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The challenge of Hebrews

July 2003 | by Michael Austin

The Epistle to the Hebrews is full of Christ. Wonderfully rich ‘portraits’ set him forth as the Son of God and also as the great high priest. Moreover, this revelation of Christ is never theoretical, but comes with challenging applications to his people.

Severe jolt

But first, stand back and consider how the revelation of Jesus as the eternal Son caused such a severe jolt to first-century Jews, who believed fervently in one living creator-God.

How could a man have not just a unique relationship with God, but also be fully divine himself?

When Jesus claimed, ‘before Abraham was, I AM’ (John 8:58), the Jews sought to stone him for blasphemy. Their zeal for Israel’s faith seemed impeccable. Did not Scripture declare: ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one’ (Deuteronomy 6:4)? Yet in reality they were making an enormous mistake!

Soon after his resurrection, the Lord Jesus showed Thomas the wounds in his hands and side. In wonder and worship, the doubting disciple cried, ‘My Lord and my God!’ (John 20:28).

A few weeks later, Peter declared: ‘God has made this same Jesus whom you crucified both Lord and Christ’ (Acts 2:36).

What a transformation! The early Christians had their blind eyes opened – Jesus was fully man, but equally was without sin and fully divine.

Foundation of faith

Come now to the letter to ‘the Hebrews’ – people whose early certainty about Jesus has waned. Some of them are drifting spiritually. How does the writer approach this problem?

First, he outlines the exalted person of the Lord Jesus. Then he reminds them how the majestic truths concerning his redeeming work are both final, and rooted in the Old Testament.

He aims to settle them again on the foundation of faith in Christ, reminding them that God has given his final revelation ‘by his Son’. Co-equal with the Father and ‘heir of all things’, the worlds were created through him (1:1-2).

One with the Father, he displays God’s radiant glory. All-powerful, he upholds all things by his word of command. Dying as both God and man, Jesus made a sacrificial cleansing for our sin. Rising from the dead, and ascending, he sat down to reign at God’s right hand (1:2-3).

The Son of God is so superior to angels that, even though they inhabit heaven itself, God says, ‘Let all God’s angels worship him'(1:6). Without contradiction, to worship the Son is to worship the Father.

The Son is called both ‘God’ and ‘Lord’ – ‘Your throne, O God, will last for ever and ever’ and ‘In the beginning, O Lord, you laid the foundation of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands’ (1:8, 10).

The Old Testament teaches the deity of ‘Jesus the Son of God’ with sufficient clarity for waverers to be reassured (4:14).

Our great high priest

Christ is then described as the great high priest and mediator of the new covenant. His work as creator requires deity, but to be high priest and mediator he must also possess sinless humanity.

Old covenant priests were called to be gentle in dealing with the failures of people, bringing gifts and sacrifices for their sins. The high priest alone entered the inner sanctuary once a year, and never without the blood of sacrifice.

Priestly office passed to the sons of Aaron, of the tribe of Levi, creating the ‘Levitical priesthood’ (7:1). But Christ is not descended from Levi. Is there, then, another line?

Yes, indeed. The old way has been set aside and Christ, now raised from death, inherits a never-ending priesthood from another line of priest-king. For God had pledged to make David’s Lord ‘a priest forever in the order of Melchizedek’ (7:17; Psalm 110).

Finally the old regulations, ‘weak and useless’ as they were, give way to a ‘better hope’ and a ‘better covenant’ (7:18, 22).

Jesus himself certifies that its promises are effective and trustworthy. Through his eternal priesthood he ‘is able to save for ever those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them’ (7:24-25).

None but Christ!

The words of the divine oath – ‘You are a priest for ever’ – apply exclusively to Christ (7:21). No other may obtain his office!

A Levitical priest’s work was terminated by death, but now ‘we have a great high priest, who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God’ (4:14).

He did not enter man-made sanctuaries but ‘heaven itself [the ultimate sanctuary] now to appear for us in God’s presence’ (9:24). Having entered ‘by his own blood’ (9:12) he became the one eternal high priest.

Now we have a high priest ‘who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need’ (4:15-16).

What encouragement! How rich are the benefits and inheritance Christians possess. We have him!

Mediator of the new covenant

Hebrews also shows us that ‘Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance’ (9:15).

Sin has caused a deep rift between the holy God and sinful man. Man cannot repair the broken relationship, for he is sin-corrupted, ruined and condemned. He has no basis for a successful case in heaven’s court, and desperately needs a mediator.

Jesus, the Son of God and mediator of the new covenant, has crossed from heaven to our side of the rift. As man he ‘suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone’ (2:9).

The old sacrifices lacked saving or redemptive power. They were types and shadows, pointing forward to Christ. ‘But now he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself’ (9:26).

No sacrifice for sin avails except the ‘once for all’ death of the Lord Jesus Christ. Now Christ, in resurrection power, delivers all ‘who come to God through him’ from the awful penalty of sin (7:25).

The death of Christ was the divine rescue mission. It made the way back to God. The rescue is so powerful and effective, it is called ‘such a great salvation’ (2:3).

The new covenant, sealed by the blood of Jesus, remains in force today. In its completed finality, the perfection of Christ’s sacrifice is joined to his risen power and ascended glory – ‘to save completely those who come to God through him’ (7:25).

Under pressure

Thus Hebrews reveals Christ in unparalleled glory as the Son of God, and the high priest of the new covenant. But what do we know about the people to whom the letter was written?

Based on the history of the period, I suggest the people were Jewish Christians, perhaps living in Rome. The year is around A.D. 63. Persecution seems imminent. There is pressure to ‘shrink back’ (10:39) under the cover of Judaism.

The faith of their fathers offered time-honoured worship and strong traditions. It was focused on their national identity, synagogue worship and devoted family ties. Judaism had legal standing in the Roman Empire but Christianity was still an illicit cult.

This created a strong pull on the minds of these bewildered people, who had been ‘slow to learn’ (5:11).

How would you react? Hebrews gives both great encouragement and dire warnings, both set in the frame of an awesome finality. Christ himself is the apex of God’s revelation for this world.

The danger of going backwards

To accept God’s mercy through Christ is to enter life. How could anyone turn away from grace and mercy? Yet some of the Jewish believers were considering exactly that.

Not in such deliberate terms. Perhaps they were seeking the soft option. ‘We can still worship Jesus as Lord back in the synagogue. We would escape persecution and expand our trading missions through the old network. Under the current political circumstances this seems the best solution.’

The author of Hebrews disagrees! He shows his readers the logical conclusion of their thinking – they are contemplating apostasy. The warning lights of love begin to flash.

If they follow this route they leave the narrow way and revert to the broad road which leads to destruction. A rejection of God’s law under the old covenant was dealt with severely – ‘anyone who rejected the law of Moses died without mercy’ (10:28). A grim reminder from the past.

Now, argues the writer, ‘how much more severely do you think a man deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God underfoot?’ (10:29). The prophets had foretold the coming Redeemer. The day has dawned, and by his death Jesus ‘became the source of eternal redemption for all who obey him’ (5:8-9).

To reject the glories of new covenant redemption and grace was an appalling prospect.

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