January 14, 2023 - Hebrews Chapters 1-6

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Today and next time we’ll be taking a quick look at the book of Hebrews. In early 200’s, an early Christian scholar named Origen declared that “Only God knows who wrote Hebrews.” It is commonly assumed that Paul wrote this anonymous letter, which is why the letter was accepted into the early canon by those who believed that Paul did write it, and rejected by those who believed that it was not written by Paul. God’s word must come from either an apostle, or someone like Mark or Luke who had connections with the apostles. So was Paul the writer of Hebrews, or not?

Luther was the first to suggest that Hebrews was written by Apollos of Alexandria. We first meet Apollos in Acts 18:24. Apollos comes to Corinth after Paul, and is described as “an eloquent man, mighty in the Scriptures,” who preached accurately the facts about Jesus, but hadn’t heard that Jesus had come yet. Once Priscilla and Aquila set him straight, Apollos greatly helps the Corinthian church by proving from the Scriptures that Jesus was the Messiah.

I am convinced that Luther was correct. The author of Hebrews writes like an expert speaker from Alexandria. He uses the fanciest Greek in the NT, as fancy as Luke’s. He takes sentences and throws them into a blender (it takes work for the reader to put them back together). We know that Hebrews is not by Paul because Paul is a Calvinist, and the writer of Hebrews is a Wesleyan (as we will see). But most importantly, the writer of Hebrews puts Old and New Testaments together more clearly than any other source in the Bible. It would be much harder to put the 2 together without the book of Hebrews. Apollos may not have been an apostle, but if this is him, or whoever it was, his teaching was certainly apostolic. Apollos was teaching what the early church believed.

Hebrews was written shortly before 70 AD. The writer says that Timothy has just been released (probably jailed by Nero, but now Nero must be dead). It sounds like the Temple is still standing, judging from what the writer says about sacrifices, but he says they can see “that day” (the Day of Judgment) is approaching. (The Jewish War must have looked like the end of the world at the time.)

The author of Hebrews writes to Jewish Christians who are under tremendous pressure to renounce their faith and return to Judaism. Throughout this letter, our writer gives them powerful reasons not to cave in to that pressure. Hebrews begins not with words of greeting, but with strong words on how God once spoke through the prophets, but now at the end of days, God has spoken by a Son. The prophets gave us bits and pieces of God’s truth. But God’s final word has come, not through words on a page, but through a Son, a living, breathing embodiment of what God wants to say. We are told that this man has been appointed heir of all things. In legal terms, God’s last will and testament says that the entire estate belongs to Jesus. God will never die, of course, but whatever belongs to the Father belongs to the Son. God’s Son is also the One through whom God created the worlds (literally the “aeons”). We are told that this Son of God does not merely reflect, but (literally) “radiates” the glory of God. The prophets were like the pale reflection of the moon, but Jesus was like the sun shining at full strength.

The writer also tells us that Christ bears the very stamp of who God is. The word “stamp” used here is the Greek word “charactÄ“r”. It’s a word for the impression stamped by a seal on wax. When you look at the impression, you can see exactly what the seal looks like. Likewise, when we look at Jesus, we see exactly what the invisible God looks like. Jesus is an exact reproduction, a carbon copy of who God is. We are also told Jesus upholds all things by his word of power. God’s Son is no mere rabbi or great man we can choose to follow or not. He made purification for sins! He now sits next to the Majesty on high! He ranks as high as God. God’s Son commands our full attention.

Our writer says that God never talks to angels the way that God talks to his Son. In the last verse of chapter 1, he says that angels are merely ministering spirits. Angels are not resurrected humans, nor are they gods who could rival the one true God. A key verse for understanding this writer’s view of angels is Hebrews 2:7, where he quotes Psalm 8 and says that God has made humans “a little lower than the angels.”

Because Jesus ranks much higher than the angels, our writer says at the beginning of chapter 2, “Therefore we must pay greater attention to the things we have heard, lest we should drift away. For if the word spoken by angels was valid, and every transgression and disobedience received a just reward, how shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation?” That’s a warning to believers who are tempted to go back to Judaism: don’t do it!

Following Jesus has become hard at this point in the aftermath of Nero. That’s why our writer goes on in the second half of Hebrews 2 to remind his audience that God made Jesus, the pioneer of their salvation, perfect through suffering. In verse 14, he says that Jesus partook of flesh and blood “so that through death he might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver them who through fear of death were all their life subject to bondage.”

