1:1 In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe. 3 The Son is the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.
The epistle to the Hebrews begins as dramatically as a rocket shot to
the moon. In one paragraph, the writer breathtakingly transports his readers
from the familiar ground of Old Testament prophetic writings, through the
incarnation of the Son (who is at once creator, heir and sustainer of all
things and the fullest possible manifestation of deity), past the purifying
sacrifice of the cross to the exaltation of Jesus on the ultimate seat of
power in the universe. It is a paragraph daring in its claims and clearly
designed to arrest the reader's attention and compel a further hearing.
These introductory verses present a sharp departure from the usual first-century epistolary practice, as seen so regularly in Paul's epistles. There are no opening greetings, no indication of the writer's name and no expression of good wishes. For this reason some have viewed Hebrews as a formal address, perhaps even a sermon. This idea finds some support in 13:22, "my word of exhortation." But the treatise clearly ends like a letter, with the writer asking his readers to pray for him as he looks forward to seeing them. He also gives them news of Timothy and brings greetings from others.
The Author's Purpose. The author intends to present a series of arguments for the superiority of Jesus over all rival claims to allegiance which his readers were feeling and hearing. Their attention was easily diverted off in other directions, just as our attention is easily distracted today. They, like us, were being tempted, frightened or pressured into following other voices and serving other masters. In chapters 1-7, he examines these rival authorities and reveals their inadequacies. None was, in itself, a false or fraudulent voice. Each was ordained by God and proper in its intended place. Each had served the people of God well in the past, and no teaching or expectation was wrong at the time it was given. But now the final word, the ultimate revelation from God toward which all the other voices had pointed, had come. To this supreme voice the author directs his readers' attention, and ours, by contrasting this final word with the past utterances.
First, there were the prophets, God's ancient spokesmen (1:1-3); then the angels, Israel's guardians (1:4-2:18); then Israel's great leader, Moses (3:1-4:7); Israel's godly general, Joshua (4:8-13); and finally the founder of Israel's priesthood, Aaron (4:14-7:28). Each was a voice from Israel's past that needed to be heard but that was woefully inadequate if followed alone. It was clearly a case of the good being the enemy of the best. Eclipsing all these, as the rising sun eclipses the light of the stars, is the figure of Jesus, God's Son, creator and heir of all things. The abrupt beginning here marks the intensity with which the author writes. It parallels, in that respect, Paul's letter to the Galatians. The writer sees clearly that any slippage in the view of Jesus as supreme is fraught with the gravest danger and must be dealt with forthrightly and thoroughly. Since the same danger is present today, Christians must take special care that no obscuring mists of doubt or unbelief should diminish the stature of Jesus in their eyes. (1)
The Primacy of Jesus. Jesus' superiority to the prophets is marked in six ways. First, he is the Son, and as such speaks with greater authority and completeness than the prophets. Through them God spoke at many times and in various ways, but not always when men desired, nor as clearly as they might have wished. The word spoken through the prophets and that spoken by the Son is marked by three particulars: a contrast of method (various ways), of time (various times), and of agency (in Son), all marking the prophetic revelation as inferior to that which comes through the Son. 'What is communicated in parts, sections, fragments, must of necessity be imperfect; and so also a representation which is made in many modes cannot be other than provisional" (Westcott 1889:3-4). F. F. Bruce puts the matter well: "Priest and prophet, sage and singer were in their several ways His spokesmen; yet all the successive acts and varying modes of revelation in the ages before Christ came did not add up to the fullness of what God wanted to say" (1964:3).
God's word through the Son is final and complete. The apostles are but additional spokesmen for Christ, for in their letters they only expand his subject matter and do not add any new teachings or insights. Jesus affirms this superior status himself when he says to his disciples, "Blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear. For I tell you the truth, many prophets and righteous men longed to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it" (Mt 13:16-17).
The phrase these last days means more than merely the present time. It looks on to the second appearing of Jesus (9:28) which brings the last days of the present age to an end, to be followed by the new age of the kingdom referred to in 6:5. The appearance of the Son on earth to reveal truth "kept secret from the foundation of the world," also marks the beginning of the last days which continue until he comes again.
Second, the Son's superior greatness to the prophets springs from his position as both creator and heir of all things. Here Paul's argument in Colossians 1:15-17 is perhaps reflected. Creation's beginning and end form the boundaries of time. Jesus stands both at the end of the future and at the beginning of the past. He made this claim himself to the astonishment of the Jews, "Before Abraham was born, I am!" (Jn 8:58). Jesus is also the heir of all creation. The prophets were God's spokesmen, living out their allotted span of time, circumscribed by the events of earth---but Jesus is the eternal Son, who creates, and therefore owns, all things. Westcott sees the absence of the article before Son as significant (by his Son is simply "in Son" in the Greek text). He expresses that significance by saying, " [it] fixes attention upon the nature and not upon the personality of the Mediator of the new revelation. God spake to us in one who has this character that He is Son" (1889:7). Though Jesus is clearly superior to the prophets, he does not replace their revelation. The Old Testament remains as valid Scripture for the followers of Jesus, as the author will bring out many times. The prophets were used by God as spokesmen, but the Son, by contrast, "stands" (appointed) as heir of all things. Those all things refer to the material universe and all forces within it, seated by the Son in partnership with the Father and the Spirit. (2)
In the phrase translated through whom he made the universe F. F. Bruce sees a trace of a primitive Christian hymn or creedal confession of faith. One finds parallels in similar phrases in John 1:3 and Colossians 1:16. The expressions the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of his being also find a parallel in "the image of the invisible God" in Colossians 1:15 and "being in very nature God" in Philippians 2:6. There is no question but that important Christian doctrines were formulated in hymnic style and used widely in early church worship services. Indeed, when a modem congregation sings "Fairest Lord Jesus," they are responding to the same urge that moved the early Christians to praise their Lord.
Third, the Son shares fully in the divine nature. Though our author will argue later that Jesus is also fully man, as other men are, here he unmistakably asserts his deity. The Son is the radiance of God's glory. Radiance is light that streams forth from a source of light. As no one can separate the sun's light from the sun itself, so also no one can separate the nature of Christ from that of his Father. Whether the radiance is seen as reflected brightness or inherent brightness, the thought is clear: in Jesus we see the essence of God. He is, therefore, the exact representation of his [God's] being. As a coin reflects the exact image of the die, so the Son reproduces the precise character (Gk: charakter---used only here) of the Father. Thus Jesus could say to Philip, "Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father" (Jn 14:9). No more powerful expression of the deity of Jesus is possible. Any attempt to place Jesus as simply the highest product of creation will fail because the evidence is decisive for the contrary. Many sects have tried to teach that Jesus is only human, but they have no scriptural basis to do so.
This full statement leads naturally to the fourth aspect of the Son's work as the master of the universe: sustaining all things by his powerful word. This statement of Hebrews is a direct challenge to modern scientific humanism as well as to the older Deism. F. W. Grant states, "There is thus no thought in Scripture of a creation which shall be sufficient for itself, a perfect machine made to run eternally without the Hand that made it" (1903:15). As scientists probe the nature of the universe they increasingly confront the mystery of an unweighable, invisible force which literally holds all things together. This force is identified here as the powerful word of "One who carries all things forward on their appointed course" (Bruce 1964:6). The thought includes more than mere sustaining (as an Atlas holds the world on his shoulders), but expresses movement and progress toward an appointed end. It results in what scientists call "laws of predictability," and so technology becomes a source of evidence for a God-ordered world. New objects discovered in space, such as black holes, quasars and novas, present new problems for astronomers and physicists. These new questions ought not to threaten a Christian's faith. Rather, they can enhance it as God's power and majesty is revealed more and more as our knowledge is increased.
Fifth, in sharp contrast to this image of universal power is the sentence: After he had provided purification for sins. This evokes all the agony and blood of the cross. In doing so, the Savior accomplishes something which no prophet or sage of the past nor philosopher or scientist of the present could ever do. Mere power, even vast, creative power, cannot help here. "The glory of God is not the glory of shattering power, but the glory of suffering love" (Barclay 1957:5).
Certain manuscripts emphasize the uniqueness of this act by adding the words by himself. This stresses the preciousness of redemption. It was not something done through an impersonal provision; it involved the very heart and soul of the Redeemer and the shedding of his life's blood! Even if the phrase is omitted the thought is retained by the middle form of the verb. The terrible problem which human sin presents can be solved by one, and only one, remedy---the death of Jesus. This is the central theme of the epistle, to which the writer returns many times. It forms the ultimate and final word to man, uttered by the Son and far more significant than anything which has gone before or could ever follow. Creation rests upon power, but redemption upon the sacrifice of one who was "crucified in weakness." He rose and now is seated at the right hand of our majestic God in heaven.
Sixth, Jesus sat down to give expression to his cry from the cross, "It is finished!" The phrase sat down at the right hand is meant symbolically, not literally, for God has no right hand. It denotes the supreme honor accorded to the triumphant Lord, who is risen from the dead. Surely it is a reference (the first of five in Hebrews) to Psalm 110, "The LORD says to my Lord: 'Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.'" Of this Bruce says, "Ps. 110 is the key text of this epistle" (1964:8). That Jesus saw himself in the psalm is evident by his words to the Sanhedrin, "From now on, the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the mighty God" (Lk 22:69). In Hebrews 10:11, our author will contrast the seated Messiah with the Aaronic priests who must stand as they offer sacrifices, because Jesus ended the need for further sacrifice forever. That act of redemption reaches out to include the material creation as well as man (Rom 8:20), so that finally nothing remains untouched by its transforming grace. Paul argues this eloquently in Colossians 1:19-20 and Ephesians 1:9-10.
Clearly the world we live in today is one which desperately needs redemption. In this introductory paragraph Jesus has been portrayed as the supreme Prophet, the unique Owner of all things, the uncreated Creator, the exact Image of God's being, the Sustainer of the universe, the Sacrificing Priest who cleanses sin, and the Conqueror who occupies the place of honor above all his creation. From this lofty beginning the writer will assert the supremacy of Jesus above all other names of honor in Hebrew thought or practice. He turns now, in 1:4-2:18, to consider the sharp contrast between Jesus and the angels.
The nation was startled when Nancy Reagan was reported to be influencing
her husband's decisions on the basis of advice obtained from her astrologer.
Perhaps what is even more startling is to realize that pastors preaching
to evangelical congregations today may very well be addressing some, if
not many, in their audience who are worshipping angels. There may well be
a woman in the fifth row who consulted her horoscope before coming to church.
Some teenagers may be involved with experiments with Ouija boards or "channeling"
to obtain guidance in important decisions. Perhaps someone has already accepted
the teaching of reincarnation as the explanation of what happens to humans
after death. As many know, the New Age movement of the late twentieth century
encourages such teachings, calling fallen angels avatars or spirit-guides.
Their human devotees practice channeling or mediumistic activities, offering
to awaken hidden powers within men and women which will help them fulfill
their greatest possibilities. Every pastor must ask, What does the writer
of Hebrews say that will help those who, knowingly or not, are drawn to
Obviously the teaching is not new. It has been present in every century since the earliest times. The writer sees his readers as under attack from such ideas and understands that he must deal with this first because these attacks threatened their view of Jesus and his pre-eminence. Even angels could challenge this truth. But why would angels pose a threat? Surely the Jewish background of these readers would suffice to prevent them from honoring angels above the Savior. The words of the First Commandment are clear: "Thou shalt have no other gods before me!" It is evident from Paul's letter to the Colossians that those with a strong Jewish background (Col 2:16-17) could also "delight in false humility and the worship of angels" (2:18). The danger then is apparent: "Those to whom this letter is sent were entertaining, or being encouraged to entertain, teaching which elevated angels, or particular angels, to a position which rivaled that of Christ himself" (Hughes 1987:51-52). If we think this was only a first-century phenomenon, we should remember the way humans have always responded to manifestations of supernatural beings by treating them as gods, or at least demigods, and giving obeisance to them. Indeed, the apostle John twice falls at the feet of the angel who was his guide and is rebuked for so doing (Rev 19:10; 22:8-9).
But their difficulty only serves to underscore the nature of their error. They were being pressured by their former Jewish leaders and also by pagan contacts to view Jesus not as God but as merely a man, and therefore less than the angels. Angels had played a powerful role in Israel's past. There is no record in the Old Testament of an angelic messenger whose message was rejected or whose person was attacked or stoned. When an angel spoke, people listened (Henrichsen 1979:24). The writer acknowledges this impressive impact in his warning of 2:2.
This exaltation of angels above Jesus is intolerable to the writer of Hebrews. He devotes a major passage to its answer, supporting the infinite superiority of Jesus over angels with several reasons. They are his superior name of Son (1:4-5); the command to angels to worship him (1:6);the nature of angels versus the nature of the Son(1:7-14);the great danger of ignoring the Son (2:1-4); his glory as risen and enthroned man (2:5-9); his work as the author of human salivation (2:10-13); and his unique ability to help the recipients of grace (2:14-18). With these seven points, the writer reveals Jesus as the worthy object of praise and worship which not even the most glorious angel could claim.
4 So he became as much superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is superior to theirs. 5 For to which of the angels did God ever say, "You are my Son; today I have become your Father" ? Or again, "I will be his Father, and he will be my Son" ?
The passage from 1:5 to 1:14 constitutes a marvelous choreography of
Old Testament passages which, like a well-programmed ballet, catches immediate
interest with a pas-de-deux of two Messianic phrases: one from Psalm 2:7
and the other from 2 Samuel 7:14. Both center on the name of Son
which must belong properly to Jesus and to no one else. These verses distinguish
him from the Father, but also place the Father's imprimatur on his brow.
It is true that angels are called "sons of God" in the book of Job (1:6; 2:1; 38:7, KJV) because, like Adam, they are direct creations from God's hand. This fact may seem to mark angels as equal with Jesus and therefore proper objects of worship. But Jesus is God's Son from ail eternity---the uncreated Son. Furthermore, the quotation from Psalm 2 highlights Jesus' status as the exalted Son of Man, as Paul declared in his sermon at Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13:33) referring to his resurrection from the dead. Thus he was both the eternal Son and the glorified human Son (Son of God and Son of Man).
The writer here especially claims the superiority of Jesus over the angels as the Son of Man. No angel could claim either eternity or resurrection as the basis of his sonship, but Jesus had both. Though the angels collectively were called sons of God, no individual angel ever is given that title, or singled out as having a unique status before God. So the writer demands rhetorically, To which of the angels did God ever say, "You are my Son; today I have become your Father."
Psalm 2 is specifically applied to Jesus in Revelation 12:5 and 19:15 and to those who share his kingdom reign in Revelation 2:27, especially in conjunction with the words "you will rule them with an iron scepter" (Ps 2:9). Several scholars have felt that Psalm 2 represents a coronation liturgy which was included in enthronement ceremonies of the Davidic dynasty. One of the rabbis in Midrash Tehillim says of Psalm 2:7, "And when the hour comes, the Holy One---blessed be He!---says to them, I must create him a new creation, as it is said, 'This day have I begotten thee.'" Of this F. F. Bruce says, "The implication here seems to be that Psalm 2:7 refers to the time when Messiah, after suffering and death, is brought back to the realm of the living" (1964:13, fn. 63). This understanding would agree with Paul's use of Psalm 2:7 in Acts 13:33 and clearly the word today refers to the resurrection of Jesus rather than the day of his birth in Bethlehem, or of his baptism in the Jordan.
The second source of support from the Old Testament draws on 2 Samuel 7:14. Historically the words "I will be his father, and he will be my Son" were spoken to David concerning Solomon when the prophet Nathan told David that Solomon will build a house for God in Jerusalem. There is, however, a hint that David's power would extend to his progeny, which would also include the Messiah. The prophets in later times spoke often of a greater son of David who would fulfill all the promises to David of an eternal reign. Bruce quotes from the Dead Sea Scrolls where 2 Samuel 7:14 is linked with an expectation of the imminent restoration of David's house by the "shoot of David," the Messiah (1964:14). Note again how the human nature of the Lord is underscored by his title Son of David. As the risen Man, he claims the throne of David, but as such the Father calls him "my Son." By these two quotations, with their royal implications, the writer of Hebrews claims that being related to God as a Son is a far greater title than any angel could claim. This rests on the base of a shared eternity and a resurrection, which is the "new creation."
6 And again, when God brings his firstborn into the world, he says, "Let all God's angels worship him."
The angels were created, but the Son is begotten. His superiority is
now upheld by a verse from the Septuagint version of Deuteronomy 32 which
commands all angels to worship the Son (v. 43 LXX). (4)
The passage is the Song of Moses uttered before the crossing of the Jordan.
At that time Moses said to the people: "Take to heart all the words
I have solemnly declared to you this day. . . . They are not just idle words
for you---they are your life" (Deut 32:46-47). Allusions to this hymn
are found in eleven books of the New Testament (twice in Hebrews---1:6 and
10:30), which indicates its importance to early Christians. In the Song
of Moses, the angels are called to worship Yahweh (Jehovah). New Testament
writers apply such passages without hesitation to Jesus. Many places in
Scripture witness the obedience of the angels, notably Job 38:7, Luke 2:13,
and Revelation 5:11-12. Mark 3:11 indicates that even the demons (fallen
angels) fell down before Jesus when they saw him and addressed him as the
Son of God.
Since the earliest times, Christian commentators have differed on what the again refers to in verse 6. If it is taken with the verb he says ("he says again"), as in the NIV, it simply means another quotation that supports the superiority of Jesus. If, however, it is linked with the verb brings ("he brings again"), it is a reference either to the coming of Jesus at the Incarnation, his reappearance after the resurrection, or his Second Coming at the end of the age. In view of the connected character of these quotations, it seems best to take it as a second support citation, "he says again." Twice in Hebrews, Jesus is called firstborn (here and in 12:23). In this verse it seems to refer to his creative work. Bruce rightly says, "He is called 'the firstborn' because He exists before all creation, and because all creation is His heritage" (1964:15). Paul's great assertion is recorded in Colossians 1:15, "the firstborn over all creation." The point of it all is: He whom the Hebrews thought to be subordinate to angels is the very one whom the angels are commanded to worship as their creator!
7 In speaking of the angels he says, "He makes his angels winds, his servants flames of fire." 8 But about the Son he says, "Your throne, O God, will last for ever and ever, and righteousness will be the scepter of your kingdom. 9 You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness; therefore God, your God, has set you above your companions by anointing you with the oil of joy." 10 He also says, "In the beginning, O Lord, you laid the foundations of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands. 11 They will perish, but you remain; they will all wear out like a garment. 12 You will roll them up like a robe; like a garment they will be changed. But you remain the same, and your years will never end." 13 To which of the angels did God ever say, "Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet" ? 14 Are not all angels ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation?
In 1:7-14 the author for the third time sweeps through the Psalms to
display a chorus of verses that praise the Son who has a nature inherently
superior to angels. In the Hebrew of Psalm 104:4 the natural elements of
wind and fire are called the messengers of God; in the Septuagint it is
the angels who are made to be these elements. Though they are as powerful
as the wind and can be as destructive as lightning, they are, nevertheless,
only messengers of the Son while Jesus is the Son of God himself.
This sharp contrast is sustained also by two verses coming from Psalm 45:6-7. Their antiphonal character with verse 6 is clear in the way they are introduced: In speaking of the angels he says, . . . But about the Son he says . . . Psalm 45 is a wedding song, originally describing a king of Israel, but later understood by the rabbis as messianic. The contrast between a royal personage and his servant-companions is the point of the quotation. This king is addressed twice as God; possesses a throne, a scepter and a kingdom; loves righteousness and hates wickedness; has a special anointing of joy; and continues as king forever and ever. No angel could claim these attributes. The cause of the king's joy is traced to his love of righteousness and hatred of wickedness. Here, by contrast, may be a hint of the moral defection of the host of angels who fell with Satan. Angels could and did sin, but the Son's love of righteousness kept him safe through the most severe temptations. Even those unfallen angels who also, presumably, love righteousness do so on the basis of choice, while the Son's love of righteousness is inherent in his very nature. For this reason (therefore) God has set him above his companions. (5)
Once more our author displays the dazzling glory of the Creator, who is infinitely superior to any angel, by summoning the words of Psalm 102:25-27: In the beginning, O Lord, you laid the foundations of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands.This is not simply a restatement of truth he has already declared ("through whom he made the universe"---v. 2), but the point he now twice asserts is the timeless endurance of the Son: They will perish, but you remain; . . . they will be changed. But you remain [Gk: "you are"] the same. He will make the point again in 13:8, "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever." Psalm 102 is addressed to Yahweh by a sorely afflicted suppliant who feels the brevity of his own life in light of the heavens and the earth. But even they shall pass away in due course, like garments that grow old and are changed. This is a marvelous poetic description of what scientists call the law of entropy, or the second law of thermodynamics, which views the universe as running down. But the Creator is above his own laws and remains unchanged forever. These words, applied unhesitatingly to Jesus, place him as far beyond the angels.
