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The challenge of Hebrews

August 2003 | by Michael Austin

It is unthinkable for the people of Christ to go back into Judaism (or any other religious system for that matter). Going back is a journey to darkness, a stumbling into that which is ‘obsolete – ageing, soon to disappear’ (Hebrews 8:13).

It is like one who awakes to the sunrise, blinks at the brightness and retreats into sleep. With roots deep in the Jewish faith, it seems that these Hebrew Christians felt a bewitching nostalgia for their old familiar refuge.

In response, the writer to the Hebrews reveals the heart of a true shepherd. He warns in love. He explains the folly of their thinking and the danger they face: ‘my feet had almost slipped: I had nearly lost my foothold’ (Psalm 73:3).

Those who hear in his admonitions the voice of the Good Shepherd will accept rebuke with joyful gratitude. Christ himself is now the only refuge. The new way grows out of the old, but Christ cannot be contained within the former scheme.

Those sad individuals who may have gone back, irretrievably, would find a sociological refuge, but no eternal rest. They demonstrate that they never really belonged to Christ.

‘But’, urges the writer, ‘we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who believe and are saved’ (10:39).

By faith

The writer then presents to them their own Old Testament heroes (Hebrews 11). Heroes? They were ordinary people who, by faith, lived extraordinary lives for God. The refrain has an insistent quality – ‘by faith … by faith …’

The words are taken from his quotation of Habakkuk 2:3: ‘But my righteous one will live by faith’ (10:38). Faith is indispensable. ‘Without faith it is impossible to please God’ (11:6).

Faith in Hebrews is always described in terms of its outworking. That is the essence of faith – it lives! ‘All these were living by faith when they died’ (11:13).

Now that really is the perseverance of the saints! It would be hard to find a better definition of perseverance.

Faith is sure; it works (Noah builds). It welcomes things promised afar; it reasons and worships; it is not afraid; it refuses this world’s honour and chooses ill-treatment with God’s people.

Faith sees him who is invisible; conquers kingdoms; gains what was promised, and turns weakness into strength. Such challenging testimony from the word of God was inescapable. The Hebrew Christians who were beginning to feel ostracised are now ‘surrounded by such a cloud of witnesses’ (12:1).

Hindrances discarded

Instead of retreating, they must now throw off all hindrances and the sin that too easily ensnares them.

They must ‘run with perseverance’, fixing their ‘eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God’ (12:1-2).

God makes a double promise: ‘Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you’ (13:5). The cause of all assurance, and the bedrock of the new covenant’s stability, is ‘Jesus Christ the same yesterday and today and forever’ (13:8).

He understands

Another way the wavering Jewish Christians are helped is by the emphasis on the high priestly ministry of Christ. This truth is greatly relevant to their present experience.

Nowhere else in the New Testament is the real human nature and experience of Jesus linked to his priestly character and applied to the temptations and trials of his people.

Even his human name ‘Jesus’ is used extensively. He has agonised in prayer – ‘During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death’ (5:7).

As Jesus approached death he suffered agonies of mind and spirit that plunged him into uncharted depths. He has gone where none of his people will ever go. He understands cruel rejection, ‘having endured such opposition from sinful men’ (12:3).

And, ‘Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted’ (2:18). In his ascended glory, Jesus has become the approachable high priest, showing tender compassion towards the temptations and burdens of his drifting people (4:14-16).

Christ knows ‘first hand’ what they are going through. Here is strength for the discouraged to persevere.

Deity and humanity

The true and sinless humanity of Jesus is never divorced from his deity. He is not part man and part God. He is the unique Son of God, truly man and fully God in the unity of one person.

Christ is eternally the God-man, possessing full knowledge of his own human trials, rejection and death itself. He is near to the afflicted and understands the troubled mind – ‘Such a high priest meets our need’ (7:26).

He is so ideally suitable to meet our need that no one should look elsewhere for solace, or go anywhere else to find God. He is only found in Christ.

All he is, is available for all that I am! His forgiving love for my failure; his strength for my weakness; his wisdom for my folly; his peace for my turmoil. His fulness for my spiritual poverty!

Who would not be encouraged by the all-sufficiency of Christ?

Paradox

Yet, paradoxically, these early Christians were drifting from the one they needed most. This powerful appeal of a sympathising, all-sufficient Christ, would move them to endure hardship – and do so joyfully.

The same truths apply to Christian living today. Many suffer for their faith, some to the point of death. How precious to the troubled soul to have a sympathetic Christ so near! One able to enter into our weary emotions and give us hope. He understands.

So the demoralised Jewish Christians are called again to view the glory of Christ and ‘the promised eternal inheritance’ (9:15). To contemplate an astonishing marvel and climax – namely, that they had ‘come to the city of the living God – to Jesus the mediator of the new covenant – and to the sprinkled blood that speaks better things than that of Abel’ (12:23-24).

‘You have come!’ How could they possibly think of going back? Christ’s church cannot exist within the old wineskin of Judaism. Life in Christ brings a sharp severance.

‘Let us then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore. For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come’ (13:13-14).

Still valid

Modern thinking that there has been religious development beyond the new covenant has either missed or ignored its central glory – the Lord Jesus Christ himself.

The new covenant has been issued in its final form. It is eternally binding, ratified by the blood of the Son of God. He, having secured an ‘eternal redemption’ (9:12), promises an ‘eternal inheritance’ (9:15), guaranteed under the terms of the ‘eternal covenant’ (13:20).

In Hebrews we also meet the strong protests of the jealous God, who is intolerant of rivals with a holy intolerance.

This covenant has cost God the death of his Son. Here is a divine charter – not to betray but to trust and obey the Faithful One who will never forsake his redeemed people but will, with unbounded joy, bring them ‘to glory’ (2:10).

The new covenant is indeed the last will and testament of the Son of God.

Completed revelation

The twenty-seven books of the New Testament (together with the thirty-nine of the Old) constitute a divinely inspired revelation which is final and complete. God has spoken. There is nothing more to add. This is it!

This revelation of Christ and the good news of salvation are the heart of the new covenant. It is not one fine fruit, or even the choicest, in a cluster of world religions. It is God’s great way of escape from condemnation so terrible as to beggar description – ‘of judgement and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God’ (10:27).

Jesus actually reinforces the certainty and eternity of judgement – his foes ‘will go away to eternal punishment’ (Matthew 25:46).

A serious question is posed by Hebrews: ‘How shall we escape if we ignore such a great salvation?’ – a salvation provided by an active, powerful, and ever-present Saviour, a grace-filled, all-sufficient Christ! (2:3).

He is the God-man and our great High Priest. His salvation is the only way of escape from the greatest of all perils. No surprise, therefore, that it is called ‘such a great salvation’.

Be careful, with the utmost care, not to miss it. There will never be another.

The author is an elder of Tuam Evangelical Church, Galway.