45. Hebrews - Content
Lecture: Hebrews - Content
As to the outline of the book, I think you can divide it essentially into three main parts, with a conclusion. The first one (1:1-4:13) seeks to show the superiority of Jesus Christ as being greater than the prophets, the angels and Moses (his person-hood is greater than those); the second section (4:14-10:18) focuses on how he is a better high priest and sacrifice; then (thirdly), we have this exhortation in 10:19-13:17 to hold on to Jesus as the pioneer and perfecter of the faith; and then you have the conclusion (13:18-25).
Let me break down 1:1-4:13 a little more clearly here. Jesus is greater is greater than the prophets in 1:1-3,
“In many and various ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us through his Son [in contrast to the prophets, we now have one who is the Son], whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.”
Now, he provides a greater revelation as the Son, and when you look at the prophets, they don’t compare, because Jesus is the heir of all things. You can’t say that of any prophet. You can’t say that of Elijah or Elisha, or Isaiah, or Jeremiah; but you can say it of Jesus. So why would anyone be tempted to go back to those inferior prophets and their teachings, instead of to the one who is their fulfillment? Not only that, he is the creator of all things. He created the world. As to Jesus, he reflects the very glory of God – he is the shekinah glory of God on earth. And you can’t say that about the prophets. He possesses the essence of God’s nature, and who he is corresponds exactly to what God is. If you want to know what God is like, he reflects the glory of God – bears the very stamp of his nature. He upholds the universe by his will. By his sacrifice he brought about purification from sin. There are no prophets that did that. And now he is seated at the very right hand of God. He is God’s “right-hand man”. Therefore, he is much greater than the prophets, and the revelation he brings is that much greater as well.
So we have then here the argument against going back to Judaism, and leaving the Christian faith, by going back to the teachings of the prophets. God has revealed something much greater, because he has sent his Son. And we have this greater revelation by the Son, who is heir of all things, who is the creator of all things, who reflects the shekinah glory of God, whose very essence is that of God’s nature, who upholds the universe by his will, who is the one sacrifice that brought about purification for all things, and who is now seated at God’s right hand. Why would anyone ever want to switch from this Jesus back to that revealed through the law and the prophets? We see an emphasis here on the greatness of Jesus. Some of this we’ve come across. In Colossians 1:15, Jesus is the creator and heir of all things, and in Philippians 2:6, he reflects the very glory of God, “… who being in the form of God” is the essence of God, and reflects his nature. Therefore, God has highly exalted him and given him a name above every name, much like this statement here in Hebrews. So this is a common understanding of the church as to Jesus and his deity.
He is not only greater than the prophets; he’s greater than the angels. Here, you have Jesus, unlike the angels, as God’s Son. He is worshiped by the angels; he has the rights and authority of the firstborn in a family; and here you have in 1:8 another very powerful Christological statement as to the deity of Christ, “But of the Son he says, ‘Thy throne, O God, is forever and ever.’” Some have tried to translate this as “God is thy throne forever and ever.” But, “Thy throne, O God, is forever and ever,” is an address. “Thy throne is God forever and ever” is a statement. And nowhere in the Jewish literature, the Talmud or the Targum, is that passage ever interpreted as a statement about God; it’s always understood as an address to God. So we have to translate this, “Thy throne, O God, is forever and ever.” The last comment here is against critics who want to interpret it in the form of “God is thy throne forever and ever.” It’s not a statement; it’s always understood as an address. So he is greater than the angels.
In chapter 3, he is greater than Moses (vv. 1-6),
“Therefore, holy brethren, you who share in a heavenly calling, consider Jesus, the apostle and high priest of our confession, who was faithful to him who appointed him, just as Moses also was faithful in all God’s house. For Jesus has been counted worthy of more glory than Moses – as much more glory as the builder of a house has more honor than the house itself. (For every house is built by someone, but the builder of all things is God.) Now Moses was faithful in all God’s house as a servant, to testify to the things that were to be spoken later, but Christ is faithful over God’s house as a son. And we are his house if indeed we hold fast our confidence and pride in our hope.”
So, we have here then the emphasis on the superiority of Jesus over the prophets, over the angels, and over Moses as well. He is not a servant; he is a son.
In 4:14-7:28, you have the emphasis on Jesus as a better high priest and sacrifice. For instance, 5:1-3, “Every high priest chosen from among men is appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. He can deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is beset with weakness. Because of this he is obligated to offer sacrifice for his own sins just as he does for those of the people.” So, when you look at our high priest, you have this compared to the high priest of Israel. They, first of all, have to offer sacrifices for their own sins. We have a high priest who is without sin and doesn’t have to do that. In 7:23, ff., there is the fact that there are many of these different high priests,
“The former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office, but he [Jesus] holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever. Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them. For it was indeed fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens. He has no need, like those high priests to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people, since he did this once for all when he offered up himself. For the law appoints men in their weakness as high priests, but the word of the oath, which came later than the law, appoints a Son who has been made perfect forever.”
So, the quality of our priest is so much better. And, we don’t have many sacrifices, we have one, once, for all.
And finally, there is that “once for all” emphasis, in 10:11-14, “And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified.” Here, we have again the “once, for all-ness” of Jesus’s sacrifice. And when you think about it, there’s no sacrifice that could compare to it, so how could anyone think of an additional sacrifice? And, when you think from the perspective of the believer, what would you want to add to the sinless, spotless sacrifice of Jesus, which is done once for all, for your salvation? You want to add something to this? How utterly pitiful anything you might add could be! So we accept it as such, by grace, through faith, and leave it that way.
