Introduction to the Bible - 60 - Hebrews

Introduction to Hebrews
By Steve McMurray ~ Clyde, Ohio

Overview

The letter written to the Hebrews presents for us an outstanding analysis of the relationship between the Old Testament and New Testament in our Bibles. Although, for a twentieth century Gentile like me it is somewhat mysterious, to the Jewish reader, the allusions to the temple worship and Levitical priesthood would be very familiar.

(To read a story about a Jewish man who was converted to Christianity, read the personal story of Andy Feinberg ~ Chandler, Arizona )

Unlike the other epistles found in the New Testament, the writer to this letter is unknown. Much speculation and interest surrounds this mystery but we should be cautious to not dwell on the things that the Spirit of God has not revealed to us. Instead we will concern ourselves with what is before us in this instructive letter.

Historical Background

We know only that is was written sometime between our Lord's crucifixion in 33 A.D. and the razing of the temple by the Romans in 70 A.D. This letter is unique in that it is not written to an individual (e.g. Timothy, Titus, and Philemon), a church (Romans, Corinthians, Ephesians) or a group of churches (Galatians, Revelation) as are the other epistles.  Instead it is addressed to an entire culture - that of the Hebrews.

In the first century, the church was almost exclusively comprised of Jewish believers. The book of Acts chronicles how the gospel spread from Jerusalem to the entire world through the Apostles of Christ. The letter to the Romans reminds us that it was preached "To the Jew first, and also to the Gentile"

This is stated to make the point that Christianity is not a Gentile phenomenon superior to the Jewish culture. Instead, the Christian gospel is Jewish through and through. It does not supplant the Old Testament but rather fulfills it. The God of the Old Testament is the same as the God of the New Testament. This is emphatically stated in Hebrews 13:8 "Jesus is the Messiah, the same yesterday, today and forever" Or, more succinctly: "Jesus is Jehovah"

To these first century Hebrews, the Words and Works of Jesus of Nazareth were fresh in their cultural experience and too powerful to be dismissed. To those familiar with what the prophets had spoken, the life, death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus were events well known to them and a powerful fulfillment of prophecy that could not be honestly ignored.

Remember that on the day of Pentecost, the Apostle Peter preached a sermon to thousands of Hebrews gathered for the feast (Acts 2) 3000 of them were converted that day and many more were in awe with the power shown in the name of Jesus (Acts 2:43). As a result, there were many Hebrews who were giving an intellectual assent, but unlike those that were added to the church daily, many had not yet come to a saving faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.

The Letter to the Hebrews was therefore written to state the case for faith in the Lord Jesus to those newly saved and to those wavering.

Tradition and Relevance

In any culture, change brings conflict.  For these first century Hebrews, enlightened by Word of God, they were in the midst of a struggle against the man-made traditions of Jewish culture while attempting to see the true meaning of the traditions in the law of Moses.

The threats to cultural traditions were met by the religious rulers of the day with threats of expulsion from the synagogue, confiscation of property, family rejection and physical harm. So, to those who were not yet believers there was hesitation and wavering in their acceptance of Jesus as Messiah.

Herein lies the relevance of the letter for us today: we live in a Christ rejecting culture. The teaching of sin runs counter to the world's view of man. The idea that the way to heaven is possible only through the Lord Jesus is considered to be intolerant and unacceptable.  So, to those who are honestly looking at the claims of Jesus and finding them to be irrefutable, there is a struggle against the traditions of cultural and even religious training.  There also often exists to varying degrees the same threat to one's livelihood, acceptance and safety that these first century Hebrews were faced with.

Plan of the letter: Who's who in the Old Testament

Making the case for faith, the writer takes his readers on a journey through some of the prominent figures of the Old Testament.

Kenneth Wuest, a prominent Greek expositor of the New Testament states it as follows:
"To prove to him on the basis of his own Old Testament Scriptures that the New Testament has superseded the First, would result in that Jew going on to faith in Christ, if he is really sincere in wanting to be saved.  The author proves the proposition he advances twice, and from two different standpoints.

