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The Message of the Book of Hebrews

A Message to Wavering Christians
on the Absolute Supremacy of Jesus Christ

 

by Wayne Rogers

 

Wayne Rogers

A. Reading a Book of the Bible: One of the first things to do when reading any book of the Bible is to try to get the big picture of that book and that book within the context of redemptive history. The best way to do this is to read or skim through the book 2-3 times at least and to note the natural divisions, the main themes, repeated words, and try to write out a brief outline. After that, since Jesus gave some to be pastors and teachers, you may compare your notes with a reliable resource. The Reformation Study Bible has good overviews and outlines. I have listed other resources at the conclusion of this study.

 

B. Reading Hebrews: Sinclair Ferguson, wrote, “Of all the New Testament letters, Hebrews seems to be one many Christians find strange and alien. Here we enter the world of Melchizedek and Aaron, angels and Moses, sacrifices and priests. It all seems so OT, so intricate, and even confusing,” Sinclair Ferguson, Tabletalk, Time to (Re)discover Hebrews, Jan. 2011. pg. 24.

 

I. HEBREWS IS A WORD OF EXHORTATION, HEB. 13:22-25.

 

A. The Sufficiency of Scripture – 2 Tim. 3:15-16. “One of the glories of the Bible is the way God takes a particular situation involving a particular group of people and uses it to speak with the greatest relevance to people of all kinds, in all times, and in all places,” Richard D. Phillips, Hebrews, pg. xv.

 

B. Hebrews is a sermon or sermonic epistle, a “word of exhortation,” Hebrews 13:18-25.

 

1. The term “exhortation” also occurs in Acts 13:15 where Paul and Barnabas were invited, following the reading of the Scriptures, to deliver a word of exhortation. (Also see also Acts 15:31-32).

A “word of exhortation” is clearly a descriptive term for the “sermon” or the exhortation following the reading from the Scriptures in the synagogue service.

 

2. This exhortation/sermon has Scripture texts for the author’s message: numerous passages from the O.T. are referred to in order to strengthen his exhortation: Chapter 1:5-13, 2:6-8, 12-13, 3:2, 5, 7-11, 4:3, 5:6, 6:14, 7:1-2, 17, 21, 8:5, 8-12, 9:20, 10:5-7, 30, 37-38, 11:18, 12:5-6, 20, 21, 26, 13:5-6. Christians often speak of being “New Testament” Christians implying that the Old Testament is not longer authoritative. I love to point out that the New Testament Apostles and preachers took as their texts the Old Testament.

 

3. “Hebrews 3:1 is arguably the text of this sermon, Therefore, holy brethren, partakers of the heavenly calling, consider the Apostle and High Priest of our confession, Christ Jesus,’” (Hywell Jones, Let’s Study Hebrews, xxi).

 

C. The Authorship is beyond the scope of this presentation which is an exposition of the message. We will simply list the internal information as to the authorship:

  • He is a “brother,” 13:22, 23, 3:1.
  • He is someone skilled in Greek and Hellenistic literary style.
  • He is immersed in the OT (LXX)
  • He is knowledgeable of the history of redemption culminating in Christ.
  • He is pastorally concerned for the original hearers or readers who:
  • He is known personally by the readers, 13:22, 23, 10:34
  • He knows their background, 10:32-34.
  • He is, although some would assert that the text does not require this interpretation, a second generation believer, 2:3, 4.
  • He is acquainted with Timothy, 13:23.

 

Who is he? He is the author of this epistle! While the human author is unknown to us this word of exhortation is what” the Holy Spirit says,” Heb. 3:7.

II. HEBREWS IS A SERMON TO JEWISH CONFESSORS/PROFESSORS OF CHRIST WHO ARE UNDERGOING PERSECUTION.

 

A. Date - When was it written: Prior to AD 70.

  • During Timothy’s lifetime, 13:23.
  • Uses present tense of ritual ceremonies in the temple: 7:8, 9:6ff. The temple ritual was continuing. The temple was destroyed in August AD 70. There is no reference to the temple having been destroyed but reference to a future coming destruction - 12:25-28.

 

B. The recipients were Hebrew Christians:

  • The readers were second generation Christians who had been won to Christ by those who had known Christ during his earthly ministry, 2:3.
  • Considered to be true believers, 3:1, not mere professors, 6:9.
  • Were not novices, 5:12.
  • Gathered for worship and fellowship, 10:25.
  • Had their own leaders, 13:7, 17, 24.
  • Were in or from Italy, Hebrews 13:24. Unfortunately the expression is unclear. William Lane and other commentators say that the most natural way of reading this verse is that the writer is currently outside of Italy and that those with him from Italy send greetings back to those who are still in or near Rome.

