Lecture 26: Hebrews
We’re going to talk about Hebrews tonight and so that leaves four more discussions of biblical passages and then a fifth one that is really an important lesson, you want to make sure you make it for that because we’re going to go through the Statement of Faith. The Statement of Faith has been my grid to some degree for deciding what I talk about in these different books, because I want to make sure that everything that is in the Statement of Faith I’ve covered when the verses come up. The last time we’re together, we’ll take the Statement of Faith and read, and you’ll remember one thing from Mark 8, and another from Hebrews 2, and so on. Tonight, we’re going to look at the Book of Hebrews.
Resources and Nature
Let me say some things by way of introduction. In terms of commentaries there are two very good ones out there: George Guthrie wrote the NIV Application Commentary Series on Hebrews and it’s an extremely good commentary. Of the young scholars, his is probably the best of the Hebrews scholars; he wrote a dissertation on it and he has written quite a few books on it. F. F. Bruce’s commentary on the Epistle of Hebrews is a little old, it says revised, but anything Bruce writes is good. It’s a little more detailed, but it’s a very good commentary. We’re lucky to have a couple really good commentaries.
Hebrews is the first of what we call the General Epistles. It’s a loose name; it means that the audience is general. Some of these Books like Hebrews seem to be written to a specific area, but we call them the General Epistles: Hebrews, James, 1 and 2 Peter, and Jude are considered General Epistles. 1, 2, and 3 John and Revelation are generally Johannine Literature. I think some people put 1, 2, and 3 John in the General Epistles as well, but they’re technically not. Hebrews is the first of this last category of Books called the General Epistles.
Authorship, Date, and Recipients
As far as whom the author is, we simply have no idea, no one claims authorship. There are a couple of things we do know; we do know that the author was not a first generation believer. In Hebrews 2:3 he says that our salvation “was declared at first by the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard,” so he’s saying I did not hear this directly from Jesus. We have a second generation Christian in other words, and despite some argumentation Paul most certainly did not write Hebrews. In some of the early centuries they started the story that Paul wrote Hebrews; as far as we know it was motivated by a desire to get Hebrews into the Canon. Because we don’t know who wrote Hebrews, it had trouble getting into the Canon so the church finally said, “Paul wrote it so it has to be included,” but there’s simply no way that Paul wrote this book, not unless he’s schizophrenic or something. The way that the author of Hebrews thinks is totally different than Paul; his writing style and his vocabulary is drastically different from Paul’s and so there’s just no way that Paul wrote this book. The two guesses are: Tertullian’s guess that Barnabas wrote it; of course it’s a wild guess because we don’t have anything else that Barnabas wrote, so we don’t know how he wrote. The guess that most people follow, if you’re into guessing, is Luther’s guess and that is that Apollos wrote it. The book is heavily Jewish and it’s heavily theological and the only person who really fits that description in the New Testament that didn’t write other books is Apollos. It’s a wild guess, but if you have to guess, most people would guess Apollos because of the nature of the argument.
As far as the date, most people are comfortable guessing that Hebrews was written some time before AD 70. The reason for that is that the Temple was destroyed in AD 70 and because of what the author is going to be arguing, the fact that the Temple was destroyed would be the final proof of this author’s argument. The fact that he doesn’t talk about the destruction of the Temple is very strong argument for that it’s still up, so we are sometime before AD 70. He also uses present tense verb forms when talking about the Temple, so you’re probably in a date sometime before 70. There’s an interesting comment at the end that says Timothy just got out of jail, and the problem is we don’t know of anytime Timothy was imprisoned, so if you want to guess, his imprisonment could have happened after Acts was over, in which case we’re late 60’s, but we’re just guessing at that point.
In terms of the recipients it’s a little clearer on that. The recipients are Jewish Christians. The book is heavily Jewish, and one of the reasons that it is so confusing at times is that it relies heavily, not just on Old Testament facts and culture, but on a Jewish way of thinking in a Jewish argument. The author is steeped in Judaism and he expects the audience to be just as steeped in Judaism. It’s written to Jewish Christians. Secondly, we can tell from the book that they were Jewish Christians who were considering going back into Judaism in order to avoid persecution. That’s the key to understanding the whole book. They were people who were Jews who had become Christians, and in order to avoid persecution they were leaving the Christian faith and they were going back into Judaism because Judaism was a protected religion, you couldn’t be persecuted for being a Jew, but you could be persecuted for being a Christian. They were Jewish Christians that were apostatizing and were going back into Judaism to be safe.
In terms of the themes of Hebrews there are two basic themes. The first is the supremacy of Christ over all things, or the superiority of Christ over all things. The heart of the theological argument in Hebrews is to show that Christ is superior to anything and everything that you might worship and so it’s a strong book on the supremacy and superiority of Christ, especially over the Jewish sacrificial system. The whole middle part of the Book of Hebrews is comparing Jesus as the High Priest and how his sacrifice is more powerful than the repeated Jewish sacrifices; there’s just a whole lot of comparison between Jesus and the Jewish system. First and foremost, the theme of this book is the supremacy or the superiority of Christ over all things.
The second main theme is that of the warning passages—that’s the standard name for them. There are three warning passages in Hebrews and there are a few other verses here and there that give warnings as well. These are the strongest warnings in all of Scripture to persevere. They are the strongest warnings that say if you do not stick to your Christian commitment, you are in all kinds of trouble. The language is extremely strong. The supremacy of Christ is the positive argument, and in a sense the negative argument is if you’re not overwhelmed by the supremacy of Christ, then maybe you’ll be overwhelmed with fear of what’s going to happen to you if you do not continue in your Christian faith. Those are the two sides of the same coin.
