We’re beginning a new series on the book of Hebrews. I’ve come to love the book of Hebrews. I’ve studied it numerous times, and am fairly certain that most of those times I didn’t really understand it (not to claim that I’ve mastered it this time! Probably next time I study it I’ll say the same thing). Hebrews is a wonderful book, somewhat unique in the New Testament in the way it describes the nature & implications of Jesus’ role as our great high priest and his once-for-all-sacrifice for sins. The book can be confusing, but I think often the argument of the author is simpler than it sounds (for instance, the significance of Melchizedek), and as long as you don’t “miss the forest for the trees”, then I think it is fairly straightforward and very encouraging.
The traditional view is that Hebrews is written to a group of Jewish Christians (who were familiar with the OT and assumed it’s authority) who are experiencing suffering/persecution, and therefore tempted to revert back to Judaism (hence his argument of showing the inferiority of the Old Covenant and it’s ceremonies). I think that seems to makes sense of the content (showing that Christ is superior to the Old Covenant would encourage them NOT to revert), although we can’t be certain of the audience or their situation. We also don’t know who wrote the book of Hebrews. Our uncertainties on these issues, in my opinion, don’t matter much to our understanding of the book itself.
The writer himself calls his writing a “word of exhortation” (and, by the way, he calls it a “brief” one…). Hebrews begins not like the other letters of the NT, but like a sermon. It ends like a letter. Basically, it’s a sermon delivered as a letter, and probably read out loud to the audience, probably again and again.
There is no clear structure to the sermon, but the writer alternates back and forth between “theological/expositional” sections and “exhortations”. They are perhaps best seen as “theme” and “purpose” – the expositional theme (Jesus is better) leads to his purpose (so, don’t turn away from him), and although the theological sections often get the most attention, it’s important to remember that he is exhorting them – that his main purpose – to encourage (and warn) them to persevere in the faith.
In my view, there are three main ideas: The first (Jesus is Better) is the main theological point, the second (So, Persevere) is the main application which flows out of that point, and the third (as Pilgrims in this life) is sort of descriptive to how we approach the second.
All together: Jesus is better, so persevere as pilgrims in this life. This, I think, is the main point of the book. More details:
1) Jesus is better – Superior to everything that came before under the Old Covenant. Not contradictory to it, but the full completion of it – that which every aspect of the Old Covenant looked ahead towards, and so became unnecessary upon his arrival. He is the superior (and final and fullest) revelation of God, since he the radiance of God’s glory and the exact imprint of his nature. Superior to the angels (who themselves are not unimpressive), he is no mere Creature but fully God. Yet, he is fully man so he is able to fully redeem humanity, and bring a great salvation from sin & death. Greater than Moses, the greatest of all the Lord’s prophets, who is able, unlike Moses, to deliver God’s people through their wilderness wanderings into his eternal rest. A priest greater than any mere human priest, who can empathize more greatly (after all, he was tempted in every way but without sin), intercede more fully on our behalf before God (their is no interruptions to his intercession), atone more deeply for our sins (not mere ceremonial cleansing but the true cleansing of the conscience), brings a greater covenant promise, brings greater access for sinners into the presence of God, and provides a greater, once-for all, never-to-be-repeated-because-it-is-perfect-and-never-needs-repeating sacrifice. And there’s probably more we could say. He is so great a Priest, so perfect a Savior, who provides so sufficient a Sacrifice, that…
2) well, why would you ever turn away from him? If he is perfect, then you can only lose when you choose something else in his place. Hold on to him, because he is what you need. Look to him, because he will not disappoint. Hope in him, because in him there is no lack. Worship him because of his greatness. In other words, persevere! This is the main gist of the exhortation sections of Hebrews. Persevere. Don’t fall away. See that you don’t have a hard, rebellious heart. Beware of sin’s entanglements and deceitfulness. Press on. Grow into maturity. Endure suffering and discipline, knowing that it is only temporary and part of God’s purpose to perfect us as his children. Don’t turn away from Jesus, who is not just the perfect savior but the only savior. Because as long as you willfully, decidedly reject him and turn away from him, then you can’t be saved because you turn away from the only one who can save you. There is no-one or nothing better or more able or more capable to save sinners. So, persevere in your faith and hold on to Jesus.
3) If we need to persevere, it means we haven’t arrived yet, so we must keep looking forward to the destination of our faith – the heavenly rest, the heavenly city, the eternal kingdom which Hebrews talks about. We persevere as Pilgrims – travelers, wanderers, not home yet but looking forward to our heavenly home. The book of Hebrews places the reader in the wilderness wanderings (ch 3-4) – those same wilderness wanderings in which that whole generation of God’s people died and didn’t enter the promised land of rest. We are those wanderers, seeking to enter God’s eternal rest. And we will find it, if we persevere. And, we have a great high priest who can enable us to persevere. We are like those faithful saints (ch 11) who “died in faith, not having received the things promised” looking forward to “a better country, that is, a heavenly one”.
This third idea is one that I overlooked until my most recent study of Hebrews. Now, I think it is very important to what the author’s exhortation. This third idea means that Hebrews portrays Christians as forward-looking people. In Hebrews, we are motivated as much by what we don’t have as by what we do have; by what we lack and long for and look forward to, as compared to our present experience in this dry dusty desert in which we walk as pilgrims who experience much temptation and hardship, who have many resources in Christ to help us, but as of yet have no home or rest.
One of the common questions of the book of Hebrews is when it was written. The absence of any mention of the destruction of the temple causes many to date it prior to 70 AD. After all, if the temple had been destroyed when he was writing, that would fit into his argument so well that it’s almost too strange that he wouldn’t mention it. “See, you can’t revert to the old covenant rituals – the very temple itself has been destroyed!” It’s an argument from silence, but as one commentator says, “this silence is deafening!” Especially in 10:2-3, he seems to be assuming those sacrifices are still being offered, and explains their ineffectiveness by the fact of their continually being repeated. If the temple had been destroyed, his argument would look different.
But, there is a thematic point more important than dating implications. As one of my seminary professors pointed out to me, this still doesn’t answer why he doesn’t mention the temple. Whether the temple was destroyed or not, he still could have made reference to it. So: The fact that he didn’t mention the temple probably means the temple hadn’t been destroyed. But, if the temple was still standing, well then why doesn’t he mention it?
The author exclusively refers to the tabernacle instead (which should surprise us, since the tabernacle hadn’t been in use for a long long time but, supposedly, the temple was presently in use). There are other, non-thematic explanations, such as the more practical explanation that he was writing to Jewish Christians outside of Judea who may have been less familiar with the temple (although in that sense no less so than the tabernacle). Here was my professors (insightful, I think) answer: When did the people of God use the tabernacle? How was the tabernacle designed? Think Hebrews 3-4. Unlike the temple, it was designed to be mobile. It was for wanderers. It was introduced when God’s people were in the desert, when they had no home, when they were wilderness wanderers, longing for the promised land. His use of the tabernacle, for a Jewish person, would bring their mind back out of the setting of Jerusalem – out of Judea – back to the dry, dusty wilderness when God’s people needed to rely solely upon God and his promises and his provision in order to enter his rest. And, so, reader of Hebrews, where are you? Is this world your home, or are you living as a pilgrim, looking for a better country?