This time, however, her mother (named Lucrezia) made it through the delivery and lived to raise her, along with the rest of the seven children of the home on a rustic Italian farm. Lisa grew up and eventually was brought to the city of Florence by her husband shortly after her wedding. The city fascinated her, but she was a dutiful wife and by the time of the portrait, Lisa had already given birth to five children of her own, living near the Santa Croce Church in Florence. Shortly after her fifth child, some scholars believe Leonardo invited her to pose for the portrait we have today – but that is by no means certain. Her smile is still a bit of a mystery…

What we DO know it that it is nearly impossible to count how many love sonnets, songs and short poems have been written to this middle class mom from the middle ages, with the smirk…People are fascinated with the work, as well they should be. Personally, I remember thinking it was smaller than I thought it would be when I first stood in front of it years ago. In any case, it is captivating, and she always struck me as a bit devious – like she was watching someone get ready to dump a bucket on Leonardo’s head and he was concentrating on painting the details of her face.

You haven’t accidentally stumbled into an art lecture, but there is a point to thinking about this portrait…Pictures like this one help us bring to life, or “flesh out” someone that no mere story would help us recall. The portrait adds substance to the story of this woman’s life – making her more memorable than a mere tale would. Pictures help us add depth to our understanding – where faceless stories simply won’t do. Police sketch artists know that if they do their job well, it will jog the memory of people more than an “all-points bulletin” that offers no artwork. Portraits reveal identity, illustrate story, and help us get a fuller mental picture of someone.

In this lesson, we want to look at another famous portrait. It was sketched out by God in verbal description. If properly imitated, it offers a prototype of a believer for the modern world. We want to observe the words of the writer of Hebrews as he shared this truth…

Key Principle: God offered a verbal portrait of what a believer should look like to the world around them.

To view the “verbal portrait” we want to look into the Book of Hebrews. New believers often report that is a book that makes them a bit nervous. It can be difficult if you aren’t familiar with the letter, but it really isn’t that scary once you understand how, why and to whom it was written.

The letter was written somewhere between 67 and 90 CE, between the death of the Apostle Paul and the writing of the first letter of the Bishop of Rome named Clement (because he refers to the letter). Many of us believe it was written before 70 CE, because it is thoroughly Jewish in content and offers no hint of the Temple’s destruction (which took place in that year). In that period, Jewish believers were facing a time of persecution, doubt and defection. The whole letter seemed designed to answer to some troubling questions of these Messianic Jews. In fact, with careful observation, you can pick out the underlying problems in the community that gave the writer a cause to write this letter:

1. It appears to be written to a group that began with great enthusiasm, but was now experiencing a “falling away” from the faith in Messiah.
2. The followers of Jesus appear to feel pressure as outcasts among their countrymen, and they faced mounting pressure to reconsider the claims of Messianism and return to the fold of non-Messianic Jews.
3. A number of them began to feel the record concerning Jesus did not stand up to the questions posed by learned rabbis.
4. Some of the respected leaders were wavering or perhaps defecting from the group.
5. The demoralized group was lacking direction and needed correction, instruction and gentle rebuke.

With a little closer examination, I believe you can read the text and examine it to the point that you can work backwards that you see the actual questions people were asking during a time of defection. You can hear their hurting hearts, as this anonymous Spirit-filled teacher of the Word gently explained the plan and program of God. In that context I see at least ten questions in the text. We don’t have time to look at them all (throughout the letter) but we can illustrate the idea quickly on our way to our text. Scan your eyes over Hebrews 1. Can you see the question the author is answering? It sounds something like this: “How do we truly know from the Scriptural record that Yeshua was both Savior, and the very incarnation of God Himself?” This is a hard concept for any Jew of any era. Chapter two follows with the response to a question like: “Why wouldn’t God come as something more impressive than a mere man? Why not the powerful manifestation of “The Angel of the Lord” that appeared to Hebrew prophets of old?” The whole letter appears to answer questions just like these.

Now jump back much later in the book to chapter 12. The author appears now to be addressing another question given by beaten up believers: “If this is all of God, and our message is true – then why are we suffering? Has God abandoned the Jewish believer?” (Hebrews 10:19-13:8). It is into the middle of this answer that we see a portrait of the believer under pressure in the face of a powerful and agnostic world.

Look at the features of the portrait was we read the text for a moment:

Hebrews 12:25 See to it that you do not refuse Him who is speaking. For if those did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape who turn away from Him who warns from heaven. 26 And His voice shook the earth then, but now He has promised, saying, “Yet once more I will shake not only the earth, but also the heaven.” 27 This expression, “Yet once more,” denotes the removing of those things which can be shaken, as of created things, so that those things which cannot be shaken may remain. 28 Therefore, since we receive a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us show gratitude, by which we may offer to God an acceptable service with reverence and awe; 29 for our God is a consuming fire.