I’m going to have to teach Hebrews a little differently because it is so complicated that in an hour and half there’s simply no way to work through the detailed arguments. I’m going to try to give you the broad overview. We’re going to jump in a few places with a little more detail, but I would encourage you sometime this week to sit down and read through Hebrews with your notes and with the outline, and you’ll be able to fill in some more of the blanks. I can’t get too far into detail tonight. There is an outline at the end of your notes and you may want to and keep it out or at least thumb back and forth so you can watch how we’re going through the book.
Let me say something about the structure and then we’ll be done with the introduction. Overall, the book is concerned with the supremacy of Christ; he’s going to argue a little bit about the supremacy of Christ over angels and a little about the supremacy of Christ over Moses. Then the bulk of the book is about the supremacy of Christ over the Jewish sacrificial system. The author would not have gotten a good grade in English Literature class with this book because he doesn’t follow an outline. It’s seems he’ll go on something for awhile and then talk about something else. He talks about the supremacy of Christ over angels whom the Jews adored, worshipped; the supremacy of Jesus over Moses and the Mosaic Law and the Old Covenant whom of course the Jews just about worshipped; and the supremacy of Christ over the entire sacrificial system—everything that Aaron stood for and Levi.
That’s the basic structure of the book, but what he does is he goes on for awhile and then he says I’m going to interject something. Three times he interjects warnings. Two times he interjects what I’m calling expositions. Warning are precisely that: I’m really going to shake my finger at you and tell you that if you don’t follow this you’re in really deep trouble. The expositions are sermons, they’re the author trying to say, please listen to what I’m saying, please follow my instructions, and so they are very encouraging and motivating. What he likes to do is he’ll talk along for awhile and then he interjects a warning and then he’ll start talking about the same thing again that he was talking about before the warning. It’s like a pastor who goes on rabbit trails and he’s working and working and in his mind he things, I can’t go any further without warning these people how serious this is. He does this warning, and then thinks, now I can go back to what I’m talking about. He’ll go on for awhile and then he’ll say, this is really hard, they are going to get discouraged, I need to encourage them, so he goes off for a couple of chapters with one of these expositions, one of these encouraging sermons, and then he’ll go back to his argument. That’s why the outline is important and then you’ll see how we jump around. Then he ends with a set of ethical exhortations, which is very typical of what Paul has done as well.
Supremacy of Christ (Heb. 1:1-3)
Let’s go ahead and start in 1:1-3. The author starts by asserting the supremacy of Christ in Hebrews 1:1-3. This passage is similar in significance, when we talk about Christology, or the understanding of Christ, to Ephesians 1, Colossians 1, Philippians 2, and John 1 too. In terms of letters of the epistolary material these are the four main sections that we go to get our understanding of who Christ is; Ephesians 1, Philippians 2, Colossians 1 and then Hebrews 1:1-3. Let me just read it and then I’m going to go back and summarize everything that it tells us about Christ. “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his 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.” He sits at God’s right hand, a position of power.
There are at least 8 basic truths about Jesus, and the reason I’m emphasizing this again is if you’re ever talking to someone who says that Jesus is a man or a prophet, just open to Hebrews and read this and say what does the Bible say about who Jesus is. (1) He’s the Son. He’s not just a prophet, he has a unique and special relationship to God. (2) He’s the heir of all things; all things are his; he will inherit all things. (2) He’s the agent of creation; we talked about how God the Father was the one who made the decision to create, but it was God the Son who actually did the creation. He’s the agent of creation. This is picked up by the way later on in 1:10, “You, Lord, laid the foundation of the earth in the beginning, and the Heavens are the work of your hands; they will perish, but you remain; they will all wear out like a garment.” (4) He’s the revelation of God. He is the one who has revealed God to us; that’s what that phrase radiance of the glory of God means—that God is a glorious God and Jesus is the radiance of his Glory. It is he that has made the invisible God known; it is he that has made the invisible God seen. Jesus is the revealer; he shows his Glory of God.
(5) He is God. The phrase is “the exact imprint of his nature,” you struggle a bit in Philippians 2 with “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,” since it is difficult to understand the word form. There was a bit of a struggle in John 1:1, but there’s no struggle here. Jesus has the exact imprint of God’s nature; he is actually what God is. This is one of the strongest statements of the deity of Christ. (6) He’s the sustainer. The phrase is "upholds the universe by the word of his power." We talked the other day when we were together about how scientists don’t know what holds the atom together. All the forces acting as we think they act would repel each other and so scientists have come up nuclear glue. I watched a thing on Discovery Channel that talked about the string theory and how they’re desperately trying to find someway to explain why all these pieces of matter hold together and they shouldn’t. They keep finding smaller and smaller things. It is Jesus who is the sustainer; he upholds the universe by the word of his power. If he does that through the string theory, then glory be to God. I don’t know if that be that case, but he’s the sustainer. (7) He’s the Savior. He made purification for our sins. His death on the cross paid the price for our sins so we could be purified, we could be cleansed. (8) He’s Lord. He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high; the majesty is God the Father and the right hand is the place of exclusive power and that Jesus’s place, so he’s Master, he’s Lord, and he’s Boss.
This is one of those passages you need to keep in your mind when you want to share about Christ. It’s just a great place to go to, but the overall gist of all of this is that the author of Hebrews wants to assert right off the bat the supremacy of Christ over all things. There’s nothing over which he is not supreme.
Supremacy over Angels (Heb. 1:4-2:18)
The author of Hebrews then starts dealing with the first specific thing that Jesus is being compared to, and that is angels. It goes from 1:4-2:18. The backdrop of this discussion is that we know that, not in the core in the middle of Judaism, but in the fringes, they worshipped angels. This is not a theoretical discussion, this is the author saying, “You worship angels? Jesus is superior, is supreme over angels.” He begins with a series of Old Testament quotations; I’m not going to go into too much detail except there are a couple of things I just have to point out.