 

C. These Hebrew Christians were facing persecution for their faith.

 

1. If they were in Rome, Italy, the description of the sufferings in 10:32-34 is appropriate for the hardships suffered by Jewish Christians expelled from Rome by the Emperor Claudius in AD 49. Suetonius, a Roman historian, wrote, “There were riots in the Jewish quarter at the instigation of Chrestus (probably a reference to “Christus” or “Christ”). As a result, Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome. The writer is probably addressing Jewish Christians who had experienced the expulsion from Rome with Aquila and Priscilla, Acts 18:1-2.

 

Now, at the time of the writing of Hebrews itself, it would be approximately 15 years later. A new crisis is arising and they are threatened with new suffering. The situation now seems more serious than the previous one.

Heb. 12:4 suggests that martyrdom may be at issue. 64 AD was the year of the great fire in Rome. Nero who had started the fire to clear out a slum area, which then got out of control and burned the Palatine Hill district where the senators lived, blamed the Christians to cover himself. This is the source of the famous phrase, “Nero played the fiddle while Rome burned.” Christians were arrested, tortured, and even put to death. Some fled to the catacombs of Rome, narrow underground tunnels, to escape.

 

2. They had become dull of hearing, 5:11, and were in danger of drifting away, 2:1, 3:12. This dullness made them particularly susceptible to the renewed persecutions which were coming upon them, 12:4-12. They began to wonder and think that if this was the outcome of their new faith, they weren’t so sure any more.

 

Because of that they are in danger of going back to Judaism, 3:12-14.

  • Some are not even bothering to go to church, 10:25.
  • Many who do go are not paying much attention to preaching, 2:1.
  • They are discouraged, 12:12.
  • Instead of being able to teach others, they have not mastered the ABC’s of the gospel, let alone its advanced truths, 5:12.

 

3. They were facing full blown apostasy, 2:1, 3, 3:6, 12ff, 4:1, 3, 11. Apostasy is not losing your salvation but falling from one’s profession of faith.

 

  • They had already suffered and endured persecution and hardships in the past because of their faith and stand for the gospel, 10:32-34, 12:4, 13:13-14.

 

  • They had faithfully ministered to the needs of others who had suffered at that time, 6:10.

 

  • They were being tempted to fall away, to go back to Judaism due to persecution, suffering, and pain which was before them.

 

These Hebrew Christians, thus, because of persecution were in danger of drifting from the faith, 2:1, 3:12, 6:4ff. There was the lure of returning to the Jewish synagogue and the threat of desertion in order to avoid persecution.

 

If the Neronic persecution is the background or context, we can picture the Christians in a state of fear. They were, as we said, second generation Christians. Consider Judges 2:10-11. Persecution was coming because of their attachment to Christ. This made them think about going back to their old religion. They were contemplating abandoning the gospel, withdrawing from the good fight of faith. Their zeal was flagging and they become dull of hearing, 5:11. This made them particularly susceptible to the renewed persecutions which were coming upon them, 12:4-12. Their world was falling apart because of their association with Christ.

III. HEBREWS IS A “SERMON” TO JEWISH CHRISTIANS FACING PERSECUTION EXHORTING AND ENCOURAGING THEM TO PERSEVERE

 

What do you say to say to Christians in this state of mind? What do you say to people who are tempted to abandon the faith under the threat of persecution? You say, “Therefore, holy brethren, partakers of the heavenly calling, consider the Apostle and High Priest of our confession, Christ Jesus,” Heb. 3:1.

 

“The comprehensive theme of the Epistle to the Hebrews is that of the absolute supremacy of Christ,” P. E. Hughes, commentary on Hebrews.

 

Rodger Crooks writes, “The writer sets out Jesus’ supremacy, showing not only that He is incomparably greater and better than anything in Judaism, but also that He is the fulfillment of everything in Judaism. That was the shadow but He is the reality. But he also warns them from numerous OT examples that to go back to Judaism would be a spiritual disaster for them. They would lose everything.” One Lord, One Plan, One People, pg. 411.

 

A. Key Words:

 

1. “Better” is used 13 times (1:4, 6.9, 7.7, 19, 22, 8.6, 9:23, 10:34, 11:16, 35, 40, 12:24. Christ is better than the angels, 1:4; he brought in a better hope, 7:19, because He is the mediator of a better covenant which was established on better promises, 8:6. He offers a better revelation, position, priesthood, covenant, sacrifice, and power.