In the context, the ear was to remain tuned to hear Jesus – particularly when He spoke concerning judgment. How do I know he was speaking of Jesus and not someone else? The verse previous reads this way: “…Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood, which speaks better than the blood of Abel.” The writer was telling of times when God pierced the ears of men with Truth, like after Cain killed Abel or at Sinai when He spoke to and through Moses. Later, Jesus became the mediator of the New Covenant – the promise that God would transform and indwell men, beginning with the church and ending with Israel. The point was clear: Don’t ignore what Jesus said.

Hebrews 12:25 “See to it that you do not refuse Him who is speaking.”

This might require a bit of explanation. Remember, the letter was written to believers, and yet the writer warned them to listen to Jesus when He speaks. Why would he need to do that? We have to remember these were people who were beat up. They were being tested and some were defecting – even some who LED THEM previously in following Jesus. When our faith is tested, some people will try – rather than to clearly represent the historic truth of the Word of God – to ALTER the text to make it more palatable to people. That is the way some believers ignore the real Jesus and His Words. They want to fit in. They want to be able to have Jesus and a world that is happy with them. They want PEACE ON EARTH and later JOY IN HEAVEN. Nice! Look at what the writer warned:

Jesus has repeated the warnings He made on earth from Heaven! Jesus made sure people knew judgment was real when He came to earth, and is doing it now from Heaven.

Hebrews 12:25b “…For if those did not escape when they refused him who warned [them] on earth, much less [will] we [escape] who turn away from Him who [warns] from heaven.

When you read words like “Jesus did not come into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved” in John 3, don’t leave with the impression that Jesus came to spread love without requirement or allow sin without consequence – that isn’t what that passage meant. What John wanted to reflect was that Jesus came with the noblest purpose – to save the lost. He did so by making clear, however, that PEOPLE WERE LOST.

One of the enemy’s great tricks, used time and again in the church’s history was that of TRUTH COMPROMISE. Some people honestly believe that if we compromise the truth, people will eventually see Jesus in us. That is wrong-headed. Compassionate proclamation doesn’t mean that I soften the truth them “it is appointed unto man once to die and then the judgment (Hebrews 9:27).” That isn’t intolerant – it is the truth. Harsh voices aren’t necessary. We can speak the truth in urgency – but in tenderness. You don’t win people to Jesus by telling them they don’t need to accept Him.

Let me clear without sounding stern: You have only one life to accept what Jesus has done for you. There is no second chance after your last breath. Some refused to hear Jesus when He was here – and they perished without hope. If you are breathing, you still have a choice. Every time you hear this from the Word, Jesus is warning you again. Be careful with how much you take that for granted. If that isn’t enough…there is a second warning.

Don’t forget, because time is short! Current warnings are running out our opportunities on the clock.

Hebrews 12:26 And His voice shook the earth then, but now He has promised, saying, “YET ONCE MORE I WILL SHAKE NOT ONLY THE EARTH, BUT ALSO THE HEAVEN.” 27 This [expression], “Yet once more,” denotes the removing of those things which can be shaken, as of created things, so that those things which cannot be shaken may remain.

The writer also called us to attention – because we should see God as He is! The world can “play around” with God because they don’t know His majesty and power. If you know Jesus, you can’t. You know His power. You stand before an Awesome and Holy God! The writer reminds:

Hebrews 12:28 Therefore, since we receive a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us show gratitude, by which we may offer to God an acceptable service with reverence and awe; 29 for our God is a consuming fire.

The point is clear: Believers who have tasted of the sweetness of salvation also know of the Power of the One Who provided it. He is not to be trifled with. He is King above all, God of all, Judge of all. We must learn to listen to Him – especially as believers! We cannot call ourselves FOLLOWERS OF CHRIST if we do not listen to His commands and come when and where He bids – regardless of the popularity of His Words on any given subject.


We must stand ready to meet the needs of our deprived believers (13:1-3). Look at the text as it continues with the portrait:

Hebrews 13:1 Let love of the brethren continue. 2 Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by this some have entertained angels without knowing it. 3 Remember the prisoners, as though in prison with them, and those who are ill-treated, since you yourselves also are in the body.

God said the churches were caring for one another, but that would need to continue. The text implies that OTHER THINGS would distract the church. Be careful about the loose belief that the whole mission of the church is to reach the world – that is PART of the mission. There are also some objectives that have to do with what we will do for one another, and they are embedded in our mission. The text called us to offer encouragement that should characterize the body in three test cases of practical love:

1) Hospitality to those traveling believers that needed assistance and lodging;
2) Relief for imprisoned believers;
3) Assistance to persecuted brothers and sisters.