A Series of Old Testament Quotations
He’s quoting in verse 5: “For to which of the angels did God ever say, ‘You are my Son, today I have begotten you?’” This is a quotation from Psalm 2:7; it was a quotation that was originally used of the King, and Judaism came to believe the King was type of the Messiah and so Psalm 2 is often a Messianic Psalm. Yes, it was talking about King David, but through King David to the Messiah. Here you have absolute confirmation, at least in the mind of the Canon, that Psalm 2 is Messianic and it definitely does apply to Jesus. He’s not just saying, Jesus, not the angels, are the Son. He’s claiming that Jesus is the Messiah, that he is the fulfillment of the Psalm 2:7 prophecy, but then he goes on in the second half, "Or again, 'I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son'?” This is a quote from 2 Samuel 7:14. This is the promise that God would raise up a physical decedent of David who would sit on a throne of an eternal kingdom. The author of Hebrews is saying, that’s Jesus too, that he’s the fulfillment of the Davidic promises. In Hebrews 1:8, “But of the Son he says, ‘Your throne, O God, is forever and ever,’” that’s the application of Psalm 45 for the full divinity of Christ.
In these citations of these three verses you have Jesus being the Messiah, you have him being the fulfillment of the Davidic promise, and you have him being God. The overall gist of all of this is Jesus is this, not the angels. Why would you worship angels? Remember he’s talking to Jews who had become Christians who were still worshipping angels. I think there’s a tendency to think that Judaism was this pure religion, and it wasn’t. It was syncretistic like every other religion in the ancient world. They were worshipping angels as well as other things, at least on the fringe of Judaism, but the argument is that Jesus is superior to the angels.
I will more than normally point out verses that I think are really important, and 1:14 is one of my favorites. He says, speaking of angels, "Are they not all ministering spirits sent out to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation?" That’s what angels are, God works through his creation; it still mystifies me because he works through you and he works through me and he works through angels. He can just say, “It shall be done” and it’s done, but he likes to work through his creation and so the angels are his ministering spirits who go out to do his will for you and for me. That’s who angels are; it’s a really cool verse. I’ve shared with you in the past about how I’m anxious to meet mine.
Warning #1 (Heb. 2:1-4)
He goes on, and he’s working with this supremacy of Jesus and angels, and we get to 2:1m the first of the warning passages. The author is saying, I need to warn you, I can’t go any further without giving you a warning: "Therefore," because of the supremacy of Jesus over angels, "we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it." We don’t bolt away from the truth; we drift away from the truth. That’s our general pattern. One step at a time, we move away from Jesus, and the author wants to remind his people don’t drift away from the truth of the Gospel. Then he goes on and he talks about how important the salvation that Jesus proclaimed really is. This is the first of those warning passages and it’s pretty mild. It’s going to get much rougher as we get into the book.
Continues with Jesus’s Supremacy (Heb. 2:5-18)
He gets done with the warning, he goes, what was I talking about, oh yes, the supremacy of Jesus. In 2:5-18m he goes on and he continues the discussion he had before about the supremacy of Jesus. He argues that Jesus was temporarily lowered below the angels in his incarnation so that he could do what he needed to do, but then he was exalted back up to his glorious position far above the angels. Again the overall argument is the supremacy of Christ.
In terms of important verses, verses 2:14-18 are very important in the doctrine of the Incarnation so let me just read them and you’ll see why: “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood,” it’s the continuation of the argument, “he” Jesus “himself likewise partook of the same things,” in other words, he became human, “that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery (15).” See that’s who you and I are apart from Christ. We are people who are subject to lifelong slavery, but we have been freed from that because of Christ’s death. “For surely it is not angels that he helps, but he helps the offspring of Abraham (16).” Then here’s the special verse, “Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect (17),” he had to be completely and totally human, “so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation” (to make an atoning sacrifice) “for the sins of the people. For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted (18).”
In terms of the incarnation, there are a couple of very important statements there. Verse 17, “He had to be made like his brothers.” Why did God have to become human? At one level we don’t know, but we do know that he had to become human, and this is the main verse that says that. In other words, the way I’ve been saying it is that if human sins were going to be forgiven, there had to be a human death. Jesus had to be made like us so that he could be the sacrifice. This is the verse, by the way, in the NIV and the TNIV, that has garnered a lot of discussion because the TNIV translates it, “he had to be made like his brothers and sisters in every respect.” I’ve talked with the translators and I’ve said certainly there’s got to be a better way to say that. Jesus had to be made like his sisters in every respect—every respect? They go, oh you know what we’re saying and I go yeah, but the people in the pew don’t. They’re going to assume that Jesus is androgynous, but they didn’t change it—that’s okay.
The other thing that’s really important is in verse 18. We don’t talk much about the humanity of Christ. The evangelical church in America is more concerned with his divinity, but this is one of those really strong human verses. It’s because Jesus suffered when he’s tempted that he’s able to help those that are being tempted. When you and I go through times of temptation, our High Priest, our God who stands between us and God the Father went through the same things exactly like you and I did because he was fully human—he had to be made like his brothers in every way and he understands experientially exactly what you and I go through. Knowing that should bring comfort and encouragement to us that God who knows all also experienced as a human being what you and I experience. Now you won’t hear many sermons on the humanity of Christ in the evangelical church, but this is one of those that is pretty powerful I think. That’s the end of the first comparison, Jesus is Supreme over the angels.
Exposition #1: Call to Be Faithful (Hebrews 3-4)
The author says, “I need to preach a little.” One of the interesting things in the Book of Hebrews is that there is a tendency to think of him purely as a seminary professor, purely as a theologian, because the arguments are so deep and so intricate, but he’s not a seminary professor, he’s a pastor. It is that pastoral role, as far as we can tell, that is causing him to burst out and say, it’s not enough simply to have described this, I’ve got to encourage my people; they need to understand that they need to be faithful, but God is going to help them be faithful. So actually all of chapters 3-4 is the first of his expositions and he’s saying, I just need to encourage these people to be faithful to Jesus. I’m going to use this way of thinking several times tonight. You have to think of him as a pastor, not a seminary professor. Which I guess says something about what I think of seminary professors; having been one myself, I can say that, but he is a pastor and he has a deep love for these people and he wants to help them, and it’s not enough to simply tell them the truth, he wants to encourage them in the process. That’s why he pops in and out of his outline.
