Letter to the Hebrews.
Biblical scholars are uncertain who wrote this letter. The likeliest answer is that it was dictated by Paul but, because the literary style is not always that of Paul, the scribe who took the dictation, who must have been a highly educated man, used some of his own terminology.
The letter describes most eloquently the eminent superiority of the new dispensation over the old. Inaugurated by the Son of God Himself, this new dispensation was God’s final revelation to man. The letter was written for a group of Christian Jews wavering between Christianity and Judaism. It is in a sense the counterpart to Paul’s Letter to the Romans this time directed to a Jewish audience and explaining Christ’s relationship to all that had gone before in the religious history of Israel. So the writer compares and contrasts the person and achievements of Jesus with the Old Testament priesthood and sacrificial system. He is not only incomparably greater and better than these, he is the ultimate realization of all they stand for. He is the perfect priest, offering the perfect sacrifice. He has finally removed the barrier of sin and given people access to God in a way the sacrificial system could never do. That was the shadow: he is the reality men and women have always been searching for. To turn away from him – back to an inferior substitute, back to a proven failure – is to lose everything.
The Son is Greater than the Angels.
1. The letter begins with the most amazing statement on the nature of God’s Son. Jesus is not only God’s complete, supreme and final revelation of himself. He is the actual embodiment of the character and glory of God: the imprint of his Person; God’s express image. He is the ‘heir of all things’ the creator and sustainer of the universe, the one who has effected God’s great purpose of salvation. Through him sin has been dealt with, forgiveness made possible. His work complete, he is seated now at God’s side, in the position of supreme power. The angels themselves worship Christ. They are spiritual beings, but no more than God’s servants. Jesus is God’s Son. Hebrews 1:1-14
2. If the message of the angels – that is the law of Moses – proved true, how much more important is the Son’s message of salvation. For a little while Christ shared our human nature. Now he is crowned with glory because he willingly suffered death for our benefit, to free us from the power of death and to cleanse us of sin. It is ‘as if the whole created order was designed on the principle that glory could be secured through suffering’. He is the ‘pioneer’, blazing the way to salvation for all who follow. What is more, because he was one of us – like us in every way, except sin, – we can be sure he is able to help us. Hebrews 2:1-18.
Jesus Higher than Moses.
3. Moses made Israel into a nation. He led them out of slavery in Egypt and through the desert. He gave them God’s law and their forms of worship. No one was more revered by the Jews, and rightly so. But he could never be more than God’s faithful servant. Jesus is God’s Son. Hebrews 3:1-6.
Warning Against Unbelief.
4. This verse commences with a direct quote from Psalm 95:7-11, which summarises the inglorious history of Israel under Moses’ leadership in the desert. Those to whom this letter is addressed are in a very similar position to Israel at the time of the exodus. Both have seen God working in an amazing way. But despite this the Israelites rebelled against God in the desert. ‘They did not believe’ – and so a whole generation forfeited their right to enter the promised land and enjoy the rest God would have given them. Be warned. What happened then can happen now, if those who hear God’s message do not accept it. Hebrews 3:7 ‑19. & 4:1-13.
5. Jesus the High Priest.
The writer moves on from Jesus as the Son of God, to Jesus our great High Priest, a title given him nowhere else in the New Testament. Aaron was appointed by God as the first High Priest of Israel. He was the intermediary between a Holy God and a sinful people, the go-between who represented each to the other. The Jewish religion – the system these Jewish Christians were tempted to return to – still had its high priest. But in Christ, the writer says, we have a High Priest who fulfils all the statutory requirements, and far more, because he has no need to atone for his own sins. He is the perfect High Priest appointed by God as mediator for all time. Hebrews 4:14-16 & 5:1-10.
Warning Against Falling Away.
6. The writer is frustrated in what he wants to say because of his hearer’s lack of understanding. They have got stuck at the ABC level in their faith. This lack of progress is bad enough in itself. But it is symptomatic of something much more serious. They are in danger of abandoning their faith altogether. So the writer gives his sternest warning. If, despite all their Christian knowledge and experience, they wilfully reject their faith, they will become Christ’s enemies, effectively crucifying Jesus afresh. There will then be no hope for them, for they have refused the one available means of forgiveness. This is where their thinking is leading them, though they have not yet reached the point of no return. Hebrews 5:11-14 & 6:1-8.