The church that God blesses is a gathering of people who love one another in very practical ways. They focus on needs, and they focus on people. It is the reason that God gifts each one (1 Cor. 12:1-7). They are blood brothers and sisters of a common Father. It is less about a program than about the notion that God can best be served by serving others from the family. A godly man is a compassionate man, and a godly church is a compassionate church.

Let me ask a question: Are we a compassion body of believers? I don’t mean do we act in friendly ways to people on a Sunday morning in church; I mean are we engaged in pursuits to aid those who are struggling, those who are being persecuted, and those who need hospitality and assistance? When was the last time you SAW a needy person and it grieved you? Are we doing enough to assist the hurting in our area? Are we in the prisons, and in the life choices centers? There is no limit to what we can give to hurting people if we choose to do it. Let’s not become program driven to the point where we use up all our resources on things that we like to have and do, and leave nothing for the hurting!


We are to live with clear moral values on display (13:4):

Hebrews 13:4 says: “Marriage is to be held in honor among all, and the marriage bed is to be undefiled; for fornicators and adulterers God will judge.”

Roman sexual morays were not nearly comparable to Biblical morality. Sex was performed at the public banquets of some nobles, and there was no sense in the pagan community that sex was something between one man or woman. The paterfamilias of one domus could have relations with any number of people that were of his station. The honor the author spoke of was related to the Biblical ethic – not the contemporary one. My point: God was calling people to walk according to very different rules than they were used to. There was never a time when the church was to take its moral cues from the courts or the culture.

Romans were sensually-soaked, sin-sick people parading as civilized men and women. In that respect, they were much like the people in our neighborhoods today.

Hundreds of millions of dollars will be spent this year on Sex Education, most of it centering on what has become known as “safe sex”. There is no sex safer than sex within God’s plan!

Consider the words of Peter: 1 Peter 2:11: “Dearly beloved, I beseech you as strangers and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts, which war against the soul…

Can you grasp that truth? Lust WARS AGAINST YOUR WALK WITH GOD. It is a powerful foe. Expect Biblical morality to be laughed at, belittled, pronounced archaic, and unreasonable. The only people who don’t enjoy sex on TV are people married to each other. The rest seem preoccupied with it.

Jesus commanded His people to be a MORAL DISINFECTANT to the world. 1 Thessalonians 4 proposes it as one of the three basic identifiers of a believer – sexual purity, a work ethic and a believer’s view of death.


Believers who learn contentment understand these verses (13:5-6):

Hebrews 13:5 Make sure that your character is free from the love of money, being content with what you have; for He Himself has said, “I WILL NEVER DESERT YOU, NOR WILL I EVER FORSAKE YOU,” 6 so that we confidently say, “THE LORD IS MY HELPER, I WILL NOT BE AFRAID. WHAT WILL MAN DO TO ME?”

The principle of contentment is found in the daily celebration that GOD’S PRESENCE is the greatest prize I will ever possess. God’s guidance makes my path sure. God’s protection makes my walk confident. When I walk with steel toed boots on, I don’t worry so much about where I step. Modern life distracts believers with the idea that real contentment can be purchased. The constant beckoning of the mall makes some constantly wage war with contentment. Advertiser knock people off balance and suggest there is not value to contentment – you NEED the latest thing. The simple rewards of hard work and savings are belittled for the glamor of “buy now and pay later”.

Note that in the verses, the opposite of discontent is a sense of one-ness and intimacy with a God Who does not leave my side. Fear fades and help is applied close to the Savior. I like the words of the author Henrietta Mears:

“God does not always choose great people to accomplish what he wishes, but he chooses a person who is wholly yielded to him.”

The portrait includes a FIRM FAITH:

This portrait of a believer shows they are firmly planted in truth, are growing in faith and actively modeling faith to others – i.e. a Biblical world view (13:7-9):

Hebrews 13:7 Remember those who led you, who spoke the word of God to you; and considering the result of their conduct, imitate their faith. 8 Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. 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.

God has called us to be a regular part of a body of fellowship – a local and measurable assembly, i.e. a church. Why? We are called to join together as believers because we need the opportunity to be in a practical picture of conduct training.

The verses say that part of modeling must be respect for those who lead spiritually and teach the Word (13:7). The verses says that part of modeling is observation of holy conduct, and another part is imitation of it (13:7b). Part of a modeling environment is to ground people in the unchanging truths, without the need to “innovate” (neo-terizein: add a creative addition to the body of teaching – 13:8). We are not to innovate as much as make clear the unchanging person and work of Christ that tells the story of God to the people of the ages to the ages. Innovation is the self-affirming practice of telling something “novel” that makes the teacher more important than the Lord in the body. In the case of the time of this author, the latter part of the first century, the issue included a “special diet” that was leading people into a new peculiarity.