First, he compares the relative merits of the founders of the testaments, arguing that a superior workman turns out a superior product. This he does in 1:1-8:6 where he proves that Christ, the founder of the New Testament is superior to the founders, under God, of the first testament who are the prophets (1:1-3), the angels (1:4-2:18), Moses (3:1-6), Joshua (3;7-4;13), and Aaron (4:14-8:6).

After stating in 8:6 the proposition he has just shown to be true, he proves it again by comparing the relative merits of the testaments themselves in 8:7-10:39;
 First, the new testament was prophesied to be better (8:7-13)
 Second, it is actual, the first testament is typical (9:1-15)
 Third, it is made effective with better blood (9:16-10:39) Finally, he proves in 11:1-12:2 that faith, not works is the way of salvation, and closes his letter with admonitions (12:3-13:25)

Warnings given

The letter also contains several passages that are troubling to many believers by the warnings given. Wrong teaching that fails to apply the context of the letter leads to wrong applications of the warnings and instructions. By understanding the context we discern that the warnings are given to unsaved readers who may have made professions of faith but are considering renouncing their faith and returning to the temple sacrifices which they had left.

The warnings however apply to any present reader who is making or considering a profession of faith in Christ but remains without reality. He or she is returning to the shadows of their former life. This same sin of rejection is described by the writer in various ways:

1. Letting the truth slip away (2:1-4)
2. Hardening the heart against the pleading of the Holy Spirit (3:7-9)
3. Falling away (5:11-6:12)
4. Willful sin of treading underfoot the Son of God, counting His blood as common blood and doing insult to the Spirit of Grace (10:26-29)

The author urges his reader not to stand aloof from the living God (3:12) nor to fail of the heavenly rest that comes with faith in Christ as did those who rebelled during the Exodus and did not enter the promised rest of Canaan. (4:1-2)

For more information about the warnings in Hebrews, see also - Eternal Security by Harry Ironside

Types and Anti-types

This is a phrase often used by Bible students to describe the elements of the Old Testament sacrificial system that, when properly performed according to the pattern, provided a type or a picture of God's Anointed One, the Anti-type.

For instance, the Passover lamb is offered as a substitute in place of the death of the first born. It is the type or a picture of Jesus Christ, the Anti-type, coming many centuries later whom John the Baptizer declared to be: "...the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world"

Throughout the letter, the various types and images of temple worship are brought before the reader to show that Jesus is the only one who is the fulfillment of these various types. Most importantly, Jesus Christ is seen as the fulfillment of a superior order of priesthood, called a High Priest after the order of Melchizidek.

Melchizidek's priesthood is unique in many ways:
First, he was recognized as a King-Priest. This is something that the sons of Aaron were forbidden to claim.
Second, His priesthood was not an inheritance as was the Aaronic order.
Third, His priesthood was unending.

As a result of this continuing priesthood, there remains a perpetual confirmatory witness to the everlasting covenant that God made with Abraham and his seed.

All of these factors were pointed out to make it clear to the Hebrew, that Christ and Christ alone is able to stand as a perfect mediator between God and men. As others have stated, "No one else is needed, no one less will do".

As there is now a perfecting sacrifice,(10:1-10) offered once for sins forever and also now a perfect High Priest (10:10-14), there is therefore no more sacrifice for sin (10:15-18) and no more need for the temple worship (10:19-22). Instead, they are wise to take the place of rejection, outside of the camp of Israel. This is the same place taken by the Lord Jesus Himself when He was crucified outside of the temple precincts and the then existing city walls (13:10-15).

Conclusion

Again Wuest states it:
"Thus, the purpose of the writer was to reach the professing Jews of that date who outwardly had left the temple sacrifices, and had identified themselves with those groups of people who were gathering around an unseen Messiah, the High Priest of the New Testament system who had at the Cross fulfilled the First Testament system of typical sacrifices. These unsaved Jews were under the stress of persecution and in danger of renouncing their profession and returning to the abrogated sacrifices of the Levitical system."