(This post originally appeared on September 1, 2020, at Servants of Grace, as part of the website’s Hebrews series.)
Like many Marylanders, I learned early on about sailboats, sailing, and all things Chesapeake. I could handle a Sunfish™ when I was in grade school. As a teen, one summer I crewed on a 33-foot ketch, exploring rivers and streams up and down the bay.
Pittsburgh’s rivers are not conducive to sailing, sadly, so I haven’t passed these skills down to my children. Still, I love the sight of a sailboat with the spinnaker ballooning out in front, and my heart stirs whenever I detect sailing references in the Bible. I imagine some of those writers must have felt the same way I do when they gazed out across the magnificence of the Mediterranean and saw flecks of white bobbing on the glistening waves.
Not long ago, I was sitting on a dock in an inlet of the Chesapeake Bay, tracking the progress of a tiny white dot on the horizon. After a while, I realized the boat wasn’t moving at all and that it had furled its sails. I surmised that the skipper must have dropped anchor, perhaps for a pleasant respite on a glorious summer afternoon. Maybe there would be swimming, passengers diving off the boat into the cool bay waters, and climbing back on to warm themselves in the sunshine. The glassy stillness of the bay reflected the calmness of the day. Barely a breeze stirred the surface. Such peace.
For a moment, I thought of our passage from Hebrews about the hope that is our sure and steady anchor, and I prayed that my life would be anchored, and that still and peaceful waters would prevail. The problem with this picture is that life’s storms and turbulences keep churning up the waters. Waves batter the little vessel of my heart, and the seas threaten to crash in over my head. How could any anchor hold fast in such rolling billows of trouble and affliction?
The dilemma for the modern-day reader of Hebrews is that the anchor in 6:19–20 is one unfamiliar to our western context:
We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain, where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf, having become a high priest forever in the order of Melchizedek.
The first-century recipients of the letter to the Hebrews would be able to comprehend immediately the context of the illustration.
The Mediterranean Sea was encircled by port cities where goods were transported in and out for the citizens of the Roman Empire. Crowded waters around the ports, dangerous reefs, and rough weather combined to make it difficult for ships to navigate the narrow channels into the harbors, much less tie up at the various anchoria—rocks or tree trunks embedded deep in the shallows along the shoreline. However, to linger outside the shelter of the harbor left them vulnerable to storms, and any time lost waiting for calmer days meant lost revenue.
Enter the forerunner. A cable was firmly fixed to the bow of the ship, and the other end was placed in the capable hands of a crewmember who was tasked to row toward one of these harbor anchors and secure the rope, thus ensuring the destination of the ship.
This is Jesus our forerunner. He has journeyed through affliction and temptations as our representative. The reality is that life’s waters will not be glassy stillness or smooth sailing. And we know this from our own experiences. Do not sorrows like sea billows roll? Do we not tread the verge of Jordan?
In the midst of swirling waters, like Christian crossing the dark river in The Pilgrim’s Progress, I can easily convince myself another way is needed. The isolation of affliction can overwhelm me and uncertainty swells like the waves. Maybe the cross isn’t enough. Maybe there is a better path through the troubled waters. The risk of giving in to such thinking is the promises of the kingdom fade in the distance like the sight of the shoreline when an unmoored vessel drifts out to sea.
So what are we to do? We imitate the crewmembers of our New Testament-era vessel, who grasped the line and pulled their ship into harbor by means of the trustworthiness of the anchor.
Jesus guarantees safe passage for those who trust in him, and his means is our faith-filled, Spirit-empowered reaching out and clinging to the rope that secures our confidence. Consider again the forerunner of the picture in Hebrews. Although he displayed great courage, the crew couldn’t trust him unless the anchor he chose was one that guaranteed their safety. In Hebrews 10:19–20, we learn that our “confidence to enter the holy places [is] by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through the flesh.”
Our forerunner has fixed our lives to the glorious cross and then has gone before us into the harbor. Through his flesh, we are tied to our anchor, and through his flesh, we are with him in the inner place behind the curtain. The promises only mean anything if there’s a way they can come true, and the anchor of the cross is that way. It is immovably true. He is saving us to the uttermost. The cross is the surety. The cross is our hope. The cross takes us beyond the curtain to home.
Jesus is the unchangeable factor who works continuously in the inner place on our behalf. He doesn’t take a break. He doesn’t blink. He doesn’t drop the ball. He goes beyond the veil, behind the curtain, to sit in power, glory, and advocacy with us and for us. No other representative could do this other than one from the order of Melchizedek (of whom we will learn more in chapter 7). None of the priests of the lineages of Aaron or Levi were able to bear the marks required for propitiation, and none could attain what is beyond the curtain, living forever as our representative. (Hebrews 4:14–16)
Because Jesus is our high priest, we can live as creatures of the new creation, serving one another in love—grabbing the cable side by side with our brothers and sisters—fulfilling the law of Christ. Though I am still here in the flesh, sometimes gasping for air on the turbulent seas and clinging desperately to the rope, I nonetheless breathe new, born-again breath as a citizen of his kingdom, confident that at the other end of that rope is the place he attained on my behalf through suffering. “For we have come to share in Christ if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end.” (Hebrews 3:14)
The passage of the ship through the harbor isn’t guaranteed to be turbulence-free, but it is guaranteed to be safe for all who hold on to hope.