As a finale for his presentation of Old Testament support for the superiority of the nature of the Son over that of angels, the author returns to his mildly scornful rhetorical question: To which of the angels did God ever say, "Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet"? This second reference to Psalm 110 restates the thought of 1:2, "whom he appointed heir of all things." Even his enemies will find their place at the Son's feet when God's purposes are fulfilled. It reflects Paul's declaration in Colossians 2:15, "And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross." The cross won the beginning of the ultimate triumph, but its fulfillment awaits the return of Jesus as King.
Contrasted to this Supreme Conqueror, the writer asks, Are not all angels ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation? Even the mightiest angel is under orders to the Son of God, and gladly helps in fulfilling his desire to bring many sons to glory (2:10). Though the author does not enlarge on the specifics of angelic ministry here, it only requires a review of Bible stories to see that such ministry involves protection (Ps 91:11), guidance(Gen 19:17), encouragement(Judg 6:12), deliverance (Acts 12:7), supply (Ps 105:40), enlightenment (Mt 2:19-20) and empowerment (Lk 22:43), as well as occasional rebuke (Num 22:32 ) and discipline (Acts 12:23). Their service is rendered largely unseen and often unrecognized, but a passage like this should make us watchful for such help and grateful to the gracious Lord who sends angels to our aid.
2:1 We must pay more careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away. 2 For if the message spoken by angels was binding, and every violation and disobedience received its just punishment, 3 how shall we escape if we ignore such a great salvation? This salvation, which was first announced by the Lord, was confirmed to us by those who heard him. 4 God also testified to it by signs, wonders and various miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will.
Having proved beyond all argument that angels cannot compare in importance,
power or glory to the Son of God, our author now raises a warning voice
against taking lightly what the Son has said. This is the first of five
major warning passages in Hebrews, each designed to prevent a specific form
of unbelief The five warnings are found in 2:1-4, 3:12-19, 6:4-8,10:26-31
and 12:25-29. Our author is deeply concerned lest his readers succumb to
the pressures they were feeling and either renounce the gospel outright
or gradually turn from public confession and lose its influence entirely.
The danger faced in this first warning is that of drifting away from truth.
A dramatic word is employed for "drift away," pararreo,
which means "to flow by" or "slip away from." It describes
that carelessness of mind which, perhaps occupied by other things, is not
aware it is losing ground. Plato used it of something slipping away from
the memory, and Plutarch of a ring slipping from a finger. Another figure
often suggested is that of a ship loose from its moorings. The danger highlighted
is that of a great loss occurring unnoticed. The cause is not taking
seriously the words spoken to them. Inattention or apathy will rob them
of their treasure. (6)
With these words, the writer reveals his shepherd's heart, since he is not content with instructing the mind with intriguing doctrine. He also longs to reach the heart and move the will to action. The remedy urged is pay more careful attention to the things heard (from the Son). This would suggest the frequent reading or hearing of the four Gospels, which contain the actual words of Jesus, and a repeated and careful reading of the further exposition in the Epistles. To neglect or ignore these is to be in deadly danger of drifting away from essential truth, and losing, by default, the great salvation which the Son has brought. It is not necessary to openly renounce the gospel. One can remain lost by simply and quietly drifting away from hearing it, or hearing it with no comprehension of the seriousness of its message.
The word salvation forms the link between chapters one and two. The chapter division was not intended by the writer, who moved immediately (dia touto, "therefore") to draw a practical conclusion to the truth he has presented. Soteria, "salvation," is found seven times in Hebrews, more than in any other New Testament book. In Zechariah's song concerning his son John the Baptist (Lk 1:67-79), he says that the Baptist's ministry was "to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins" (Lk 1:77). Salvation, then, begins with a moral cleansing and in later New Testament development includes justification, sanctification and, finally, glorification with Christ. As Brown astutely observes, "The author is deeply persuaded that a personal relationship with Christ expressed in repentance and faith determines the believer's salvation. But in the teaching of the letter salvation is clearly portrayed as an ongoing process" (1982:24). That Jesus, "the author of their salvation" should have achieved it only by being made "perfect through suffering" (2:10), makes salvation an infinitely precious gift in the eyes of this author.
And that anyone should prefer the ministry of angels, who mediated the giving of the law, to the salvation available in the Son was almost incredible to him! "Come on," he seems to say, "haven't you heard what I've been saying? You value highly the law, though it was given only by angels, but you pass lightly over the final word from God which came in the flesh and blood, and through the death and resurrection, of the very Son of God himself." Both Paul (Gal 3:19) and Stephen (Acts 7:53) acknowledge the part angels played in the giving of the law, though the Old Testament is almost silent about it. Deuteronomy 33:2 and Psalm 68:17 represent only vague references to angels present at Sinai.
But to ignore even the law's partial revelation carried with it certain inevitable consequences (just punishment---2:2). Even under the law the divine principle which Paul affirms ("God cannot be mocked; a man reaps what he sows") was operating. The Old Testament gives countless illustrations of this truth. Yet, "if the breakers of the law did not go unpunished, certainly despisers of the gospel cannot expect to do so" (Hughes 1977:73). To ignore the great salvation found in Jesus is to find oneself unable to escape the consequent wrath of God, and the judgment of hell. There is no other offer of release!
How great this salvation was is seen in three measures. First, its proclamation began with Jesus himself! This great fact astonished the writer of Hebrews from the beginning of his letter. The incarnate Son has himself announced the impact of his redemptive work upon the cross, and even before that work was accomplished. Mark 1:15 records Jesus as saying, "The time has come. The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!" "From the moment of his public appearance to the day of his ascension, Jesus unfolded the full redemptive revelation of God" (Kistemaker 1984:59). So much greater was this announcement than the help which the law held forth that Jesus could say to his disciples: "I tell you the truth, many prophets and righteous men longed to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it" (Mt 13:17).
Second, though verse 3 suggests that the writer of Hebrews did not personally hear the good news from the lips of Jesus, he says, it was confirmed to us by those who heard him. These were surely the twelve apostles and perhaps others as well. This statement rests the gospel securely on eyewitnesses who recorded accurately what they both saw and heard (1 Jn 1:3; 2 Pet 1:16). But, as Hughes observes, this apostolic witness "goes back not just to the apostles, but through the apostles to the Lord" (1977:79). It was he who sent them forth and promised them the Holy Spirit to bring to their remembrance whatever he had said to them (Jn 14:26).
This implication of the writer that he had not personally heard the Lord removes the twelve apostles as possible authors of this letter---and also virtually rules out Paul (as Luther, Calvin and others have pointed out) since Paul stoutly asserts in Galatians 1:1 and 1 Corinthians 15:3 that he had not obtained his gospel from men but directly from the Lord. He must be included as one of those who had heard the Lord, and the writer of Hebrews does not claim this for himself.
But it is not simply on human memories that the authenticity of the apostolic gospel rests, as the writer adduces a third confirmation of great importance. God also testified to it by signs, wonders and various miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will. Just as the Father had borne witness to the Son by signs and miracles (Jn 5:3637), so he worked with (Gk: synepimartyrountos, "testifying with") the apostles and others, confirming their word by similar signs and wonders and gifts of the Holy Spirit. The authority from which the gospel flows include all three persons of the Godhead: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Son makes the full announcement of it and completes the basis for it through pain and blood; the Father works with him to confirm his word with signs and wonders; and the Spirit continues the confirmation by distribution of spiritual gifts.
John, in his Gospel, tells us that the miracles were "signs," symbols whose meaning revealed the nature of God. John, Matthew and Mark also call them "wonders," that awaken awe and fear; the Synoptists frequently refer to "miracles," or more properly "powers." All three terms appear often in Acts, especially the first fifteen chapters, and mark the validation by the Father to the ministry of the early preachers of the gospel.
The phrase gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will is a bit ambiguous. Taken objectively, it means "gifts which the Holy Spirit distributes." Subjectively, it refers to the imparting of the Holy Spirit himself, as distributed by God. Paul, in his list of spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12:7-11, says, "All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he gives them to each one, just as he determines." The last phrase would slant the decision on Hebrews 2:4 toward the objective meaning, that spiritual gifts are given to each believer by the Spirit as the continuing witness of the Spirit to the truth of the gospel.
Do the signs, wonders and various miracles also continue throughout the present age? It is impossible to set aside the testimony of Christians through the centuries to the miracle-working power of God in human lives. Many well-attested occurrences of such miracles have been recorded throughout the church centuries, including today. Missionaries and Christian workers of the most sterling character have reported such miracles in widely separated places and cultures so that it cannot be said that the age of miracles ever ceased.
But it must also be remembered that both Jesus and Paul warn clearly that as the age draws to its close there will be manifestations of counterfeit miracles, signs and wonders, done through Satanic agencies, which will deceive many (see Mt 24:24 and 2 Thess 2:9)! It is the effect of these signs and wonders on the lives of those involved which will reveal the genuine teachers from the false ("By their fruit you will recognize them"---Mt 7:15-16). It must also be considered that the profound power of the mind upon the body often produces dramatic improvements in health. But these are not always, or even frequently, associated with religious influence. They are scarcely to be equated with the healings recorded in Scripture, which usually consist of the kind Jesus described to John the Baptist's disciples: "The blind receive sight, the lame walk those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised" (Mt 11:5).
But let us not lose our way at this point. The concern of Hebrews is not to defend miracles but to warn against losing the so great salvation by a careless inattention to its content or its practice in daily life. An individual's response to these great truths determines his destiny. Leon Morris well says, "This Epistle leaves us in no doubt but that those who are saved are saved from a sore and genuine peril. Christ's saving work is not a piece of emotional pageantry rescuing men from nothing in particular" (quoted in Brown 1982:52). Neglecting the word of angels brought immediate earthly consequences; ignoring the salvation of the Son, confirmed by decades of divine ministry through godly men and women, results in eternal tragedy beyond description.
5 It is not to angels that he has subjected the world to come, about which we are speaking. 6 But there is a place where someone has testified: "What is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him? 7 You made him a little lower than the angels; you crowned him with glory and honor 8 and put everything under his feet." In putting everything under him, God left nothing that is not subject to him. Yet at present we do not see everything subject to him. 9 But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.
Still thinking of the supremacy of the Son over angels, our author, in
2:5-9, approaches the theme from a different view. In chapter 1 the deity
of Jesus was primarily in the foreground; in chapter 2 his perfect humanity
means that he is the superior of every angelic being. Verse 5 carries forward
the subject of verse 4, It is not to angels that he [God] has subjected
the world to come, about which we are speaking. (7)
Some fascinating themes are introduced by this observation. It raises immediately the question, What is meant by the world to come? It can mean (1) life after death, (2) the future kingdom of Christ on earth (the millennium) or (3) the new heavens and the new earth. Since almost nothing is said in Hebrews about life after death (9:27), (1) can be dismissed without further development for it is obviously not what he refers to in the phrase about which we are speaking. That limiting phrase probably looks back to 1:11-12 which emphasizes the changes which the material creation will experience. Paul, in Ephesians 2:7, speaks of "coming ages," indicating that at least two more ages lie ahead. The two which Scripture continually name are the restored Davidic kingdom (the millennium) and the new heavens and the new earth. In several places Scripture describes the new heavens and earth as lasting forever, intimating it would be the last age yet to come. But the word world (Gk: oikoumene) in 2:5 refers not to the cosmos, but to the inhabited earth, and this would strongly suggest the writer has in mind (2), the kingdom of Christ on earth. Hughes calls the world to come, "the age of the Messiah in which the messianic promises and prophecies of old find their fulfillment" (1977:82). It is surely to this that Jesus refers in Matthew 19:28, "Truly, I say to you, in the new world [palingenesia, 'restoration'], when the Son of man shall sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel" (RSV). Several passages in Hebrews (6:5 and 12:22-24) suggest that this kingdom is in some sense already available to those who live by faith. Perhaps, we should see this new age to come as spiritually arrived, yet physically still to come.
A reference to the new heavens and new earth seems unlikely in view of the mention of judgment in Matthew 19:28, for sin will have no place in the new creation. Also Israel will not play a distinctive role among the nations, for then "the kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord, and of his Christ; and he shall reign for ever and ever" (Rev 11:15 KJV).
If, as the writer claims, the world to come has not been subjected to angels, it raises the possibility that the present age is subject to angelic governance. F. F. Bruce supports this view, citing the LXX rendering of Deuteronomy 32:8:
When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance
When he separated the children of men,
He set the bounds of the peoples
According to the number of the angels of God.
He further quotes Daniel 10:20, which names angelic beings as "the
prince of Persia" and "the prince of Greece," and Daniel
10:21 and 12:1 speak of Michael as "the great prince" who champions
the people of Israel (1964:33). This concept would explain why the fallen
angel called Satan is referred to as "the god of this world" and
is permitted his control until the Lord returns and the new age begins and
the curse is lifted from nature. Then, too, the devil will be bound and
cast into a bottomless pit for a thousand years (Rev 20:2-3).
This background serves to give special meaning to the quotation from Psalm 8 which the writer of Hebrews now invokes. His vague reference to his source (Gk: "Someone somewhere has testified") is not due to uncertainty but to a desire to stress Scripture as speaking, not a mere human author (Bruce, Kistemaker and Hughes). David's psalm is a wondering reaction to the majesty of the night sky as it reveals the power and wisdom of God and forces the question, What part do puny human beings play in such a universe? The answer is that we were made a little lower than the angels, but then crowned with glory and honor, and everything has been put under our feet. This is a direct reference to Genesis 1:26:
Then God said, "Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground."
Here is glory and honor (made in the image and likeness of God) and authority
and power (ruling over all the earth). Some commentators take the made
a little lower than the angels in a temporal sense, "made for a
little while," to imply that human existence in this space-time continuum
is only for a brief lifetime, and then we are freed to live the life of
eternity. Whichever way the phrase is read, it is clear that our intended
destiny was one of power and authority over all the conditions and life
of earth. If this was our commission from the moment of creation, what light
it sheds on our responsibility to care for this planet and its creatures!
We were not given dominion so the earth and the animals should serve us;
rather, we are given authority to develop them to the fullest extent intended
by the fruitful mind of the Creator. We are to serve them by thorough knowledge
and loving care, in the form of servant-leadership which the Lord himself
manifested when he came.
Yet, says this writer in what must be the understatement of the ages, we do not see everything subject to him. No, there are many things fallen humans cannot control: the weather, the seasons, the instincts of animals, the tides, our own passions, international events, natural disasters, and on and on. The increasing pollution of the planet, the spread of famines and wars, the toll taken by drugs, accidents and disease, all tell the story of a lost destiny.
But almost with a shout the author cries, But we see Jesus! He is the last hope of a dying race. And that hope lies both in his deity and his humanity. He alone, as a human being, managed to fulfill what was intended for us from the beginning. When we read the Gospels, we are forced to ask, Who is this man who stills the winds and the waves with a single word; who multiplies food at will; who walks on the waves; who summons fish to bring up coins at his command; who dismisses disease with a touch; and calls the dead back to life? Who is he? He is the Last Adam, living and acting as God intended us to act when he made us in the beginning. It was the First Adam who plunged the race into bondage and limitation; it is the Last who sets us free in soul and spirit, so that we may now learn how to live in the ages to come when the resurrection gives us back a body fit for the conditions of that life.
The writer traces in terse phrases the steps Jesus took to solve forever the problem of human sin. (1) He was made a little lower than the angels. There is the whole wonder of the Incarnation; in John's phrasing, "the Word became flesh and lived for a while among us." Then (2) because he suffered death, he was (3) crowned with glory and honor and thus he achieved as a human being the position intended for us in the beginning: the being who was to be closest to God, higher than any angel, and in authority over all things! Then, lest we should forget the cost, the writer adds (4) so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. To taste death does not simply mean to die, but to experience death in its full horror and humiliation. He comes under the penalty of sin in order that he might remove it. The emphasis here is that what Jesus did through his death and exaltation was for everyone. Salvation is now open to all; no one who comes to Jesus will ever be refused. His death was for everyone in the sense that everyone was thereby rendered savable.
Ever since the death of Jesus the way to glory has always Included a death which leads to life. Some forms of media-evangelism have presented the Christian life as the way to fulfillment of great possibilities without also making clear that it includes a death to self-indulgence and learning obedience. We dare not extol the incredible benefits of the Christian life without reminding ourselves that they will also lead us to a cross.
To whom, then, is the world to come subject? Not to angels, that is clear. It is to be subject to the human race---to the human race as God intended us to be, redeemed and restored through sharing the life of the Man in glory, seated at the right hand of God. This is the theme of verses 10-13.
2:10 In bringing many sons to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the author of their salvation perfect through suffering. 11 Both the one who makes men holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers. 12 He says, "I will declare your name to my brothers; in the presence of the congregation I will sing your praises." 13 And again, "I will put my trust in him." And again he says, "Here am I, and the children God has given me."
Commentators on Hebrews have pointed out that there is no reference to
the love of God in this epistle. Though technically this is true, a text
such as 2:10 reveals that behind the suffering and sacrifice of Jesus is
the heart of a Father who longs to bring many sons to glory. Though
the Father was in full control of all forces and events in the universe
(for whom and through whom everything exists), it was necessary that he
subject his beloved Son to a degree of agony and humiliation that could
alone fit him to carry out that purpose. This is clearly the meaning of
make . . . perfect through suffering. Jesus had always had a perfect
character since his birth; perfection of function required the whole process
of incarnation, ministry, death and resurrection. But it was love for the
lost human race that drove both Father and Son to choose that process.
Thus did Jesus become the author of . . . salvation. Other versions substitute "pioneer" (RSV), "captain" (KJV) and "leader" (NEB), for "author." The Greek word archegos implies someone who initiates or originates a plan or program for others to follow. Every American knows that in 1804-1806 two explorers, Captain George Clark and Captain Meriwether Lewis, were sent by President Thomas Jefferson to find a way across the old, trackless West from St. Louis to the Pacific Coast. Such an exploration involved tremendous preparation, special provisions and wise decisions. It was accomplished through great danger and many hardships, as the Lewis and Clark journals make clear. When the explorers returned the whole American West lay open to development. This is the thought behind the word archegos Jesus, our archegos, opened up a completely new spiritual country, the realm of universal dominion for the human race, which was originally intended for us but was lost by Adam. Those who follow Jesus now are fitted and trained to live in that new world as they walk in the footsteps of him who has gone before.
This concept fits well with the thought of verses 11-13. These describe the Savior and his redeemed as belonging to one family who share the same nature. The one who makes holy [sanctifies] is Jesus who had, first, to solve the problem of sin before he could apply it to those who are made holy, the redeemed. The act of making holy implies the impartation of a new life, the life of God himself since only God is holy. Those who by faith become sons of God are made holy (sanctified) because they share the life of the Son of God. John 1:12 declares, "To all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God," and 1 John 5:11-12 adds, "God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son; he who has the Son has life."
Because of this shared life the writer of Hebrews can say they are, literally, "all of One" (ek henos pantes), which refers to the Father. (The NIV's of the same family, to my mind, somewhat weakens the force of this declaration.) Jesus, who is of different rank and origin, still is not ashamed to call them brothers. Since he has made them holy by imparting his own life to them, he cannot deny the very holiness he has given. Now the groundwork is laid for believers to learn to live everyday on the basis of the new men and women they have become rather than continuing to live on the old level of humanity they had once been. It is Paul's constant exhortation: "Put off the old man; put on the new." The writer of Hebrews urges the same activity in 12:14. Holiness of nature is the possession of all true Christians; holiness of behavior is to be their goal. But even before that goal is attained to any appreciable degree, it is still true that Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers. The picture is that of an oldest son affirming to another his pride in his younger siblings, even though they do not always act in ways pleasing to him.
To support this wonderful fact, the writer summons three texts from the Old Testament. (8) The first, verse 22, from the well-known Messianic hymn, Psalm 22, reflects the praise of the resurrected Lord as he shares with his brothers and sisters the glories of God's grace. He appears as their teacher, opening their eyes continually to the wonders of the Father whose family they have joined. They then join him in sharing those wonders with the whole congregation. The quotation suggests that his reason for not being ashamed of them is because they share with him the endless adventure of discovering the full meaning of the name of God.
The second text, from Isaiah 8:17, expresses the common sense of dependence which children share toward God; and the third, Isaiah 8:18, recognizes the relationship of children as all equally under the care of one father. Isaiah 8, from which these verses are taken, is the prophet's prediction of a great invasion of Assyria into the land of Judea. Yet in the face of that terrible threat the people are exhorted to continue to trust the Lord Almighty and to wait for his deliverance, though it seem delayed. The Messiah is seen as "a stone that causes men to stumble and a rock that makes them fall," and it is of him that Isaiah cries, "I will put my trust in him. Here am I, and the children the LORD has given me."
It is easy to see how our author saw these verses as a description of Jesus and his faith-siblings (Christians). That first-century world was coming apart at the seams, just as Isaiah's world had been. And just as Isaiah and his children looked to their invisible Lord for help, so Jesus stands ready to support those who take refuge in him from the threats of a crumbling world.
These two texts, in their original setting, were part of a prophecy of an event yet 100 years in the future, and beyond this, reached to the coming of the Messiah both in his first and second comings. To apply fragments of such prophecies to the Hebrews' circumstances may seem strange to us, but this is fully in line with the use of the Old Testament by all the New Testament writers. The specific verses quoted here are all found in a messianic context.
