Introduction to Hebrews, part 2–Themes

Last week we began a study of the book of Hebrews.  Admittedly, Hebrews can be a difficult book, so today we want to look at some of the characteristics that set this book apart.

First, it is a book of evaluation.  I remember a saying, I think I heard it in college, “Good, better, best, never let it rest, ‘til you make the good better and the better best.”  I think that is the American way.  We want to be the best, have the best (or at least better than our neighbors) and pursue the best.

When it comes to Christianity, Joel Osteen offers Your Best Life Now.  But more important than anything we can experience or accomplish or earn with our efforts is that we recognize that Jesus Christ is the best.  He is not just “the best thing that’s ever happened to me” as James Brown sang but He is objectively the best Savior.  None can compare.  In fact, there really is no other.

The Jewish people believed that their way of religion, through the sacrificial system, was the right way to approach God.  Indeed, it was the approach that God laid out for them in the Pentateuch.

But then Jesus came.  He came to fulfill the moral law through His perfect obedience and to fulfill the ceremonial law through his sacrificial death.

Thus, one of the key words in the book of Hebrews is the word “better.”  It occurs 13 times in 12 verses (Heb 1:46:97:19228:6 (2x); He 9:2310:3411:416354012:24).  The writer of Hebrews reveals the superiority of Jesus Christ over the angels (Heb. 1:4), over Moses (Heb. 3), over Joshua and Aaron (Heb. 4).  He came with better promises (Heb. 8), opens a better sanctuary (Heb. 9), is sealed by the better sacrifice (Heb. 9) and achieves better results for those who believe (Heb. 10).

Another word that is repeated in the book is “perfect,” occurring 14 times.  It means a perfect standing before God—what our guilty hearts crave.  This perfection could never be accomplished by the Levitical priesthood (Heb. 7:11) or by the law (Heb. 7:19), nor could the blood of animal sacrifices achieve it (Heb. 10:1).  Jesus gave Himself as one offering for sin, and by this He has “perfected for all time those who are being sanctified” (Heb. 10:14).

The writer makes it quite clear that the Jewish religious system was both temporary and a shadow of a deeper, truer, eternal reality to come.  It could not bring in the eternal “better things” that are found in Jesus Christ.

“Eternal” is a third word that is important to the message of Hebrews.  Jesus Christ is the “source of eternal salvation” (Heb. 5:9).  Through his death, Christ secured “an eternal redemption” (Heb. 9:12) and He shares with us believers “the promised eternal inheritance” (Heb. 9:15).

So, Jesus Christ is better because His blessings are eternal instead of temporary and they give us a perfect standing before God.

The reason the writer of Hebrews emphasizes this is that he knew that the Jewish believers to whom he was writing were in danger of reverting back to Judaism.  Certain Judaizers were saying that the old system was “better.”  It certainly was more familiar to them, thus more comfortable.  Plus, it would protect them from the current wave of persecution.

Unfortunately, these Jewish believers had come to a standstill in their faith.  They should have grown stronger by now, to have a more firm hold on theology and its application to their lives.  But they weren’t making progress.  They were stuck.  Some of them were no longer even participating in Christian fellowship.

So the author is calling them to take stock and to realize that Jesus Christ really is better than their former religion.  The author of Hebrews exalts Jesus Christ and His work as better than the old sacrificial system and the legalistic code of the law.

Second, this is a book of exhortation.  Remember that the writer calls this book “my word of exhortation” (Heb. 13:22).  That word parakaleo, is the idea of giving positive encouragement.  The Holy Spirit is called the paraclete in John 14.

Here in Hebrews this is expressed through five passages often called the “warning passages,” but in fact they are positive encouragements to trust God and obey His Word.

The epistle of Hebrews opens with the words “God spoke” (Heb. 1:1-2).  At the end of this epistle he writes “See that you do not refuse him who is speaking” (Heb. 12:25).  In other words, since God has spoken, you better listen and obey.

Each of the five passages encourages us to hear and heed God’s Word.

The first passage in Hebrews 2:1-4 encourages us not to drift from the Word through neglect.

The second passage, in Hebrews 3:7-4:13, tells us not to doubt God’s Word and develop a hard heart.

The third passage, in Hebrews 5:11-6:20, encourages us not to have dull minds and hearts towards God’s Word.

The fourth passage, in Hebrews 10:26-39 encourages us not to despise God’s Word through willful rebellion.

The fifth and final passage, in Hebrews 12:14-29, encourages us not to defy God’s Word by stopping up our ears and refusing to listen.