Then, we have these exhortations to hold fast to Christ the pioneer and perfecter of faith. I’ll read a few of those: 10:26-31,
“For if we deliberately go on sinning after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace? For we know him who said, ‘Vengeance is mine; I will repay.’ And again, ‘The Lord will judge his people.’ It is a fearful thing to fall in the hands of an angry God.”
Now, let me comment about the various warnings in the Book of Hebrews. There are numerous warnings about drifting away.
• In 2:1-3, “Therefore, we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it. For since the message declared by angels proved to be reliable, and every transgression or disobedience received a just retribution, how shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation?” This is a strong warning.
• 3:6b, “And we are of his house if indeed we hold fast our confidence and our pride in our hope.”
• 3:7-19, “Therefore the Holy Spirit says, ‘Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion, on the day of testing in the wilderness, where your fathers put me to the test and saw my works for forty years. Therefore I was provoked with that generation, and said, ‘They always go astray in their heart; they have not known my ways.’ As I swore in my wrath, ‘They shall not enter my rest.’’ Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end. As it is said, ‘Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion.’ For who were those who heard and yet rebelled? Was it not all those who left Egypt led by Moses? And with whom was he provoked for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the wilderness? And to whom did he swear that they would not enter his rest, but to those who were disobedient? So we see that they were unable to enter because of unbelief.”
• 4:1-13 [We’ll just read v. 1 for now], “Therefore, while the promise of entering the rest remains, let us fear, lest any of you are judged to have failed to reach it.” I might point out that these do not tend to be favorite Baptist texts. I remind you, though, that they’re in the Bible. I don’t care if you’re a lapsed Calvinist, you need to preach and explain these texts. You can’t just read them and hope that the Spirit of God will work in people’s hearts.
• This next passage is really an interesting one, 6:4-9, “For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt. For land that has drunk the rain that often falls on it, and produces a crop useful to those for whose sake it is cultivated, receives a blessing from God. But if it bears thorns and thistles, it is worthless and near to being cursed, and its end is to be burned. Though we speak in this way, yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things – things that belong to salvation.”
Notice the description of these people who fall short. They have repented; the issue is to restore them to repentance. They have been enlightened. Paul makes some reference to that kind of thing in Ephesians 5:8, “For once you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of the light.” They have tasted the heavenly gift. In the early church, this was often referred to as having been baptized. (Again, I’m talking about the early church’s interpretation.) Tasting of the heavenly gift, they were partaking of the Lord’s Supper. They became partakers of the Holy Spirit. They tasted the goodness of God’s word. 1 Peter 2:1, “So put away all malice and all guile and insincerity and envy and all slander. Like newborn babes, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up to salvation; for you have tasted the kindness of the Lord.” And they have tasted the powers of the age to come.
I don’t want to be sarcastic, but I think some of these who are lost seem to have experienced a lot more than some of the eternally saved in our churches. And, as teachers and preachers of the word, I think that, if you’re a true Calvinist like Calvin was, part of the way they will endure and persevere in their faith is when you preach text like this as warnings. And God takes those warnings to assure them of their calling and salvation. I think that’s the way a good Calvinist should interpret these verses. These are means by which the church has helped to persevere. And I don’t know if you’re going to do be faithful to the word of God if you simply say, “By the way, these are all hypotheticals.” Be careful not to give false assurance to people who may have experienced those things and are not really part of the kingdom of God. Part of the warnings of Hebrews, if you’re a Calvinist, is to help them persevere by those very warnings. These are instruments of God to help them in that way.
And if you might say of the Arminians that they had experienced the salvation and then drifted away and became apostate, and were lost. Please note, though, that if you’re a Calvinist or an Arminian, you’re not really that far apart. Because what you say is, “If they were once saved and lost it [like an Arminian]”, or “They were never saved to start with [like a Calvinist]”, you both agree that their eternal fate is the same. And that, I think is the important issue that you want to emphasize. The writer of Hebrews encourages us to make sure there is not in us a heart of unbelief that will keep us from these things; and that should be part of our preaching, too. Not just assurance, but also warnings against falling away, which are in the scriptures as well. And then you have some other passages that you can look at on your own there.
There is a great old hymn, written by Bernard of Clairvaux. He was the leader of a monastic order, around the middle of the twelfth century. He wrote,
“O sacred Head, now wounded, with grief and shame weighed down,
Now scornfully surrounded with thorns, Thine only crown.
How pale Thou art with anguish; with sore abuse and scorn!
How does that visage languish, which once was bright as morn!
What Thou, my Lord, has suffered, was all for sinners’ gain;
Mine, mine was the transgression, but Thine the deadly pain.
Lo, here I fall, my Savior! ‘Tis I deserve Thy place.
Look on me with thy favor, vouchsafe to me Thy grace.
Men mock and taunt and jeer Thee, Thou noble countenance.
Though mighty worlds shall fear thee and flee before thy glance.
How art thou pale with anguish, with sore abuse and scorn!
How does that visage languish that once was bright as morn!
Now from Thy cheeks has vanished their color once so fair;
From Thy red lips is banished the splendor that was there.
Grim death, with cruel rigor, has robbed Thee of Thy life;
Thus, Thou hast lost Thy vigor, Thy strength in this sad strife.
My burden in Thy Passion, Lord, Thou hast borne for me,
For it was my transgression which brought this woe on thee.
I cast me down before thee, wrath were my rightful lot;
Have mercy, I implore thee; Redeemer, spurn me not!
What language shall I borrow to thank Thee, dearest Friend,
For this, Thy dying sorrow, Thy pity without end?
O make me Thine forever, and should I fainting be,
Lord, let me never, never outlive my love for thee. ”
May God grant that we will never outlive our love for Jesus, and that the warnings of the Book of Hebrews may help us to continue to pray that prayer that before denial will come death -- that God will be merciful in that way.