2:14 Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death --that is, the devil-- 15 and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. 16 For surely it is not angels he helps, but Abraham's descendants. 17 For this reason he had to be made like his brothers in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. 18 Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.
Drawing on his use of Isaiah's quotation, the writer picks up the word
children and declares, Since the children have flesh and blood,
he too [Jesus] shared in their humanity. This description of the Incarnation
answers fully all docetic notions that his humanity was simply a phantom
appearance. The purpose of Christ becoming a flesh-and-blood man was to
enable him to die: that is the startling claim of verse 14! In Charles Wesley's
great hymn "And Can It Be?" he begins a verse:
'Tis mystery all, the Immortal dies!
Who can explore that strange design?
In vain the first-born seraph tries
To sound the depths of love divine!
How can one who is immortal die? That is a puzzle which even the angels
could not solve. But the Son of God solved it by becoming flesh and blood.
He took upon himself our humanity which, even in perfection, was doomed
to die (as happened to Adam and Eve). Yet this must be balanced by the gospel's
statement that Jesus did not have to die (as all of us must), but gave up
his life voluntarily. And die he must if he was to deal with the great enemy
of all flesh and blood---death! Behind death the writer sees the power of
Satan, who uses God's righteous judgment against sin to bring to death all
human beings who sin. But when God's Son willingly entered the dread realm
of death on behalf of the race, he could not be held there because he himself
was sinless. By his resurrection he broke the power of death over all who
accept his invitation to share his risen life. He rendered impotent (katargeo---"to
annul," "to make inoperative") the devil's power to carry
out the full effects of death---that is, spiritual separation from God forever.
Physical death remains for all, believers and nonbelievers alike, the transition
point between this life and the next. But for believers the "sting
of death" is gone, the grave no longer has its victory (1 Cor 15:54-57)!
But this is not a blessing to be obtained only in the future. It has an immediate effect as well, delivering the redeemed from all fear of death, and so liberating them from a lifelong bondage. Since death is the absence of life, spiritual death is already present in human affairs, appearing as depression, fear, boredom, despair, waste, limitation and defeat (Rom 8:6---"The mind set on the flesh is death"). The devil's lie is to convince many that they can avoid such experiences by amassing wealth, maintaining youth by strenuous exercise or expensive treatments, searching for adventure, falling in and out of love, gaining the marks of success, indulging in widespread travel, satisfying every whim, and so forth.
It is the fear of that kind of death which creates the frantic restlessness found in so many. That unsatisfied restlessness, that yearning for what cannot seem to be found, is at least partly what the writer here means by slavery. Like a slave bound to a cruel master human beings find themselves forced to keep searching for what they never attain. They try everything, but nothing satisfies. There is pleasure and fun---but seldom peace and contentment. Soon everything palls and the search must begin again. It is a lifelong bondage, for the quest never ends till life itself does. No better example of this futile search can be found than Howard Hughes. Bill Hybels recounts his quest for more money, more fame, more sensual pleasure, more thrills, more power, and concludes, in the end "he died a billionaire junkie, insane by all reasonable standard."
But even on our deathbed the bondage is not over, for there again lurks the dread question, What lies beyond?
Against all this stands the words of Jesus, "Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it" (Mt 10:39). He came to free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. His method was first to impart a new life to all who come to him, and join them to a great family of similarly reborn brothers and sisters. Then, through his word, he instructs them in how that new life should be lived and promises the Spirit himself who accompanies the believer throughout his entire journey, teaching him how to turn from the world's ways and Satanic wiles to loving relationships and fruitful service until at last he grows old and steps, through death, into glory and power that beggars description. "The man or woman who lives by this principle will find that for them the devil is impotent" (Stedman 1974:30). James writes, "Resist the devil, and he will flee from you" (4:7). Thus freedom from the lifelong bondage of self-serving is clearly included in the victory of Jesus over death!
If it seems that the writer has drifted far from his intent to show the superiority of Jesus over angels, verse 16 brings us back directly to the point: For surely it is not angels he helps, but Abraham's descendants. (9) Only by living himself as a human being could he fully sympathize with, and therefore help, those who struggle with great temptation on their way to glory. The term Abraham's descendants clearly envisions Paul's declaration, "If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise" (Gal 3:29). This help for Abraham's struggling spiritual descendants is not offered to angels (who are neither redeemed nor Abraham's seed), but it is constantly available to those who come to Jesus as their merciful and faithful high priest. It is mercy which he shows toward sinners; faithfulness is exhibited before the Father. This is the first designation in Hebrews of Jesus as high priest, and introduces a theme which will become a major emphasis in chapters 7 through 10.
The record of the four Gospels gives us the details of how Jesus was made like his brothers in every way. Everyday he felt the perturbations caused by living in a sinful world; he knew disappointments and sorrows, physical pains and frustrations of spirit; he grew weary and sore and must often have longed for home and comforts; he was lied to, falsely reproved, argued with, disliked and cheated. The earthly temptations which he endured in the wilderness and at other times (Lk 4:13) from the devil, and daily from the "opposition from sinful men" (12:3), including even his own disciples, made him a sympathetic priest. By virtue of his atonement (propitiation) he can make effective intercession before the Father for any who bring their burdens to him. The fact that he made atonement for the sins of the people lifts him to an incomparable level of priestly help. No priest under the law could do that, except in a symbolic and token fashion. But Jesus not only holds forth the hope of finding forgiveness of sins, he has actually taken them away already! To be able to be both merciful toward sinners and faithful to a holy God is possible only because the offense of sin before God has been removed.
The genuine humanity of Jesus reminds him continually of the way temptation feels to us when we are under assault, and his atonement overcomes any limitation of help caused by our sins, so that he may uphold us with both sympathy and integrity before the Father. "If anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense---Jesus Christ, the Righteous One" (1 Jn 2:1). Bruce puts the case well: "A high priest who has actually, and not merely in symbolism, removed His people's sins, and therewith the barrier which their sins erected between themselves and God, is a high priest worth having" (1964:53).
What a Friend we have in Jesus,
All our sins and griefs to bear;
What a privilege to carry,
Everything to God in prayer.
So the section concludes, and the writer completes his arguments. How can anyone, given the facts, continue to follow angelic guidance (be it from demigod, avatar, spirit guide, ancient master) when the Son of God himself has come, before whom all the angels, fallen or unfallen, are commanded to worship; for whom angels are but messengers committed to do his wishes; who has himself revealed a far greater message than the Law; and who has recaptured for all who come to him the lost heritage of creation; who has lifted, through the ultimate personal sacrifice, the terrible burden of sin and guilt which lies on us all; and who offers to us each day an inner supply of strength and wisdom for the journey through life? What angel can do all or any of that?
3:1 Therefore, holy brothers, who share in the heavenly calling, fix your thoughts on Jesus, the apostle and high priest whom we confess. 2 He was faithful to the one who appointed him, just as Moses was faithful in all God's house. 3 Jesus has been found worthy of greater honor than Moses, just as the builder of a house has greater honor than the house itself. 4 For every house is built by someone, but God is the builder of everything. 5 Moses was faithful as a servant in all God's house, testifying to what would be said in the future. 6 But Christ is faithful as a son over God's house. And we are his house, if we hold on to our courage and the hope of which we boast. 7 So, as the Holy Spirit says: "Today, if you hear his voice, 8 do not harden your hearts as you did in the rebellion, during the time of testing in the desert, 9 where your fathers tested and tried me and for forty years saw what I did. 10 That is why I was angry with that generation, and I said, `Their hearts are always going astray, and they have not known my ways.' 11 So I declared on oath in my anger, `They shall never enter my rest.'" 12 See to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. 13 But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin's deceitfulness. 14 We have come to share in Christ if we hold firmly till the end the confidence we had at first. 15 As has just been said: "Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as you did in the rebellion." 16 Who were they who heard and rebelled? Were they not all those Moses led out of Egypt? 17 And with whom was he angry for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the desert? 18 And to whom did God swear that they would never enter his rest if not to those who disobeyed? 19 So we see that they were not able to enter, because of their unbelief.
Houses come in many sizes and designs. The first house my wife and I
lived in was a tiny building in Hawaii which served as a parsonage for a
church where I was not the pastor (they had none at the time). It had only
one bedroom, one bath, a tiny kitchen and a small living room. It's long
gone now, and over the years we have lived in several houses. Our last one
in California had five bedrooms and three baths and was a virtual mansion
compared to the first. But all the houses we have lived in have had two
things in common: a preconceived design and a builder.
In Hebrews 3, the writer turns from the angels to compare Jesus to Israel's greatest and most revered leader, Moses, whose primary honor was that he was faithful as a servant in all God's house. But, he immediately adds, Christ is faithful as a son over God 's house. (10)
As in many chapter divisions in the New Testament, the opening words could as well have been the closing words of the previous chapter. The therefore ties them together and introduces a fifth title for Jesus thus far in Hebrews: Son, Firstborn, Lord, High Priest and now Apostle. We are encouraged to fix [our] thoughts on Jesus, the apostle and high priest whom we confess. The recipients of this encouragement are called holy brothers and those who share in the heavenly calling. These phrases represent a delicate shift from a well-known Jewish-Christian description ("brothers") to that which is distinctively Christian, and not Jewish ("heavenly calling"---Eph 1:3; 2:6). This explains his plea to look beyond Moses and Jewish things to Jesus, who combines, in his divine-human person, both functions which Moses exercised (apostle and high priest). However, Jesus fulfilled these to a loftier and far greater level.
The reference to Moses' faithfulness in God's house looks back to Numbers
12:7-8 where God describes to Aaron and Miriam how he spoke to prophets
in visions and dreams. He continues: "But this is not true of my servant
Moses; he is faithful in all my house. With him I speak face to face, clearly
and not in riddles." Though several commentators take "God's house"
to refer to the nation of Israel, it is better to link it to the tabernacle.
Its precursor is the Tent of Meeting, where God spoke these words, and the
typology of which is developed more expansively in Hebrews 9. The tabernacle
is called "the house of God" at least six different times in the
Old Testament, and its successor, the temple, is so designated 43 times.
Moses is especially connected with the tabernacle as the one who received
its design on Mount Sinai and oversaw its building and ritual. If the tabernacle
was the symbol of the dwelling place of God in the midst of his people,
as will be seen more fully in 3:6, then we may view the phrase God's
house as referring both to Israel and the building itself, each standing
for the other.
At any rate, the meaning of verses 3-5 is clear: the builder of a house is more worthy of honor than the house which he builds. The house is only the product of the builder's skill and wisdom. Overall conception and the design of infinite detail originates in the mind of the architect-builder; the house simply makes it visible. Thus, Jesus, as the agent of God in building all things, is more worthy of honor than Moses, who was just a servant in the house which the Son was building. This is support for the argument of the existence of God. Cornell University astrophysicist Carl Sagan and many others today insist that we are alone in the cosmos; the cosmos is all there is. If every earthly house shows the design and craft of a builder, how much more does the universe reflect, in its complexity and interrelatedness, a Mind and Hand that put it all together? This Mind and Hand belongs to Jesus as John 1:3 and other Scriptures attest. As the builder of everything, he outranks even a faithful servant like Moses, who served in the house Jesus made.
The phrase testifying to what would be said in the future supports the idea that the tabernacle, with its intensive typology, would teach future generations much about human nature, God and redemption. Stephen, in Acts 7:44, says, "Our forefathers had the tabernacle of the Testimony with them in the desert. It had been made as God directed Moses, according to the pattern he had seen." This is expanded in chapter 9 where we shall learn much more about this idea of testifying about the future.
But Christ is faithful as a son over God's house, declares verse 6. (11) And we are his house introduces a theme which will become dominant throughout the rest of the letter. The role of a servant and of a son in a house are worlds apart. I recall in my high-school days in Montana a visit I made to a large cattle ranch on the Missouri River as a friend of one of the cowboy employees. We slept in the bunkhouse with the rest of the help and had no access to the main quarters. We rode a couple of rather scruffy horses, and I was involved in helping him do certain assigned chores. Later I visited the same ranch as a friend of the son of the ranch's owner. What a difference! We had the run of the big house, ate in the main dining room, rode the best horses on the ranch and could go anywhere at any time. It made me forever aware of the difference between a son and a servant. The author wants to make this difference clear to his readers' minds also.
It will become readily apparent in chapter 9 that the reality which the tabernacle pictures (and which harmonizes the two peoples of God, Israel and the Church), are human beings themselves. The writer declares: "We are his house!" It is redeemed humanity who is to be the dwelling place of God (1 Cor 6:19; Eph 2:22; Rev 21:3). The writer has just presented Jesus (in chapter 2) as the Man who fulfills God's intent for the human race. That ultimate intent is that we may be indwelt by God. This is surely the meaning of Jesus in John 14:20, "On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you."
Again, in John 17:22-23, he prays to the Father, "I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me."
These concepts are revolutionary to the Jewish mind, as Jesus himself understood in trying to teach them to his disciples, and as the writer of Hebrews realizes as he seeks to lift his readers to views of themselves which they had only grasped dimly, if at all. At this point he ventures to use for the first time the Greek term for the Messiah (Christ---literally, "anointed") and so help turn their minds from Jewish hopes to the "better things" of which the Jewish shadows spoke.
We [believers] are his [Christ's] house, he asserts, if we hold on to our courage and the hope of which we boast. This if has troubled many people for it seems to imply that being a member of Christ's house can be lost after it is gained by wavering in our courage or hope. But the statement is more likely descriptive rather than conditional It tells us that courage (parresian) or boldness, and the demonstration of hope in word and deed is the continuing mark of those who belong to Christ. It does not rule out periods of weak faith and struggle. Bruce comments, "Nowhere in the New Testament more than here do we find such repeated insistence on the fact that continuance in the Christian life is the test of reality." The true members of Christ's house are those who show the reality of their faith by holding on to courage and hope, even though they may waver at times. He further adds that stumbling from faith "is precisely what our author fears may happen with his readers; hence his constant emphasis on the necessity of their maintaining fearless confession and joyful hope" (1964:59).
To show his grave concern the author reminds them, in the second major warning passage of the letter, chapters 7-15, of the possibility of that apostasy which left thousands of Israelites dead in the wilderness. And this had even been under the leadership of Moses.
Once again the writer draws from the treasury of the Psalms to support
his warning. The beginning of Psalm 95 describes worship which is acceptable
to God but closes with a flashback to the false worship of Israel in the
wilderness. They had outwardly seen themselves as God's flock, but in their
hearts they were hard against him and complained to Moses about their lack
of water. The incident is recorded in Exodus 17:1-7. After God miraculously
met their thirst by ordering Moses to strike the rock and bring forth water,
Moses named the place Meribah (which means "quarreling,") and
Massah (which means "testing"). Unfortunately, their attitude
was not one of quiet trust in God, but one of fretful complaint and querulous
challenge. This outlook was repeated many times (ten times, according to
Num 14:22) throughout the wilderness wanderings until at last God said,
"They are a people whose hearts go astray, and they have not known
my ways. So I declared on oath in my anger, 'They shall never enter my rest'
" (Ps 95:10-11). (12)
God's anger is not lightly aroused. Their grumblings and murmurings were patiently endured over a span of forty years. On occasion God sought to make them aware of their ingratitude and rebellion by visiting them with deserved punishment (fire, plagues, quails and poisonous serpents). But he always offered repentance and recovery. Still, their complaints continued and their hearts gradually hardened until, at Kadesh-Barnea, when God commanded them to enter the land of Canaan and take it for their own, they rebelled and refused to go up. Finally, God spoke in anger and said, "Their hearts are always going astray, and they have not known my ways So I declared on oath in my anger, 'They shall never enter my rest.'"
Note the reasons for his solemn oath: (1) They continually went astray in their heart Their inward life was askew. Rather than having a grateful spirit for astounding deliverances and limitless blessings, there was a settled attitude of complaint because everything did not go exactly as they desired each day. They saw themselves as deserving more than they were getting, and they resented it, not with an occasional outburst of displeasure, but with a constant harping that wore down everyone's nerves. (2) They had not learned God's ways. Over forty years, their real knowledge of God had not increased because their grumbling hearts blinded their spiritual eyes. A teachable spirit sustains a grateful heart. Centuries later Jesus would pray: "Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent" (In 17:23). This failure to grow in knowledge of God's ways is the very danger our author sees as a possibility for his own readers. He reminds them of this episode in Israel's history so they might heed its warning. Full apostasy is present when God says of anyone, They shall never enter my rest.
This is the first use of the word rest in Hebrews. This word describes the end of wandering and restlessness, and promises calmness and tranquillity. Here it clearly refers to the land of Canaan and the promise of a settled state of peace and full supply. But, as we shall see, this Canaan rest was a symbol, a shadow, of a greater rest available to the people of God in the future. The failure to correct a habit of grumbling and murmuring against God led over a million Israelites to such a hardened state of heart that they were unable to lay hold of the opportunity to enter the land of promise when they came to its borders. They perished at an average of almost ninety deaths a day, until the generation that left Egypt (except for Joshua and Caleb) had died out.
In verses 12-13, this example is now applied to all who read Hebrews.
The writer's argument is: If unbelief kept Israelites out of the land of
Canaan (a picture of God's rest), how much more serious is it today to give
way to unbelief and thus miss the greater rest (the rest of justification
and salvation). The warning is addressed to the whole assembly (See to
it, brothers, . . . encourage one another daily). These phrases recognize
individual responsibility to act (that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving
heart, . . . none of you may be hardened by sin's deceitfulness) and
describe accurately the terrible result of sin's hardening (turns away from
the living God). Bruce puts it powerfully, "a relapse from Christianity
into Judaism would be comparable to the action of the Israelites when they
'turned back in their hearts unto Egypt' (Acts 7:39); it would not be a
mere return to a position previously occupied, but a gesture of outright
apostasy, a complete break with God" (1964:66).
We who read this may not be battling with pressures to return to a previously held faith, but many church members today are content to live lives that are essentially no different than the lives of non-Christians around them. They easily forget Paul's plea, "Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind" (Rom 12:2). Also, "So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking" (Eph 4:17). All who ignore these words today are in great danger of repeating the ancient error of Israel.
For the first time in Hebrews the power of corporate faith is recognized with the words encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today. (13) It will be highlighted again in 10:24-25. Those who profess to share life in Christ are urged both to caution and encourage one another. This is done whenever it is needed (Today used eight times in Hebrews) and consists, not of stem rebuke, but loving admonition against a complaining spirit, and helpful illumination of sin's deceptive approach. "Sin is an extremely dangerous power confronting the believer. It always attacks the individual, much as wolves stalk a single sheep" (Kistemaker 1984:95). Its terrible danger lies in the deceptive ease by which it gradually hardens the heart, as it lessens the will's power to resist evil. As the first warning passage (2:1-4) dealt with the danger of drifting past truth, this one warns of the danger of failing to deal with a grumbling and complaining spirit.
Verses 14-19 recapitulate the warning from Psalm 95 and support the declaration of verse 14, We have come to share in Christ if we hold firm till the end the confidence we had at first. This verse looks back to verse 6, "we are his [Christ's] house." Believers share in Christ (metokoi, "become partakers of") through a dual relationship: "You in me, and I in you," that is, Christ dwelling in us as a Son in his own house; and believers dwelling in Christ, as sharers of his divine-human life. But this is made evident only by persevering as a Christian until the end of life itself! (See John 10:28 where Jesus says, "I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish"). Once again the if is descriptive, not conditional. If we hold firmly . . . the confidence we had at first envisages deliberate efforts made to renew faith and trust on a daily basis. As we read the Scriptures thoughtfully and closely every day, or when we pray regularly with and for one another, or when we worship with other believers in a shared experience of God's wonder and glory, when we serve people's needs out of love for Christ, we are doing the things that cause us to bold firmly to the end the confidence we had at first.
The rhetorical questions of verses 16-18 show how an outward facade of belief can be maintained while the heart is still unrepentant, and therefore unredeemed. (14) It is possible to participate in and benefit from the great miracles of God, as the Israelites did who came out of Egypt with Moses (v. 16). Yet, despite such evidence, the heart can remain unchanged for a lifetime. God sees that inner hardness and warns continually against it until he is forced to judge it (v. 17). Now the growing stages of unbelief: general rebellion (v. 16); sin, punished by physical death (v. 17); and disobedience (Gk: "being unpersuadable"---v. 18). The cause of this recalcitrance lies deeper than a wrong attitude or wrong behavior; it lies in a disobedient will. Therefore, the loss of promised blessing is traceable only and solely to long-continued unbelief (v. 19). This word apistian, "disbelief") is the platform upon which the writer's more positive explanation of rest is founded He gives us the other side of disbelief in chapter 4.
4:1 Therefore, since the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us be careful that none of you be found to have fallen short of it. 2 For we also have had the gospel preached to us, just as they did; but the message they heard was of no value to them, because those who heard did not combine it with faith. 3 Now we who have believed enter that rest, just as God has said, "So I declared on oath in my anger, `They shall never enter my rest.'" And yet his work has been finished since the creation of the world. 4 For somewhere he has spoken about the seventh day in these words: "And on the seventh day God rested from all his work." 5 And again in the passage above he says, "They shall never enter my rest." 6 It still remains that some will enter that rest, and those who formerly had the gospel preached to them did not go in, because of their disobedience. 7 Therefore God again set a certain day, calling it Today, when a long time later he spoke through David, as was said before: "Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts." 8 For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken later about another day. 9 There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; 10 for anyone who enters God's rest also rests from his own work, just as God did from his. 11 Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will fall by following their example of disobedience. 12 For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. 13 Nothing in all creation is hidden from God's sight Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.
