THE LETTER TO THE HEBREWS
(Written from Italy)
Jerusalem at the time of Christ
THEME OF HEBREWS
Hebrews explains how Christ's heavenly priesthood and covenant, are superior to the Levitical earthly priesthood and covenant.
The Apostle Paul had spent years travelling around Asia Minor and surrounds, establishing churches as far as he went, but had not been to Rome yet. Since Rome was so far removed from the other churches and no apostles stayed there, he longed to encourage the believers and make sure they stood firm in the gospel (Romans 1:9-13). But knowing he was not headed there because he was needed in Jerusalem, he wrote them a detailed letter instead. In it, Paul took care to lay out the foundations of the Christian faith. For this reason, Romans is Paul's longest letter and many consider it his most important one, hence it is placed in the Bible as the first of his letters.
Closely related to the theme of this letter is the subject of the New and Old Covenants. Therefore we offer a helpful discussion which will make the book of Hebrews even easier to understand.
SHORT-PHRASE OF HEBREWS
– The writers main argument, simplified –
We have taken each chapter of Hebrews and summarised the core message in a short-phrase (shortened paraphrase). That creates a condensed version of Paul's main train of thought. We suggest you go through this summary, before reading the full text through in your Bible.
In these last days, God has spoken to us through His Son, through whom He made the world, who He also appointed as the heir of all things. The Son is the brightness of His glory and the express image of His person, and upholds all things by the Word of His power. When He purged our sins He sat at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become so much better than the angles. For to which of the angels did God ever say, "You are my Son, today I have begotten You?" When Father brings Him into the world He commands the angels to worship Him. And again says to His Son, "Your throne O God is forever and ever. You have loved righteousness, therefore God, Your God, has anointed You." To which of the angels did God say, "Sit at My right hand?"
Therefore we must give earnest heed to the things we have heard. How shall we escape if we neglect this great salvation that even God bore witness to, through signs and wonders? For the world to come was not made subject to the angels but to Him, (though we do not see that yet). Now it was fitting for God to make the captain of man's salvation prefect through suffering. He took on Him the nature of men, that through death He could destroy the devil who had the power of death. Jesus tasted death for everyone and so released men from the fear of death. Therefore He had to be made like His brethren in all things, so that He might be a merciful and faithful High Priest, to make peace with God for men's sins. Since He was tempted, He is able to help those who are tempted.
Consider Jesus Christ, the Apostle and High Priest of our confession, who was faithful and counted worthy of more glory than Moses (who was also faithful). Therefore the Holy Spirit says, "Today if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts as your fathers did. Your fathers tested Me and always went astray, therefore I swore they would not enter My rest". Beware brothers that there not be any unbelief in you, that your hearts are not hardened by sin. We become partakers of Christ if we hold steadfast to the end. For to whom did God swear they would not enter His rest? It was those who did not obey because of unbelief.
Therefore it still remains that some must enter His rest, since those who first heard it disobeyed and did not enter. The gospel was preached to us and them, but it did not profit them because it was not mixed with faith. But we who have believed do enter that rest. For if Joshua had given them rest, why would God long afterward have spoken of another day when they could enter? There remains therefore a rest for the people of God. For he who has entered His rest has ceased from his own works. Let us then be diligent to enter, for the word of God is living and powerful and sharper than a two-edged sword, discerning the thoughts and intents of the heart. No creature is hidden from His sight, but all things are laid naked to His eyes. Seeing then that we have a High Priest who can sympathise with our weakness, having been tempted as we are, let us come boldly to the throne of grace, to find mercy and help in time of need.
Every high priest is taken from among men. Being subject to weakness, he can have compassion on those who are going astray. Therefore he offers sacrifices for the people and himself. And this honour is given to him by God. So also Christ was made High Priest by God, saying, "You are a Priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek". When Jesus offered prayers with vehement tears, He learned obedience by the things He suffered. Having been perfected He became the author of eternal salvation to all who obey Him.