A Positive and Negative Example of Faith (Heb. 3:1-19)
He just pops out for a large section here in all of chapter 3 and 4 and he’s going to preach a sermon. He says you have to be faithful, you have to hang in there, you can do this. He starts by giving a positive example in 3:1-6, where he talks about Jesus and how faithful Jesus was in his life. Then starting at verse 7, he says let me give you a negative example, let me talk about the Jews of the Exodus, and so in 3:7, he quotes a passage out of Psalm 95, “Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says, ‘Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion,’” in other words, don’t harden your hearts the way the Jews of the Exodus did “on the day of testing in the wilderness.”
Then he gets down to verse 12: “Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God.” Now who is the author writing to? He’s writing to a church, you have to remember that, he’s writing to a church and to a church he says, “Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you”; see he doesn’t know, he doesn’t know who is going to leave the faith, he doesn’t know who is true, and so he spreads his net very broadly and says don’t let “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 (13),” see he doesn’t say you’re either elect or you’re damned, so it doesn’t matter. He says “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 (14).” Now that’s a pretty strong warning.
The backdrop is that the Jews have seen the wonders of God, they’ve seen the plagues, they’ve seen the crossing of the Dead Sea, they’ve seen the Pillar of Fire and the Pillar of Smoke, they’ve seen the manna in the wilderness, the quail, maybe he’s thinking about the Tabernacle has been built and the presence of God; these Jews saw all of that. They experienced all of that and yet what happened? They didn’t remain faithful. They fell away and were condemned for it. The author says don’t let that happen to you, be faithful. He understands that these people and this church that he’s writing to have corporately experienced the power of God just like the first Israelites did, but they’re starting to do what the Israelites did; they’re starting to fall away, they’re starting to abandon their faith. He doesn’t say, well you raised your hand at camp so you’re okay, he says, you share in Christ if you persevere, if you hold firm to the end. Don’t be like the Jews who didn’t persevere. He has this positive and this negative example, if you want to call it that, of why it is so important to persevere in your Christian walk.
Be Faithful to Enter the Rest (Heb. 4:1-13)
We’re going to skip most of this next section because it’s a complicated argument and I’m not even comfortable with what it means. The basic point is that God promised that the Jews could enter into a rest, and then through some very difficult argumentation, he makes the point that they didn’t enter the rest, and so we still have a rest to enter into, but the only people who are going to enter into the rest are those who are faithful. The overall gist of chapter 4 is obvious—be faithful. Hang in there, persevere, don’t give up, don’t leave the faith so you won’t be persecuted. That’s all I’m going to say on chapter 4, it’s a complicated chapter. That ends exposition #1, sermon #1. It is just a call to persevere, to follow the example of Jesus and not the example of the Israelites, and then the rest chapter.
The Superiority of Christ to the Jewish Sacrificial System (Heb. 4:14-10:18)
Starting in chapter 4 with verse 14 then we move into the third major argument, and this is the biggest of the arguments. He’s going to argue the superiority of Christ to the Jewish sacrificial system. By a Jewish Christian abandoning the Christian faith and going back into Judaism, what they’re saying is that the sacrifice that Christ provided on the cross isn’t sufficient or isn’t unique. “I’m going back into Judaism and go back to killing goats and heifers, and these sacrifices are enough to get me forgiveness.” What he wants to argue is that Christ’s sacrifice is superior and the Jewish sacrifice didn’t do anything, so why would you want to leave Christianity? Overall that’s what the whole thing is about.
Transition (Heb. 4:14-16)
In 4:14, we have this really nice transition where he moves from exhorting them to be faithful to talking about Jesus as the high priest, let me just read it, “Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the Heavens,” the resurrection and ascension, “Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession (14).” Let’s persevere, let’s stay true to our Christian commitment. “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin (15).” This is a very important verse that when you and I are going through trials, our Savior Jesus Christ understands, experientially (I keep adding that word because I think that’s the best way to do it, because God knows all things whether he experiences them or not, right?) But Jesus, God, understands experientially what it is to be tempted and to go through difficult times, being tempted to abandon your faith in order to avoid persecution. He says he can sympathize with us, he’s been through the same thing, yet of course, he didn’t sin he adds. “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need (16).” He’s encouraging them, don’t abandon the faith, look at who Jesus is as the high priest, he understands us; we can come fully into God’s presence and receive mercy and grace there. It’s this wonderful transition.
Jesus as the High Priest (Heb. 5:1-10)
Background: High Priests and Melchizedek
Then in chapter 5 in the first 10 verses, he goes into a discussion that Jesus is our high priest. Now I need to define a couple of phrases just in case you don’t know. One of the twelve tribes, the Tribe of Levi, were designated Levites, and they weren’t given any land (this is back in Moses’s day). They weren’t given any land. They had cities, and their job was to care for the Temple, they were the worship leaders in the Old Testament and they did the Temple sacrifices. All the priests came out of the Tribe of Levi. They were divided into sections and we know that once a month the different section would be on duty to serve, and the only other hierarchy was that there was one high priest. All the priests that were serving could take a sacrifice and go into the Holy Place where the animals were killed, and the showbread was in there. There was a place called the Holy of Holies, which was behind a curtain that contained the Ark of the Covenant. In the Ark of the Covenant, were the ten commandment tablets, Aaron’s rod that budded, and manna. Once a year on the Day of Atonement, the high priest only would go through the curtain (this was the curtain that was ripped when Jesus died), and make an offering for the sins of the nation as a whole. That’s the Holy of Holies. You have the high priest, he was the main priest, he was the top priest, Caiaphas in Jesus’s day, who would go into the Holy of Holies to make this Day of Atonement sacrifice.