 

2. “Perfect” in the Greek is repeated 14 times. It means a perfect standing before God.

 

This perfection could never be accomplished by the Levitical priesthood, 7:11, or by the law, 7:19, nor could the blood of animal sacrifices achieve, it, 10:1. Jesus has perfected those who are sanctified, 10:14.

 

3. “Eternal” is the third word that is important in the message to the Hebrews. Christ is the author of eternal salvation, 5:9. Through his death he obtained eternal salvation, 9:12; he shares with believers the promise of an eternal inheritance, 9:15. His throne is forever,1:8; and He is a priest forever, 5:6, 6:20, 7:17, 21. Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever, 13:8.

 

When you combine these three concepts, Jesus Christ and the Christian life are better because these blessings are eternal and they give us a perfect standing before God.

 

B. Hebrews is a mixture of didactic (instruction) and paranetic (exhortation, warning) pericopes (verses that form one coherent unit or thought).

 

1. Instruction: The Superiority of Christ’s Person and Work.

  • Jesus is superior to old covenant revelation, the prophets – 1:1-2.
  • Jesus is a superior mediator to the angels – 1:3-Chapter 2. Angels were very important in OT theology; associated with the giving of the law, the angel of the Lord. Heb. 1:13 - Psalm 110. Hebrews is almost a practical exposition of Psalm 110.
  • Jesus is superior to Moses and Joshua, 3:1-4:12. Moses was the leader of Israel. The house of Moses is compared to the house of Christ.
  • Jesus is superior in his priesthood to Aaron and Melchizedek: 4:13-7:28. He is superior to the old covenant sacrifices and rituals.

 

Ultimately he is showing the superiority, not just of Christ, but of the New Covenant in Christ.

 

The author of Hebrews deliberately hammers home the point that the king is also the High Priest, and that he suffered. Why does he hammer this home repeatedly? Ken Gentry gives three reasons:

 

     1. The Jewish critics might use the crucifixion against Christianity    by arguing      that the Messiah was not to suffer. “No, your Messiah is to suffer” and the author proves it. This is an apologetic defense of “Christianity” against Judaism. “Why do we have a suffering Messiah?” Here’s why….

 

          2. He returns to the sufferings of Christ as to the fulfillment of the redemptive rituals and hope in the Old Covenant.

 

     3. Jesus suffering prepared Him to sympathize with His people in a genuine way, (4:14-5:10).

 

He is a Priest after the order of Melchizedek: King priest of Salem (Jerusalem), city of peace. Abraham received a blessing and received a tithe from him. This tells us that there is a priesthood higher than the priesthood of Levi. Second, he uses this to show the imperfection of the Aaronic priesthood. The priesthood that you endorse is an imperfect priesthood.

 

Jesus is greater than the Old Covenant sacrifices, 8-10:18. How does he show the Aaronic priesthood is imperfect? 1. That priesthood required an endless series of priests and sacrifices. Sin is never finally taken care of by those sacrifices. Those are temporary. 2. The OT priests ministered in an earthly holy place while Christ ministers in a heavenly. 3. The old covenant contains the promise of a new covenant to supplant it. This would explain the superiority of Christianity over Judaism.

 

“The General theme of Hebrews in not in dispute: the unqualified supremacy of God’s Son, Jesus Christ, a supremacy that brooks no challenge, whether from angelic or human beings. Correlatively, the covenant he has inaugurated is superior to any covenant that has preceded it, his priesthood is better than Levi’s, the sacrifice he has offered is superior to those offered under Moses code, and in fact the very purpose of antecedent revelation was to anticipate him and point to him and to all the blessings he has brought with him.” An Introduction to the New Testament, D. A. Carson, Douglas Moo, and Leon Morris, pg. 391.

 

2. Paranetic Passages - Exhortations and Warnings: The key passages which sum up the exhortation are 4:14-16 and 12:1-2. There are several of these paranetic-warning passages, however, throughout the sermon: (Commentators variously identify these sections):

  • The peril of neglecting the message of so great a salvation (2:1-4)
  • The peril of copying the example of the Israelites in the wilderness; the sin of unbelief (3:7-4:11).
  • The peril of forsaking our confession, 4:14-16.
  • The peril of stagnation and apostasy; the denial of Christ (5:11-6:20).
  • The peril of despising the gospel; the failure to continue in the Christian life (10:19-39).
  • The peril of refusing Him who speaks from heaven (12:14-29).

 

These warnings all have to do with their response to the Word of God (Warren Wiersbe, Be Confident, pg. 11)

 

  • Drifting from the Word - (neglect)
  • Doubting the Word – (hard heart)
  • Dullness toward the Word – (sluggishness)
  • Despising the Word – (willfulness)
  • Defying the Word – (refusing to hear).