Warren Wiersbe notes:

“If we do not listen to God’s Word and really hear it, we will start to drift.  Neglect always leads to drifting, in things material and physical as well as spiritual.  As we drift from the Word, we start to doubt the Word, because faith comes by hearing the Word of God (Rom. 10:17).  We start to get hard hearts, and this leads to spiritual sluggishness, which produces dullness towards the Word.  We become “dull of hearing”—lazy listeners!  This leads to a despiteful attitude toward the Word to the extent that we willfully disobey God, and this gradually develops into a defiant attitude—we almost “dare” God to do anything!” (The Wiersbe Bible Commentary: NT, p. 803).

You can see the downward, dangerous progression in these passages.  But in each God speaks encouragement, then chastens us if we don’t listen and obey.

The dangers inherent in these negative attitudes towards God’s Word are serious.  While they don’t threaten the loss of salvation, they do threaten divine discipline and possibly even the loss of life.  The last passage, in Hebrews 12:9, says “Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live?”  The inference is that if we don’t submit, we may die.  We know from other passages that “there is a sin that leads to death” (1 John 5:16; cf. 1 Cor. 11:30).

It is clear that most of the congregation were believers.  The author calls them “brothers” in Hebrews 3:1.  It is possible, however, that the congregation was mixed, with some professing believers in their midst, just like in any church.

Third, the book is a book of examination.  It calls us to examine ourselves.  Like Paul says in 2 Corinthians 13:5, “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith.  Test yourselves.”

This book is about where we put our faith.  Am I trusting fully and only in Jesus Christ for my salvation?

This book was written right before the temple was destroyed in 70 A.D.  The sacrificial system was still being utilized in the temple with daily sacrifices.  So at this time it was a tantalizing offer to go back to the Levitical system.  But soon the temple would be destroyed, the Jewish nation would be scattered…God was indeed “shaking” the order of things.

The same is happening in our lives, in our culture, right now.  Traditional religion in the Bible belt South, so comfortable and aligned with conservative politics, last lost its mooring in Jesus Christ.  It many cases it is more like a country club.

But that kind of shallow “faith,” with more real trust in the world and its strategies than in Jesus Christ, will not stand up to the testing that is here today.

God wants our hearts to be “strengthened by grace,” to be solidly grounded in what really saves us from the wrath of God.

You don’t want to be on the wrong path to heaven.

There is a story of a conductor who got on the train, began to take tickets, and told the first passenger whose ticket he punched, that he was on the wrong train.  When he looked at the next ticket, he told that passenger that he was on the wrong train.

“But the brakeman told me to get on this train,” the passenger protested.

“I’ll double-check,” said the conductor.  He did, and he discovered that he was on the wrong train!

I fear that there are many who have a false faith, a faith in themselves and their own goodness.  I can’t tell you how many times I heard hospice patients say “I hope I am good enough.”

The reality is, we aren’t good enough.  By far.  The only one good enough was Jesus Christ.  That is why he submitted to the cross.  He was the only perfect sacrifice worthy to avert the wrath of God against us and make it possible for us to be forgiven.

Hebrews is a book that helps you examine yourself to see where your faith really lies.

Hebrews is also a book of expectation.  It focuses often on the future.  The writer informs us that he is speaking about “the world to come” (Heb. 2:5), a time when believers will reign with Christ.  Like the patriarchs lauded in Hebrews 11, we are looking for that future city of God (Heb. 11:10-16, 26).

Right now we are “strangers and exiles on the earth” (Heb. 11:13).  Thus, we shouldn’t get too attached to this world and its toys.

Abram and Lot illustrate these two opposing attitudes (Genesis 13-14).  When they returned from Egypt they were both wealthy and their servants were quarrelling.  As the elder statesman Abram could have had his pick of the properties, but he gave Lot the choice and Lot chose the area of Sodom and Gomorrah.

When God intended to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah for their sins, he sent angels to rescue Lot and his family.  But Lot lost everything—his wealth, his wife, his respect and influence—everything he had invested his heart in.

Abram, however, saw himself as a stranger and alien.  He held the things of this life loosely.  Martyred missionary Jim Elliot said it best:  He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep, to gain what he cannot lose.”

We have been promised a future reward.  Will we live as if that is a reality worth sacrificing this life for?  Abram and Moses (and all the heroes of Hebrews 11) did.  I love what it says about Moses

24 By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, 25 choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. 26 He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward.

Moses was looking to the future.  He could give up the treasures of life in the here and now, because he believed that he would be rewarded with greater treasures in heaven.  We can give up the fleeting pleasures of sin now, because we can know that there will be greater pleasures in heaven.