The other person that, if you’re not familiar with it, is Melchizedek. Melchizedek is a hard word to spell and a strange story. It’s in Genesis 14, and if you’re unfamiliar with it you should read it. Lot gets stolen and so Abraham gets his army together and goes to rescue his nephew Lot. After they come back this character appears from nowhere, we have no indication who he is, but he’s Melchizedek, King of Salem and it’s really unexpected. Abraham gave him a tenth of all the spoils he had gained in war—why would he do all that? That’s Melchizedek. He doesn’t really play much in the history of the Old Testament, he’s just this unusual character back in Exodus 14.
Jesus as the Superior High Priest
Anyway with that as background the basic idea that is happening in chapter 5 here is that in every way conceivable, Jesus, as the high priest, is superior to the Jewish high priest, that’s the basic gist. The author of Hebrews is going to go through and look at some of the characteristics of Levitical priest and is going to show why Jesus is such a better high priest than they. His idea is he’s trying to prove the supremacy of Christ. For example, he’ll say that the Levitical priesthood, the regular Jewish priests, are appointed by men, but like Melchizedek, Jesus was appointed by God, that makes him better. The Jewish priests keep offering sacrifices over and over, including sacrifices for themselves. Jesus only made one sacrifice, and it wasn’t for himself so he has this comparison going on. As I remember from seminary days the argument is this, and again it is the Jewish argument, that because the Old Testament doesn’t stipulate where Melchizedek came from and doesn’t state that he ever died, he had no beginning and he had no ending, and that’s what the author of Hebrews says. That’s why he’s making this comparison between Jesus and Melchizedek. The argument can get confusing and you may look at it and go, that doesn’t convince me of anything—it’s because you’re not a Jew and you’re not 2,000 years old. The assumption is that 2,000 years ago, a Jew would have looked at this argument and would have gone, Wow! That’s right. Argumentation methods change from culture to culture. The basic idea here is that Jesus, as the high priest is superior to all priests and the sacrifices of the Jewish system.
Warning #2 (Heb. 5:11-6:20)
Starting at 5:11, he goes into his second warning, and again I have to assume that he is a pastor, and that he’s sitting there and he’s going through a logical theological argument and he goes, “You know what this may convince some people, but it’s not going to convince everyone, I just really need to let them have a Hellfire and damnation sermon,” and you’ve got one here from 5:11 to 6:20. This warning passage in Hebrews 5:11 through the end of chapter 6 is one of those passages that is highly controversial and has engendered a lot of debate and from where I stand most of the debate is worthless and they’re not debating about the hardest thing in the passage. You’ll see what I’m talking about in a second.
Encouragement toward Spiritual Maturity
The author stops and he is obviously a little frustrated because he realizes he may not be getting through to his people, and so he starts the warning, and he talks about first of all about their spiritual immaturity. About this “we,” I have no idea who “we” are, I don’t know if it’s a royal “we” or there’s someone else with him. In 5:11, he says, “About this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food,” they’ve stayed at that baby level (12), for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child (13). ‘But solid food is for the mature,’” and he said solid food is what I want to give you (14), “‘But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.’" He says, I wish you all would have grown up spiritually then I could actually talk about this stuff, but you’re a bunch of babies. He says, in light of that let me encourage you to move on towards maturity. 6:1: “Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ,” specifically the supremacy of Christ, “and go on to maturity, not laying again” and these are the elementary doctrines that he wants to leave “a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, and of instruction about washings,” (ritual cleansings) “the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment (2).” In other words, he said, that’s basic fundamental stuff and you all should be beyond that. “And this we will do if God permits (3).” He says you’re a bunch of spiritual babies and we’ve got to move on, we’ve got to move on to theological meat.
The Danger of Apostasy
Then he tells us why it is so important that they move beyond the elementary teachings. Why is it so important that everyone in this church grows up spiritually? Why is it so important that everyone can fully explain the Statement of Faith? The author of Hebrews tells us starting at verse 6:4, “For it is impossible, [to restore again to repentance] those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the Heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, 5and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come.” The idea is that it is impossible to restore these people to repentance if they fall away, “since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt.” He’s saying we have got to move on to theological meat, you all have got to come to terms with understanding that you can’t simply stop being Christians every time persecution comes around. The reason you need to move on to maturity is, if you were a mature Christian you would know you can’t do what you’re doing. If you had grown up in your Christian walk you would know you can’t move in and out of Christianity; that’s the basic argument.
The idea is that the possibility of apostasy, of falling away from the faith, is much more real for babies in Christ. For those who have grown up and who have learned their theology and it has transformed their lives, they understand, and apostasy is less of a possibility for them. That’s the gist of what he’s saying. The basic gist is that we’ve got to move on to Christian maturity because the dangers of apostasy are so real, and one of the ways to keep you from leaving the faith is for you to grow up in your theology. Then he has this metaphor in 6:7-8, “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 (7).” In other words, the land that carries through to the end for what it was intended is blessed. You take land, you plant it, God rains water on it, it produces a crop that goes to the end of the process, that’s what is important. “But if it bears thorns and thistles, it is worthless and near to being cursed, and its end is to be burned (8).” Can you hear the warning there? That if you don’t persevere to the end then there’s punishment in place for you.
The Armenian and Calvinist Debate
Let me stop and camp just a little bit. The Arminian and Calvinist debate on this is alive and well; it has been repeated over and over again. Arminians taught that salvation is totally of you as a person, that it’s your choice; you can choose to be a Christian and if at a later time you want you choose not to be a Christian, you can lose your salvation. The Calvinist side says, no once you’ve been changed, the regeneration process is irreversible, you can’t go back, you can’t lose your salvation. The problem with this passage is that the words here can be used to describe two totally different kinds of people. The words can be used to describe a person who has truly become a Christian and then falls away, but the same words can also describe someone who has been part of the community experience and then leaves.
