Instruction to Jewish believers
From a leader in the early church
This letter is addressed to Christian believers of Jewish descent in the last half of the first century A.D. Possibly the original audience lived in Rome, since it was written by an unknown leader residing in Italy.
For years it was thought that Paul wrote it, but the letter lacks his typical letter-writing features. Still, the themes of the letter, its style, and the reference to Timothy (13:23) suggest that Hebrews comes from somewhere within Paul’s circle of friends and coworkers.
Because of its tone and structure, some have wondered whether this magnificent epistle may have originally been a sermon that was written down and later circulated as a letter. As Origen said, only God knows who wrote it.
The New Covenant
The Jewish Christians faced severe persecution, so severe that some were ready to abandon the faith. The frequent warnings that punctuate the letter indicate that the danger of drifting away is real and imminent.
So the author pulls out every argument he can think of to persuade them not to drift away from Jesus. Throughout the letter, he compares the person and work of Jesus to the institutions of the Jewish faith. It may well be that those who are in danger of walking away from faith in Him are going back to their Jewish roots.
While it is clear that the writer has appreciation for the Hebrew prophets, the mediation of heavenly messengers, Moses, Joshua, the priesthood, and the temple, he argues that in every way the new covenant brought by Jesus is better than, more than, greater than the old covenant.
Jesus is the final, full, definitive revelation of GOD
Throughout the letter, the author appeals to Scripture itself to demonstrate how Jesus fulfills the Old Testament promises. At the heart of the letter, he presents Jesus as the Great High Priest, offering Himself as the perfect sacrifice once and for all.
Although Jesus’ death as a sacrifice is discussed in other New Testament writings, it is central in Hebrews. Further, according to this author, all the earlier promises of God are concentrated in His person and work, particularly in His work on the cross.
Jeremiah prophesies that God will one day establish a new covenant, creating a permanent relationship with people of faith and erasing completely the guilt of their sins. As a fulfillment of the earlier promises, God’s work in reconciling the world through Him is not a temporary measure because Jesus is the final, full, definitive revelation of God.
Most images of angels are influenced by art and pop culture — and are far removed from the Bible. The word “angel” literally means “messenger,” and it can refer to either a human being or a heavenly being.
The Hebrews author is writing about heavenly messengers. In the Bible, heavenly messengers have several functions — executors of God’s judgment, guardians of God’s people, heralds of God’s plans.
They appear at critical moments to chosen people who play important roles in God’s salvation, such as arriving to announce the birth and resurrection of Jesus and to transmit God’s law to Moses.
They are no more than messengers, created beings, who serve the will of God and His Son. Recognizing their place, they bow before the Son in loving adoration.
For the first-century Jewish-Christian audience, Moses is the rescuer of Hebrew slaves out of bondage in Egypt — the receiver of God’s law and the covenant. They remember how he shepherded the children of Israel safely through the desert for 40 years and led them to the brink of the promised land.
He was indeed a remarkable man. Yet what Jesus has accomplished for everyone — not just the Jews — is on a totally different level. Moses was indeed faithful to God and accomplished a great deal as God’s servant. Jesus, too, is faithful to God, but He has accomplished what Moses could not because He is God’s very own Son.
There is much discussion of “rest” in what we are calling the First Testament of Scripture. God rests on the seventh day after creation. In the Ten Commandments God commands His people to remember the Sabbath day, keep it holy, and do no work. By letting go of daily work, they declared their absolute dependence on God to meet their needs.
We do not live by the work of our hands, but by the bread and Word that God supplies. But a greater rest is yet to come when we will be released from all suffering, and when we will inherit the earth.
Jesus embodies this greater rest that still awaits the people of God, a people fashioned through obedience and faith. If some of us fail to enter that rest, it is because we fail to answer the call.
Jesus is the Great High Priest because He serves as the ultimate mediator between God and humanity. In this role He serves as both the priest and the sacrifice that atones for sins once and for all. But we are still called to be priests for each other.
These are not mutually exclusive ideas. Whenever you share a cup of cold water in Jesus’ name or pray for someone, you’re a priest. You’re communicating the grace of God. There are times that we need a priest, too, right?
If we are to be like Him, we must allow someone else to be a priest for us. There are problems so great and pains so deep and sins so intractable that we need a person of flesh and blood to join us in carrying our concerns to God.
It’s clear that Jesus wanted His people to grow and mature in faith. Those who don’t move beyond the basics — tasting the gifts and powers of the new creation, partaking in the Spirit and the word of God — and then fall away bring shame to Jesus and produce nothing but briars and brambles.
