How to Read the Bible Book by Book: Hebrews
Hebrews 4:14: “Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess.”
For those of us who are in the profession of preaching, we often like to see how others do their work. I don’t think that is unique to us. My mother is a schoolteacher, and she often likes to see how other teachers put together their lesson plans and organize their classes.
It is interesting when you can see how your own contemporaries put together sermons, but what is really fascinating is to examine how people from times other than your own put together their sermons. Old sermons from Spurgeon, Augustine, and Chrysostom are fun to go back and read. I always laugh when I do so because their sermons are often complicated and intricate. I assume that the style of sermon that people would listen to then would not be handled very well today. But nonetheless, there is value is seeing how men in previous generations exhorted the church.
The reason I bring that to your attention today is because the Biblical book we are examining in this article is more of a sermon than a letter. I am not sure that it was ever preached in a pulpit, but it is clear by the way that it is constructed that it is a sermon that is meant to be read and reflected on by the reader. Like many sermons in the ancient world, it is not one that is built for modern sensibilities. It does not have a funny story, or a nice poem placed at the end. Rather, it is a serious and sober exposition of seven different Old Testament passages. (Psalm 8:4-6; Psalm 95:7-11; Psalm 110:4; Jeremiah 31:31-34; Habakkuk 2:3-4; Proverbs 3:11-12; and Exodus 19).
Who wrote the sermon and what was the occasion of its writing? We do not have a definitive answer to either question. When it comes to the question of authorship, there is a lot of speculation, but no solid evidence. It was included among the letters of Paul in early collections, but it clearly was not written by Paul. Some say Luke may have written it, others say Apollos. There are about as many opinions as there are people to comment on it. So, we are not really sure who wrote it. Whoever it was, he had a commanding knowledge of scripture and was very skilled at applying Christ as the fulfillment of all prophecy.
As to the question of the occasion of the writing, while again we don’t have anything definitive to go on, it does seem apparent from the content of the letter itself that Hebrews is written to a group of Jewish Christians who are being persecuted by other, more traditional Jews. Because of the persecution, they are tempted to abandon Christ and go back to Judaism. Hebrews is written to give courage to such people, and also to warn them that to abandon Christ is to abandon God and what he is now doing. Nothing could be more serious in the writer’s mind.
So, as I was saying, the book is laid out as a sermon or a “word of exhortation” (13:22) and it develops in a way that any normal sermon would. There is an introduction, two main points, and then application. I’ll form the rest of this article in such a way that you can see how this unfolds.
The introduction is short but is one of the great passages in our New Testament. Here the author points to the fact that in the past, God spoke to his people at various times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us through his Son. That is another way of saying, Jesus is the last and definitive prophet, because he is God himself in human flesh. No one could speak a more complete word than the one spoken in Jesus. The teaching that comes from him, and now through his apostles, is the last and definitive word on all matters of faith.
To verify the identity of this Son, the author gives a seven-fold description of the Son’s identity. He is the heir of all things, creator of all things. He is the radiance of God’s glory; the exact representation of his being who sustains all things through his powerful Word. He provided for purification of our sins, and he has now sat down at the right hand of the Father. His name is superior to any other name in heaven or on earth.
Point One: Jesus is Better than the Angels, Moses, and Joshua (1:5-4:13)
Having introduced the idea of the superiority of the Son, the writer now fleshes this out with three examples. First, he will show from scripture how Jesus is superior to the angels. Through a series of Old Testament quotations, he shows that angels are messengers sent to serve the people of God, but Jesus is the everlasting son who will reign over the new creation, bring in everlasting justice, and sits at God’s right hand until all his enemies are put under his feet. The author goes on to point out that human beings were originally supposed to reign over creation. That reign has been damaged by sin, but Christ has come as a man and has now taken the place that was intended for all humanity. He was made lower than the angels for a while but has now been crowned with glory and honor that God always intended for human beings.
Not only is Jesus greater than the angels, but chapters 3 and 4 show that Jesus is greater than two of the leading Old Testament figures—Moses and Joshua. Moses was a faithful servant in God’s house, but Jesus is superior because he is the Son who is over the house. Just as Moses was faithful, so also was Christ faithful, but his faithfulness is of a much higher kind.
In a similar way, Jesus is superior to Joshua. It was God’s intention that Joshua would lead his people to find the Sabbath rest in the Promise Land. But because of the people’s disobedience, they never entered that rest. The true Sabbath rest is still open to everyone. Jesus is superior to Joshua because he opens the way to the true Sabbath. The Hebrew writer warns that they should seek to enter that rest while there is still time…while it is still called “today.”
Point Two: Jesus as the True High Priest and His Superior Ministry (4:14-10:18)
Having established this first point, the author of Hebrews then moves on to his second point. This Jesus, who is superior to the angels, to Moses and to Joshua, has now been made the true high priest, and his ministry is superior to that of the Old Covenant and the old priesthood. Throughout the next few chapters, the author will establish that Jesus is a priest in a different kind of order than that of Aaron under the Law of Moses. Indeed, because there is a new priesthood, there must also be a new law. The Old Covenant is being done away with and a New Covenant is being ushered in. In this priesthood, Jesus is a priest in the order of Melchizadek, that mysterious figure from the story of Abraham. Unlike the priests under the Mosaic Law, Jesus has an everlasting priesthood. Rather than offering sacrifices again and again, Christ has offered one sacrifice which is sufficient for the forgiveness of all. Christ now lives in heaven, in the true Holy of Holies, where he actively intercedes before the Father on our behalf. Chapter 9 presents a vivid contrast between the worship that took place in the old tabernacle under the Old Covenant, verses what is now done through the blood and ministry of Jesus in the New Covenant.
Application: Perseverance and Faithful Endurance (10:26-13:25)
Beginning in 10:19, the author turns from his main points and then begins to make application. What is the point of all this information about the superiority of Christ and his priestly ministry? It is to not abandon the faith, even under the pressure of persecution. It is an encouragement to hold on and be faithful to the end. The author warns that if we keep on sinning despite our knowledge of the truth—that is, if we turn away from Christ despite what we know about him—there remains no forgiveness for us. One must remain faithful to the end.
Chapter 11 gives a long series of examples of men and women who were faithful, despite very trying circumstances. We often call it the Faith Hall of Fame. There, people like Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Moses, and Rahab are listed as examples of faith. Why give such examples? Because the writer is reminding his readers that they live before a great cloud of witnesses (12:1) who have shown us the way of faith—even faith under duress. Because that is true, they should set their minds on Jesus, the author and perfector of their faith.
Hebrews is one of the more complicated reads of the New Testament, but it rewards the one who is diligent in searching out its treasures. There we learn incredible things about Christ. Let us heed their example and set our minds on the author and perfector of our faith.