F. F. Bruce has all the documentation, his commentary on how these words can describe, not necessarily someone who actually became a Christian, but someone who was part of a community experience. If you raise your children in the church and let’s say one isn’t a Christian, has he experienced the Holy Spirit? It depends on what you mean by experience doesn’t it. In one sense, no, there’s nothing that has been internalized, but has he experienced as part of community? Sure. He’s been part of a regenerative community where you know good is held up as good and evil is help up as evil and all those other things. It all depends on what the words mean and the problem is the words can mean either. That’s why you can never solve the Calvinist Arminian debate on this passage. It’s impossible; the words just don’t let you do it.
I think there’s a lot of Simon Magus in this passage. Remember he was the sorcerer in Acts 8. Philip goes up there and starts preaching and the Samaritan city responded and they became Christians. In Acts 8:12, “But when they believed Philip as he preached good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women. Even Simon himself believed, and after being baptized he continued with Philip, but (13)” as the story continues he tried to buy the gift of giving the Holy Spirit and, but in verse 20, “But Peter said to him, ‘May your silver perish with you,’” it’s actually much stronger than that, but that’s as strong as proper English can go, “‘May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money (20)! You have neither part nor lot in this matter, for your heart is not right before God (21). Repent, therefore, of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you (22).’” Now was Simon a Christian before that or not? It says he believed.
The solution, I think, in this particular passage, and in Simon as well, is to remember that the speaker is a pastor. When a pastor like me stands before the people, I don’t know which of you are Christians and which aren’t. I just know that a bunch of you are considering apostatizing, of leaving the Christian faith and disavowing any connection of Christ at all. As a pastor, he says to the people, “You can’t do that, once you’ve tasted of the Spirit, you can’t leave.” The whole key to this passage, I believe, is to remember that he is a pastor speaking to a mixed audience. He’s not a technical theologian who is trying to make sure every word is exactly and precisely right. He’s a pastor and a bunch of his people are leaving and he doesn’t like it. To them he says, once you’ve “been enlightened,” once you’ve “tasted the Heavenly gift,” and once you’ve “shared in the Holy Spirit, once you’ve “tasted the goodness,” if you leave you can’t ever come back. Don’t think that you can. I say it that way because I think that’s got to be how he would have been saying it. This is pure sermon; this is not theological discussion. That’s my way of handling it, the Calvinist Arminian debate is never going to be settled on this passage, because that’s not what he’s concerned about.
To jump ahead, the author of Hebrews doesn’t care whether people can lose their salvation or whether they ever were a Christian to begin with, he doesn’t care. He just knows these people are going to go to Hell if they don’t persevere, so he says, don’t think you can do this. See for me, the real difficulty is when he says, once you’ve experienced Christ, whether it is as a Christian or whether it is communal, and you know me by now well enough to know that I believe this is a communal experience, you sit down and read it and you go, yeah obviously they’re talking about a Christian. That’s the natural way to read it, but the partaking is language is used of taking communion and sharing in the communal experience. That’s an interpretive decision you have to make.
The Real Problem
Whatever decision you make you’re going to have a whole bunch of problems. I’ve chosen my set of problems. The real problem for me in this passage he says once you’ve experienced Christ in community you can’t ever come back. My problem with this is, yes you can. My brother was raised in the church; he left the church when he was 16. When he was 22, he came back to the Lord, he came to the Lord, we didn’t care, he was a Christian, but he was someone who had experienced the community of Christ, abandoned it and he did come back. That’s what the author says can’t happen. That’s the real problem with this passage, and that’s the one we should be more concerned about.
There are two ways to handle this particular issue and I’m not comfortable with either, but these are the only two I can come up with. One way is to say that the author of Hebrews is a pastor, and when he says impossible he means practically impossible. Now you know me, I don’t like to add words to Scripture, I have rather strong feelings on that, but I can see how he would write, it’s impossible to come back. Does he really mean absolutely and in every single case impossible? No, he means it’s practically impossible. There’s someone who comes to our church because his girlfriend comes to our church and he’s heard the Gospel over and over again and he has not become a Christian yet. I hope this isn’t going on in his life, but what often happens in that situation, is they get harder and harder. There are events in people’s lives when they almost come to the foot of the cross, and then they pull back and it’s practically impossible to get through to them. At a very practical pastoral level, it is I think. That’s my best guess. Now understand I don’t like adding words to the text, but that’s my best guess; he’s a pastor, he’s passionate and he’s saying you’re not going to come back to Jesus if you leave him.
The other argument that is often used in this passage is based on the fact that the participles are all present tense, that as long as you are doing this you will not be brought to repentance. Don’t think that you can live as an apostate and as you live as an apostate ever come back to Christ. I don’t like that as much because it’s so obvious that as long as I’m living as a non-Christian I’m not going to be a Christian, but I can see how it works and there are quite a few commentaries that hold that position. It’s a little tautological for me, but it works. Tautological means that it’s so obvious that it doesn’t need to be said. That’s this passage, the passage is not a Calvinist-Arminian debate, the arguments are too strong on both sides, but it’s a great pastoral passage to say, you’re almost there don’t give up looking for Christ, don’t give up and turn away because if you do you’re not coming back. We all know of lots of stories where that’s been the case unfortunately I think.
Encouragement (Heb. 6:9-20)
The author continues in 6:9 and goes through the end of the chapter. He knows that that was a pretty strongly worded warning, and he wants to encourage and exhort them, so he talks a lot about God and how our confidence is in God. He says that God has an unchangeable character and purpose; it’s impossible for God to lie. God has guaranteed his promise to us with an oath. There’s a beautiful emphasis on the character of God as being trustworthy and non-changeable. It’s not just that we have to do a bunch of things or not do a bunch of things, but that God is going to be true to his commitment and true to his promise to you, so hang in there.