There is no stagnant life in the Kingdom. Either you grow and produce a blessing or you languish and descend into a curse. Be warned.
Melchizedek is perhaps one of the most mysterious figures in Scripture. He appears for the first time in Genesis 14:17-20 as Abraham returns from battle against Chedorlaomer and his allies. The name “Melchizedek” shows up again in Psalm 110, a song of David that is widely used to celebrate the coronation of the Davidic kings in Jerusalem.
When God installs His king upon the throne of Jerusalem, He promises to vanquish his enemies and establish him as an eternal priest according to the honored order of Melchizedek. But who was Melchizedek?
Here Jesus is often referred to as “a priest forever in the order of Melchizedek.” This mysterious Melchizedek, king of righteousness and peace, is a precursor to the Prince of Peace. In his brief appearances in Genesis and in Psalm 110, he opens a window into the mystery of God and His plan to redeem the world.
The tradition about Melchizedek helps the early church understand Jesus’ role as priest and king even if He doesn’t seem to fit the traditional categories.
Jeremiah is known as the prophet of the new covenant. Hundreds of years before the birth of Jesus, Jeremiah heard the voice of God and saw what God had planned: a new day. A new law inscribed in the mind and written on the heart.
A new and abiding knowledge of God. A new covenant where mercy runs deep and sins are forgiven and forgotten. This hope of a new heart is found even in the midst of the Mosaic Covenant. Moses foretells the unfaithfulness of the people and also tells them of God’s promise to restore their hearts (Deuteronomy 30:1–10).
In chapter 9 we are reminded that what is most real, what is most true, is the unseen reality. The writer tells us that the temple in Jerusalem, the holiest place on earth, was merely a copy or shadow of another place, the heavenly temple.
Whatever took place in this shadowy temple could not change the realities of alienation from God, sin, and death. Every year on the Day of Atonement, the high priest would don his priestly garb and enter the most holy place in the temple.
His task was profound, his duty dangerous: he must appear before God carrying the sins of his people. All the sins of Israel were concentrated in him as he carried the blood of the sacrifice into the divine presence.
But there was another day, a Day of Atonement unlike any other, when Jesus concentrated in Himself the sins of the world, hanging on a cross not far from the temple’s holiest chamber.
Indeed, for a time, He became sin (2 Corinthians 5:21). But unlike the high priest, the crucified and risen Jesus entered the true temple of heaven and was ushered into the divine presence. At that moment, everything changed.
The word translated “church” in English Bibles means literally “assembly of the called”; it implies that members have said “yes” to God’s call in their lives. We assemble because we are called into being by God Himself.
Some people, for reasons only they know, choose to live their Christian faiths in isolation. When they do, they cut themselves off from the gifts, encouragement, and vitality of others. And perhaps, just as tragically, they deprive the church of the grace and life God has invested in them.
Stories of faith and faithfulness are central to the First Testament. The writer of Hebrews recalls some of the most memorable examples of how people of faith lived their lives. But what is faith? Faith is more than belief; it is trust, assurance, and firm conviction.
Ironically most of those who lived by faith never fully realized the promises God had made. Like us they journeyed as strangers and exiles, longing for another country. We should remember their patient faith when we face prolonged hardships and allow the trials we face to strengthen our faith rather than destroy it.
If we are comfortable here and don’t face suffering for our faith, perhaps we aren’t fully living by faith and looking forward to a future hope.
The Bible is a brutally honest book. It contains stories of liars, murderers, and adulterers; and these are the good guys. If we read the Bible looking only for positive role models, we’ll be quickly disappointed.
But if we are honest with ourselves and confess our own faults, we will find in Scripture, particularly in the First Testament, that we have much in common with many broken saints of the past.
But we must not stay broken. We must follow their path to transformation through repentance and faith. Repentance means a change of heart, a change of mind, and ultimately a change of how we live. God’s grace comes to us and enables us to turn away from sin and to turn back to Him.
If we are honest, we have to admit that coming to Jesus and entering into His church ruins us — at least as far as this world is concerned. If we identify with Him in His suffering and rejection, we become a reproachful irritation to the powers that rule this culture.
If we ever felt at home in this world — if we ever sensed that we belonged — then we would wake up one day to discover that we will never be at home again until we enter the city of God. By entering through Jesus, we become citizens of another city, subjects of another king. As long as we are here, we should live as resident aliens longing to go home.