October 11, 2015.
Daily Reading: Hebrews 1-8.
Background: The book of Hebrews has often been praised as one of the most beautiful and theological books of the New Testament. The author of the book is unknown, and there have been many suggestions as to who wrote the book, ranging from Barnabas, Luke, or Apollos to even Clement or Priscilla. Paul was traditionally held as the author, but even by the end of the first century Pauline authorship was doubted, and modern scholarship argues very strongly against Paul as being the author of the epistle to the Hebrews on the bases of stylistic, theological focus and experiential differences than the other letters of Paul. It seems that the audience of the Hebrew writer were Jewish Christians, or at least Christians who were very familiar with the Hebrew scriptures, as the author draws heavily from these scriptures, often directly quoting them and pulling out doctrine and teaching that ultimately exalts Christ as the Messiah, our High Priests, who reigns forever. Since the epistle draws heavily from tabernacle terminology, it is generally believed that the epistle was written c. AD 64-69, before the destruction of the temple in AD 70. Overall, the message to the Hebrews is one that lifts up Christ above all and uses the Hebrew scriptures to show that Christ ultimately fulfills the role of our High Priest, though not in the Levitical mindset, but after the order of Melchizedek (see Hebrews 5-7).
Concepts and Connections.
The Son of God: The Hebrew writer opens with a beautiful discourse on the supremacy of the Son of God, jumping right into the subject material. He indicates the different ways that God has communicated with people over the years, first being through the fathers and the prophets, but now He speaks with us through His son. This Jesus, who is the exact imprint of God, came to earth to be God on earth, that He might bring the good news of salvation to the world, manifesting the love of the Father to us. He came to purify us from our sins through His sacrifice on the cross, and is now exalted on high, sitting at the right hand of the Father. Notice how the Hebrew writer pulls from prophecy and scripture to point to Jesus’ ultimate authority, as God created the world through Him. The author cites Psalm 2:7, 89:26-27, Deuteronomy 32:43, Psalm 45:6-7, Psalm 102:25-27, and Psalm 110:1, respectively, to indicate the supremacy of the Messiah above all humans and angels. He cites Psalm 104:4 to speak of angels. It is clear from this text that the Hebrew writer is well acquainted with the Hebrew scriptures, and is more than capable of using them to teach about the Christ. He will continue to draw teaching from the Hebrew scriptures thought the rest of the epistle, placing a high importance on them. Here he makes a clear delineation between the exalted Christ and the angels of God, having an inheritance that is more excellent than theirs. This concept of more excellent/better will be important as we go further in the epistle, especially in chapters 8-11.
Salvation through Jesus: As Jesus was shown to be superior to the angels in the previous chapter, the Hebrew writer makes the argument here then that we should pay even closer attention to what He has to say. Note the emphasis on the more excellent, or better system that Jesus brings. The word delivered by angles proved reliable, and thus the word delivered by the Son of God is even greater. Indeed, how shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation? The Father has born witness to the Son though signs and wonders, miracles and the gifts of the Holy Spirit, to confirm the word that was spoken by Him. Then the Hebrew writer makes a delineation between angels and man, just as he did between angles and the Son in the first chapter, speaking of Jesus’ human incarnation, as prophesied in Psalm 8:4-6. Here we see that Jesus has been given authority over all things (see also Matthew 28:18-20), though this may not be apparent yet to us, and He is crowned with lord and honor because of His sacrifice that He made for us, mankind. It was not for the angels that He came to die, but for mortal man, that we might have life forever.
The Hebrew writer then introduces the concept of Christ’s true identification with us, as He came to this earth in the flesh and suffered as we suffer, and indeed was made perfect though this suffering. Because of this, He calls us brothers, as prophesied in Psalm 22:22 and Isaiah 8:18, because He partook in the things that we partake in, and though the death that we experiences, He was able to destroy the power of death when He was raised again from death. It is this death that has been the lifelong enemy of mankind, ever since the fall when sin and death entered this world (see Genesis 3). But Jesus was made like us in every respect, suffered as we suffer, and was tempted as we are temped, and thus is able to be our faithful High Priest to God, as He is able to help us in our temptations and weaknesses. Though Him do we obtain salvation and victory over death, as we will be raised just as He was raised (see I Corinthians 15). What an amazing thing it is that He is not ashamed to call us brothers. Let us take comfort and joy in this.