Dreams of Utopia have haunted human minds for millennia. When Sir Thomas
More, in 1516, wrote the book Utopia, he chose the name because in
Greek it means "no place." Many attempts have been made in history
to find or create such a place where life approaches perfection, but none
has succeeded. Yet the dream has not faded, probably because it represents
a vestigial human memory of something we once had and still yearn for, a
greater Sabbath. On the seventh day of creation (Sabbath means "seven")
God was said to have "rested from all his work" (Gen 2:2). This
was not total inactivity, for God has been active throughout all history.
It is probably best described as a rest of a perfectly functioning creation,
as a mechanic rests from his work when his machine runs perfectly. That
is what men have dreamed Utopia would be: a properly functioning society.
In Hebrews 4:1 we are given the first hint that the promise of rest given
to Israel envisaged more than entering the Promised land. It is, he says,
a promise which still stands that is, was not satisfied by entering
Canaan, but still exists at the time of his writing. Furthermore, his readers
stand in danger of missing it unless they are careful. The Greek construction
of the phrase that none of you be found to have fallen short of it
indicates that wrong behavior, such as disobedience or long-continued grumbling,
suggests the heart is unchanged and unbelieving. Be found refers to God's
knowledge of the heart and his actions based on that knowledge.
In verse 2, we are given the reason for the Israelites' unbelief in the wilderness. Even though the gospel of God's deliverance from an evil heart was proclaimed clearly through the sacrifices, the tabernacle ritual and the preaching of Moses, it met with a lack of faith among those who perished. The writer will declare in 11:6 that "without faith it is impossible to please God." Without a personal response to the promise of salvation, no one may be saved. Declared many times in Scripture, this fact invalidates completely the teaching of universalism that everyone is already saved by virtue of Christ's death and that God will reveal that to them at the end, no matter how they lived. This teaching ignores the need for repentance: turning from ungrateful rebellion to a thankful acceptance of God's provision. Romans 10:17 indicates that the gospel ("the word of Christ") has power to awaken belief in is hearers; if that belief is acted upon by a willing response (faith), it results in salvation (divine life imparted). (15)
In verses 3-10, we learn the full meaning of the word rest. First,
it is a rest which believers of the first century (and today) can actually
experience (v. 3). The writer uses the present, but not the future, tense,
we. . . enter that rest. Jesus had declared, "Come to me, all
you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest" (Mt 11:28).
That is the same promise of rest which the writer, in verse 1, has declared
still stands. If believed, it requires a response, for though the promise
is still valid, so is the threat that follows: Just as God has said,
"So l declared on oath in my anger, 'They shall never enter my rest.
'" Now is the time to enter it (today--- v. 7), and now is the
time to lose it, if one test God's patience too long. (16)
Second, this true rest has been available since creation (vv. 3-4), and some who may not have entered Canaan could have entered God's rest still. God calls this rest my rest. This means not only does he give it, but he himself also enjoys it! He experienced rest when he ceased the work of creation, as recounted in Genesis 2:2-3. As we have seen, this does not imply subsequent idleness, for God continues to maintain his creation, as 1:3 attests. He is endlessly active in the work of redemption too, as Jesus declared in John 5:17. It does mean he ceased creating; he has rested from that work since time began. What that means for God's people will be made clear in verse 10. The third factor the writer stresses is that entering this rest must not be delayed. Again, he quotes Psalm 95:7, Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.
Delay hardens the heart, especially when we are fully aware that we have heard the voice of God in the inner soul. Every shrug of the shoulder that pus off acting on God's urging for change, every toss of the head that says, "I know I should, but I don't care," every attempt at outward conformity without inner commitment produces a hardening of the heart that makes repentance harder and harder to do. The witness of the Spirit must not be ignored, for the opportunity to believe does not last forever. Playing games with the living God is not only impertinent, but also dangerous.
There is a line, by us unseen,
That crosses every path.
The hidden boundary between
God's patience and His wrath.
Today is a word of hope. All is not lost while today lasts. Though
there has been some hardening, it can yet be reversed if prompt repentance
is made. The situation is serious, though, for Today is never more
than twenty-four hours long and that's all anyone is given at a time!
Though Jesus is not compared here with Joshua in terms of relative greatness,
it is apparent from verses 8-10 that the work of Joshua in leading Israel
into the rest symbolized by the Promised Land was far inferior to the work
of Jesus. He provides eternal rest to all who believe in him. The fact that
God repeats his promise of rest through David in Psalm 95, centuries after
Israel had entered Canaan, is used to indicate that Sabbath-rest is the
substance and Canaan-rest but a shadow. There was an experience of rest
for Israel in Canaan (from armed invasion, natural disasters, failure of
crops) when they were faithful to God. But even at best that rest was outward
and essentially physical, and could not satisfy the promise of rest to the
human race which was intended from the beginning. The author specifically
states, There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God.
In verse 10, we learn at last the nature of that rest. It means to cease from one's own work, and so, by implication, to trust in the working of God instead. In Ephesians 2:8-9 Paul asserts, "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith---and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God---not by works, [we are to rest from our own works!] so that no one can boast."
The use of the term sabbatismos ("Sabbath-rest") suggests that the weekly sabbath given to Israel is only a shadow of the true rest of God. Paul also declares in Colossians 2:16-17 where he lumps religious festivals, New Moon celebrations and sabbath days together as "a shadow of the things that were to come, the reality, however, is found in Christ." Thus rest has three meanings: (1) the Promised Land; (2) the weekly sabbath; and (3) that which these two prefigure, that cessation from labor which God enjoys and which he invites believes to share. This third rest not only describes the introduction of believers into eternal life, but also depicts the process by which we will continue to work and live, namely, dependence on God to be at work through us. "It is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose" (Phil 2:13). (17)
This is in many ways the lost secret of Christianity. Along with seeking to do things for God, we are also encouraged to expect God to be at work through us. It is the key to the apostle's labors: "I can do everything through him who gives me strength" (Phil 4:13). Also, "I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me" (Gal 2:20). Note, "I no longer live"---that is, I do not look for any achievement by my own efforts. Rather "Christ lives in me" and the life I live and the things that I do are "by faith"---that is, done in dependence on the Son of God working in and through me.
This makes clear that truly keeping the sabbath is not observing a special day (that is but the shadow of the real sabbath), but sabbath-keeping is achieved when the heart rests on the great promise of God to be working through a believer in the normal affairs of living. We cannot depend on our efforts to please God, though we do make decisions and exert efforts. We cease from our own works and look to his working within us to achieve the results that please him. As Jesus put it to the apostles, "Apart from me you can do nothing" (Jn 15:5). They must learn to work but always with the thought that he is working with them, adding his power to their effort. That is keeping the sabbath as it was meant to be kept!
Learning to function from a position of rest is the way to avoid burnout in ministry or any other labor. We are to become "co-laborers with God," to use Paul's wonderful phrase. This does not mean that we cannot learn many helpful lessons on rest by studying the regulations for keeping the sabbath day found in the Old Testament. Nor that we no longer need time for quiet meditation and cessation from physical labor. Our bodies are yet unredeemed and need rest and restoration at frequent intervals. But we are no longer bound by heavy limitations to keep a precise day of the week.
Paradoxically, we read in verse 11 the exhortation to make every effort to enter that [sabbath] rest. Of course, effort is needed to resist self-dependence. If we think that we have what it takes in ourselves to do all that needs to be done, we shall find ourselves rest-less and ultimately ineffective. Yet decision is still required of us and exertion is needed; but results can only be expected from the realization that God is also working and he will accomplish the needed ends. This is also the clear teaching of Psalm 127:1, "Unless the LORD builds the house, its builders labor in vain. Unless the LORD watches over the city, the watchmen stand guard in vain." Human effort is still needed, but human effort is never enough.
Failure to expect God to act caused the disobedience of Israel in the wilderness, and a similar failure destroys thousands today. It is called overachieving now, but it is the cause for most of the breakdown of Christians under the pressure of stress or responsibility. Pastors and teachers particularly have often been taught that they are personally responsible to meet the emotional needs and to solve the relational problems of all in their congregations. Many sincerely attempt this but soon find themselves overwhelmed with unending demands and a growing sense of their own failure. Relief can come only by learning to operate out of rest and by sharing responsibility with others in the congregation whom God has also equipped with gifts of ministry.
The subtlety of the temptation to self-dependence is highlighted by verses
12-13. The opening For strongly ties them to verse 11 since they
explain what the Israelites who fell in the wilderness failed to heed. David
asks, in Psalm 19:12, "Who can discern his errors?" The answer
he gives in the psalm and that of the writer of Hebrews is the same. Only
the Word of God, which is living and active and sharper than any double-edged
sword, is capable of exposing the thoughts and attitudes of a single human
heart! We do not know ourselves. We do not even know how to distinguish,
by feelings or rationale, between that which comes from our souls (psyches)
and from our spirits (pneumas). Even our bodily functions (symbolized here
by joints and marrow) are beyond our full knowledge. Only the all-seeing
eye of God knows us thoroughly and totally (Ps 139:1-18), and before him
we will stand and ultimately give account.
The images the author employs in this marvelous passage are effective ones. Like a sharp sword which can lay open the human body with one slashing blow, so the sword of the Scripture can open our inner life and expose it to ourselves and others. Once the ugly thoughts and hidden rebellions are out in the open, we stand like criminals before a judge, ineffectually trying to explain what we have done. Yet such honest revelation is what we need to humble our stubborn pride and render us willing to look to God for forgiveness and his gracious supply.
Plainly, Scripture is the only reliable guide we have to function properly as a human in a broken world. Philosophy and psychology give partial insights, based on human experience, but they fall far short of what the Word of God can do. It is not intended to replace human knowledge or effort, but is designed to supplement and correct them. Surely the most hurtful thing pastors and leaders of churches can do to their people is to deprive them of firsthand knowledge of the Bible. The exposition of both Old and New Testaments from the pulpit, in classrooms and small group meetings is the first responsibility of church leaders. They are "stewards of the mysteries of God" and must be found faithful to the task of distribution. This uniqueness of Scripture is the reason that all true human discovery in any dimension must fit within the limits of divine disclosure. Human knowledge can never outstrip divine revelation.
The remaining verses of chapter 4 (vv. 14-16) properly belong with the subject of chapter 5 and will be considered there. Thus far we have seen that Jesus is far greater than any angel, eclipses Moses as the spokesman of God, and leads believers into a far superior rest than Joshua led Israel into. In chapter 5, we are introduced to the major theme of Hebrews: the high priesthood of Jesus. He is superior in every respect to the priesthood of Aaron, and encompasses a ministry which the Old Testament only faintly shadowed in the mysterious ministry of Melchizedek to Abraham.
14 Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are--yet was without sin. 16 Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.
As I was writing this chapter, I was concerned about a young man whom
I wanted to help grow in Christ. At the moment his Christian life was on
hold, and though he listened patiently to what I told him, he seemed unwilling
to make any changes or to take seriously what I was saying. I found myself
feeling frustrated and uncertain how to proceed. There was much truth I
was anxious to impart to him and I longed particularly to open his eyes
to the enormous resources for help in times of temptation and pressure that
were available to him from the daily presence of Christ in his life. But
he seemed to be dull of hearing and unable to grasp the excitement and vitality
of what I was portraying. I began to realize how the writer of Hebrews must
have felt as he tried to help his readers grasp the full import of the high
priestly ministry of Jesus.
In 4:14 he begins an extended discussion of that ministry, which will conclude at 7:28. The therefore which opens the discussion looks back to the previous verse (4:13), where the whole human race is viewed as totally vulnerable before the all-seeing eyes of God. Our writer probably has in mind Adam and Eve, when they suddenly became aware of their nakedness and sought to hide from God in the Garden. But believers in Jesus, though naked before God, do not need to hide, for they have an Advocate before the Father, even the Son of God himself. Now they can, in the words of 4:16, approach the throne of grace with confidence.
Jesus, as high priest, is both great and has gone through the heavens.
This last phrase denotes his completed work of redemption and transcendent
availability. The practical result of that availability is that there is
no necessity for anyone to give up faith under the pressure of peril or
persecution, for the help needed to stand is both sympathetically offered
and fully effective. This offer of help from on high to any who struggle
with the pressures and problems of life on earth is undoubtedly the most
widely neglected resource for Christians. It proposes simply and clearly
to meet every situation, not with human wisdom but divine---and not with
merely human strength, but God's inexhaustive strength! History provides
many examples of those who have tried this offer and found it eminently
true. Yet despite this encouragement from the past and present, many believers
look only for human help, and if it is not available, succumb quickly to
discouragement, defeat, despair and even suicide. These verses are often
quoted as part of a Christian's defense provision, but too often forgotten
when actual times of trouble arrive.
The basis for our great high priest's sympathy is that he has fully shared our plight. The writer has already (2:17) reminded his readers that Jesus was "made like his brothers in every way" and that this was done "through suffering" (2:10). Now we are told that he has been tempted in every way, just as we are. As Adam and Eve before the Fall could be tempted even in their innocent state, so Jesus could feel the force of temptation to the full, though he remained without sin. He exceeds us in his awareness of the power of temptation. "Such endurance involves more, not less, than ordinary human suffering" (Bruce 1964:86). Only the sinless can experience the full intensity of temptation, for the sinful yield before the limit of temptation is reached. We may count on his sympathy for our feelings of pressure and constraint to evil, and be assured, as the psalmist says, "he knows how we are formed; he remembers that we are dust" (Ps 103:14).
For centuries, Christians have debated the question, Was Jesus not able to sin because of his deity, or was he simply able not to sin even though he fully shared our humanity? This question is, in my judgment, one of those issues about which no final answer can be given due to the limitations of human knowledge and the reticence of Scripture to speak. If unduly pressed, it falls under Paul's warning against quarreling about words, for such quarreling "is of no value, and only ruins those who listen" (2 Tim 2:14). What Scripture does reveal in several places (7:14) is that Jesus was without sin. With that statement we should be content. Luther once observed, "When the angels want a good laugh, they read the commentaries!" Let us not add to their laughter by quarrels over things beyond our knowledge.
The throne of grace to which we come for help is pictured by the mercy seat in the old tabernacle. That mercy seat, where God could meet with sinful humans because of the blood of sacrifice sprinkled upon it, is the throne of power in the universe from which grace constantly flows to needy suppliants. Mercy is the remission of deserved judgment, while grace is the supply of undeserved blessing. Both are needed by sinful believers such as we all are, and both are available to us when we come with confidence. We are loved as children and cherished as recipients of the great salvation won by the blood of our great high priest!
5:1 Every high priest is selected from among men and is appointed to represent them in matters related to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. 2 He is able to deal gently with those who are ignorant and are going astray, since he himself is subject to weakness. 3 This is why he has to offer sacrifices for his own sins, as well as for the sins of the people. 4 No one takes this honor upon himself; he must be called by God, just as Aaron was. 5 So Christ also did not take upon himself the glory of becoming a high priest. But God said to him, "You are my Son; today I have become your Father. " 6 And he says in another place, "You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek." 7 During the days of Jesus' life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. 8 Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered 9 and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him 10 and was designated by God to be high priest in the order of Melchizedek. 11 We have much to say about this, but it is hard to explain because you are slow to learn. 12 In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God's word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! 13 Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. 14 But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.
Chapter 5 continues the priestly theme by looking first, in verses 1-4,
at the necessary qualifications to serve as a priest. (18)
They are fourfold:
1. He must be human, "selected from among men" since he "is appointed to represent them" before God (v. 1).
2. His ministry consists of offering "gifts and sacrifices for sins," as his major work solves the alienation created by human sin (v. 1).
3. He must "deal gently with those who are ignorant and going astray," and he can do so because of his own sense of weakness and sin (vv. 2-3).
4. He must be appointed to his priestly office by God. No one can make himself a priest (v. 4).
All these Aaron fulfilled, as did, with varying degrees of accomplishment, many of his successors in the priestly office. We tend to think of the Levitical priests as engaged, only in rituals and sacrifices which were often virtually meaningless to the people. But if we read Leviticus and Deuteronomy carefully, we will see that such priests served in the place of modern psychologists and psychiatrists today. In explaining to the people the purpose of each offering, they would be dealing with problems of fear, insecurity, anxiety, guilt and shame. Thus they fulfilled an extremely important role in the nation's life.
The writer now shows that Jesus, as a high priest, fulfills each of those
qualifications, though he is of a different order than that of Aaron. The
fourth qualification is mentioned first---the need to be appointed by God.
That divine appointment was found in the words of Psalm 2, quoted once before
in 1:5, You are my Son; today I have become your Father. This precisely
identifies the one who will be made a priest (my Son), and is immediately
linked with the words of Psalm 110:4, You are a priest forever, in the
order of Melchizedek. This first of eight mentions of Melchizedek in
Hebrews stresses the right of Jesus to serve because his appointment came
directly from God and is confirmed by Psalms 2 and 110.
The second qualification (to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins) is not mentioned of Jesus here, possibly because it has been described already in 2:17. This will be dealt with extensively in chapters 8 and 9, particularly in 8:3. That Jesus met this credential in full is the major theme of Hebrews and is, therefore, taken for granted in this demonstration of his priestly qualifications.
But Jesus' fulfillment of the third qualification (to feel his own weakness and sins) is described in the words of verses 7-8. These strange verses explain how a sinless person could nevertheless feel his own weakness and sins. The major commentators agree that they describe the experience of Jesus in the dark shadows of Gethsemane. There---with only Peter, James and John nearby---he experienced a protracted period of excruciating torment of spirit which found expression in groanings ("If it be possible, Father, let this cup pass") and streaming tears, and ended in a terrible sweat, almost like blood.
There is a great mystery here. Jesus seems to face the experience with puzzlement and deep unrest of heart. For the first time in his ministry, he appeals to his own disciples for help, asking them to watch and pray for him. He confesses being deeply troubled in his spirit. Each of his three prayers questions the necessity for this experience and each is addressed to the one who could save him from death. Luke tells us that before the third prayer an angel was sent to strengthen him. Perhaps this is what the words of 5:7 refer to, he was heard because of his reverent submission. His cry to the Father was one of such desperate need that the Father answered by strengthening him through an angel. But when the angel had finished, the third and most terrible experience began.
The author implies that Jesus faced the emotional misery which sin produces: its shame, guilt and despair. He felt the iron bands of sin's enslaving power. He was oppressed by a sense of hopelessness, total discouragement and utter defeat. He is anticipating the moment on the cross when he would be forsaken of the Father, since he would then be bearing the sin of the world as though it were his own. The very thought of it crushed his heart as in a winepress. No sinner on earth has ever felt the stain and shame of sin as he did. He understood exactly the same feeling we have (in much lesser degree) when we are angry with ourselves and so filled with shame and self-loathing that we cannot believe that God can do anything but hate us for our evil. Jesus knows what that is like. He went the whole way and took the full brunt. We will never pass through a Gethsemane as torturous as he did. He saw our sins as his own, and thus fulfilled beyond any other priest's experience the ability to deal gently with other's sins since he was so fully aware of the sense of personal defilement sin leaves.
This also explains the unusual words of 5:8, Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered. There in Gethsemane he learned how it feels to obey when such obedience only promises further pain. He could and did add to his prayers, "yet not my will, but yours be done." Thus Jesus learned obedience when every fiber of his being longed to escape. He had gladly been obedient to the Father all his life. In Gethsemane it was hard, excruciatingly hard, for him to accept God's will, just as it often seems hard to us to obey it. But this is because we are impure, not pure. Nevertheless, even though he was a son who loved to obey his Father, yet he learned obedience the hard way through his experience in Gethsemane.
Verses 9-10 take us to the cross. Having learned obedience in Gethsemane, Jesus is now perfectly qualified to become at once the sin offering and the high priest who offers it. This anticipates the clause of 9:14, "through the eternal Spirit [he] offered himself unblemished to God." This perfect sacrifice, offered by the perfect priest, entirely supersedes the Aaronic priesthood and is again designated by God as of the order of Melchizedek. The phrase appears five times in Hebrews and becomes the subject of the epistle from 5:6 to 7:28. It is the Melchizedek priesthood that is described by 2:18: "Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted." In view of this help so easily available, why do we insist so strenuously on obtaining only human help? The mutual assistance of others like ourselves is scripturally valid and often helpful, but it was never intended to replace the help available from our great "Melchizedek." Let us go boldly and much more frequently to our high priest who sits on the throne of grace, ready and able to help.
Come, ye disconsolate, where'er ye languish,
Come to the mercy seat, fervently kneel.
Here bring your wounded heart, here tell your anguish,
Earth has no sorrows that heaven cannot heal!