The Certainty of God’s Promise.
7. The warning is quickly followed by encouragement. God’s promise is certain. Our hope of receiving God’s blessing is therefore certain too. Jesus has gone into the ‘heavenly Temple’ before us: there on our behalf in the presence of God – and we will share his glory. Hebrew 6:9-20.
Melchizedek the Priest.
8. Jesus has superseded the Levitical priesthood by becoming High Priest for all time. This fact is anticipated in Psalm 110, where the Messiah is described as a priest of a different order. The shadowy figure of Melchizedek reflects something of the nature of Christ’s priesthood – the dual role of king and priest; the timelessness of it; its superiority to the old order. Levi in a sense acknowledged this by paying Melchizedek tithes through his ancestor Abraham. Hebrew 7:1-11.
Jesus Like Melchizedek.
9. If the priesthood of Aaron and his fellow Levites had been good enough, no change would have been needed. But in fact neither these men nor the old religious system could meet the needs of sinful humanity. A different and better kind of priesthood, one not resting on the correct line in physical descent, was needed. Jesus, who came from the royal tribe of Judah, not the priestly tribe of Levi, is the one who has given us ‘a better hope through which we approach God’ and the guarantee of a better covenant.He offered himself as a once-and–for-all sacrifice, so he is able to save, for all time, those who approach God through him. The old order has been replaced with a better one. Hebrews 7:12-28.
The High Priest of a New Covenant.
10. Jesus is different from all other high priests. His priestly work in heaven is the reality of which theirs are mere copies and shadowy reflections. ‘If there had been nothing wrong with the old covenant, there would have been no need for a new one’. But God’s people were unable to keep their side of the agreement, as the prophet Jeremiah made plain in looking forward to the day when God would draw up a new one. The old agreement was external, based on obeying God’s rules. It was bound to fail (Jeremiah 31:31-34). The new rests on knowledge and understanding, a unity of heart and mind between God and his people. Hebrews 8:1-13.
Christ Enters the Heavenly Sanctuary.
11. The writer’s thoughts are again back in the time of exodus, when God made his covenant with Israel through Moses, and gave them the pattern on which to construct his Tent, the Tabernacle.(The Temple was later modeled on it – but it is not the Temple he has in mind here.) Although God had chosen to live with his people, in a tent like their own they had no right of access to him. The layout of the Tabernacle and the whole system of animal sacrifice emphasized God’s separateness and the people’s sin. The high priest, the only person allowed to enter the inner sanctuary, went in every year on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur, still the great Jewish day of fasting.) And the very repetition of the sacrifice made its ineffectiveness all too clear. It was also limited. For ‘sin with a high hand’ or deliberate, premeditated sin, there was no atonement, only punishment. When Christ came the whole system was reformed: a new order began. As perfect High Priest he offered himself as the perfect sacrifice – a single voluntary offering, effective for all time, setting people free from the wrongs they have done. And his death brought the terms of his will (the new covenant) into effect. For he went into heaven itself, to stand on our behalf in the presence of God. When he returns it will be to save.
One Sacrifice Supplants Many.
12. The writer continues to press home his point that the old repeated sacrifices could only remind people of their sins, not remove them. What the law could not do, Christ has done. His offering is effective for ever. No further sacrifice is needed. Sins and misdeeds are not only forgiven but forgotten. Hebrews 10:1-18.
To Perseverance in Faith.
13. Jesus has won for us open access to the presence of God. ‘So let us come near to God’, the writer urges. Hold firm to the hope that is ours in Christ. God can be trusted to keep his promise. There is no sacrifice left that will save those who oppose God, despise God’s Son and insult his Spirit. It is a fearsome thing to face judgement at the hands of the living God. Those who live by God’s law are people who have suffered for their faith, who have gladly endured loss. ‘Keep up your courage,’ the writer urges. ‘Hold on, patient endurance will be rewarded.’ ‘Just a little while longer……………...’ Hebrews 10:19-39.