 

B. Hebrews, according to William Lane, is “A Call To Commitment” - Heb. 10:23-24. The writer is exhorting Christians not to turn back to Judaism and to stay true to the faith in Jesus Christ. It is “a tonic for the spiritually debilitated,” P. E. Hughes.

 

The fact that they were Christians had brought no privilege to them in society. If anything, it had increased their problems.

 

William Lane writes, “Hebrews is a sermon that is rooted in real life. It addresses men and women like us who discover that they can be penetrated by circumstances over which they have no control. It is a sensitive response to the emotional fragileness that characterizes each one of us. It throbs with an awareness of struggle as it explores the dimensions of the cost of discipleship. Hebrews is a pastoral response to the sagging faith of frightened men and women …. It conveys a word from God addressed to the harsh reality of life in an insecure world,” W. Lane, pg. 26.

 

How does he encourage commitment?

 

1. Chapters 11-12 – He shows us The “Hall of Faith” - an argument to keep going by faith in spite of difficulties. Like the heroes of the faith who looked forward in faith to the Messiah’s coming, we need to keep our eyes glued on Him who has gone into heaven as we persevere in faith.

 

2. 12:1-11 – The Way to keep going:

 

a. Self-discipline, fixing our eyes on Jesus. 12:1-4

 

b. God’s discipline, 12:5-17: keeping on going through things that God sends into our lives which test our faith. They may be painful but they are signs of God’s love.

 

3. Consider where you have come to rather than looking back: Heb. 12:18-29 – Keep going since we have come to Mt. Zion,

The temple is still standing. Jesus had said that the temple would be destroyed in that generation, Mat. 24:34. The temple was destroyed in 70 AD. Don’t run back into a burning building!

 

With the advent of Jesus Christ, the last days have begun, though they await consummation at his return, Hebrews1:1-2, 2:5; 4:9–11; 8:13, 9:9–28; 12:22–29.

 

“Because of who Jesus is and because of what he has done, the last days have come and the new covenant has been inaugurated....Christians are now experiencing the fulfillment of the eschatological hopes of ancient Israel. The emphasis here is upon that which is already the experience of believers,” Keith Mathison, From Age to Age, pg. 616, 625.

 

Hebrews 12:27 The Old Covenant is going to be removed that the New Covenant may go forward. This is a reference to the temple which is about to be destroyed, 70 AD. (Again, most scholars believe that Hebrews was written prior to 70 AD, the destruction of Jerusalem.) Judaism is localized in a temple, in a place, and can be shaken and destroyed.

 

Hebrews 12:28Therefore, now we are receiving (70 AD) a kingdom that cannot not shaken – the kingdom of Christ!

 

4. Hebrews 13:1-17 – What is our duty as we keep going in the light of 12:28-29.

 

  1. a.Show practical kindness to those in need, 13:1-5.
  2. b.Be content, 13:4-5.
  3. c.Be grateful for what God has done for them, 13:15.
  4. d.Do good, 13:16.
  5. e.Be submissive to leaders, 13:17.

 

IV. The Content and a Concise Outline of Hebrews

 

A. Very good summaries of the content of Hebrews is found in An Introduction to the New Testament by D.A. Carson, Douglas Moo, and Leon Morris, and by Rodger Crooks, One Lord, One Plan, One People.

 

B. A Concise Outline: (The Layman’s Overview of the Bible by George W. Knight and James R. Edwards, Nelson, 1987 – Out of Print):

 

I. The Superiority of Christ’s Person

A. The Superiority of Christ over the Prophets – 1:1-3

B. The Superiority of Christ over the Angels – 1:4-2:18

C. The Superiority of Christ over Moses – 3:1-4:13

 

II. The Superiority of Christ’s Work

A. The Superiority of Christ’s Priesthood – 4:14-7:28

B. The Superiority of Christ’s Covenant – 8:1-13

C. The Superiority of Christ’s Sanctuary and Sacrifice – 9:1-10:18

 

III. The Superiority of the Christian’s Walk of Faith.

A. A Call to Full Assurance of Faith – 10:19-11:40

B. A Call to Endurance of Faith – 12:1-29

C. A Call to Brotherly Love – 13:1-17

D. A Conclusion – 13:18-25.

 

V. Theological Contributions and Special Considerations:

 

A. Apostasy - HEB. 6:4-8. Can a person loose their salvation? Assurance of salvation appears to be clearly confirmed in Rom. 5, 8:29-30, John 6:39-40, 44. How should we understand this passage in the light of that assurance?