The paragraph from 5:11 to 6:3 turns aside for the moment to examine
the spiritual condition of the readers of this epistle. Verses 11-13 describe
their immature state; verse 14 shows them what they should be; and 6:1-3
tells them how to get there. There will follow, in 6:4-8, the third major
warning passage of Hebrews, and in 6:9-20, the writer lifts his readers
to a new level of hope based upon the oath and promise of God given to Abraham.
He then will resume the discussion of the Melchizedek priesthood in chapter
It has been quite evident thus far in Hebrews that the pastor's heart of the author has been deeply troubled over the spiritual state of some of his readers. Twice he has warned them at some length that they are in danger of repeating the unbelief of the Israelites in the wilderness and failing, therefore, to enter into the spiritual rest which they had been promised. Once again he confronts them with their perilous state. (19)
They are slow to learn, he declares, and because of this dullness, he has difficulty in explaining to them the extraordinary advantages of the Melchizedek priesthood of Jesus. If they had been growing as they should, they ought by now to be able to pass the great truths of the faith along to others. They would no longer be learning elementary truths of God's word for themselves but could be teachers of those coming after them. The high priestly ministry which Jesus wants them to learn represents an advance on the introductory truths of the Christian faith. But instead of responding to his exhortations they seem to require those basic truths to be explained to them again. At best, they are spiritual infants who need to be taught over and over the elementary truths as a baby needs to be fed milk and is not ready for solid food. At worst, they are not Christians at all, but are like many of the Israelites in the wilderness. They also are in danger of failing to act in faith on the teaching they have received. Fear that this may be their condition is what leads the author to issue the solemn warning of 6:4-8, though in 6:9, he indicates that he does not yet believe they are all in such a fearful state.
The cause of their immaturity is clearly described in 5:13. They are not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. Commentators differ as to whether righteousness here refers to conduct or imputed worth. Hughes opts for the latter view, describing it as "the teaching about righteousness which is fundamental to the Christian faith, namely, the insistence on Christ as our righteousness (1 Cor. 1:30, 2 Cor. 5:21) as opposed to self-righteousness or works-righteousness" (1977:191). Ignorance of having a righteous position in God's eyes already through faith in Christ has been the cause of much useless laboring to earn righteousness through the centuries. It invariably produces a form of legalism which tries to earn "brownie points" with God to gain his acceptance. The dullness which does not understand the divine program that leads to right conduct manifests its ignorance by being unable to "distinguish good from evil." But those who, by persistent obedience to the truth, are able to grasp such solid food will give evidence of it in wise and wholesome conduct. They will identify evil as evil, even when it looks good, and follow good because it is good, even when it looks evil.
How do Christians train themselves to be able to understand the teaching about righteousness? The steps are the same in any age. (1) Begin with truth you already know but have not been obeying. Does God want you to stop some activity you know to be wrong? Does Scripture exhort you to change your attitude, forgive someone, reach out with help to another? No further light will be given until you begin to obey the light you already have. (2) Review the promises of God for help from on high to obey his word, for example, Hebrews 2:18; 4:14-16; 2 Timothy 2:7. (3) Claim those promises for yourself, do whatever you need to do, and count on God's grace to see you through the consequences. (4) Follow this procedure whenever you become aware of areas of your life and thinking that need to be changed. This is the constant use which will enable one to grow and to handle the solid food of the teaching about righteousness. Paul, in Ephesians 4:14, says, "Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming."
Since understanding and practicing the truth of the high priestly ministry of Jesus leads believers to such maturity, it is obvious that it is one of the most important truths of Scripture and also one which every Christian should seek diligently to grasp and practice.
6:1 Therefore let us leave the elementary teachings about Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again the foundation of repentance from acts that lead to death, and of faith in God, 2 instruction about baptisms, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. 3 And God permitting, we will do so. 4 It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, 5 who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age, 6 if they fall away, to be brought back to repentance, because to their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace. 7 Land that drinks in the rain often falling on it and that produces a crop useful to those for whom it is farmed receives the blessing of God. 8 But land that produces thorns and thistles is worthless and is in danger of being cursed. In the end it will be burned. 9 Even though we speak like this, dear friends, we are confident of better things in your case --things that accompany salvation. 10 God is not unjust; he will not forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped his people and continue to help them. 11 We want each of you to show this same diligence to the very end, in order to make your hope sure. 12 We do not want you to become lazy, but to imitate those who through faith and patience inherit what has been promised. 13 When God made his promise to Abraham, since there was no one greater for him to swear by, he swore by himself, 14 saying, "I will surely bless you and give you many descendants." 15 And so after waiting patiently, Abraham received what was promised. 16 Men swear by someone greater than themselves, and the oath confirms what is said and puts an end to all argument. 17 Because God wanted to make the unchanging nature of his purpose very clear to the heirs of what was promised, he confirmed it with an oath. 18 God did this so that, by two unchangeable things in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled to take hold of the hope offered to us may be greatly encouraged. 19 We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure. It enters the inner sanctuary behind the curtain, 20 where Jesus, who went before us, has entered on our behalf. He has become a high priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.
Life presents a thousand examples of the need to act on knowledge before
any benefit is received. It is not enough to know a telephone number; if
you want to talk to someone, you must dial the number. It is not enough
to know the price of an object; if you want it, you must pay that price.
It is not enough to know where India is; if you want to see it, you must
go there. So it should not seem strange that the writer of Hebrews insists
that to know Jesus you must receive him by faith and obey his teaching.
The unfortunate chapter division at this point tends to minimize the opening Therefore of chapter 6. Our author does not propose to teach his readers again the elementary truths of God's word though he has told them their dullness seems to require it. They already know the teaching; what they need now is personal commitment to it. This can only be achieved by going on to those actions of faith that produce maturity. For this reason he urges them to leave the elementary teachings about Christ and go on from words to applications. Elementary teachings is not a reference to regeneration, but means introductory information that could lead to regeneration.
The rudiments he asks them to leave consist of six matters under two
heads: (1) the foundation of repentance from acts that lead to death,
and of faith in God; and (2) instruction about baptisms, the laying
on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. These
transitional truths lead from Jewish beliefs and practices to a full sharing
in Christ. Though Bruce takes them as a Jewish list and others as Christian,
the truth is they are both, as Bruce concedes that each "acquires a
new significance in a Christian context" (1964:112).The point is that
they do not represent anything but the barest beginnings of Christian faith.
It is necessary to go from the knowledge of these initial truths to experiences
which actually draw upon the priestly ministry of Jesus for this is what
would lead them from head knowledge to heart response.
This rudimentary foundation is easily recognizable as the same one which Jesus and the apostles preached, namely, "repent and believe." Repentance is a permanent change of mind which results in right behavior ("Produce fruit in keeping with repentance"---Mt 3:8). The change they needed was to cease trusting in acts that lead to death (a phrase which is repeated in 9:14) or useless rituals, as the NIV alternatively translates. RSV. Tasker describes the result as "an abandonment of the attempt to obtain righteousness by seeking to obey the precepts of a lifeless moral code" (quoted by Bruce 1964:113). After turning from lifeless works (repentance), a positive action of faith in God must be taken. This recalls for us Paul's word to believers in Thessalonica: "You turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God." Repentance and faith are two sides of the same coin. They form the essential foundation upon which one may enter the Christian life.
Still, certain instruction in important doctrines was carried over from Old Testament teachings. This instruction falls into two sets: baptisms and laying on of hands, and resurrection of the dead and eternal judgment. The first set touches upon the beginning of the Christian life; the second set speaks of its final events. Together they bracket Christian doctrine, involving both impartation of life and accountability of experience.
It is evident from the ministry of John the Baptist that Christian baptism emerged from the Jewish practice of ritual ablutions or washings. This would explain the unusual plural here (from baptismos used of Jewish ablutions, rather than from the more common baptisma which is employed for Christian baptisms). It may, however, be an oblique reference to John's teaching in 1 John 5:7-8, "For there are three that testify: the Spirit, the water and the blood; and the three are in agreement" which does tie water baptism with the Christian teachings of Spirit and blood. The point the writer wishes to make is that baptism is an initiatory rite and must not be regarded as fulfilling all that a Christian is expected to know or do.
The laying on of hands was widely practiced in the early church, sometimes for the imparting of the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:17), sometimes for healing (Acts 28:8), sometimes for ordaining or commissioning (Acts 13:3). Though borrowed from Judaism, its Christian usage would need to be explained to the new convert. It is an act of identification, tying the individual to either the activity of God or that of the body of Christ. This, too, represents a beginning and not an end.
The doctrine of resurrection is central to Christianity though not to Judaism. It was taught in the Old Testament (Is 26:19; Dan 12:2) and was important to the Pharisees (Acts 23:6), but its central position in the New Testament demanded further instruction and repeated exposure to the testimony of apostles and other eyewitnesses to the resurrection of Jesus. Since his resurrection is an essential element of the Melchizedek priesthood, it would be especially important that Christian converts be fully informed on this matter. The Pharisaic view of a resurrection at the end of time was nothing more than a mere introduction to this great theme.
The theme of judgment to come is also clearly taught in the Old Testament (Is 33:22; Gen 18:25). The figure of the Son of Man, who approaches the Ancient of Days to receive authority to judge (Dan 7:914), would most certainly be identified as Jesus to any scribe from a Jewish background. The author will refer to such judgment in 9:27, but the full development of this theme awaits the recognition of Jesus as the one who speaks from heaven (12:25) before the terrible shaking of the heavens and the earth.
This foundation and accompanying instruction could, if appropriated by faith, bring a Jew to new life in Christ. This would not be difficult to accept since it was based upon truth already taught in the Law and the Prophets. But though some among these Hebrews knew these truths intellectually, they gave little indication in their behavior that they had combined them with personal faith (4:2). The combination of the word about Christ with individual faith should have produced a Spirit-born vitality and enthusiasm which would make it delightfully easy to instruct them in the wonders of the Melchizedek priesthood. But since this élan is so visibly absent the writer must warn them that something is seriously lacking. It is dangerous to stay forever on the foundation; in fact, it is impossible. If they are not willing or able to move on to more mature understanding, they are in grave peril of losing what they already have, and that irretrievably! Growth in truth is something all Christians (note the we in v. 3) must do, God permitting.
Surely God would permit all of us to go on to maturity in the Christian life whenever we wished to do so! Or would he? This is the very question raised by the words God permitting. It seems to parallel the quotation in 3:11, "So I declared on oath in my anger, 'They shall never enter my rest.'" The unbelieving Israelites in the desert wanted to enter into Canaan, and, presumably, into the spiritual rest which Canaan symbolized. But they could not, for God would not permit it! Hence they must continue to wander in the wilderness till all were dead. Far from being a polite cliché or pious wish, these words God permitting form the fulcrum on which the warning of verses 4-8 turns.
This solemn warning marks one of the great theological battlefields of
Scripture. Here the clashing proponents of Calvinism and Arminianism have
wheeled and charged, unleashing thunderous volleys of acrimony against one
another, only to generate much heat and little profit. The Calvinists, mindful
of the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints (eternal security), seize
upon the words It is impossible . . . if they fall away, to be brought
back to repentance. "These cannot," they say, "be truly
regenerated Christians, no matter how strongly the descriptive phrases of
verses 4-5 seem to imply they are, for otherwise they would not fall away
into irremediable apostasy."
On the other hand, the Arminians focus on the descriptive phrases and say, "It is impossible to portray true Christians any more powerfully and accurately than is done here; therefore, since they are said to fall away it is clear that regeneration can be lost after it has been obtained." A third group of interpreters insist that the question of eternal salvation is not in question here at all, since it is only a matter of urging new Christians on to further understanding of their fellowship with Christ.
As in the case of many clashes over Scripture, there is truth in different views. (20) We are helped here by viewing the readers not as a homogenous group who must all be classified in one category or another. Rather, they are a mixed assembly, among whom were many genuine believers needing a degree of prodding to go on in their experience of truth. There were also some who professed faith in Christ but who gave no evidence in their behavior or attitudes that they were truly regenerate. This is the case in many churches today and has been so in every generation of believers from the first century on. No matter what careful expedients are employed to make sure that all church members are born again, it is almost certain that there is no congregation which is not just such a mixed multitude as the writer of Hebrews addresses. The ratio of true believers to apparent believers may vary widely, but since we cannot distinguish these by observation (or even careful testing), we must view these warnings as applying to us all.
Just how far religious experience can go and yet still fall short of regeneration is described by five phrases in verses 4-5. Let us look at them one by one. First is, those who have once been enlightened. Some of the early church Fathers linked this enlightenment with baptism, but that only identifies the effect with the cause. It plainly means an intellectual understanding of God's redemptive actions. The light of the gospel can be received without leading to baptism, but those who were baptized normally did so because they understood the truth about Jesus and his atonement and wished to avail themselves of its privileges. The once likely means "once for all" (Gk: hapax), indicating that enlightenment cannot be repeated since a full understanding admits of no improvement. One sees this in the epignosin, "full knowledge," of 10:26. But though knowledge is prerequisite to faith, it does not always indicate that saving faith is present.
The second description is that they have tasted the heavenly gift. The gift can be the Holy Spirit (2:4) or Jesus himself (In 4:10; 2 Cor 9:15), since both come from heaven. The mention of the Spirit in the next phrase seems to indicate the gift here is Jesus. Some commentators see this "tasting" as referring to the sacrament of the Lord's Supper, which identifies its elements as the body and blood of Jesus. Those who do have saving faith would surely observe this sacrament, yet it is quite possible to participate in baptism and the Lord's Supper without actual faith. Even if the reference is not to the Eucharist, it is still true that one can have much knowledge of Jesus and even have "tasted" of his blessings, without personal commitment to him (Jn 2:23-25).
The third distinctive, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, seems at first glance almost conclusive that these are true Christians. Paul's admonition "If anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ" marks the presence of the Spirit as the seal of a regenerated life. But there are other ministries of the Spirit that precede those of indwelling. One can become a sharer in or partaker of the Spirit by responding for a time to his drawing power intended to lead one ultimately to Christ. The translation "shared" implies something done in company with others, and may well be linked with the "laying on of hands" referred to in 6:2 (Kistemaker 1984:159). This would envision a group response to the gospel, as we see in many evangelistic rallies today, but it does not mean that all who so respond exercise saving faith. Since enlightenment and tasting are also ministries of the Spirit, they join the others as true of those who have traveled for a ways on their journey to faith, but who have not necessarily arrived.
A fourth mark of spiritual progress is to have tasted the goodness of the word of God. Since it is by the "living and enduring word of God" that men and women are born again (1 Pet 1:23), it is necessary to hear it first, and then "taste" its goodness. The readers of this epistle had done this, but there is no indication in this phrase that they have responded with personal faith. Some very likely have, but others have stopped short of the goal. And this arouses the concern of the writer.
The last, and fifth, advantage possessed by these Hebrews is that they have tasted the powers of the coming age. Hughes rightly says, "These powers may confidently be identified with the signs, wonders, and miracles mentioned earlier in 2:4 as accompaniments of the preaching of the gospel" (1977:211). These miracles were predicted in Isaiah 35:56 as accompanying the appearance of God among his people:
Then will the eyes of the blind be opened
and the ears of the deaf unstopped.
Then will the lame leap like a deer,
and the mute tongue shout for joy.
Jesus plainly saw himself fulfilling these words (Lk 7:22). It is apparent
from these words in Hebrews that, eventually, in the divine program they
would be manifest at both the first and second comings of Jesus. They belong
primarily to the coming age, which is clearly not the new heavens and earth;
these miracles of restoration will not be needed in that perfect day. They
will be seen, finally, in the kingdom age when the prophet's picture finds
its complete fulfillment. But the "taste" which many of these
readers had had in the time of Jesus and the apostles was unconvincing evidence
even to their own eyes. Like the Israelites who murmured in the wilderness,
despite the miracles of supply they witnessed, these also failed to "share
in the faith of those who obeyed" the word they heard.
Simon Magus (Acts 8:9-24) serves to illustrate the possibility that some who experience such convincing proofs can nevertheless fall short of saving faith and turn away into apostasy. He professed belief in Jesus, was baptized and yet was severely rebuked by Peter because his "heart was not right before God." He was still a "captive to sin." Even more to the point is Judas, who walked and talked daily with the Lord, heard his superb teaching, witnessed many miracles and was himself sent out to minister in the power of God. But Jesus called him "the son of perdition" and "a devil" (Jn 6:70). Judas did not receive salvation and then lose it. Despite his enormous exposure to truth and grace, it is plain that he resisted personal conversion and at last turned away from eternal life to a sad and eternal death.
Verse 6 describes the grim result of turning back to unbelief after receiving the full enlightenment provided. Repentance is the gateway to eternal life, as many Scriptures make clear. (21) After being brought by the Spirit-given blessings of verses 4-5 to the very edge of repentance, those who fall back into unbelief cannot be brought to that same place again, since nothing more could be added to that which proved insufficient before. Their state is now hopeless. As Bruce cogently observes, "God has pledged Himself to pardon all who truly repent, but Scripture and experience alike suggest that it is possible for human beings to arrive at a state of heart and life where they can no longer repent" (1964:124).
What blocks their way of return is that they have put themselves into the position of those who deliberately refused Jesus' claim to be the Son of God and forced him to the shame and humiliation of the cross. The NIV because to their loss does not translate the Greek heautois well. "To themselves" (KJV) or "on their own account" (RSV) is better. That is, they fall away deliberately, unwilling to separate themselves from those who actually condemned Jesus to be crucified. Their hearts are hardened in flintlike determination to have things their own rebellious way.
Verses 7-8 illustrate their situation exactly. The rain that falls from heaven corresponds to the enlightening blessings of verses 4-5. If the seed of the word of God is truly present in the soil (the hearts of men and women), the rain causes fruitful crops to grow, fulfilling the blessing intended by God. But where the word of truth, though heard, has been rejected, the rain can only quicken that which is already in the soil (thorns and thistles), and continued rain will only make matters worse, not better. Such fruitless land will merit the ultimate cursing of God and be finally given over to burning. Such a scenario parallels the condition Jesus describes of certain branches of the true vine which do not abide in him, and are therefore cut off and gathered into the fire and burned (Jn 15:2, 6).
Consistently throughout Scripture those who are genuinely Christ's do not fall away into apostasy. Thus Paul reminds the Philippians that the God who began a good work in them would complete it on the day of Christ. What our author fears is that there may be among his readers many who claimed to be Christians, perhaps witnessed for him, participated in the church, yet have refused to repent. Turning back from the light they have perceived, they prove to be enemies of Christ and not a part of the people of God at all!
Having issued this warning, the pastor's heart of the writer expresses
reassurance and encouragement in verses 9-12. Though some among them deserve
his sobering caution, nevertheless he does not see them all in this dangerous
state. It is clear that he sincerely believes that the larger part of his
readers are truly saved and only need exhortation to diligence and patience.
Their works of love and support to other believers strongly testify to their
genuine faith, for as James declares, a faith that does not result in works
is dead! (Jas 2:26).
Verse 11 states again the truth found everywhere in Scripture: The only reliable sign of regeneration is a faith that does not fail and continues to the end of life. It may at times falter and grow dim as it faces various trials and pressures, but it cannot be wholly abandoned, for Jesus has promised, "I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand" (Jn 10:28).
One wag has observed, "If your faith fizzles before you finish, it's because it was faulty from the first!" I recall once receiving a phone call from a young new Christian who said, "I've decided to give up being a Christian; I can't handle it anymore." Knowing him well, I said, "I agree. That's probably what you ought to do." There was silence on the line for a moment, and then he said, "You know I can't do that!" And I said, "No, I know you can't." And he couldn't---and he didn't!
True faith by nature awakens hope. In verses 11-12, the author urges
the Hebrews to learn how to nurture faith and make their hope sure. The
role models for this nurturing are the patriarchs, notably Abraham. Abraham's
faith flourished because it fastened upon two facets of God's dealings with
him: God's promise and his oath. A promise of many descendants was given
to Abraham while he was still in Haran, recorded in Genesis 12:1-3. It was
repeated when he arrived at Shechem (Gen 12:6-7) and reiterated on several
occasions after that. Supported by these renewed promises, Abraham waited
for twenty-five years until he was one hundred years old when Isaac was
finally born. When Isaac had grown into young manhood, God commanded Abraham
to offer Isaac as a sacrifice on Mount Moriah, now called the Temple Mount
in Jerusalem. At the last moment, God stopped Abraham's hand. And after
this dramatic act of Abraham's faith, God renewed his promise of many descendants
and confirmed it with an oath (Gen 22:17). Since this oath appears in verse
14 and then is followed by Abraham waiting patiently to receive what was
promised, it seems to refer, not to the birth of Isaac which had occurred
many years before, but to the birth of Jacob who would be the father of
the twelve tribes from which Israel sprang. Abraham was still living when
Jacob and Esau were born to Isaac and Rebekah. So Abraham's faith, grown
through the years of waiting, led at last to the fulfillment of his hope
that he would have a line of descendants through whom all nations would
be blessed. That hope found its ultimate fulfillment in Jesus, who said
of Abraham, "Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing
my day; he saw it and was glad" (Jn 8:56).
The author now applies this to his readers, in verses 16-20, by declaring
that God, in his eagerness to convey to men and women of faith the total
trustworthiness of his word, condescended to the human practice of adding
a solemn oath to the promise he had given. Perhaps many today have had the
experience of being put under oath in a courtroom or before a notary public.