The Exemplary Faith of our Ancestors.
14. The substance of this whole passage follows directly from verse 10:39; ‘We are not the sort of people who draw back…we keep faith .’ The faith that is needed is an ongoing confident reliance on God, come what may. To have faith is to be certain – not of the here and now, the tangible things – but about the realities we cannot see. To believe that God made the world, creating what we see from invisible resources, is itself a matter of faith. Hebrews 11:1-3.
Old Testament Examples.
15. The Old Testament abounds in examples of people who won God’s approval by trusting him to keep his promises, taking him at his word. The stories of how they lived and died ‘in faith’ stand on record, and the writer runs through the list of the most remarkable of these examples of faith. All of them looked forward to the time when God would fulfil his promises: none of them actually lived to see it. Their sights were set on a ‘better country’. And God has a place prepared for them: he is proud to own them and be known as their God.
Abel’s offering showed his faith – and his jealous brother killed him. Genesis 4.
Enoch’s faith saved him from experiencing death.
Noah’s faith meant acting on God’s warning word – so saving his whole family. Genesis 6-8.
Abraham’s trusting obedience to God’s call took him away from his settled life at home (Genesis 12:1-7) to become a lifelong alien and refugee. His faith made him willing to offer up his only son, trusting that God would bring him back to life. Genesis 22.
Isaac, Jacob and Joseph in turn all demonstrated their belief in God’s promise. Genesis 27:29, 47:31, 48:16, 50:24-26.
Faith overcomes fear.(Verse 23). It determined Moses’ choice to leave court and throw in his lot with a nation of slaves.
The city of Jericho was taken by faith not superior force.
Joshua 2 & 6.
Daniel’s faith saved him from the lions. Daniel 6.
Elijah and Elisha brought the dead back to life. 1 Kings 17:23 and
2 Kings 4:36.
Faith is demonstrated equally through those who have endured imprisonment, torture and death.
Jeremiah was beaten and imprisoned. Jeremiah Verse 38.
Isaiah, tradition says, was sawn in half. Verse 37.
Zechariah was stoned. Verse 37. (2 Chronicles 24:21).
And there are many more like these. Yet none of them received what God had promised - because he had a better plan, says the writer, one that included us too. As for us, we are surrounded by these heroes of faith. They are looking on, crowding round the track to see us run. So, strip off everything that hinders, and run the Christian race to the finish.
Consider Christ – the ultimate example of faith: its pioneer and perfector. He did not give up when he faced the cross. Fix your eyes on him. Think what he went through – and don’t be discouraged. Accept suffering as correction from a loving Father, evidence that he cares and wants the best for us. This discipline is like an athlete’s training. The pain is short-term: the reward, lasting. So brace the trembling limbs, and keep going! Hebrews 12:1-13.
Peace and Holiness.
17. This section is one of encouragement, and warning. Count your assets and don’t turn back. You have come to God by a better way than the terrors of Sinai, the writer says, and he sets out the glories of heaven for us to see. Be thankful, be grateful, respond to God in worship. Live to please him. There is no escape for those who refuse him: they will find him ‘a consuming fire’. Hebrews 12:14-29.
Brotherly Love and Purity.
18. God is concerned with the whole of life – the use of the home; response to the need of others; marriage; use of money. Love shows itself in practical living. Follow the good example of those who have gone before – for Christ does not change. Live, not by the rule-book, but by drawing on the inner strength which God provides. Hebrews 13:1-6.
Loyalty to Christ and Superiors.
19. The writer returns, briefly, to his earlier themes. Not the old order but the new. Not the old sacrifices, but Jesus. Not a permanent home on earth, but a city yet to come. Do good and help one another. Follow your leaders. Hebrews 13:7-17.
Request for Prayer.
20 And ‘please pray for us’: a personal touch at last. Hebrews 13:18-19.
Blessing and Greetings.
21. The writer closes with a deeply moving prayer and blessing. He has written to encourage, not censure. He hopes the readers will take this kindly, and that he will see them soon. Hebrews 13:20-25.