Back in the 1940’s a mother wished to encourage her son’s progress at the piano, so she bought tickets to a Paderewski performance. When the evening arrived, they took their seats near the front of the concert hall and eyed that majestic Steinway waiting on stage for the expert hands of the former Prime Minister of Poland who was also a musical master. The mother began talking with a friend to talk to, and lost track of her young son. At eight o’clock, the lights in the auditorium began to dim, lights came on, and only then did they notice the boy onstage, seated at the piano, innocently picking out “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” His mother gasped, but before she could retrieve her son, the master appeared on the stage and quickly moved to the keyboard. He whispered to the boy, “Don’t quit. Keep playing.” Leaning over, Paderewski reached down with his left hand and began filling in the bass part. Soon his right arm reached around the other side and improvised a delightful obligatio. Together, the old master and the young novice held the crowd mesmerized. In our lives, unpolished though we may be, it is the Master who surrounds us and whispers in our ear time and time again, “Don’t quit. Keep playing.” And as we do, He augments and supplements until work of amazing beauty is created. We don’t have to be creative – He will.


How many of you HATE to have your picture taken? It is a momentary discomfort to some of us. In the same way, the writer warns that believers have to know what is eternal and what is temporal to properly measure their discomfort. Believers must know where home truly is (13:10-14):

Hebrews 13:10 We have an altar from which those who serve the tabernacle have no right to eat. 11 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. 12 Therefore Jesus also, that He might sanctify the people through His own blood, suffered outside the gate. 13 So, let us go out to Him outside the camp, bearing His reproach. 14 For here we do not have a lasting city, but we are seeking the city which is to come.

Some believers want to fit into the world as it is – but it isn’t the place we were designed to fit! Just as our Savior gave His most important gift OUTSIDE the city – so we have to anticipate that we don’t belong inside and won’t fit well in this world. The awkwardness is all according to plan! Not only that, but…


It is true: real believers LOVE to Honor Jesus (13:15-16). The writer reminds:

Hebrews 13:15 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. 16 And do not neglect doing good and sharing, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.

Note that praise is the language of the Body of Christ. 1) It is continuously offered (13:15a); 2) it is specifically directed to the Lord (13:15b); 3) It includes actions that are shared, but taken because they serve God by serving another (13:16).


I don’t know how you would see that, but the truth is that we are to have a reliable nature to follow those who follow Christ. Look at the text (13:17):

Hebrews 13:17 Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you.

A second time in the passage, the author returned to submission to spiritual leadership – this time pleading to make their burden lighter in personal behavior. There are few issues heavier for a leader than those who want to push against his God-appointed position. Godly men do not want or seek power, they seek opportunities to serve God through caring for people. Sin grieves them. They watch with diligence over souls and feel personally wounded by the sin of others.

(1 Thess. 5:12 NLT) Dear brothers and sisters, honor those who are your leaders in the Lord’s work. They work hard among you and warn you against all that is wrong.

Our esteem for our leaders does not come from the fact that we are to be submissive or because of some power trip, but is based on our love and respect for the work that they do. One writer illustrated it when he wrote:

Driving down a country road, I came to a very narrow bridge. In front of the bridge, a sign was posted: “YIELD.” Seeing no oncoming cars, I continued across the bridge and to my destination. On my way back, I came to the same one-lane bridge, now from the other direction. To my surprise, I saw another YIELD sign posted. Curious, I thought, “I’m sure there was one posted on the other side.” When I reached the other side of the bridge I looked back. Sure enough, yield signs had been placed at both ends of the bridge. Drivers from both directions were requested to give right of way. It was a reasonable and gracious way of preventing a head-on collision. When the Bible commands Christians to “be subject to one another” (Ephesians 5:21) it is simply a reasonable and gracious command to let the other have the right of way and avoid interpersonal head-on collisions. – Stephen P. Beck.

That isn’t the way of our world:

“I Did It My Way,” Sinatra crooned.
“I’m as free as a bird now, and this bird you cannot change,” declared Lynyrd Skynyrd.
“Find your own road,” cry the current crop of Saab ads.
Philosopher Russell Hittinger remarked that “we now live in a nation populated by [millions of] supreme beings.” The question must be: Are we willing to buck the trend, and submit our lives to the authority of the living, sovereign God of Heaven? – Source:

Many of us would agree with the prayer: “Lord, do in me what you need to do, so you can do through me what you have to do.”

Look hard at the portrait. Hear the words of a believer of centuries ago: “It is not thou that shapest God but God that shapest Thee. If thou art the work of God await [from] the hand [of] the artist who does all things in due season. Offer Him thy heart, soft and tractable, and keep the form in which the artist has fashioned thee. Let thy clay be moist, lest thou grow hard and lose the imprint of His fingers.” — St. Irenaeus

Maybe that portrait is supposed to be a clay bust, reshaped at any time by God, but never pressed into the mold of the world.

God has made clear what a believer should look like to the world around them.