It is sobering to realize that any attempt at lying after the oath has been
taken will result in punishment. Before the law, a mere promise to tell
the truth is not enough---an oath must be taken. With God, of course, his
promise is just as reliable as his oath---he cannot lie because his
whole nature is truthful. But because he wanted to make the unchanging
nature of his purpose very clear to any who seek his help, he condescended
to add to his promise a solemn oath. So by these two unchangeable things
in which it is impossible for God to lie, the readers of this letter,
and we who share it with them, are greatly encouraged to take hold of the
hope offered. Since God cannot lie to us, and actually confirmed his promise
with an oath, let us, as the writer says, be greatly encouraged.
What, specifically, is that hope? It is the Melchizedek ministry of Jesus, as verses 19-20 make clear. He has already entered heaven on our behalf and stands ready as a great high priest to impart comfort, strength, forgiveness, love, joy and peace to any who flee to him for refuge in time of trouble. Like an anchor which holds a boat steady in the midst of a storm, he can sustain and steady us when we are battered and beaten by life. He can do this forever since he is not an Aaronic priest who can only minister for one lifetime, but a priest after the order of Melchizedek who ministers in the power of an endless life! An old hymn catches the thought well:
We have an anchor that keeps the soul,
Steadfast and sure while the billows roll.
Anchored to the rock which cannot move,
Grounded firm and deep in the Savior's love.
The author of Hebrews pictures our faith entering the sanctuary in heaven where Jesus sits upon the throne. There it lays hold of his mercy and grace so fully that we are held fast, as though by a great anchor, against the beating waves of trouble and doubt. Held steady in the midst of trying circumstances, we grow in the certainty of our hope of glory. With these encouraging words of hope, he introduces the grand theme of his epistle: the new priesthood which operates on the basis of a new covenant and makes possible a fruitful life of faith in a faithless and hostile world.
7:1 This Melchizedek was king of Salem and priest of God Most High. He met Abraham returning from the defeat of the kings and blessed him, 2 and Abraham gave him a tenth of everything. First, his name means "king of righteousness"; then also, "king of Salem" means "king of peace." 3 Without father or mother, without genealogy, without beginning of days or end of life, like the Son of God he remains a priest forever. 4 Just think how great he was: Even the patriarch Abraham gave him a tenth of the plunder! 5 Now the law requires the descendants of Levi who become priests to collect a tenth from the people --that is, their brothers --even though their brothers are descended from Abraham. 6 This man, however, did not trace his descent from Levi, yet he collected a tenth from Abraham and blessed him who had the promises. 7 And without doubt the lesser person is blessed by the greater. 8 In the one case, the tenth is collected by men who die; but in the other case, by him who is declared to be living. 9 One might even say that Levi, who collects the tenth, paid the tenth through Abraham, 10 because when Melchizedek met Abraham, Levi was still in the body of his ancestor. 11 If perfection could have been attained through the Levitical priesthood (for on the basis of it the law was given to the people), why was there still need for another priest to come --one in the order of Melchizedek, not in the order of Aaron? 12 For when there is a change of the priesthood, there must also be a change of the law. 13 He of whom these things are said belonged to a different tribe, and no one from that tribe has ever served at the altar. 14 For it is clear that our Lord descended from Judah, and in regard to that tribe Moses said nothing about priests. 15 And what we have said is even more clear if another priest like Melchizedek appears, 16 one who has become a priest not on the basis of a regulation as to his ancestry but on the basis of the power of an indestructible life. 17 For it is declared: "You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek." 18 The former regulation is set aside because it was weak and useless 19 (for the law made nothing perfect), and a better hope is introduced, by which we draw near to God. 20 And it was not without an oath! Others became priests without any oath, 21 but he became a priest with an oath when God said to him: "The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind: `You are a priest forever.'" 22 Because of this oath, Jesus has become the guarantee of a better covenant. 23 Now there have been many of those priests, since death prevented them from continuing in office; 24 but because Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood. 25 Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them. 26 Such a high priest meets our need --one who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens. 27 Unlike the other high priests, he does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself. 28 For the law appoints as high priests men who are weak; but the oath, which came after the law, appointed the Son, who has been made perfect forever.
Imagine this scenario. You are working as a junior executive in a large,
well-known and prosperous firm. Your boss calls you in one day and commends
you highly for the quality of your work and suggests you are being considered
for a prestigious new position that will involve a handsome salary increase.
But, he suggests, there is one possible hindrance. Your Christian convictions
are well known and have been generally respected. But the new work will
require a more liberal attitude toward certain ethical decisions you will
need to make. You will be asked to overlook certain legal requirements and
shade the truth somewhat in working out various business deals. The job
is yours if you are willing to flex a bit, but it will go to someone else
if you refuse. What will you do? Who will help you make a decision that
will maintain your integrity in this pressure of temptation?
Transfer this scene from the twentieth century A. D. to the twentieth century B.C., the time of Abraham. Abraham has accomplished a remarkable and widely effective feat---with only 318 followers he successfully repelled an invasion of Palestine by a great coalition of the superpowers of that day. He has released many prominent citizens whom the invaders had captured and was returning home with wagons loaded with the treasures of Sodom which he had recovered. The grateful king of Sodom wishes to reward him by making him rich and giving him a position of honor in the lascivious lifestyle of Sodom. What would Abraham say? To whom should he turn for counsel?
Before he arrives at Sodom, Abraham is met at Salem (now Jerusalem) by its king and priest, Melchizedek. There he is refreshed physically and morally by the ministry of Melchizedek who greatly strengthens Abraham to resist the subtle appeal of the king of Sodom. In gratitude for this timely help, Abraham gives Melchizedek a tenth of the plunder he has won, and when the king of Sodom makes his offer, Abraham is fully prepared to say no! It is this incident that forms the historic basis for the commission of God, given centuries later through David in Psalm 110 to the Messiah, "You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek."
The unfolding of the meaning of the Melchizedek priesthood of Jesus is the goal toward which the author has been aiming ever since 2:17, where he first uses the term high priest with reference to Jesus. This mysterious Melchizedek is mentioned in the Old Testament only twice, yet our author sees him prefiguring the most important ministry of Christ to his people today. The chapter establishes Melchizedek's historic identity; his precedence and superiority to the Levitical priesthood; the consequent need for a radical replacement of the Law; and the remarkable advantages which the Melchizedek ministry affords. These themes are little noted or understood in the average church today but desperately needed if the church (or the individual Christian) is to confront the world with power and grace.
The typology of the event recorded in Genesis 14:18-20, where Abraham
returns from his conquest of four invading kings and is met by Melchizedek
at the Valley of Shaveh (probably the valley of the Kidron at Jerusalem),
is explained by the writer in verses 1-3. Melchizedek was both a king and
a priest, and so is Jesus! Melchizedek blessed Abraham, refreshing and strengthening
him with bread and wine. So Jesus strengthens and refreshes those who come
to his throne of grace for help (4:16). Abraham paid a tithe (ten per cent)
of all his goods to Melchizedek as an acknowledgment of his position as
priest of the Most High God. So believers are to acknowledge Jesus as the
one who has bought us with a price, and to recognize we are no longer owners
of ourselves or all we possess (1 Cor 6:19-20)!
Melchizedek was both king of righteousness (the meaning of his name) and king of peace (Salem means peace). So Jesus is the sovereign possessor of both righteousness and peace, and can dispense them to his own as gifts which they may continually have but can never earn! Finally, as Melchizedek appears in the record of Scripture with no mention of his parents or his children (though he was a normal human being, certainly with parents and probably with children)---nor does the Genesis account mention his birth or his death---so the risen Jesus has neither beginning nor end, nor a human parentage to his resurrected life. Therefore, he can serve as a merciful and faithful high priest forever (7:23-25)! Though some commentators have viewed Melchizedek as a preincarnate appearance of Christ, the phrase like the Son of God seems to militate against that. "Melchizedek thus was the facsimile of which Christ is the reality" (Howley 1969:552). To a modem congregation, this passage should be presented as a vivid picture of the help which is available for believers today from our great high priest who can give us righteousness and peace from within if we "come to the throne of grace to receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need." (22)
This focus on Melchizedek in Hebrews is intended to bring out the inherent
superiority of the priesthood of Jesus to that of the Aaronic line, the
descendants of Levi, who had ministered in the tabernacle and temple throughout
Jewish history until the Hasmonean line was established. Verses 4-10 argue
this superiority further. The author argues that Melchizedek is greater
than Abraham, the great-grandfather of Levi, for four reasons:
1. Though the Levitical priests also received tithes from their Israelite brethren, their descent from Abraham marked their priesthood as less important than that of the one to whom Abraham tithed, namely Melchizedek (vv. 5-6).
2. Abraham was blessed by Melchizedek at the time of their encounter, and normally the lesser is blessed by the greater (v. 7).
3. Levitical priests all eventually die but, as Psalm 110:4 declares, the One who ministers in the order of Melchizedek lives forever (v. 8).
4. In some genetic sense, Levi, great-grandson of Abraham, actually also paid tithes to Melchizedek since he was at the time a part of Abraham's reproductive system which would produce Isaac, then Jacob and, ultimately, Levi (vv. 9-10). This line of argument may seem strange to our Western, individualistic mentality, but it reflects the more accurate realization of the links between generations, and the fact that we are governed more by our ancestry than we often believe. The same line of argument is found in Romans 5:12, where Paul declares that the whole human race has sinned in Adam, and that death is therefore universal because of Adam's sin. He sees the whole human race as potentially present in Adam when Adam sinned, and therefore participating with him in the aftermath of that sin.
The argument of verses 11-19 constitutes a bold, and even radical, declaration
by the writer. This section asserts unequivocally that the death and resurrection
of Jesus has introduced a new and permanent priesthood that brings the Levitical
priesthood to an end and, with it, the demise of the law of Moses. It is
important to note in verses 11-12 that the law was originally given to support
the priesthood, not the other way around. The priesthood and the tabernacle
with its sacrifices were the means God employed to render the sinful people
acceptable to himself They constituted the shadow of Jesus in the Old Testament.
Then the law was given with its sharp demands to awaken the people to their
true condition so that they might avail themselves of the sacrifices. This
agrees fully with Paul's statement in Romans 5:20 and Galatians 3:19-23
that the law was a teacher to lead to Christ (represented in Israel by the
tabernacle and its priesthood).
To suggest that either of these venerable institutions (the priesthood and the law) were inadequate and needed change was to assault Judaism in its most sacred and revered precincts. But that this was the teaching of Christians from the beginning is seen in the savage charges hurled at Stephen, and later Paul, when they engaged certain Jewish leaders in religious dialog. See, for instance, Acts 6:14, where Stephen's opponents testified, "We have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place [the temple] and change the customs Moses handed down to us."
If (as some Jews thought) perfection could be achieved by means of the law and priesthood, the author asks in verses 11-14 what need would there be for God to announce a new priesthood as he did through David in Psalm 110? He clearly implies that the Melchizedek priesthood of Jesus was in the mind of God centuries before the Levitical priesthood and the law. These latter could never have produced the perfection of character which God required. His argument is that if the priesthood of Jesus has now replaced that of Levi, then the law of Moses must also be replaced because it is the natural accompaniment of the Levitical priesthood. Sacrifices and offerings would no longer be useful for covering sins, and the law which awakened sin must pass as well. It is a powerful declaration which would arouse immediate antagonism among certain Jews, as indeed history has shown. He further indicates Jesus' priesthood as being different from the Aaronic in that those priests all belonged to the tribe of Levi while Jesus came from the tribe of Judah. Since Moses said nothing about that tribe serving as priests, it is plain that the present priesthood of Jesus does not rest on Moses or his law. It is the ultimate provision for dealing with human sin and weakness toward which the Levitical priesthood and law pointed.
One reason the law and the priesthood could not accomplish the perfection God requires is given in verses 15-18. Levitical priests were ordained only if they could prove their ancestry from Levi, and must be replaced at death by another of the same line. By contrast, Jesus holds the Melchizedek priesthood forever because he possesses an indestructible life. It is not merely endless; by its very nature it cannot be ended! As Psalm 110:4 declares, it is "forever." Nor does it require specific ancestral descent. Any man who fit the qualifications could serve and, as we have seen, Jesus is the only man who fulfills all the qualifications. So for the fourth time, Psalm 110:4 is quoted, You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek. All the limitations created by sinful humanity are removed and a perfect priest now serves who works effectually and lives forever.
The glorious result of this is stated in verse 18: the former regulation (the priesthood and the law) is set aside as weak and useless since it cannot cleanse from sin or provide power to obey. A better hope is brought in to replace it which will do what the law and the priesthood could not do---enable us to draw near to God. In 10:22 the writer will exhort his readers to do this very thing, since it is now fully possible because of the Melchizedek priesthood of Jesus.
The Levitical priesthood was ended because its purpose was fulfilled. It is, and always has been, weak and useless to go further and actually remove sin. That was done and perfectly done in the sacrifice of Jesus. But removal of sin is not the only thing sinners need---they also need a continuing supply of refreshment, strength and wisdom to enable them to live in a hostile world. This is now supplied through the Melchizedek priesthood. Kistemaker states the truth well: "Through his unique sacrifice he [Jesus] fulfilled the responsibilities of the Aaronic priesthood, and through his endless life he assumes the priesthood in the order of Melchizedek" (1984:196). The "picture" of the Old Testament is fulfilled accurately and the better hope of the new covenant is introduced. (23)
Many items on the market today carry with them a warranty or guarantee.
It constitutes the manufacturer's promise that the item sold will fulfill
the buyer's expectations. Our author now sees God's oath, uttered in a fifth
reference to Psalm 110:4, as the guarantee that the better hope available
from the new Melchizedek will be delivered as promised. No such oath was
given in establishing the Levitical priesthood. As in 6:17, where God's
oath to Abraham is said "to make the unchanging nature of his purpose
very clear to the heirs of what was promised," so again God's oath
in Psalm 110:4 reassures believers today that God has provided a merciful,
faithful, faultless, competent and sympathetic high priest. He will meet
their needs for cleansing, courage, wisdom, and personal support in danger
or sorrow. This "stress-management program" is fully and continuously
available. Also he will not change his mind about it, for, indeed,
he offers no other alternative! The old covenant will no longer work and
no secular or pagan solution to the problem of sin and spiritual immaturity
This thought introduces the word covenant for the first time in Hebrews. In verse 22 the new covenant promised in Jeremiah 31:31-34 is linked directly with the Melchizedek priesthood of Jesus. The word enguos ("guarantee"), used only here in the New Testament, describes Jesus' relationship to that new covenant. Verses 23-25 point out the way he guarantees, not merely mediates, the covenant. A mediator would offer the covenant, but it would be up to the believer to receive it. A guarantor, however, sees to it that the covenant is fulfilled, even though the believer resists and stumbles at times. It is because Jesus lives forever that he can guarantee ultimate results. No Levitical priest could compete in that aspect of priesthood since their personal death ended their ministrations. But Jesus has a permanent priestly office and the conclusion naturally follows: he can save totally, completely, all who come to God through him. As Jude 24 declares, they shall be presented before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy! He does this by continually interceding in prayer for them before the Father. Paul likewise recognizes this in Romans 8:34, "Christ Jesus, who died---more than that, who was raised to life---is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us."
Bruce (1964:155) suggests we have a sample of that intercession in our Lord's prayer for Peter (Lk 22:32) and in his high priestly prayer of John 17. In answer to those prayers, all believers are being shaped and polished by the Spirit into the likeness of Christ (2 Cor 3:18). That perfect likeness is gradually growing within us, along with the daily manifestations of imperfection and evil which come from the "old man" still resident in our fleshly bodies. But at the resurrection all that old life ends forever and only the perfection of Christ remains, formed in us by the Spirit. We are saved completely by the work and prayers of Jesus.
In the closing words of the chapter, verses 26-28, the author summarizes the qualities which make Jesus, our Melchizedek the perfect fulfillment of the needs of sinful humans living in a confused and God-ignoring age.
1. As to his person, he was and is holy---that is, morally flawless, perfectly balanced, without impurity or lack.
2. He also was, and is, blameless, as perfect outwardly as he is holy inwardly.
3. In his dealings with others, he was, and is, pure; for he is without stain, untouched by the defilement around him.
4. He is set apart from sinners, though not in any isolative sense, for he kept company with the disreputable as well as with the respected. He came to call sinners, not the (self) righteous, to repentance. But he is eternally the Son of God, while we are sons of God only by redemption. Peter instinctively recognized this separation when he cried out to Jesus upon seeing the miraculous catch of fishes, "Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!" (Lk 5:8).
5. Jesus' final personal qualification is that he is exalted above the heavens. This is confirmed by the statement of 1:3, "He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven." No higher authority can be found in all the universe. He is, in the words of Paul, "far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the one to come" (Eph 1:21).
As to his work his sinlessness means he does not need to sacrifice for his own sins, but nevertheless he offered himself as a sacrifice, which he did once for all. It is of continuing and eternal merit. The Levitical system of animal sacrifices is ended, and with it, the regulations for priesthood. The oath of God, found in Psalm 110:4, now establishes the Son of God as high priest forever in the order of Melchizedek.
Such then is our Melchizedek, God's provision for help in our daily life, incomparable in greatness, inexhaustible in resource, infinite in patience, infallible in wisdom and interested in all that concerns us. We can now understand much more clearly why the writer of Hebrews longed to impart information about the Melchizedek priesthood of Jesus to his readers and bewailed their dullness and slowness to learn (5:11-12). But it leaves us with the question, Are we any more alert than they? Do we actually avail ourselves in this modem world of the provision for the help which this chapter describes? Let us each answer as best we can!
8:1 The point of what we are saying is this: We do have such a high priest, who sat down at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, 2 and who serves in the sanctuary, the true tabernacle set up by the Lord, not by man. 3 Every high priest is appointed to offer both gifts and sacrifices, and so it was necessary for this one also to have something to offer. 4 If he were on earth, he would not be a priest, for there are already men who offer the gifts prescribed by the law. 5 They serve at a sanctuary that is a copy and shadow of what is in heaven. This is why Moses was warned when he was about to build the tabernacle: "See to it that you make everything according to the pattern shown you on the mountain." 6 But the ministry Jesus has received is as superior to theirs as the covenant of which he is mediator is superior to the old one, and it is founded on better promises. 7 For if there had been nothing wrong with that first covenant, no place would have been sought for another. 8 But God found fault with the people and said: "The time is coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. 9 It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they did not remain faithful to my covenant, and I turned away from them, declares the Lord. 10 This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time, declares the Lord. I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. 11 No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying, `Know the Lord,' because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest. 12 For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more." 13 By calling this covenant "new," he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and aging will soon disappear.
On the night in which he was betrayed, Jesus took a cup of wine, passed
it to his disciples and said: "Drink from it, all of you. This is my
blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness
of sins" (Mt 26:27-28). With those words and that symbolic action,
he borrowed the phrase used by Moses when he took the blood of an animal,
sprinkled it on the people and said, "This is the blood of the covenant
that the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words"
(Ex 24:8). The contrast was deliberate. Moses used the blood of an animal;
Jesus used wine as a symbol of his own blood. Moses spoke of the covenant
of the law; Jesus alluded to the new covenant of grace. Moses spoke of God's
words which provided for the partial covering of sins so God could remain
with his people; Jesus promised the actual remission of sins so God could
live within his people forever. It is that excellent new covenant which
chapters 8-10 of Hebrews now expounds.
We have already seen that a covenant rests upon a priesthood, not the
other way around. It is the priesthood that makes the covenant effective.
Just as the old covenant of law could never be more effective than the priesthood
it represented, so the new covenant of grace can never do more than the
high priest from whom it flows. So, in 8:1-2, the writer turns his spotlight
on the central figure again: The point of what we are saying is this:
We do have such a high priest. He is not only a priest but a king, and
he sits on the throne of universal authority. Doubtless, this refers again
to Psalm 110. His priesthood is a royal one which gives him, as Jesus himself
declared, "all authority in heaven and on earth" (Mt 28:18). Furthermore,
it is exercised not in a tabernacle or temple on earth, but in what might
well be called the "control room" of the universe, the heavenly
sanctuary, the true tabernacle.
The mention of a true tabernacle set up by the Lord, not by man refers back to 3:5-6, where Christ as Son serves in a greater house than Moses served in. As we saw there, "we [believers] are his house" of which the tabernacle erected in the wilderness is but a picture or type. True is not used in contrast to something false, but means "original," in contrast to that which was a copy. Here the symbols of God's throne and a true sanctuary are combined to describe the supremacy of the new covenant over the old. Both symbols are located in heaven and identified in some way with Christ's house. These relationships will become clearer as the author moves into the next two chapters.