When I talk about the perseverance of the saints it’s first and foremost about the perseverance of God, that God perseveres with me, he continues to hold me and enable me to have faith, and it’s because he perseveres with me that I persevere in my life of being faithful to him to the end. This is one of those passages that is behind those comments and so it’s an encouraging passage to read, and I encourage you to do that. It’s not just a matter of me hanging on for all I’m worth, it’s that God is unchangeable in purpose; his character is trustworthy; he is committed to us and he doesn’t lie. That’s part of the objective piece of our assurance, assurance is a doctrine that we can know that we are Christians. Part of our assurance is subjective and part of our assurance is objective—it’s concrete. It’s concrete because it’s concrete in the character of God, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life." That doesn’t depend upon me, that was a commitment that God made that if I believed in his Son I will have eternal life. That’s the concrete part of our assurance as Christians and that’s what is going on in this passage. Amen.
Superiority of Melchizedek (Hebrews 7)
The writer goes, well that was a long tangent, I guess I’d better get back to what I was talking about, and in chapter 7, he returns to the argument that he was in in 5:10, so you have to watch your outline carefully. This is the passage where he develops his whole doctrine of Melchizedek, and he is going to say that Melchizedek was superior in his priesthood over that of Aaron, and Jesus is a priest like Melchizedek and therefore Jesus is superior to the Jewish sacrificial system. You can read it if you want to spend some time working through it.
There is a really cool verse in Hebrews 7:25: Jesus “is able to save to the uttermost” in other words, completely and totally for all time “those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.” It’s a very strong verse against Mass among other things. This is a wonderful verse that Jesus on the cross accomplished to the uttermost what it takes to save you and me. He has done everything, and the reason that we can know for sure that his salvation was to the uttermost is that he’s still living before God making intercession for you and me. The essence of Mass for Catholicism says that his death on the cross wasn’t sufficient, and so in Mass they kill Jesus every morning, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, and again when I say this, this is in the Catholic theologies and it’s quoted in Grudem’s commentary, he quotes a Catholic theologian by the name of Ott; Wayne may give more information, and I don’t know where it comes from, but that’s the essence of Mass. When my nephew goes, he’s a deacon in the Catholic church, he says, I’m going to the sacrifice and he knows exactly what Mass is, going to kill Jesus and his death continues to earn merits that will be applied to me to be saved. That’s why when you preach the sufficiency of the cross to a Catholic, it’s like they have never heard it before, and this is a great verse. Jesus saved to the uttermost, completely and totally, and he’s still living today making intercession; he’s not on the cross, he’s before God the Father. You can be confident that his sacrifice was sufficient. A very important verse.
Superiority of Jesus’s New Covenant (Heb. 8:1-10:18)
Having made the point about Melchizedek, he goes on in chapter 8 through the middle part of chapter 10, and he talks a lot about the new covenant, that Jesus is our high priest, and that by bringing about a new covenant, he makes the old covenant obsolete.
A covenant is a testament, it’s an agreement, and in the early parts of Genesis you can see a covenant being made between God and Abraham. It’s a one-sided covenant in this case because Abraham believed and it was credited to him as righteousness. God makes a covenant with Abraham and he takes a bunch of animals (it’s an ancient treaty that kings made); God puts Abraham to sleep and he walks through the middle of the animals. He’s reflecting ancient practice of two kings that had decided to quit fighting each other. They would make a covenant, an agreement, and they would say, this is how we are going to relate to one another. Then at the end of the ceremony they take animals and cut them in half and they walk together in the middle of the dead animals, and what they’re saying is, if I break this covenant may what we’ve done to the animals be done to me. That’s the ancient covenant practice you can see in Genesis 15. There are several covenants in Scripture, there’s the Abraham Covenant, there’s the Noahic Covenant, but it’s the Mosaic Covenant, the Covenant the agreement that God made on Mt. Sinai, where God says, I will be your God and you will be my people. That’s the agreement. Now here are the rules of the covenant, the Ten Commandments, the Deuteronomic Laws. So he enters into a covenant, but the Law is written on stone, it does not come with the ability to obey.
The New Covenant Makes the Old Obsolete (Heb. 8:7-13)
In Jeremiah 31, the prophecy says there is going to be a new covenant, there’s going to be a new way in which God relates to his creation. The law will not be written on tablets of stone, it will be written on the heart. Ezekiel comes along somewhere around chapters 36-37 and adds that is it God’s spirit who is going to make all of this possible. You have a God inspired obedience.
Jesus comes and at the Last Supper, he institutes the new covenant, this new way in which we are going to relate to God, and it’s made possible by his death on the cross. The elements of Passover, the bread and the wine, “Do this in remembrance of me.” The new covenant starts at Christ’s death and it is a new way in which we are relating to God. Then in Acts 2, the promise of Ezekiel is fulfilled, and the Spirit of God comes and indwells all true believers, enabling them to obey the commands of God. That’s the concept of the covenant as it goes through.
What’s going on in this passage is that he’s arguing that the new covenant, this new way of relating to God makes the old obsolete. Now the law is still good and perfect and that’s a whole other issue, but in terms of a means of righteousness, the superiority of the new covenant is vastly superior to that of the old covenant. That’s why we call it the Old Testament and the New Testament; it’s the old covenant and the new covenant. Just don’t use that language if you’re talking to a Jewish person. You refer to the Hebrew Scriptures and the Greek Scriptures or the Christian Scriptures, don’t call it the old covenant. The argument is that Jesus brought about the new covenant, and it’s vastly superior to the old covenant with all its rules. He goes into a discussion that Christ’s death is superior and therefore that his death that brought about the new covenant is superior to the death of animals that brought about the old covenant, so why would you go back into Judaism and abandon Christianity? These are deeply theological arguments, but arguments that mean a lot to Jews. That’s part of the struggle for us.