It was this same attitude of future realities that motivated Jesus to go to the cross.  Hebrews 12:2 says, Jesus “for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame…”  He endured terrible things on the cross because he was looking forward to something, the “joy that was set before him.”  What was that?  I believe it was his knowledge that through the excruciating pain of dying on the cross that he would bring “many sons to glory” (Heb. 2:10).  I think this is also predicted in Isaiah 53:10, which says “when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring…”  Jesus sacrificed pleasure in the here and now, for the sake of future reward.

And that’s what the author of Hebrews encourages us to do—to live for future reward, to realize that we won’t always experience the best in the here and now.  In fact, sometimes here and now will be hard and harsh.  But the future is bright and blessed for those who believe.

Abram chose the right world and became the father of the faithful.  Lot chose the wrong world.  Abram became a friend of God, but Lot because a friend of the world—and lost everything.  Lot was “saved, yet so as by fire” (1 Cor. 3:15) and lost his eternal reward as well.

Don’t let that happen to you.  Believe in the future reward and live for that.

Finally, Hebrews is a book of exaltation.  What this book focuses upon is exalting the person and word of Jesus Christ.  The first three verses of chapter 1 establish this theme, which is then maintained throughout the book.

As to His person, Christ is superior to the prophets.  He is God very God.  He is described in Hebrews 1:3 as the “radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature…”  That radiance refers to the Shekinah glory, which dwelt in the Old Testament tabernacle (Exodus 40:34-38; 1 Kings 8:10) but even more fully (though not as visible) in Jesus Christ.

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).

“Christ is to the Father what the rays of the sun are to the sun.  He is the radiance of the Father’s glory.  As it is impossible to separate the rays from the sun, it is also impossible to separate Christ’s glory from the nature of God” (Warren Wiersbe, The Wiersbe Bible Commentary: NT, p. 805).

“Express image” carries the idea of an exact imprint.  Thus Jesus could say, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9).

As to His work, Christ is also superior to the prophets.  He created the universe (Heb. 1:2) and sustains it (Heb. 1:3).  Paul, in Colossians 1:17 confirms that “in him all things hold together.”  Were Christ not actively holding the universe together, it would devolve back into the original state of being “formless and void.”

There are several contrasts here between Christ and the prophets.  He is “God the Son,” whereas they are mere men called by God.  While there are many prophets, there is only one Son.  His is the final and complete message, whereas theirs was fragmentary and incomplete.

Jesus Christ was God’s “last word,” His final revelation.  None else was needed.

Thus, Jesus Christ is the source, the center and the aim of everything that God has to say.

Not only was Jesus a prophet, He was a priest.  He made “purification for sins” through His death on the cross.  This aspect of His ministry is explained in great detail in Hebrews 7-10.

Finally, Jesus is king.  He has “said down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.”  He sat down because His work of redemption was complete with the crucifixion and resurrection.  He now sits in the place of highest honor, at the Father’s right hand.  He sits where no other could sit.  He can because He is God.

Creator, prophet, priest and king, Jesus Christ is superior to all the other prophets and servants of God that have ever appeared on the pages of Scripture.  It is not wonder, then, that God the Father said at His transfiguration, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him” (Matthew 17:5).  While the disciples were enamored with Moses and Elijah—two of the greatest men in the Old Testament—God the Father was claiming the unparalleled superiority of His Son.  “Listen to Him,” He’s got something important to say.

So, as we continue our study of Hebrews, let’s have listening hearts.  Let’s open up our minds and hearts to what God has to say about His Son.  May we have the attitude of the Greek seekers in John 12, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus” (John 12:21).  This should be our deepest desire.

Augustine spoke of this great, undeniable restlessness of the human heart, until finding its rest in God: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”

Moses, seeking to leverage God’s remarkable favor on him, was so bold as to ask to see God’s glory. God permitted him a glimpse of the afterglow of divine beauty, not his face.

But the apostles saw it, and we can “see” it by faith in God’s Word.

The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14)

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Lamar Austin

I've graduated from Citadel Bible College in Ozark, Arkansas, with a B. A. Then got my M. Div. and Th. M. at Capital Bible Seminary in Lanham, MD. I finished with a D. Min. degree from Dallas Theological Seminary, but keep on learning. I pastored at Chinese Christian Church of Greater Washington, D. C., was on staff at East Evangelical Free Church in Wichita, KS, tried to plant an EFC in Little Rock, before moving back home to Mena, where I now pastor my home church, Grace Bible Church

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