This Melchizedek (king of righteousness and peace), and priest of the Most High God, met Abraham returning from the slaughter of the kings and blessed him. And Abraham gave him a tenth of the spoils. He was without father or mother, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but like the Son of God, remains a priest continually. Consider how great he was that even Abraham (and Levi in his lions) paid a tithe to him. Therefore if perfection came through the Levitical priesthood, why should another priest rise up according to the order of Melchizedek? Since the priesthood changed, there also had to be a change of law. Even more so since Jesus has come – not according to the fleshly commandment – but according to the power of an endless life. The former command is annulled because of its weakness, having made nothing perfect, bringing in a better hope through which we can draw near to God. Therefore Jesus has become surety of a better covenant, also because He continues forever in an unchangeable priesthood. He is holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners and higher than the heavens, who died once for all when He offered Himself up, and is perfected forever.
Here is our main point: We have a High Priest seated at the right hand of the throne in heaven, ministering in the true tabernacle which God made. Earthly priests serve in a copy of the heavenly tabernacle (made according to the instructions Moses was given). So Jesus is mediator of a better covenant, established on better promises. If the first covenant was faultless, no place would have been sought for the second. For God promised to make a New Covenant, and so has made the first one obsolete. Now the first is ready to vanish away.
Now the Levitical high priest went into the Holiest of All once a year, with blood for himself and the people's sins. By this the Holy Spirit indicated that the way into the Holiest of All was not made manifest while the first tabernacle stood. It was symbolic for this present time of reformation. Christ came as High Priest of the good things to come, with the greater and more perfect tabernacle, and with His own blood, having attained eternal redemption. For this reason He is mediator of the New Covenant, by means of death, to redeem the transgressions under the first covenant, that those who are called may receive an eternal inheritance. For where there is a testament, there must also be the death of the testator. So now at the end of the ages, Jesus has appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself, offered once to bear the sins of many.
For the law of Moses can never make those who approach perfect, for it is not possible that the blood of bulls and goats could take away sins. Therefore He came into the world to sacrifice Himself, saying "Behold, I have come to do Your will, O God". He takes away the first to establish the second. We have been sanctified and perfected forever, through the offering of Jesus Christ, once for all. Therefore we have boldness to enter the Holies by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way, through the veil that is His flesh. Let us draw near with full assurance of faith, for He who promised is faithful. But if we sin wilfully after we receive the knowledge of the truth, of how much punishment will we be worthy, seeing we have trampled the Son of God underfoot, counted His blood a common thing, and insulted the Spirit of grace? "Vengeance is Mine," says the Lord. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. Therefore, do not cast away your confidence, which has great reward. You need endurance so that after you have done God's will, you may receive the promise.
Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen. By faith we understand that the world was formed by the word of God. By faith Enoch was taken away so that he did not see death. Without faith it is impossible to please God. For he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him. By faith Noah prepared an ark. By faith Abraham went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith Sarah received strength to conceive seed. These all died in faith, having seen the promises from afar off, embraced them and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on earth. They desired a heavenly country, therefore God is not ashamed of them and has prepared a city for them. Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Rahab, Gideon, Samson, David, Samuel and the prophets, all obtained a good testimony through faith.
Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses let us lay aside ever weight and the sin that so easily ensnares us, and run this race with endurance. Looking to Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith. Who for the joy set before Him endured the cross. Consider Him lest you become weary and discouraged, for who the Lord loves, He chastens. Now this does not seem joyful at this time, but afterwards it will reveal the fruit of righteousness. For you have not come to Mount Sinai, burning with fire such that Moses was terrified, but to Mount Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem, to God the judge of all and to Jesus, the Mediator of a new covenant. If they did not escape when they refused Him, how much more will we not escape if we turn away from Him who speaks from heaven? For our God is a consuming fire.
We have many known references, quotes and endorsements of the letter to the Romans from the earliest days of the church. These include: Clement of Rome (95-97AD), Polycarp (110-150AD), the Didache (120-150AD), Justin Martyr (150-155AD), Tertullian (150-220AD), and Origen (185-254AD), Irenaeus (130-202AD), Clement of Alexandria (150-215AD), Cyril of Jerusalem (315-386AD), Eusebius (325-340AD), Jerome (340-420AD), and many others. Even the Dead Sea scroll findings, dating back to 68AD, contain a fragment from a commentary on the letter to the Romans, showing that it was in wide circulation amongst the churches by then already.