 

Hebrews is rooted in Old Testament/Old Covenant redemptive history. This passage may be viewed in the light of Israel’s wilderness journeying – Num. 13-14, Psalm 95:8-11. See also Heb. 2:1-4, 3:7-4:13. The lessons from that history may be what this passage has in mind. These are descriptions of the blessings of Christian initiation, “once,” a transitory faith, a form of conversion, which, like the seed on the rocky places in Mark. 4, has all the signs of life but does not persevere.

 

These descriptions are not necessarily indications of salvation, however, vs. 9.

 

  • “Enlightened” – knowledge of the truth, 10:26, 32.
  • “Tasted” = experiencing something; (cf. manna, Ex. 16:4, was a divine gift.)
  • “Shared in the Holy Spirit” = See 2:4.
  • “Tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come” – the in-breaking of the age to come; they “received” the good news of salvation, 2:3, 4:1, 5:9, 6:12.

 

The sin of apostasy, vs. 6, is rejecting the faith they once professed. See 3:12, 4:11, 10:26. Apostasy is falling from your PROFESSION, NOT POSSESSION.

 

Peter T. O’Brien, The Letter to the Hebrews, offers this explanation and commentary: They have repudiated the only basis on which repentance can be extended. Further than that, God may refuse to restore the apostate to repentance as in the case of the wilderness generation, Heb. 3:7-11, 12-4:13; Esau -12:17, Gen. 27:1-40 (34, 36, 38). He, Esau, begged for the blessing but it was not granted him. God let him bear the consequences of his action (see Heb. 3:7-19).

 

B. Hebrews greatly enriches our Christology, particularly with respect to Jesus’ priestly work, the finality of his sacrifice, the nature of his sonship, the importance of his incarnation, and his role as “pioneer” of our faith, 12:2.

 

Sinclair Ferguson, Tabletalk, Jan., 2011, wrote:

 

1. Hebrews is a Jesus-filled letter and shows us His glory. Hebrews shows us how Jesus is better than and the fulfillment of the OT – Angels, Moses, Melchizedek, Aaron and old covenant worship. God has so ordered the course of redemptive history that the OT figures and heroes are all about Jesus.

 

2. Hebrews helps us to see how the relationship between the old and the new covenants is one of unity. The OT revelation is fragmentary and multiplex; Jesus is full and final. The OT is full of copies and shadows, 9:23, 10:1; Jesus is the original and reality.

 

3. Hebrews movingly describes the reality of Jesus’ humanity. He became like us, was tempted, and experienced suffering and death. He became a brother to us. That is why he is able to help and sympathize with us in our temptation and suffering.

 

4. Hebrews wonderfully expounds Jesus’ glory. Every chapter points to this. Heb. 1:3, 2:9, 3:3, 4:14, 5:9, 6:20, 7:22, 8:1, 9:15, 10:12, 11:40-12:2. Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever, Heb. 13:8.

 

5. Hebrews speaks to us with great pastoral sensitivity – a word of encouragement. It is realistic about suffering, the fear of persecution, the danger of discouragement, the struggles we have against sin, the possibility of apostasy, Heb. 6:4-6 and 10:26.

 

The reality and threat of Apostasy resulted and still results today from:

 

(1) Persecution, and

 

(2) Failure to appreciate the gospel of Christ, the superiority of Christianity.

 

In their case it was the superiority of Christianity to Judaism. Today, it is the superiority of Christ to all religions!

 

Fix your eyes on Jesus the Apostle and High Priest
of your calling, the founder and perfecter of faith. - Hebrews 3:1, 12:2

 

 

AUTHORS, COMMENTARIES, AND RESOURCES - Exegetical and Expository

 

John Calvin - Hebrews

Philip E. Hughes - Hebrews

Simon Kistemaker - Hebrews

Cornelis Vanderwaal - Search the Scriptures, Vol. 10 (Hebrews – Revelation)

William Lane (A shorter and a longer commentary)

Peter T. O’Brien - Hebrews

Richard D. Phillips - Hebrews

Edgar Andrews – A Glorious High Throne - Hebrews

Hywell Jones - Hebrews

Stuart Olyott - Hebrews

Gordon Fee & Douglas Stuart – How to Read the Bible Book by Book.

Rodger Crooks – One Lord, One Plan, One People.

Carson, Moo, and Morris – An Introduction to the New Testament.

Tabletalk Magazine.

Rest In God – A Calamity in Contemporary Christianity, Iain Murry (on the Sabbath)