Verses 3-6 declare again that the offering of gifts and sacrifices is essential to the work of a priest (5:1), but the sacrifice Jesus offered went far beyond anything being offered in the temple on earth. His was not that of a mere animal but of a living person as the writer has just declared in 7:27. Note that he ties the priestly ministry then going on in the temple with that prescribed for the tabernacle of old, and speaks of both as a copy and shadow of what is in heaven. (24)
Stress is laid on the instruction which God gave to Moses about building the tabernacle in the wilderness exactly to the pattern given him on Mount Sinai. This temporary tabernacle was only a copy of something eternal and central to all things, a heavenly tabernacle which Moses saw. In Revelation 8:3-5 and 11:19, this heavenly sanctuary appears again, but there it is called a temple. This lends justification to the view of many that the writer of Hebrews saw the temple in Jerusalem as the legitimate successor to the tabernacle in the wilderness. The tabernacle/temple passed away, as it was intended to do, but the truth it was meant to teach abides forever. That truth will be developed further in Hebrews 9, but here it introduces the extensive quote from Jeremiah 31 which describes the new arrangement for living which our great high priest both mediates and guarantees. It is called the new covenant. This new provision of God for his people is twice described in verse 6 as superior (kreittosin, "better"), because it is built on better promises. Those promises are listed by Jeremiah as threefold: an inner understanding of truth, an intimate relationship with God and an absolute forgiveness of all sins.
The quotation itself is found in Jeremiah 31:31-34. So important does
the writer consider this that he partially quotes it again in 10:16-17.
As he has done before (4:8; 7:11; 8:4), he argues from a logical consequence:
if there had been nothing wrong with that first covenant, no place would
have been sought for another. Two things were found wrong with the covenant
of the law. First, the people did not fulfill its conditions, despite their
initial avowal to do so (Ex 24:3). Second, it was not sufficiently powerful
to motivate them to obedience since it was not written on their minds or
hearts (Calvin 1949:187). Israel's failure is reflected in the phrases God
found fault with the people and they did not remain faithful to my covenant.
This new covenant is declared to involve a different relationship between
God and his people from that under the old covenant, precisely because the
old covenant did not keep the people from failure and God had to turn away
Therefore, in verses 10-12, the gracious provisions of the new covenant are detailed. It must not be ignored that in both the original passage from Jeremiah and here, it is clearly stated that the new covenant is to be made with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. Both verse 8 and verse 10 refer to a time when this occurs. Since the two divisions of the kingdom (Israel-Judah) are distinguished, this is clearly a literal promise. Such a time will indeed come when the ancient divisions will be forgotten and Israel shall be one nation living in the land promised them. Ezekiel confirms this in Ezekiel 37:15-23. At that time, he states, God promises to cleanse them, and "they will be my people, and I will be their God," the very words used by Jeremiah as the main provision of the new covenant. This, too, is the substance of Isaiah's awed prophecy:
Who has ever heard of such a thing?
Who has ever seen such things?
Can a country be born in a day
or a nation be brought forth in a moment?
Yet no sooner is Zion in labor
than she gives birth to her children. (Is 66:8)
New Testament support for a time when Israel will be saved is found in
Paul's words, paraphrasing Isaiah 59:20-21: "The deliverer will come
from Zion; he will turn godlessness away from Jacob. And this is my covenant
with them when I take away their sins" (Rom 11:26-27).
Though the writer of Hebrews undoubtedly applies this new covenant to the church, those commentators who deny its future application to the nation of Israel ignore great areas of Old and New Testament prophecy. (25) The basis for applying this passage to the church, though it is not stated in Hebrews, is Paul's declaration in Romans 15:4 that "everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope." And again, "These things happened to them [Israel] as examples [Gk: typikos, as 'types'] and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come" (1 Cor 10:11).
But whatever or whenever the application, the terms of the new covenant are exciting. First, I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts. Every true Christian knows that when he or she was regenerated, a change occurred in their motivation. They found they wanted to do things they formerly did not want to do; for example, reading the Bible, or attending church, or praying and meditating. They found their reaction to evil in their own life was also different. What they once enjoyed without qualm, they began to be disturbed about and even to hate. They experienced at least something of the struggle which Paul so eloquently describes in Romans 7:15-19. This is the practical experience of the promise of the new covenant, to give a new and inner understanding of both good and evil. The laws of godly behavior are written on their hearts.
The second provision is equally remarkable: I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying, "Know the Lord, " because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest. Every true Christian also knows the inner sense of belonging to God in a new way. God is no longer seen as a stern Judge, but a loving Father. Believers are no longer outside the community of faith as aliens or exiles. They are now members of a family. They discover that whenever other members of the family are met, they too know the Father just as they know him. This new intimacy with God and his children becomes the bedrock of emotional stability in the Christian's experience. Notice how John develops this in 1 John 2:9-14.
The new covenant's third provision is: I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more. This is, perhaps, the most difficult aspect for us to believe, for it forces us to do two difficult things: recognize that we do wicked things, and believe that God has already made ample provision to set aside that wickedness and continue treating us as his beloved children. Any sin called to our attention by our conscience needs only to be acknowledged to be set aside. Provision for God to do so justly rests on the death of Christ on our behalf, not on our sense of regret or our promise to do better. As Paul states in Romans 8:31, God is always for us, he is never against us. He does not ignore iniquity in us, but is merciful toward us. When we acknowledge it, there is no reproach---or replay---from him! We can live with a daily sense of cleansing by the precious blood of Jesus. That will do wonders for our sense of guilt or inadequacy.
The author's point in verse 13 is simply that when the new covenant takes effect, there no longer is any reason to rely upon the old one. This does not mean the law of Moses (the Ten Commandments) is done away with, for Jesus himself teaches that it will last as long as the heavens and the earth (Mt 5:18). (26) What these words in verse 13 mean is that the law's work is finished when men and women come to Christ. It could not make them perfect, but they have now come to One who can! Since the Aaronic priesthood under which the law was given has now been replaced by the Melchizedek priesthood of Jesus, there is no longer any need for the law to work its condemning work in a believer's life. "Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus" (Rom 8:1). Awareness of sin is now the work of the indwelling Spirit, not to condemn, but to restore us, when we repent, to useful and fruitful service.
Many commentators have pointed out that historically the phrase in verse 13 what is obsolete and aging will soon disappear may well point to an awareness on the author's part that the priesthood of Israel, the temple in which they served, and all the rituals and sacrifices of the law which they performed, were about to be ended by the overthrow of Jerusalem as Jesus had predicted. This seems to be additional evidence that the letter to the Hebrews predates A D. 70.
In chapter 9, we will return to the tabernacle and its ritual that we may more clearly grasp the realities of the new covenant and the freedom it gives us to live in a pressure-filled, baffling and bewildered world by the power that flows from our high priest today.
9:1 Now the first covenant had regulations for worship and also an earthly sanctuary. 2 A tabernacle was set up. In its first room were the lampstand, the table and the consecrated bread; this was called the Holy Place. 3 Behind the second curtain was a room called the Most Holy Place, 4 which had the golden altar of incense and the gold-covered ark of the covenant. This ark contained the gold jar of manna, Aaron's staff that had budded, and the stone tablets of the covenant. 5 Above the ark were the cherubim of the Glory, overshadowing the atonement cover. But we cannot discuss these things in detail now. 6 When everything had been arranged like this, the priests entered regularly into the outer room to carry on their ministry. 7 But only the high priest entered the inner room, and that only once a year, and never without blood, which he offered for himself and for the sins the people had committed in ignorance. 8 The Holy Spirit was showing by this that the way into the Most Holy Place had not yet been disclosed as long as the first tabernacle was still standing. 9 This is an illustration for the present time, indicating that the gifts and sacrifices being offered were not able to clear the conscience of the worshiper. 10 They are only a matter of food and drink and various ceremonial washings --external regulations applying until the time of the new order. 11 When Christ came as high priest of the good things that are already here, he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not man-made, that is to say, not a part of this creation. 12 He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, having obtained eternal redemption. 13 The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean. 14 How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God! 15 For this reason Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance --now that he has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant. 16 In the case of a will, it is necessary to prove the death of the one who made it, 17 because a will is in force only when somebody has died; it never takes effect while the one who made it is living. 18 This is why even the first covenant was not put into effect without blood. 19 When Moses had proclaimed every commandment of the law to all the people, he took the blood of calves, together with water, scarlet wool and branches of hyssop, and sprinkled the scroll and all the people. 20 He said, "This is the blood of the covenant, which God has commanded you to keep." 21 In the same way, he sprinkled with the blood both the tabernacle and everything used in its ceremonies. 22 In fact, the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness. 23 It was necessary, then, for the copies of the heavenly things to be purified with these sacrifices, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these. 24 For Christ did not enter a man-made sanctuary that was only a copy of the true one; he entered heaven itself, now to appear for us in God's presence. 25 Nor did he enter heaven to offer himself again and again, the way the high priest enters the Most Holy Place every year with blood that is not his own. 26 Then Christ would have had to suffer many times since the creation of the world. But now he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself. 27 Just as man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, 28 so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.
In C. S. Lewis' well-known Chronicles of Narnia, he describes how several
quite ordinary English children, while playing hide-and-seek enter a quite
ordinary English wardrobe. Pressing deeper into the familiar garments, they
suddenly find themselves in a strange and mysterious land. Some such phenomenon
occurs to those who think deeply about what Scripture says about that humble
structure of skins and panels called the tabernacle. At first, all is factual,
measurable and straightforward. But as we press deeper the walls silently
move back the commonplace begins to glow, and soon we find ourselves before
the awesome throne of God in a heavenly temple, surrounded by myriads of
worshipping angels, and watching the ritual of redemption through wholly
This could well have been the experience of the apostle John which he records vividly in Revelation 4 and 5. Until A. D. 70, the rituals of the law were performed daily, weekly and yearly in the temple at Jerusalem. Yet the writer of Hebrews only obliquely refers to the temple. Rather, he centers his thought on the tabernacle which was set up by Moses in the wilderness according to the pattern shown him on Mount Sinai. As we have already noted, the writer sees the temple as a continuation of the tabernacle. That tabernacle was intended to hold such a central place in the life of Israel that Moses was warned not to deviate one iota from the pattern given him when he had it constructed. Everything about the building and its furniture was meant as a teaching tool by which supremely important truth could be conveyed.
As the author points out in verses 1-10, the typology of the tabernacle
has great meaning for believers today since it depicts the eternal verities
which Moses saw and which were associated with the new covenant and its
priesthood. If we wish to understand that new priesthood and covenant, we
must carefully study the tabernacle, both its structure and its rituals.
This teaching would be readily acceptable to the readers of this treatise
who came from Jewish backgrounds. The writer builds on this knowledge to
unfold the great advantages of the new ministry.
The tabernacle had three main parts: an outer court, which was entered through a single gate and in which stood the brazen altar of sacrifice; the brass basin, or laver, used for the cleansing of the priests; and the skin-covered, rectangular building of the tabernacle proper. That building was divided into two rooms and separated by a curtain. The first room was called the Holy Place and contained the seven-branched lampstand (the Menorah), the table of showbread and the golden altar of incense. In verse 4, the writer places the altar of incense within the second room, the Most Holy Place (more literally in Hebrew idiom the "Holy of Holies"), because it was closely associated in worship with the ark of the covenant and its mercy seat. But the ark of the covenant actually stood alone behind the second curtain. In this Most Holy Place the ark of the covenant represented the dwelling place of God, visible in the Shekinah, or glowing light, which rested between the cherubim atop the mercy seat. Within the ark were Israel's most treasured possessions: the jar of manna which never spoiled (Ex 16:32); Aaron's staff which had sprouted and borne fruit when Aaron's priesthood had been challenged by the heads of the other tribes (Num 17:8-10); and the actual tables of the law which Moses had brought down from the mountain, written on by the finger of God (Ex 32:15). (27)
Verses 6-7 remind readers that there was a special sanctity about the
Most Holy Place and the ark of the covenant. No ordinary Israelite could
ever enter the Holy Place where the Menorah, table of showbread and altar
of incense stood, but the priests went in there daily to perform their ministrations.
But even the priests could not enter the Most Holy Place and stand before
the ark of the covenant. Only the high priest could do so, and then only
once a year on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). He must take with him
a basin of blood from the goat which had been sacrificed on that day and
sprinkle that blood on the mercy seat for his own sins and the sins of the
people (Lev 16). The question which must come before us in reading this
is, What did all this carefully prepared building, furniture and ritual
represent? What was the reality of which all this was only a copy? Or, to
put it most simply, What did Moses see on the holy mountain which he faithfully
reproduced in a symbolic copy, the tabernacle? The answer to this is suggested
by certain statements that follow, notably verses 8, 11, and 23-24. But
the writer now states he does not want to be tied up with the details of
the tabernacle's meaning but hastens to stress a most important point.
The Levitical offerings had to be repeated continually---even the offering of the high priest on the Day of Atonement when he entered the Holy of Holies once a year. This endless repetition meant that nothing permanent was ever accomplished by the Aaronic priesthood. The central statement is verse 8 which declares what the Holy Spirit meant to say by this repeated sacrifice. Unfortunately, the verse is almost always badly translated. Most versions, like the NIV, take the last phrase as suggesting that while the tabernacle/temple was still existing, the way into the true sanctuary was not yet revealed. But that would be tantamount to saying that until A D. 70, when the temple would be destroyed, there was no way of understanding how the death of Jesus had opened a new and living way into the true sanctuary, the presence of God. If taken in this way, it would give no meaning at all to the rent veil at the time of the crucifixion and no hope that anyone, before A D. 70, had found salvation through the sacrifice of Jesus!
A better translation makes it all clear. (28) The Greek phrase eti tes protes skenes echouses stasin should not be rendered, "while the first tabernacle is still standing," but "while the first tabernacle still has any standing!" That indicates the writer is saying that the repeated sacrifices of the old covenant were meant by the Holy Spirit to predict a perfect sacrifice that was yet to come, but it could not be apprehended while still relying on the old way of access to God! In other words, the truth of the reality could not be grasped while one was yet clinging to the shadows. The first tabernacle had to lose its standing before the reality it prefigured could be apprehended This meaning is confirmed by the opening words of verse 9, This is an illustration for the present time. The old arrangement pictured the new, but the old proved ineffective, for it could not touch the inner, but only the outer, life. The veil that stood before the Most Holy Place constituted a barrier to the presence of God. All Israelites, who knew of that barrier, must have felt a continuing deep sense of personal uncleanness until the next year's Day of Atonement. Their consciences would know no relief, for they must feel separated from God until the yearly sacrifice could be repeated.
The tabernacle worship, with all the provisions of bread, incense, offerings---even the ornate building itself with its altars---was all a kind of religious play. It was meant to teach the people what was going on in their inner life and what was still needed to truly free them from sin's burden and give them unfettered and continuing access to the Living God. Their bodies could be rendered temporarily clean before God by the various ceremonial washings (v. 10), but their consciences remained defiled. Since they could find no heart-rest in the tabernacle ritual, they were being encouraged to look beyond the outward drama to what was important. But when Christ died and the veil of the temple was tom from top to bottom God was saying: "The time has come; the way of access is fully open; the need for pictures is over."
This has been the argument of Hebrews all along. To cling to the shadows of the past and not to move on to the clear light of the great reality in Christ is to put our whole eternal destiny at stake and, in fact, to be in danger of drifting into a total apostasy. Let the tabernacle and its ritual lose its standing in our eyes. Go on to the reality to which the Holy Spirit is pointing---the full forgiveness of sins of the new covenant and the resulting intimacy with God.
Those who today try to earn a sense of being pleasing to God by good behavior need to hear this lesson. Never knowing when they have done enough, they feel troubled and restive without any heart-peace and thus are often driven to extreme measures of self-punishment and despair. They need to cease from their efforts and trust in Christ's completed work.
The section from verses 11-14 confronts us anew with the question raised
above, What is the reality of which the tabernacle was a copy? Verse 11
says it was a greater and more perfect tabernacle . . . not man-made,
. . . not a part of this creation. Verse 24 adds, he entered heaven
itself, now to appear for us in God's presence. We have already been
given a clue to the meaning of this in 3:6, "For Christ is faithful
as a son over God's house. And we are his house." He dwells
within us as he said he would (Jn 14:23) and as Paul affirms (Eph 3:16-17).
The fact that this house is also termed heaven is difficult for us to grasp,
since we tend to think of heaven spatially. It is "up there" or
"out there" or even in some distant part of outer space. If we
would eliminate spatial terms from our thinking, we could come to think
of heaven as simply another dimension of existence, as another realm of
invisible realities just beyond our senses---in other words, the spiritual
kingdom in which God, angels and even demons, function. (29)
What the Bible seeks to teach us, and what is difficult for us to apprehend,
is that we too can function in this dimension. It is the dimension of our
spirits. Thus, Paul can say, "And God raised us up with Christ and
seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus" (Eph 2:6).
Jesus tells us, "God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in
spirit and in truth" (Jn 4:24), and Paul adds, "He who unites
himself with the Lord is one with him in spirit" (1 Cor 6:17).
All of this strongly suggests that what Moses saw on the mountain was the human person as we are meant to be, the dwelling place of God---the Holy of Holies. John tells us in Revelation, "Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God." If that language sounds reminiscent of the promises of the new covenant described in Hebrews 8, it is no accident. God had this in mind from the very beginning, as David declares in Psalm 8: "You made him [human beings] a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor." These words, as we have seen, were quoted by the writer in 2:58 and to this, he appended: "Yet at present we do not see everything subject to him. But we see Jesus . . ." Jesus, as high priest of the good things that are already here, has found a way to repossess the human spirit and cleanse it with the "better sacrifice" of himself (9:23), and to dwell within forever by means of the eternal Spirit (9:14).
This view of the true tabernacle as the human person is also supported by Paul in his description of what awaits believers at death. "Now we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands" (2 Cor 5:1). Here the phrase "not built by human hands" is the same as that in Hebrews 9:11 translated "not man-made." It is clearly a reference to the resurrection of the body. This would also explain the phrase not a part of this creation in Hebrews. Our humanity was not created as glorified already. A glorified body is an additional step which Adam did not know in his earthly existence and which would, therefore, be "not of this creation." (30)
The point our author makes in 9:11-14 is that if the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer offered in the tabernacle of old sufficed to cleanse the sins of those ceremonially unclean and to forgive the rebellions of the past so that the people were temporarily acceptable to God, how much more does the blood of Christ cleanse our consciences from sin's defilement today? They had only animals to offer in sacrifice, and it was necessary to repeat them again and again. But Christ offered only one sacrifice, not an animal but himself, and he did it once for all. This indicated its continuing, unbroken efficacy, which obtained not merely a temporary and outward cleansing, but eternal redemption. As we have seen, it is the conscience within which acts as a barrier to God's presence. Like Adam after the Fall, we tend to hide ourselves from God, fearing his judgment. Conscience cannot be rendered inactive by our will, though its voice can be muffled. It is only silenced when we see that God is not unhappy or angry with us. But since Jesus offered himself unblemished to God in our place, God's justice no longer makes demands upon us. We may, therefore, set aside useless rituals and so feel ourselves free in his presence to serve the Living God.
The passage from 9:15 through 9:28 takes a slightly different slant.
Though the same term covenant is used as in verses 1-14, it is now
treated more as a bequest being administered by a living executor after
the death of the will-maker. However, Christ is seen both as the will-maker
who dies, and the executor who administers the estate, just as he was both
the offering for sin and the high priest who offered it. The phrase For
this reason, which introduces verse 15, looks back to the close of verse
14, that we may serve the living God. The promised Messiah administers
the new covenant to those who are called in order that they may be
equipped to serve the living and true God. That equipping capability of
the new covenant is called the promised eternal inheritance. We have
already seen that it consists of an inner understanding of the nature of
both good and evil; an intimate, Father-child relationship with God; and
a total and continuing forgiveness of sins. This is the inheritance which
our Mediator offers to us whenever we come to the throne of grace (4:16)
to receive it by faith. Just as the heir of a fortune may draw from its
resources at any time, so we are expected to draw from this great bequest,
as it is now available to us after the death of the testator.
The last clause of verse 15 introduces the author's emphasis on the bequest, or promised eternal inheritance, flowing from the death of Jesus. Verses 16-17 argue that the covenant (viewed as a will) cannot take effect apart from the death of the will-maker. This principle is seen even in the first covenant (v. 18-22) since Moses, having read the law to the people, took the blood of animals and sprinkled the scroll of the law, the people and everything connected with the service of the tabernacle (Lev 8:10, 19, 30). He thus indicated that the old covenant was based upon death---the death of animals. Without such a death, even the limited forgiveness provided for in the first covenant could not take effect, for without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness. A striking scene is described in Exodus 24:8 when Moses sprinkled the blood upon the people. It was meant to impress on them that sin cannot be set aside, even by a loving God, without a death occurring. His judicial sentence, "the soul who sins is the one who will die" (Ezek 18:4), must be carried out. By sprinkling the blood of an animal on the people, Moses is saying that God would accept that substitution as a temporary reprieve until the true Substitute should come. The people must realize that sin is serious, since only death can relieve it. When the new covenant replaces the old, it not only removes sin through the death of Jesus but provides a new understanding and a new intimacy that make the service of God a delight and an enriching experience.