The writer goes on in Hebrews 2:17 to say, “Wherefore it behooved him to be made like his brethren in all things, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make atonement for the sins of the people. For because he himself has suffered and was tempted, he is able to help those who are tempted.” We find this theme echoed in chapter 4. Jesus can help you in your trying times, because he has suffered to the max for you, in the flesh like you. Why should we be surprised that Jesus was made like us? Because he did not start out like us! Christ’s incarnation was a totally unprecedented move by God.

Moving into Hebrews 3, our writer argues that Jesus “was counted worthy of as much more glory than Moses, as the builder of a house has more honor than the house. For every house is built by someone, but the builder of all things is God.” Moses, he says, was faithful as a servant, but Christ was faithful as a Son. And we have “become partners in Christ,” if we just hold onto our confidence in him and don’t let go. Why go back to Moses, when we have Christ?

Here in the middle of Hebrews 3, our writer warns his audience, “Do not harden your hearts,” like their ancestors did in the desert when they rebelled. Our writer reminds them that God was angry at that generation, and swore that those who rebelled “shall not enter my rest.” Our writer warns them in verse 12, “Take heed, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief in departing from the living God.” That’s the danger at this time: to go back to Moses is to be like the rebels in the desert. In verse 19, our writer argues that “they were unable to enter [the Promised Land] because of unbelief.”

Our writer is basing his teaching here on Psalm 95. In chapter 4, he warns, “Make sure that nobody misses out on God’s rest!” We who believe, he says, are the ones who have entered into that rest. Now, what kind of rest are we talking about? As we see in verse 8, if Joshua had given them rest, Psalm 95 would not be talking about another day, “Today, when you hear his voice.” So in the next 2 verses our writer concludes that “there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God” (it hasn’t happened yet). He argues that Psalm 95 is talking about a better Promised Land than Canaan. He says Psalm 95 is talking about salvation, eternal life with God that begins today and lasts forever. And that includes resting from their labors, as God did from his. No more trying to work your way to God through Moses or law of any kind!

In Hebrews 4:12, our writer warns his audience that God can see what’s going on in their hearts as they struggle with whether to keep following Jesus or go back to Moses. He says that God’s word is sharper than any two-edged sword. It penetrates where the scalpel can’t see, right down to “the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” Our writer goes on: “And before [God] no creature is hidden, but all are naked and exposed before the One with whom we have to do.” If we’re thinking of caving in to the pressure to walk away from Christ, God already knows.

That’s why our writer then reassures his audience that they have a great High Priest in heaven who is on their side in this struggle: Jesus, the Son of God. In Hebrews 4:15, our writer says, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses.” No, we have one who has been “tempted in all points like as we are, yet without sin.”

Jesus Christ is the High Priest who has been tempted in every way we are tempted, yet without sinning. He has walked in our shoes. Whatever pressures to sin we may face in life, Jesus Christ has been there before. Jesus is a Savior who can relate to our weakness. Yes, he is our great High Priest who mediates for us before the throne of God, but he’s also someone who has walked in our shoes. Whatever youe weakness, whatever your compelling desire, Jesus Christ understands from personal experience. He went through the same struggles we do, without sin. Christ alone can say, no matter what the temptation, “Been there. Didn’t do that.”

As a single man, Jesus had sexual desires of all kinds cross his mind. He understands how it feels! But Jesus refused to entertain or act on those desires. Jesus can help us with any kind of irresistible appetite we may be struggling with, whether it be alcohol, drugs, or food. Try trading places with Jesus for those 40 days of fasting in the desert!

Jesus knows by experience what it feels like to be tempted by power and success. Jesus was tempted to grab for the earthly glory of being a king. He could have had that! Jesus was offered a life of ease, a life of pleasure without pain: no cross, no hardship, no suffering of any kind. How many of us wouldn’t have grabbed for it? Jesus turned it down.

Jesus was tested to the limit by anger. Look at ’ cross. When was crucified, when he was trashed by his enemies, he didn’t scream for revenge. He didn’t cry, “I’ll sic my Dad on you!” He left his anger in the hands of God. can also relate to that very real human pressure to give up, pressure that may come from loneliness, physical pain, frustration, and/or violent opposition. was severely tempted to throw in the towel, by a Devil who did not want Jesus to succeed. knew the pain of loneliness. He was misunderstood, abandoned by his friends, and finally left hanging all alone on a cross, where for 1 moment he cried, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” knew the temptation to give up under fire, to surrender in the face of powerful opposition.

Jesus experienced the depths of physical pain. Who would want to trade places with a man who went through 39 lashes with a whip laced with shreds of bone, glass, and lead, and was then nailed to a cross, where he couldn’t breathe without leaning all his weight on those painful nail wounds? Who would trade places with a man who literally went to hell and back to suffer for the sins of a whole world?

