by Rev. Julian Duckworth
The epistle to the Hebrews does not mention the author and while it has been attributed to Paul there are good reasons of style and language for believing it is not by him. It is believed to have been written to Jews who became Christian but during persecution, when many of them considered returning to Judaism. The epistle looks back to the people and events of the Jewish scriptures and history but puts forward the case that in Jesus Christ, the glory of God has been manifested as never before.
The epistle is written in exemplary Greek and is considered a masterpiece of writing. There are an unusually large number of references back to the Old Testament which is not surprising considering the readership to be Jews rather than Gentiles. The figure of Jesus Christ is presented as a pioneer and a forerunner, indicating that the life and work and accomplishment of Jesus looks towards a future event. Jesus is also presented as the Son and the High Priest ‘after the order of Melchizedek and this is supported by numerous references to the Old Testament, particularly the Psalms.
The picture of Jesus Christ as High Priest is seen to be to teach Jews that their traditional view of the Messiah was one who would come and militantly save the Jewish people from their oppressors whereas in fact Jesus came as a man without title and suffered persecution and death from those in power. Therefore Jesus’ divine purpose to make atonement for our sins is seen both in his Sonship to God and in Him being the High Priest but not as Aaron and the Levites but according to the order of Melchizedek. This is given extensive treatment in the centre of the epistle.
There are occasional references to Old Testament figures such as Moses, Joshua, Aaron and Abraham, and in chapter 11, the aspect of the crucial necessity for faith is supported by an entire catalogue of Old Testament persons and situations which were brought to their rightful conclusion by the faith of those who were involved.
The purpose of this exposition looking back to Old Testament events is to bring out that the person, work and accomplishment of Jesus Christ is always greater than any other because of His Sonship and High Priest identity.
Chapter 1 deals with the fact of Jesus Christ as the Son, “the heir of all things, the brightness of His glory, the express image of His person, upholding all things of the word of His power, when He had by Himself purged our sins, sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.” (1:2-3) This is followed by a series of quotes, mostly from the Psalms, supported the supremacy and divinity of Jesus Christ.
Chapter 2 deals with Jesus Christ having dominion over the world, using Psalm 8 to substantiate the teaching that “As much as the children have had flesh and blood, Jesus Christ likewise shared in the same that, through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage.” (2:14) and “In that He Himself has suffered, being tempted, He is able to aid those who are tempted.” (2:18)
Chapter 3 introduces the subject of Jesus Christ as the model of faithfulness. As Moses was faithful in all his house, so Jesus Christ was faithful to Him who appointed Him. This is enriched with the analogy of a builder of a house. “Every house is built by someone but He who built all things is God. Moses was faithful in all his house, but Jesus Christ as a Son over His own house, whose house we are if we hold fast the confidence and rejoicing of the hope firm to the end.” (3:4-6)
This moves on to the promise of entering His rest in chapter 4, “There remains then a rest for the people of God. For he who has entered His rest has himself also ceased from his works as God did from His. Let us therefore be diligent to enter that rest.” (4:9-11)
Chapters 5 to 8, the centre of the epistle, focus on Jesus Christ being our high priest eternally. This is expounded in 5:7-10 “In the days of His flesh, when He had offered up prayers and supplications, with vehement cries and tears to Him who was able to save Him from death, and was heard because of His godly fear, though He was a Son, yet He learned obedience by the thing which He suffered. And having been perfected, He became the author of eternal salvation to all who obey Him, called by God as High Priest according to the order of Melchizedek.”
Chapter 6 further develops the topic of faithfulness since God is faithful. Chapter 7 develops the figure of Melchizedek, priest of Salem, represents and manifests the picture of Jesus Christ who has an unchangeable priesthood. (6:24) High Priests offer sacrifices daily but He did this once for all when He offered up Himself. Chapter 8 presents the two ideas of us now having a New Priest who has a more excellent ministry, as He is the Mediator of a better covenant. Jeremiah 31:31-34 is referred to about the new covenant.
Chapter 9 is devoted to the Tabernacle with its Holy of Holies being unmanifest and entered into once a year by the high priest. But Jesus Christ came as the High Priest of the good things to come, with His own blood He entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption.
Chapter 10 brings out emphatically how we are justified by faith through the great sacrifice which Jesus Christ made, “for by one offering He has perfected forever those who are being sanctified.” (v14) This incontrovertible point is balanced to some degree later in, “Let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, for if we sin wilfully after we have received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins but a certain fearful expectation of judgment.” (vv24, 26-27). This is followed by an impassioned statement of the extent of punishment thought worthy for one who trampled the Son of God underfoot, counted the blood of the covenant a common thing, and insulted the spirit of grace.
Chapter 11 presents the catalogue of Biblical figures who were faithful to God and who by their faith acted in the right way in which they did. This ends with the point that all these acted in faith with no promise given to them, for God had provided something better for us, so that they should not be made perfect apart from us. (vv39-40)
The last two chapters, 12 and 13, are devoted to understanding and maintaining spiritual life, involving us in looking to Jesus, enduring being chastened, strengthening the hands and the feeble knees, making straight paths for our feet, and pursuing peace with all people, and holiness, without which no one will see the Lord. The final chapter gives directions for continuing, beginning with “Let brotherly love continue” and “Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by doing so some have unwittingly entertained angels.” (vv1-2) And the memorable words of verse 8 “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.”