[Texts: Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, Hebrews, 1 John]
Among the congregational epistles, the letter to the Hebrews stands out to me as one of the warmest. It’s an impression that partly derives, I think, from the anonymous author’s liberal use of invitational imperatives, my term for marching orders that graciously involve both writer and reader via the little phrase “let us.” By including himself in the obligation to obey, the author strikes a note of humility and shared response to the Lord of life, winsomely demonstrating the unity of leaders and followers under Christ’s rule.
Instances of this first-person-plural form of command also appear occasionally in seven of the other NT letters.* Paul in particular seems to use invitational imperatives at strategic moments: In Romans it’s a friendly way to establish a personal connection with people he has never met face-to-face, as he urges them to join him in using spiritual gifts fittingly, in “walking properly as in the daytime,” in treating other believers impartially, and in “pursuing what makes for peace and mutual upbuilding.” He also softens the stern tone of his letters to the Corinthians and Galatians by way of invitational exhortations, indicating that he, too, is willing to set aside the “leaven of malice and evil” and instead “do good to everyone.” And the already affectionate letters to the Thessalonians and Philippians are made still warmer by Paul’s sincerely shared desire to “hold true to what we have attained” and “keep awake and be sober.”
But it’s in the book of Hebrews that this inclusive form of command appears most abundantly,* lending to this complex sermon-letter a surprising amount of personal appeal and unexpectedly humanizing what is to many of us the most difficult epistle to wrap our minds around. It would be easy to overlook the writer’s devoted investment in the believers he is addressing, occupied as we are with tracking all he says about Melchizedek, God’s “rest,” the Tabernacle and sacrifices. Becoming aware of the invitational imperatives, though, helps us remember that all the theological truth conveyed in Hebrews is set firmly in the context of this writer’s tender concern for a struggling congregation.
The argument of Hebrews follows a deliberately organized plan, gradually developing the author’s strong case for “holding fast the confession of our hope without wavering.” Alternating between long passages of theological exposition and briefer personal exhortations, the writer firmly ties the heavenly mysteries of God’s plan of salvation through Christ to the earthly experience of his readers. Strikingly, invitational imperatives more than balance the dire warnings found in these personalized sections – even though these warnings tend to dominate the letter’s reputation among Christian readers. The impression that should instead be left in our minds after reading the letter is one of pastoral concern for truth, generously tempered by a love that is willing to come alongside these dear friends in following, suffering, believing, and holding fast. In our author’s words:
“Let us therefore strive to enter God’s Sabbath rest – and let us with confidence draw near to the throne of grace – and let us leave immaturity for maturity (a very humble invitation, indeed, from the clearly mature writer of these words!). Let us consider how to stir one another up to love and good works (I think he has a head start on this one!) – and let us run with endurance – and let us be grateful – and let us offer acceptable worship – and let us go to him outside the camp – and let us love one another.” In other words, “Let’s live this life of faith together – I’m in it with you, every step of the way.”
Reading these words today, we can’t help but be attracted and encouraged by the writer’s winsome invitational enthusiasm. No, he did not know us personally when he wrote this, a contextual detail that’s especially important to keep in mind when reading his exasperated rebuke at the end of chapter 5 (how many of us, reading that section, have decided that God was scolding us for our “sluggishness” and unreadiness to be teachers?). But these ringing invitations to a bold and faithful life in the Lord are applicable to any believer in any context, and there’s no reason why we should not respond to them with confidence and a sense of a shared journey – shared even with people from long ago and far away.
Invitational imperatives remind us that we believers belong to one another, despite vast distances of time and space. Since this is so, “let us – together! – continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name!”
*A chart of all the invitational imperatives that I found by way of a search in the ESV for the phrase “let us” can be found here.
*Twelve times, the next most frequent use being five times in Romans.