Whatever pressure, whatever pain, whatever temptation you may be facing in your life, Jesus Christ knows how you feel! The writer of Hebrews is writing this to folks who had lost jobs, property, and freedom because of their faith in Jesus. They were severely tempted to call it quits. The writer of Hebrews gives them and us the same wonderful news: Jesus is a Savior who understands our weakness. He’s been through what we’re going through. And because this is true, Jesus can also help us in our struggle. He can wipe the slate clean for us when we fail. He can encourage us, by the very fact that where we are, he’s been there before, and he has won the victory.

Beginning in Hebrews 5, our writer begins to unpack how and why Jesus is our one and only High Priest, superior to any other such priest. Priests offer sacrifices for sins, including their own; they are weak like the sinners they represent. And they don’t grab the honor of priesthood for themselves, they are called by God. The same goes for Jesus. Now, Jesus was without sin, but we are told how Jesus prayed with loud cries and tears (sounds like what he did in Gethsemane). Our writer says Jesus learned obedience through what he suffered. And because Jesus passed the test of perfect obedience, he has become the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him, who hear him and follow. Being without sin, Christ alone can offer a sacrifice that permanently takes away our sin, because he is a new kind of priest, a Melchizedek type of priest.

Here our writer stops and says. “What I just said about Melchizedek is difficult to explain, and I’m not sure you’re ready to comprehend this. Your hearing is sluggish. By now you should all be teachers, but you still need someone to explain the basics. You’re still on milk, and not ready for solid food. Milk is for those who are unfamiliar with God’s word. Solid food is for the mature, for those whose senses (or powers of perception) have been trained by experience to distinguish good from evil. You want to stay at the elementary level, or do you want to go deeper?

Let’s go deeper, says our writer, as he moves into Hebrews 6. We don’t need to re-lay a foundation of basics like repentance from dead works (trying to earn our way to God by good deeds that can never save us). We don’t need to repeat ourselves on faith and baptism and the laying on of hands, or resurrection, or eternal judgment. We already know the basics.

Our writer goes on from here and declares that it is impossible to restore to repentance “those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted of the heavenly gift and become partakers of the Holy Ghost and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, if they fall away.” Ouch! Many of us (including me) believe that if a person is truly saved, they may try to run away, but they will never be lost. So what do we do with passages like this? Those who deliberately renounce their faith and know full well what they are doing are the most difficult to reclaim for Christ. The author of Hebrews goes so far as to use the word “impossible.” The author of Hebrews speaks of 3 other “impossibles” in this letter. He says it’s impossible for God to lie (6:18), it’s impossible for the blood of animals to take away sin (10:4), and it’s impossible to please God without faith (11:6). Sounds pretty impossible!

When we are told that it’s impossible to restore those who fall away from the faith, it’s not a matter of whether God will take them back. The real problem is the person’s ability to change their heart and turn around. It’s as if they’ve been immunized against the Christian faith. Reclaiming a soul who has rejected a Christ they once knew is like rehooking a fish that has thrown the hook – next to impossible, apart from a miracle of God.

The author goes on to say that when we walk away from Christ, when we repudiate all we once believed, we nail Christ to the cross all over again. He says we crucify the Son of God a second time and expose him to public contempt, to where people mock and ridicule and say, “Ha! So that’s all Christ can do! What a joke!” That’s the danger of going back to Moses.

But our writer is persuaded that his audience has a better future in store. God’s not going to forget all the good you’ve done. You’re not the kind to walk away or get sluggish. You’re the kind who through faith and patience under fire will inherit God’s promises.

Now our writer is ready to explain what exactly God has promised, why Jesus is a new kind of priest after the order of Melchizedek. This priesthood starts with an ironclad oath sworn by God that cannot be changed. Because God's got no one greater to swear by, God swears by himself. (Notice: God’s got no ancestors or predecessors, no other gods greater than he is.) That gives us a guarantee of salvation that is more secure and reliable than we had under the Aaronic priesthood, a salvation we dare not walk away from! It’s based on what Jesus did behind the veil of God’s Most Holy Place in heaven, which our writer will soon explain in chapter 8.

Our writer ends chapter 6 by stating that Jesus has become a High Priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek. The word “order” he uses means “classification.” God’s new kind of priest is like the Melchizedek we meet in Genesis 14, as our writer explains at the beginning of Hebrews 7. As we’ll see in chapter 7, Jesus turns out to be the one and only Melchizedek priest. Join us as we wrap up our study on Hebrews next time on Biblical Words and World!