Take care, lest you fall: In this chapter, the Hebrew writer takes us back to the time of Moses when he lead the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt (see Exodus 3-17, Numbers 11-17), to again enforce the more excellent ministry of Jesus and to draw spiritual lessons from the mistakes of the children of Israel. The author notes that Moses, who was one of the biggest heroes of the Jewish faith, highly honored, was a faithful servant to God. Though he was faithful, Jesus is to be counted worthy of more glory than Moses, as Jesus is the Son of God, as opposed to a faithful steward. Moses even testified to this, speaking of a prophet that the Lord would raise up a prophet like him from among their brothers that they were to listen to, lest they inquire the wrath of God (see Deuteronomy 18:15-19). This prophet was Jesus, the Son of God, and He had come to bring a ministry that was more excellent than that of Moses. Then the Hebrew writer turns to Psalm 95:7-11 to remind his audience of the lesson that is taught in this psalm from the history of the children of Israel. The children of Israel had been brought out of the land of Egypt with great signs and wonders, and they had the physical manifestation of God with them as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night (see Exodus 13:17-22). Yet it seems at every hardship they encountered, they grumbled against Moses and did not put their trust in the Lord. Because of this rebellion, specifically when they were too scared to take the promised land as the Lord had commanded, due to their fear of the inhabitants of the land, the Lord swore that their generation would not enter the promised land (see Numbers 13-14). The Hebrew writer exhorts his audience to not fall into the same unbelief as the children of Israel had here, but rather to put their full faith in Christ, so long as it is called today. He makes a strong point that it was those who had been led by the hand of God, who had seen His signs and wonders, who rebelled, and because of their rebellion and unbelief, they were unable to enter the promised land. Note that he is talking to Christians here, telling them to take care lest they have an evil, unbelieving heart that leads them to fall away from the living God. We should be attentive and mindful of our walk with God, and not believe that we were immune to falling away. Let us encourage one another that we hold our original confidence firm to the end.
The sabbath rest and the great High Priest: Continuing on with the example of the children of Israel given in the last chapter, the Hebrew writer uses this rest that they were not allowed to enter into and the sabbath rest as an archetype of the spiritual rest that still remains for us to enter into. The children of Israel who rebelled in the wilderness were not allowed to enter into this rest because of their disobedience (note the connection between unbelief and disobedience that is presented here, as the terms are use interchangeably in 3:9 and 4:6). But good news came to them just as good news has come to us, and if we take the same response that they did in the wilderness (fear and not trusting in the Lord), then we too will not be allowed to enter into the sabbath rest of God. Notice how the Hebrew writer takes the concept of the physical day of rest (see Genesis 2:2, Exodus 20:8-11) and combines it with the prohibition of the children of Israel from entering into the rest of God shown in Psalm 95 to flesh out the spiritual meaning behind the sabbath rest of God, a rest that is still open for us to enter into today, as is the appointed day (not a physical day, but rather the present day, ‘today’). If the rest was fulfilled though entering the promised land led by Joshua, the Hebrew writer argues that David would not have spoken of a day of rest so many years after this. Thus we must strive to enter this rest, lest we fall from it just as the children of Israel did in the wilderness. Note the spirit that is given to the world of God here, and let us be sure of the living and active word of God, that is able to discern the intents of our hearts, as nothing will be hidden from God.
Further, Jesus Christ was the embodiment of the word of God (see John 1:1-18), and the Hebrew writer again brings up the concept of Jesus as our great High Priest, of whom we should hold fast our confession. Jesus, who came to this earth to suffer and die just as we do, is able to sympathize with our weaknesses, as He too was tempted as we are, yet did not sin. Because of this, we can come to Him with confidence before the throne of grace, to receive mercy and help in our time of need. What a wonderful Savior is Jesus our Lord. This concept will be continued in the next chapter.