By contrast, the author stresses again the value of the death of Jesus. Verses 23-26 speak of the blood of Jesus as an infinitely better sacrifice than the animal deaths that purified the copies of the heavenly things contained in the tabernacle. Though the imagery here is drawn from the Day of Atonement, we must not think of Jesus as bearing a basin of his own blood into heaven to present it before the throne of God at his ascension, as some commentators have concluded. The rending of the curtain in the temple at the time of the crucifixion is ample evidence to indicate that the blood shed in the death of Jesus was the moment when full atonement for sin was accomplished. (31)
The writer lays great stress on the contrast between the repeated offerings of the high priest in the tabernacle on the Day of Atonement and the one offering of Jesus upon the cross. Because of the infinitely superior nature of Christ's sacrifice, founded on his deity and sinless humanity, his one offering was enough for all time. He need not suffer many times since the creation of the world to do away with sin, but the one sacrifice of himself was sufficient.
As we have already noted, the entrance, by faith, of Jesus into the spirit of a believer gives this person access to the heavenly reality which corresponds to the earthly Holy of Holies. That is where God now dwells (Jn 14:20, 23), and where our great high priest makes intercession for his own. He has no need to suffer and die again since his perfect sacrifice of himself completely satisfied every demand of divine justice. He can now sustain and support his people without any limitation on himself arising from their sins, since that has been settled forever in the once-for-all sacrifice of the cross. The phrase the end of the ages designates the present age as the last of a series. It marks the end of human history as we now
know it and will terminate in the events which Jesus foretold would occur "at the end of the age" (Mt 24-25). Throughout this section the emphasis of the writer has been on the uniqueness of Christ's death. Again and again he has called it "once-for-all" (hapax or ephapax). That thought comes to the fore again in verses 27-28. Just as any fallen human being is destined to die once for all time, with judgment awaiting beyond death, so Christ also died once for all time to deal with sin. For the many who trust in him, it is not judgment that awaits beyond their personal death. This judgment has been forever removed by the sacrifice of Christ. Instead, they may confidently expect that he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.
This salvation points to the resurrection of the body. For them, the spirit has been regenerated already and the soul is being saved as Christlikeness is formed in that believer (2 Cor 3:18). What yet awaits is the raising of the body so that the whole person becomes a dwelling place of God forever. This is the only place in the New Testament where the return of Christ is called a second coming. During his first coming, he dealt with the problem of human sin on the cross; at his second coming the full effect of that sacrifice will be manifested in the resurrection (or "transformation"---1 Cor 15:51-52) of the bodies of those who wait for him.
In these closing verses of chapter 9, the writer returns briefly to the thought of 2:5-9 and his view of Jesus as God's ideal human being, who rules over the world to come. That view of the final triumph of Jesus will appear again at the end of chapter 10, as the author concludes his survey of the privileges and possibilities of the new covenant. As always, the thought of the return of Christ raises the question Peter asked in light of such events, "What kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God" (2 Pet 3 12).
End of Part I.
(1). 1:1. See Wescott for a thorough treatment of
verse one, discussing the meaning of polymeros ("at many times"),
and polytropos ("in many ways") and especially the contrast
of the Old Covenant with the New.
(2). l:2. The vastness of the created universe has become more mind-boggling as scientists receive information transmitted back to earth by interplanetary machines. New objects discovered in space, such as black holes, quasars, novas and so forth challenge astronomers and physicists to solve ever more complex riddles. Rather than finding answers to old questions, science is finding more and more questions. This in no way threatens Christian faith in Jesus as Lord in his universe. Rather, it enhances his majesty immeasurably and should cause us to believe in marvel and wonder at the thought that such a Being should consent to redeem us at the infinite price of the cross.
1:3. On the relationships among the persons of the Trinity, I would recommend Wood 1978. Eschewing such feeble illustrations of the Trinity as an egg or the three forms of water, Wood shows how the truth of the Trinity is stamped on all the universe in the basic structure of Time, Space and Matter, revealing clearly how the Son manifests the exact character of the Father.
The use of the Greek charakter ("exact representation") is a strong argument against the claim of groups like Jehovah's Witnesses who present Jesus as the highest of God's creation, but not himself sharing the nature of God. To support this claim the Jehovah's Witnesses publish their own edition of the Scriptures which mistranslates Greek texts such as John 1:1 and Colossians 1:15-17 to support their position. The claim that Jesus represents in human form the exact character of God is astonishing but too well supported by the Scriptures to deny.
(3). 1:4-5. Hughes (1987:52-53) ties this passage with the expectations of the Qumran community rather than with Paul's warning in Colossians 2:18. But in either case Jesus was being subordinated to an angel or angels, and this constituted the danger which is faced in Hebrews.
l:6. The angel Gabriel told Mary at the annunciation that the child to be born would be called "the Son of the Most High" (Lk 1:32) Also at Jesus' baptism the Father's voice proclaimed, "You are my Son whom I love" (Mk 1:11), and again at the transfiguration, "This is my Son" (Lk 9:35).
(4). 1:6. Kistemaker (1984:40) has a helpful note for those who might be troubled by the failure to find any reference to the worship of angels in the Hebrew text of Deuteronomy 32:43 or in English versions based on that text He says:
The writer of Hebrews quotes from the Hymn of Moses as it was rendered in the Septuagint. The Greek translation of Deuteronomy 32 was well known to him and his audience because in the dispersion the Jews used the Septuagint in the synagogues. The early Christians adopted the liturgy with variations to express the Christian emphasis.
The author's use of a quote from the Septuagint that is without an exact equivalent in the Hebrew text in our possession does not mean that the doctrine of inspiration has been undermined. The Holy Spirit, who is the primary author of Scripture and inspired every human writer, directed the author of Hebrews to select a quote from the Hymn of Moses in the Greek. When the author incorporated the line into his epistle, that line became inspired Scripture.
For a thorough study of the meaning of prototokos ("firstborn")
in Hebrews, see Helyer 1976. Jehovah's Witnesses in their New World Translation
claim that the title "firstborn of all creation" means that Jesus
is the first created being, based on the analogy of a human family where
the first-born child is younger than his parents. To suppose this they must
insert the word other into Col 1:16: "For by him ail other things
were created." But there is no support for this in the Greek text.
They also ignore the fact that in the Old Testament there are several instances
where the son designated the firstborn was not the one born first. Ishmael
was thirteen years older than Isaac, but it is Isaac who is the firstborn.
Though Esau was born first, Jacob becomes the firstborn. Even with Joseph's
sons, Mannaseh and Ephraim, a transference of the right of firstborn is
made by Jacob when he prays for the two, making Ephraim, the younger, the
(5). 1:9. Bruce, Morris, Kistemaker and others see the "companions" of the King as the Christians described in Heb 3:14 and called his "brothers" in 2:11. Hughes does not agree with this. Since Jesus is often seen in Scripture as accompanied by great hosts of angels (Mt 25:31; 2 Thess 1:7, Jude 14) and since the context of Hebrews 1:4-14 is clearly a contrast between the Lord and angels. it seems most probable that angels are the companions referred to in the psalm.
(6). 2:1-3. It is a great mistake to set the law and the gospel in opposition to one another. Westcott is right when he remarks: "Throughout the Epistle the law is regarded as a gracious manifestation of the divine will, and not as a code of stem discipline" (1889:37). Similarly, Bruce observes, "In this epistle, moreover, the law is not a principle set in opposition to the grace manifested in Christ's saving work, but rather an anticipatory sketch of that saving work" (1964:28 29).
2:3. If the writer had himself heard Jesus he would have undoubtedly said so. Instead he speaks gratefully of the confirming ministry of those who did hear him. It is noteworthy that he does not quote the word of Jesus anywhere in this epistle.
(7). 2:5-18. This section affords an excellent basis for a sermon or sermons on the work of Christ. In this brief paragraph we learn that Jesus' death and resurrection accomplished at least four great transactions on our behalf:
1. He recaptured our lost destiny (vv. 5-9).
2. He recovered our lost unity (vv. 10-13).
3. He released us from Satanic bondage (vv. 14-15).
4. He restores us in times of failure (vv. 16-18).
(8). 2:12-13. Hughes has a helpful note concerning New Testament use of Old Testament quotations. He says, "A noteworthy aspect of the New Testament is the manner in which it shows that Christ and his apostles, when they cited passages from the Old Testament, did not flourish them in isolation as proof-texts uprooted from their environment (something Satan is adept at doing, Mt. 4:6) but had careful regard to the context from which they were taken. The full significance of a statement can be appreciated only against the background of its total context" (1977:107).
(9). 2:16. Hughes (l977:115-18) questions the NIV translation it is not the angels he helps. The Greek epilambano is frequently translated "to take hold of' or "to appropriate," and the KJV reflects this, translating the phrase "he took not on him the nature of angels." scholars through the Reformation took the phrase in that sense and not until the seventeenth century and later did the thought "it is not to angels that he gives help" become accepted. Both thoughts are consistent with the immediate context. He took upon himself, not the nature of angels, but of humanity in order that he might help, not angels, but the seed of Abraham.
(10). 3:1. Though it was Moses' brother Aaron who was high priest of Israel by title, it was Moses and not Aaron who interceded for the people before God (Ex 32:11-14). (Exodus 4:14-16) indicates that God permitted Aaron to share the ministry which was originally intended only for Moses.
(11). 3:6. The KJV adds the words "firm unto the end" which NIV, RSV and NEB regard as an insertion from verse 14. The thought of continuance is still there is omitted.
(12). 3:7. Note again how concerned the writer is to identify Scripture as originating not with human beings but with God. The formula as the Holy Spirit says underscores the solemnity of the warning which marks the writer's conviction that the Psalms are the very voice of God.
(13). 3:14. Kistemaker writes, "The parallel between Hebrews 3:6 and Hebrews 3:14 is striking. The imagery in verse 6 is of the house of God over which Christ has been placed as son and of which we are part. In verse 14 the same relationship is described as a sharing in Christ. And the courage and hope that we should 'hold on to' (v. 6) are identified as 'the confidence we had al first' (v. 14)" (1984:96).
(14). 3:18. Paul draws this same parallel in I Corinthians 10:1-5. In Egypt the Israelites all killed the passover lamb (foreshadowing the Cross of Christ). They all passed through the Red Sea (which Paul says corresponds to baptism). They all enjoyed the protection and guidance of the cloud and the fire in the wilderness (picturing the fatherly care of God today). And they all were fed by the manna and drank of the Rock (both symbols of Christ). But despite these outward signs, they never had really believed God but only sought to use him to avoid danger or unpleasantness. This is, sadly, the state of many today.
(15). 4:2. Many find it difficult to believe that the same gospel which is preached today (that is, the gospel of Christ) was also proclaimed to Israel in the wilderness. But note the two phrases we have had the gospel preached to us (v. 2) and those who formerly had the gospel preached to them (v. 6). No distinction is made in these uses of gospel. Also Paul states in I Corinthians 10:3, "They drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ " This implies an understanding on the part of some at least that the events they experienced, the sacrifices they offered, the ritual they fulfilled, were ail designed to teach them truth about a Redeemer who was, to the eyes of faith, their ground of atonement with God, though he had not yet appeared in history. Of course these same elements could be experienced mechanically, without faith, and were thus meaningless as far as personal salvation was concerned.
(16). 4:3-4. Did all those who died in the wilderness also perish eternally? Clearly not, since Moses, Aaron and Miriam are included in their number. Some, then, died before Canaan because they were unbelieving in relation to the picture of rest (Canaan) but did not perish eternally. But the majority were not only unbelieving about Canaan but also unbelieving about the redemptive provisions that pointed to Christ, and these we must presume to have been lost eternally.
(17). 4:10. I highly recommend Heschel 1975 for an insightful study on the sabbath from a Jewish viewpoint. Also Peterson 1987 has a most helpful chapter on a Christian pastor's observance of "sabbath" once a week.
(18). 5:4 The Mormons claim that their male members are priests of the order of Melchizedek and that their prophet, Joseph Smith, held both the Aaronic and Melchizedek priesthoods. But this is a wholly gratuitous claim since it rests on no objective appointment by God but only on a subjective assertion in which they take this honor upon themselves.
(19). 5:12. A similar condition existed in Corinth where, in I Corinthians 3:1-3, Paul calls his readers "mere infants in Christ." He sees them as true believers (as the "in Christ" indicates) but says they are acting as "men of the flesh." It is difficult to tell the difference when their behavior is worldly and their learning listless.
(20). 6:3. A possible harmonizing of the Calvinist and Arminian views surrounding this passage may be found in the appendix. Henrichsen argues that the passage is not about eternal salvation at ail, "In summary, the writer is saying that when a Christian fails into sin, it is impossible for him to be renewed through another conversion experience, because that would be equivalent to 'crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace' " (1979:78). This interpretation would mean that it is impossible to treat the Savior so disgracefully, but that is just what the writer of Hebrews is warning his readers against doing. The passage, in this view, becomes only a hypothetical case which has no basis in reality.
6:4 Some have made the point that Jesus' tasting of death (2:9) clearly describes a full and complete death. Therefore, they argue, tasting the heavenly gift must mean an actual participation in the life of Jesus. But "taste" (Gk: geuomai) is not always used in this way. In Matthew 27:34 it refers to Jesus' tasting the wine that was offered him on the cross but refusing to drink it. Thus here and in 6:5 "tasting" may indicate something only partial.
(21). 6:6. Hughes states, "The tenses of the Greek participles are significant: the aorist participle parapesontas indicates a decisive moment of commitment to apostasy, the point of no return; the present participles anastaurountas and paradeigmatizontas indicate the continuing state of those who have once lapsed into apostasy: they keep on crucifying the Son of God and holding him up to contempt" (1977:218). Some have understood the latter part of this verse to be a temporal statement ("It is impossible to renew them again unto repentance while or so long as they crucify to themselves the Son of God") rather than a causal one ("It is impossible to renew them again unto repentance because they crucify . . ."). Bruce says of this, "To say that they cannot be brought to repentance so long as they persist in their renunciation of Christ would be a truism hardly worth putting into words" (1964:124).
(22). 7:3. Resurrection is the visible manifestation of eternal life, and John declares, "This life is in his Son" (I Jn 5:11). Eternal life is apart from time, having no beginning or ending, and thus Jesus is properly described as without beginning of days or end of life.
For those interested in alternative views of the identity of Melchizedek, Hughes (1977:237-45) supplies a survey of Jewish and Christian thought on this subject through the centuries. Early Jewish thought regarded Melchizedek as a heavenly being, but the rabbis of the first century sought to identify him with Shem, the oldest son of Noah, to counteract the Christian view of him as a type of Christ. The early Christian writers for the most part objected to this as invalidating the claim of Hebrews that Melchizedek vas "without genealogy since the genealogy of Shem was well known.
Certain Gnostic cults taught that Melchizeciek was a theophany of the Holy Spirit, while a later sect saw him as a preincamate appearance of the Son of God. But Epiphanius (d. 403) responded to that suggestion, saying, "If Melchizedek resembles the Son of God, he cannot at the same time be the same as the Son of God; for how can a servant be the same as his master?"
Scrolls found in Cave 11 at Qumran speak of Melchizedek as the coming great Deliverer of the Jewish remnant and equate him with the archangel Michael. If the readers of Hebrews were being attracted to the teachings of the Dead Sea sect, the author's treatment of Melchizedek would go far to correct misunderstanding of his importance. The Latin father Jerome states that the reliable church authors he had consulted on the identification of Melchizedek included Irenaeus, Hippolytus, Eusebius of Caesarea and Apollinaris, who all viewed Melchizedek as a human being. Most of the Reformers followed this view, though modem commentators have occasionally made other identifications. (23). 7:18-19. A problem recurrent in Hebrews arises from the clear teaching that animal sacrifices could not and did not remove the sin of the offerer How then could a holy God have any part with yet unholy people? The answer is that when an Old Testament believer offered a sacrifice with a trustful and repentant heart, God would, in grace, view it as pointing to the death of Jesus and the believer's an of faith would, like that of Abraham, be "counted for righteousness." Sometimes the personal faith of the offerer did see beyond the animal blood to the promised sacrifice which God would offer. David evidently saw this for he cries to God, "You do not delight in [animal] sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings" (Ps 51:16).
(24). 8:5. The typology of the tabernacle has been greatly neglected by modem scholars, though obviously the writer of Hebrews makes much of it, and many nineteenth-century commentators treated it seriously. If, as this passage suggests, it is the key to understanding the present ministry of Jesus in the inner lives of his people, it deserves far more study than it is now receiving.
(25). 8:8-12. There is no inherent need to pit amillennialism against premillennialism in these matters. Amillennialism is true when it metaphorically applies the literal promises made to Israel to the redeemed human spirit today. But that does not necessarily mean there will be no literal fulfillment to Israel. It is not an either/or situation, but a both/and! The promises to Abraham and David concerning the land and the throne have never yet been fulfilled in history, but will be when Jeremiah's vision of the new covenant applied to Israel is fulfilled, as Paul also envisaged in Romans 11:15 and 26-27.
(26). 8:13. In Galatians 3:25 Paul concludes a long section on the relationship of law to believers with these words: "Now that faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law." This has been taken by some to mean that the Ten Commandments no longer are valid for Christians and serve no purpose in their lives. But in Romans 10:4 Paul states, "Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes"---that is, as far as obtaining righteousness is concerned, Christ is the end of the law (for law cannot make us righteous). But in other matters the law still serves believers, as Paul makes clear in 1 Timothy 1:8: "We know that the law is good if one uses it properly." He then goes on to cite many sinful acts and attitudes which the law helps us to discover within ourselves so that we may then acknowledge them and place them under the blood of Jesus which "purifies us from all sin" (1 Jn 1:7).
(27). 9:4 The manna would remind Israel of God's miraculous and loving care of them in the wilderness; the rod of Aaron would mark the Levitical priesthood as divinely instituted and far more important than any human provision; and the stone tablets of the covenant would speak of the holy character which God's people must continually measure themselves against. Together they spoke of God's love, God's redemption and God's holiness. These find their counterpart in Christian experience: God's love for us initiates his redemptive activity (Jn 3:16); God's provision for us goes far beyond what any amount of human counseling or control can achieve (2 Cor 5:17); and God's sanctifying work within us produces at last a Christlike character that is fully acceptable to a holy God (2 Cor 3:18).
(28). 9:8. A comparison of standard texts will indicate this:
KJV---"the way into the holiest of ail was not yet made manifest, while as the first tabernacle was yet standing."
RSV---"the way into the sanctuary is not yet opened as long as the outer tent is still standing."
NEB---"so long as the earlier tent still stands, the way into the sanctuary remains unrevealed."
NIV---"the way into the Most Holy Place had not yet been disclosed as long as the first tabernacle was still standing."
Phillips---"the way to the holy of holies was not yet open, that is, so long as the first tent and ail that it stands for still exist."
Hughes suggests this understanding in saying that ekein stasin goes beyond the meaning "to continue in existence." Following Teodorica, he says its force is "to have legal standing" or "official sanction" (1977:322).
(29). 9:11. In equating the human spirit with heaven, I do not mean to imply that the human spirit in which the Spirit of Christ dwells is equivalent with all that Scripture includes in the word heaven. I simply mean that there is an obvious correspondence between the two and that in the spirit we are in some sense living in heaven now (Eph 2:6).
Moses saw, of course, the whole person---body, soul and spirit (Gen 2:7; 1 Thess 5:23). This would explain the threefold division of the tabernacle. The outer court corresponds to the body; the Holy Place, to the soul; and the Most Holy Place, to the spirit. Even the furniture of the tabernacle corresponds to elements in us. For instance, the furniture of the Holy Place was the lampstand, the table of bread, and the altar of incense. If the Holy Place is the soul of man, these pieces would suggest the mind (lampstand), the emotions (bread as a symbol of social intercourse) and the will (altar of incense, which reflects the choices God approves). But Moses was shown that though God dwells in the human spirit and makes us different from the animals, we have no access to him because of sin. We are described as "dead in trespasses and sins" and said to be "alienated from God," "without God in the world." But Paul states the great truth of Hebrews 9 in these words "But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ" (Eph 2:13).
(30). 9:24. Hughes (1977:283-290) has a helpful excursus on the various interpretations of the terms the true tent and the greater and more perfect tent. These views include the humanity of Jesus, the human body, the church as the body of Christ, the souls of God's people, the literal heavens and simply the presence of God. All of these have elements of truth about them but suffer from the spatial concepts still included in them. The truth is we do not know very much about the realm of spirit. This is probably what Paul means by his famous statement in I Corinthians 13:9-10, "For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears."
(31). 9:24. To adequately picture an event having many implications, such as the cross, required a multiplication of actions in the Old Testament which would not be necessary to duplicate in the reality. For instance, the Day of Atonement required two goats: one a scapegoat to be released into the wilderness, and the other to be slain and its blood sprinkled within the Most Holy Place. Both actions were needed to depict the death of Jesus as both bearing sin away forever and cleansing believers from its defilement. Similarly, the dying of Jesus fulfilled both the offering of a sacrifice and the presentation of its blood by the high priest.
Copyright © 2010 by Ray Stedman Ministries — This material is the sole property of Ray Stedman Ministries. It may be copied for personal non-commercial use only in its entirety free of charge. All copies must contain this copyright notice and a hyperlink to www.RayStedman.org if the copy is posted on the Internet. Please direct any questions you may have to webmaster@RayStedman.org.