For God has said, “I will never fail you. I will never abandon you.” So we can say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper, so I will have no fear. What can mere people do to me?” [Hebrews 13:5-6 (NLT)]
While 21st century Christians might not recognize the source of the two verses quoted in Hebrews 13:5-6, the recipients of that epistle certainly did. As Jews who converted to Christianity, they were familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures. The first verse (found in Deuteronomy 1:6 and 8), were relayed by Moses to all of Israel and then specifically to Joshua. After Moses’ death, God personally made the same promise to Joshua in Joshua 1:9.
The second verse cited can be found in Psalms 118:6 and 56:4 and 11. While we don’t know who authored Psalm 118, we know that Psalm 56 was penned by David and was about running from Saul and being seized by Philistines in Gath. Any Hebrew in Paul’s time would know these quotes and the full context in which they were used.
Rather than facing battle with the Canaanites, fleeing from Saul’s army, or being in the hands of the enemy, the original readers of this epistle were new believers who faced persecution from both Rome and their fellow Jews. Having already endured public ridicule, beatings, imprisonment, excommunication from their synagogues, confiscation of their property, and flight from their homes, yet another wave of persecution loomed on the horizon at the time this epistle was written. Discouraged and disheartened, these new Christians were losing heart. Fearful, many contemplated abandoning their belief in Jesus and returning to Judaism.
Wanting to prevent them from apostasy, the epistle’s author encouraged these Jewish converts to remain steadfast in their new faith. Rather than disparaging Judaism, he fortified their faith by showing how Hebrew Scripture pointed the way to the Messiah and how Jesus fulfilled its Messianic promises. He explained that Jesus was superior to the Levitical priesthood, that His sacrifice was better than any required by the Law, and that the new covenant was better than the old. It is when encouraging his readers to stay strong in the faith that the letter’s author refers to these two Old Testament verses.
The last part of the second quote asks, “What can mere people do to me?” Clearly, people had done a great deal of harm to those Hebrew Christians in the past and worse soon would follow. Moreover, just as Christians were persecuted in the 1st century, they continue to be persecuted in parts of the world today. The epistle’s author, however, wasn’t delusional; he knew the people to whom he wrote were not safe from harm at the hands of their fellow man! A closer look at the full verse never says Christ’s followers won’t suffer. Hebrews’ author was telling those new Christians not to be afraid because God was beside them; his words are as relevant today as they were 2,000 years ago. His confidence came from knowing that our lives and future are in the hands of a God who loves us and has pledged Himself to us.
No matter how dire the circumstances, we aren’t alone. While our adversaries are mere mortals, standing beside us is God and His love for us outweighs the hatred of men. In the end, all of the adversities and suffering of this world pale in comparison to the resurrection blessings that await us. The worst thing people can do is kill our bodies. No person, however, can touch our souls!