1. The great high Priest: The Hebrew writer continues on here explaining how Jesus is now our great High Priest by examining the duties and calling of a high priest. The priest was chosen by God to act on behalf of men, offering gifts and sacrifices to God for man’s sin. In the Levitical priesthood, the men who acted on behalf of other men towards God also had sin, they too would have to offer a sacrifice for their own sins as they did for the people. Because they were aquatinted with sin, they knew how to deal gently with sin. Further, not just anyone could act as this mediator between God and man, but only those who were called to do so by God, such as Aaron (see Numbers 16-18). In the same way, Christ was called to be our mediator and High Priest, not needing to offer a sacrifice for Himself as He lived a sinless life, but still able to sympathize with our weaknesses and temptations because He too went through suffering and temptation, not after the order of the Levitical priesthood, but rather after the order of Melchizedek. While Jesus was on this earth, He learned obedience though suffering, and became the source of eternal salvation to all who would obey Him. It is an important concept that He is a High Priest after the order of Melchizedek, who had no recorded beginning or ending (see Genesis 14:17-20), as Jesus was from the tribe of Judah and not Levi. This will be further explained in the following two chapters, but first the Hebrew writer pauses to give a warning to his audience before he continues on with this difficult concept.
2. Milk to meat: Though he is in the middle of deep theological discussion, the Hebrew writer takes a break to address the people directly, that they might recognize where they are in terms of maturity. He bluntly says that what he is trying to explain is hard to grasp because they had become dull of hearing. They should have reached the point where they were able to teach these things, but they were still stuck on the basic principles of faith. Even more, they still needed someone to teach them again these basic principles. They were on milk when they should have been enjoying the spiritual meat of the word of God. He warns them here that they need to press on to maturity, with their powers of discernment trained to distinguish good from evil. This section is continued directly in the next chapter.
1. Pressing on to maturity: Continued from the last section of the previous chapter, the Hebrew writer goes on in rebuking and encouraging his audience to press on to maturity, leaving the elementary principles. This is not to say that they were to forget these teachings, of course, but rather to move past them. He lists six fundamental teachings that should be accepted and not laid again as a foundation: repentance, faith, baptismal instructions, the laying on of hands, the resurrection and eternal judgment. It was time to move on into deeper study and deeper understanding. Then the Hebrew writer makes a strong statement, saying that it is impossible for those who have tasted salvation and then fallen away to be renewed to repentance since they are crucifying the Son of God once again and holding Him up to content. Note that this says it is impossible to renew them to repentance, indicating that they who had fallen away were unwilling to repent of their sins, and thus why they were crucifying (present participle, continuing tense) the Son of God again (see Hebrews 10:26). They were a crop that had born thorns and thistles, and were to be thrown into the fire (see Luke 13:6-9). The Hebrew writer was not saying these things to his audience so as to discourage them, but rather to encourage them to be imitators of those though faith and patience inherit the promises. He was confident that their response would be positive, that they would indeed push towards maturity. We too should take the warning given here by the Hebrew writer to press on to maturity, not laying again the foundational principles but enjoying the solid meat of the word. Our journey to maturity is expected of us as Christians. It is not optional.
2. God’s sure promises: After the short pause taken to encourage the brethren to move toward maturity, the Hebrew writer segways back into his discussion about Melchizedek by setting the background with the promise given to Abraham by God (see Genesis 12:1-3 and Genesis 22:17). He makes the point here that when people swear, they take an oath on something greater than themselves. Since there is nothing greater than God, God swore by Himself to Abraham that He would make a great nation of him, blessing him and causing him to multiply. By this oath, He guaranteed His promise and Abraham could have great confidence in the promise of God, for it is impossible for God to lie. Just as the promise to Abraham was fulfilled in number and ultimately though Christ, we can be sure of the promises given to us by the Son of God, Jesus, who has become our High Priest after the order of Melchizedek (this discussion continues on into the next chapter.
