Overview of the Letter to the Hebrews
As we have already seen, the Letter to the Hebrews was written to a group of believers that had already endured some significant trials.
But recall the former days when, after you were enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to reproach and affliction, and sometimes being partners with those so treated. For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one.
The author of the letter is concerned that there are some among them that are in danger of “drifting away” from the Truth in Christ Jesus.
Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it.
That some may prove unfaithful to the Lord and so turn out to not be a part of the House of God (ie the church) that Christ is building in the earth.
Now Moses was faithful in all God’s house as a servant, to testify to the things that were to be spoken later, but Christ is faithful over God’s house as a son. And we are his house if indeed we hold fast our confidence and our boasting in our hope.
That an evil heart of unbelief would be found among God’s Covenant people, one comparable to those who quarreled with God in Exodus 17 at Meribah where God through Moses brought water from the rock when His integrity was questioned by the people.
“And he called the name of the place Massah and Meribah, because of the quarreling of the people of Israel, and because they tested the LORD by saying, “Is the LORD among us or not?”
In reference to this passage the writer of Hebrews says,
Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God.
Eventually the majority of that people would languish in the desert for 40 years, they would never enter the Promised Land, the land of rest.
And with whom was he provoked for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the wilderness? And to whom did he swear that they would not enter his rest, but to those who were disobedient? So we see that they were unable to enter because of unbelief.
The writer, likely Paul, is addressing a crisis of faith in the New Covenant context by lifting the veil on the Old Covenant and demonstrating the continuity of living by faith in the promises of God in both contexts. Faith was as integral in the Old Covenant as in the New Covenant. God was the same in the Old Covenant as in the New Covenant. His character does not and has not changed.
The crisis of faith that has occurred in the lives of these early believers is that some have indeed already gone back, already quarreled with God, already turned away from the Rest offered to them in Christ Jesus.
For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt.
There has been a clear living example of the parable of the “Seed and the Sower” taught by Jesus, lived out right before their eyes. The seed in the “Parable of the Sower” (Luke 8) falls on 3 types of ground, a hardened foot path where it never grows at all. Rocky soil where it grows but never takes root. And Un-cleared and uncared for soil where thorny vines grow and choke out the new plants. The believers that received the Letter to the Hebrews had seen the seed in rocky soil grow and then wither in real life.
And the ones on the rock are those who, when they hear the word, receive it with joy. But these have no root; they believe for a while, and in time of testing fall away.
Remember that these folks have been exiles for a long period of time. (See James 1:1 and Peter 1:1) Some of their leaders had already been martyred, like Stephen (Acts 8) and James the brother of John Acts 12). The letter was likely written after 64 AD, the year Nero burned half of Rome and blamed Christians for it, sparking wide spread persecution. And it had been 30 years since Jesus ascended promising to return.
All this will help us grasp the flow of Hebrews. Why does the author write the letter in the order that he does? Why does he address the issues that he does? It is the order and the issues that give us clues to the actual audience of the letter. The letter is not addressed to anyone, yet it is called the Letter to the Hebrews.
Let’s look at the major ebb and flow of Hebrews now that we have a good grounding in the historical context.
First thing that the author deals with is the supremacy of the messenger of the New Covenant. After all the patriarchs and Moses had been spoken to by God through angels……… heavenly messengers of great power. It is likely that if you were Jewish, and you had become a Christian for a little while, and then turned away when things got tough, one of the things you’d say as you were parting to go back to Judaism, the synagogue, and Temple worship is, “Well, I can trust the message from Moses because the messengers were heavenly beings with great power. To which the author responds, oh yeah,
For to which of the angels did God ever say, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you”? Or again, “I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son”? And again, when he brings the firstborn into the world, he says, “Let all God’s angels worship him.”
And to which of the angels has he ever said, “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet”?
And yes you are right, you can trust Moses’ message, as the message of a servant. But He did not have complete access to the mind of God. He was a servant with a very specific message, invested only with a temporary authority. He only had access to what His master told him as a servant, but Jesus, He has a full access to the eternal mind of God the father not as servant but as the Divine Son.
For Jesus has been counted worthy of more glory than Moses—as much more glory as the builder of a house has more honor than the house itself. (For every house is built by someone, but the builder of all things is God.) Now Moses was faithful in all God’s house as a servant, to testify to the things that were to be spoken later, but Christ is faithful over God’s house as a son. And we are his house if indeed we hold fast our confidence and our boasting in our hope.
Another likely response from someone leaving Christianity to return to Judaism, and this is a big one, would be, Jesus can’t offer a sacrifice for me, He was from the tribe of Judah. He would have to be from the tribe of Levi to offer sacrifices to God. And beside that, God swore to Abraham, He made a Covenant by an oath with him. Jesus was not from Aaron’s descendents, God doesn’t make a clear oath to Jesus. Therefore there can be no new covenant under Jesus. The author recognizes this problem specifically in Hebrews 7, but actually deals with all the details (theological and practical from the end of Hebrews 4 through Hebrews 9).
Here are some key verses in regards to this likely challenge.
For the one of whom these things are spoken belonged to another tribe, from which no one has ever served at the altar. For it is evident that our Lord was descended from Judah, and in connection with that tribe Moses said nothing about priests.
And it was not without an oath. For those who formerly became priests were made such without an oath, but this one was made a priest with an oath by the one who said to him: “The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind, You are a priest forever.’” This makes Jesus the guarantor of a better covenant.
In short, no Jesus was not a Levitical Priest, but He was a Priest, a High Priest, from a greater order. And He became a priest by an oath, and so there is a covenant in play here. All the things an educated Jew might say are answered.
In Hebrews 11,12 the author returns to the 2 major theological under-currents of the letter. First, he turns to Faith and Gospel Endurance in verses 1 and 2 from chapter 12. They show us the way of endurance in the Gospel after giving us some great examples over the entire chapter of Hebrews 11.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.
Finally, the author ends where he begins, with the glory and authority of the Messenger and message of the New Covenant. Let’s end with a lengthy passage from Hebrews 12.
For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest and the sound of a trumpet and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them. For they could not endure the order that was given, “If even a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned.” Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I tremble with fear.” But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.
See that you do not refuse him who is speaking. For if they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven. At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.”
Both the blood of Abel and the Law of Moses call for vengance …………for justice to be carried out upon sin and sinners. Abel’s blood cried from the ground for Cain’s judgment. Moses Law calls for death for those who break it. The blood of Jesus Christ cries out for forgiveness, for mercy. The blood of Jesus indeed speaks better things. But we cannot think that a casual engagement with the truth of Jesus Christ, a mere mental acknowledgment of His Gospel is what is required of us. God invites us by faith to enter His Presence, to come fully and completely to Mount Zion (where God dwells), to give our entire life to His worship and service. The scary fact is is that a casual engagement of the Gospel without our surrendering our whole life to it is tantamount to hearing the Truth of Zion and then returning to Sinai. Just going back to live as it was before we heard the Word of Truth. It is to reject Him (Jesus) who warned from heaven. I encourage you, no I invite you, no, I warn you as the author of Hebrews does, to not “reject him who warns from heaven“. Receive the mercy of God, but understand it doesn’t come to you on your terms, but on the terms of an oath sworn by God the Father, a better covenant, made upon much better promises.