There were a couple of verses in here I need to point out because they are so important. In 9:22, the second half of the verse says, “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” The only way in which there can be forgiveness is if there’s death. Why couldn’t Jesus just forgive me? Well, for whatever reason in God’s mind, it’s not possible, forgiveness only comes about when there is death. A death of one thing for something else we know. There you have the necessity of Christ’s death on the cross. The interesting counterpart to that is in chapter 10:4, “For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” In order to be forgiven there has to be a death, but the death of bulls and goats doesn’t cut it. The only death that can forgive human sin is a human death, ergo, Jesus had to be fully human in order for his death to pay the price of human sin. One of the interesting questions that comes up is, well wasn’t there forgiveness in the Old Testament? The answer is yes, but it wasn’t because of the sacrificial system. Ultimately, Moses, Elijah, these people, were forgiven of their sins because God knew that Christ was going to die for them. Since, as theologians like to say, all time is present to God, it makes no difference to him whether his Son has been sent or not, but all the forgiveness through all the ages is based upon Christ’s death on the cross. The Levitical system was just something pointing people towards that. These are two verses that are interesting.
The other verse that is down here that is important is Hebrews 9:27, “Just as it is appointed for man” (and woman) “to die once, and after that comes judgment….” There’s your strongest verse against reincarnation. I saw the numbers the other day, it’s something like 30-35% of Americans that believe in reincarnation. This is the strongest verse, it says no, every one of us is going to die once and after that doesn’t come grasshopper, after that comes judgment. It’s an interesting discussion worth reading.
Exposition #2: The Assurance of Our Faith (Heb. 10:19-11:40)
We get to chapter 10, and the author goes into his second exposition, it’s a wonderful passage, it’s all about the assurance of our faith. You can see why he has to do this. This has been really strong language; he’s been beating on them really hard. From 10:19-11:40, he wants to say, there’s assurance of your faith, you can know you are going to Heaven, let’s talk about that for awhile, let me encourage. In 10:19, he calls people to persevere.
Then there’s another very strong warning passage chapter 10:26, “For if we go on sinning deliberately 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.” Can a Christian live in ongoing sin? It sure doesn’t look like it does it. This is a very strong warning.
Then he says, let me encourage you: remember the earlier times, remember to the good old days when you were persecuted and you stood up and you grew in your faith. Think about that, in fact let’s think about faith in general, he says. This is all by way of encouragement.
Encouraging them to reflect on people of faith is one of the most famous chapters in the Bible in Hebrews 11. What he’s trying to say in this passage is, look at all the people, who by faith, believed in something they could not see and they persevered to the end. Even at their death, they had not seen the fulfillment of God’s promises to them, but they had faith; they believed this was the right way to live and that God would be true to his promises in his way. He goes through the hierarchy of people of faith in the Old Testament.
Two verses are especially important, at least to me. If you want a definition of faith, Hebrews 11:1 is it, "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." Thomas was dead wrong when he said, unless I see the holes in his hand I will not believe. Thomas was the essence of what we’re not supposed to be. There’s a lot in the modern American church that concerns me, because what it seems to me is it’s a desire for experiential validation, I want to feel something. If I feel it then I know it will be true. That doesn’t please God. What God wants is faith, he wants us to be assured, to live with absolute confidence of things that we look forward to, but we do not see. He wants us to live with absolute conviction in reference to things that we don’t see.
The other verse that is so important is Hebrews 11:6: “Without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.” That really is one of the most important verses in the Bible I think because it shows us at the heart what God wants from us. Does God want our money? No. What God wants in my life more than anything else is for me to believe. He wants me to believe that he is who he says he is and that he will do what he says he’s going to do. He wants me to have absolute confidence in that. That’s why I love those verses in Habakkuk, that even though there be no grapes on the vine, though the stalls be empty, yet I will rejoice in God my Savior. That’s what God wants from you and from me more than anything else; he wants us to believe, to trust him that he is who he says he is and that he did on the cross what he said he was going to do, and that he will do at the end of time what he said he’s going to do. There is much in the American church that is the exact opposite. In the songs that we sing, that are meant to make us feel certain emotions. I’ve been thinking a lot about worship lately, and in fact I’m preaching on worship all summer, so I’m thinking a lot about that. What God wants in our worship service is a service of faith where we, with confidence, believe, and that we don’t need all the external stimuli, like Thomas said, unless I see his hands, I won’t believe; God wants us to have faith. This is a great chapter and a great verse on that.
Ethical Instructions (Heb. 12:1-13:19)
Starting in chapter 12 there’s a series of ethical instructions. Chapter 12:1-2 are well known verses: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses,” who are all the people in chapter 11. There’s a great picture of a young minister at the pulpit and fading in and out behind him are images of this great cloud of witnesses. Someday when I have enough money, I’ll buy the picture. It’s a great picture. We are surrounded by these people, we are surrounded by a great crowd of witness, so "let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance" see there’s your perseverance "the race that is set before us (1), looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God (2)." This is a great verse. He calls us to persevere in the midst of suffering in all of this.
Verse 14 is another one of my highlighted verses, "Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord." Again if I get overly aggressive when I preach, these are the verses you need to think of and just forgive me, okay? Strive “for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.”
He talks about the blessings and the new covenant. There’s another warning, there are some more practical instructions that go on. These are all things that you can read, and I would encourage you to do so. Chapter 13:8 is a very important verse: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” That’s the doctrine of the immutability of God—have I used that word before? That’s the technical name of doctrine that God does not change. Can you imagine what would happen if God changed? You know I used to accept people based on their faith, I think I’ll accept them today based on how good they are. It’s a really good thing that God is immutable—that he doesn’t change and this is one of the strong verses on the immutability.
Then he comes to the conclusion with a benediction. Let’s close on Hebrews 13:20, “Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.” That’s his summation of the entire book and again you have this really neat idea that God equips us and it is his energy that allows us to do what is pleasing in his sight.