Melchizedek and Jesus: It is truly interesting that the Hebrew writer here takes a total of 4 verses in the Hebrew Scriptures, three from Genesis 14:17-20 and one from Psalm 110:4 that have to do with a man named Melchizedek and fleshes out a full Messianic theology from them. Melchizedek was the king of Salem, probably an ancient form of the city of Jerusalem, and a priest of the Most High God. We know very little about this Melchizedek as we are not given his genealogy nor a record of his birth or death. In a way he appears out of nowhere and then disappears as quickly as he appeared. Yet when Abraham was returning from his victory over Chedorlaomer to rescue his nephew Lot, he met Melchizedek on the way home, and Melchizedek blessed Abraham by God Most High and Abraham game him a tenth of everything. Melchizedek, in a sense, continued as a priest forever because he is not recorded as having the beginning of days or the end of life. This man, who’s name is translated as king of righteousness and his kingdom as the king of peace, is shown to be the greater of the two men, as Abraham gave him a tenth of the spoils of war. By extension, it could even be said that Levi, from whom the Levitical priesthood would come, gave tithes to Melchizedek though Abraham his ancestor. Yet the inferior was blessed by the superior. Again in this chapter, the Hebrew writer emphasizes different comparisons of better/more excellent verses the inferior.
Giving the background and showing the characteristic of a continual priesthood through Melchizedek, the Hebrew writer them moves on to his point. Perfection could not be obtained through the Levitical priesthood if there was further need of a change in the priesthood, as denoted by scripture. Think about that, if the Levitical priesthood offered perfection, there would be no need for a new priesthood, a new covenant or the perfection that was brought through Christ. But the Messiah was prophesied to be a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek in Psalm 110:4. Where there is a change in the priesthood, though which the law was given, there is also necessarily a change in the Law. Through the Levitical order, Christ could not be a priest, for He was from the tribe of Judah. But it was witnessed of Him that He would be a priest after the order of Melchizedek, a continual priest who would serve forever. The Levitical priesthood was plagued by sin and death. There was need for many priests because they all succumbed to death. Further, the law made nothing perfect. But Jesus is the guarantor of a better covenant, for His priesthood was confirmed with an oath (the Lord swore) and build on the only sacrifice that could actually take away our sins, and that was the sacrifice of His life, the perfect Lamb of God. He introduced a better hope. Jesus did not need to offer first for His own sins, for He knew no sin, but rather was able to impart a purity that the blood of bulls and goats from the Levitical priesthood could never do (see Hebrews 10:4). Nor was He prevented from continuing in office by death, because He won the victory over death and lives forever. The word of oath that came in Psalm 110:4 appointed Christ as a priest forever, just as Melchizedek continued forever, and the bearer of a more excellent covenant.
A better covenant: After explaining how Jesus is now our continual High Priest, the Hebrew writer here focuses on the better covenant that Jesus brings, which was founded on better promises. He begins with a picture of majesty, showing Jesus on the throne in heaven as a minister to the holy places. He shifts the focus of an earthly priesthood to a heavenly one, as this had always been what the earthly priesthood was based on. When Moses was given the law and the instructions to erect the tabernacle, he was told to do so according to the pattern given to him on the mountain (see Exodus 25:40). In saying this, it is evident that the tabernacle on earth was but a copy and shadow of heavenly worship. It is this heavenly worship for which Jesus is the mediator. He is the Minister in the true tent that the Lord set up, not man, a ministry that is much more excellent than the old covenant, for it is set up on better promises- promises of eternal life. The earthly priesthood set up though the law has always been fading, as everything in this life does, but the spiritual worship, of which the tabernacle was a copy, continues forever. Further, if the first covenant, through the law, had been faultless, there would be no need for a second. But Scripture has foretold of a second (see Jeremiah 31:31-34). In making this new covenant, the better covenant though Jesus, the old covenant was made obsolete and ready to vanish away. There was no need for the law, which brought forth the knowledge of sin (see Romans 3:9-20) and though this knowledge death, for through Christ, we are purified from our sins and death no longer has power over us. The law was a ministry of death (see II Corinthians 3:4-11), but the ministry of Christ brings forth eternal life.
Tomorrow’s Reading: Numbers 21-24.
Let us press on to maturity.