'Hebrews is without a doubt the crown of the whole Bible. All its great lines of revealed truth flow into and converge here.' (Alec Motyer).
A stunning statement perhaps, but anybody who has spent time studying the book of Hebrews would surely agree. It is particularly significant coming from Alec Motyer, a man who understood perhaps the greatest Old Testament book, Isaiah, so well. However, for him even the poetic prophecy of Isaiah was no match for Hebrews. Within the New Testament, while Romans overcomes you with logical rigidity, Hebrews sweeps you off your feet with beautiful majesty. It is the crown of the whole Bible.
However, a crown can be both an attractive and an intimidating object. Last year Sarah and I finally got round to visiting the Tower of London, which contains the crown jewels. The pinnacle of that great collection is St Edward’s crown. Such is its importance that it is placed on the head of the king or queen at the moment of their coronation and then removed before they leave the Abbey, not to be used again until the next coronation. It was certainly attractive, studded with beautiful jewels worth millions of pounds. However, I was also intimidated. While I was more than glad to gaze at this stunning piece of jewellery and history from behind protective glass, I would have been less keen to handle it myself. It’s worth and importance is so intimidating, that I wouldn’t want the responsibility of holding it in my own hands.
Unfortunately such an approach is often taken to the book of Hebrews. We are happy to gaze at the book through the protective glass, cherry picking a few verses and passages out of it to use regularly even. However, we dare not try to handle it all, to wrestle with the more difficult passages and try to comprehend it as a whole. To do so is a daunting task.
It is daunting because so much is uncertain. Who wrote the book of Hebrews? Who was the book written to? When was the book written? While I believe we can make good guesses at all these questions, ultimately the answers remain uncertain. As the church father Origin said about the authorship, ultimately only God knows. Not only is so much uncertain, but a large part of the book is unfamiliar to us. The book leans heavily on the Old Testament, that part of the Bible that we are embarrassingly unfamiliar with. If we do not understand the duties of the high priest of Israel, we may struggle to understand how they point to Christ, as the book of Hebrews so clearly tells us they do. And perhaps above all else, there is that appearance of the person of Melchizedek – a character that sounds more like a trick question in a Bible quiz than a type of the Messiah to come. Finally, and perhaps most significantly, at times Hebrews can be deeply unsettling. Surely above all else it is the warning passages of Hebrews that turns us away from the book. The difficulties these passages seem to pose ensures many steer well clear. We may gaze through the glass, but we would rather not have it in our own hands.
Despite all of this, I believe that if we understand how to handle the book with care, we will be able to gaze at it up close in our own hands rather than through the glass from a safe distance. I believe this is desperately needed as, while it is uncertain, unfamiliar and at times unsettling, as a book Hebrews is unsurpassed in showing us the glory of our Saviour.
1. The Character of Hebrews
Wherever we are in Hebrews, we must remember that we are reading a sermon and not a letter. That’s why the author calls it a ‘word of exhortation’ (Hebrews 13:22). It may have been a sermon written down, to be sent to the recipients and then read aloud, but it lacks any of the key features of a letter. That’s partly what leads to the uncertainty, for it has no greeting at the start to tell us the location of the recipients, the name of the author and the relationship between them. While the closing three verses act as a kind of conclusion, they are appended on to the book rather than bringing it to the close. The book is fundamentally different to the epistles of Paul for example, and we should remember that as we work through it.
Like every good sermon, Hebrews includes both exposition and exhortation. That is, it explains biblical texts, exposition, and applies them to the lives of the listeners, exhortation. The book swings freely between these two aspects, constantly moving from exposition to exhortation and back to exposition again. This is so evident that it has been described as oscillating between the two (O’Brien).
We can see this oscillation even in the first few chapters. Having expounded on the name of the superior Son in 1:5-14, the preachers turns and exhorts his audience to respond in light of these realities (Hebrews 2:1-4) before turning back to expounding the word on the role of the suffering Son in 2:5-18 and then again applying that to his audience (Hebrews 3:1-2). This oscillation continues throughout the rest of the book, or at least until he has so expounded the content he wants to cover that he breaks into his concluding call, with exhortation for the last few chapters, just like a preacher will do as he comes to the end of his message, pleading with his hearers to take head of what he has said.
What is it that the author is expounding? What is the content from which he is calling out to his hearers? I believe the content of the exposition becomes clear when we consider the structure of the book.
2. The Content of Hebrews
While Hebrews is a stunning sermon, it is also in part a sloppy sermon, at least judged by our standards today. When being taught how to preach today one of the first things you are told to do is to draw out a clear structure for your sermon, refer to it at the start and signpost it throughout. The structure is what preserves the shape of the exposition, allowing your hearers to carry it all away in their minds.
The structure of Hebrews is anything but clear. If Romans is a river, structurally running clearly from A to B, Hebrews is like the ocean, with every wave taking you back over the same ground and just a little further up the shore. There has never been widespread agreement about the structure of Hebrews. However, I believe we can identify a structure that is certain enough for our purposes.
It is generally accepted that the book is divided into at least three sections. This division occurs by the placement of two similar summaries (4:14-16; 10:19-24) that draw together the themes in one section and introduce to the themes in the next. These two summaries centre around the fact that ‘we have a great high priest’(4:14; 10:21) and include the key exhortation of the book to ‘hold fast’ (4:14; 10:23), focusing on the confidence that we gain through the completed and compassionate work of Christ (4:14; 10:19) and our ability to now draw near to God as a result (4:16; 10:22). These two summaries then divide the book up into three parts, being broadly chapters 1-4, 5-10 and 11-13. Of these three, the first two sections contain mostly exposition with occasional exhortation, with the final section containing almost all exhortation, as the preacher makes his final call to his hearers based on the content he has expounded.
The two great pillars upon which the book stand then are shown to us in the first two sections. It is in chapters 1-4 and 5-10 that the author explains the basis for his plea. These two pillars are not only evident in the first few sections of the book, but the first few verses. Indeed, Hebrews 1:1-4 sets out these two pillars at its heart and summarises the message of the book. The words in these four verses all hang on two separate statements at their heart: ‘In these last days he has spoken to us by his Son…’ and ‘After making purification for sins…’ (1:2-3). It is upon these two statements that the preacher will build his sermon. The primary purpose of Hebrews is to explain to us the message and the ministry of Jesus Christ. Or rather, the message and the ministry of the superior Son. For as we will see time and time again throughout the book the message and ministry of the Son of God is superior to any servants of God in the past.
Chapters 1-4 build this first great pillar, the message of the superior Son. That is how the section begins, God speaking to us no longer by the prophets but by the person of his Son(1:1), one who is uniquely qualified to give the full and final revelation of God for he is God (1:3). Not only is the son superior to the prophets, but he is superior to the angels (1:4-14), these past messengers of God who provided the message of the law to his people (Acts 7:53; Galatians 3:19). The importance of the identity of the messenger, the name of the superior Son being greater than the name of angels, calls us to pay great attention to his message (2:1-4). A message that is described as a message of such a great salvation (2:3). But rather than focus on the content of the message, the preacher goes back to the character of the messenger (2:5-18) showing that he is not only the messenger that shares the message of salvation but he is also the saviour that enables this message of salvation. We are told of the role of the superior Son in this great salvation as our forerunning prince (2:5-9), founding pioneer (2:10-13) and faithful priest (2:14-18). If chapter one cried out ‘This is my beloved Son, listen to him’ (Mark 9:7), chapter two pleads ‘This is your beloved Saviour, listen to him’.
In chapters 1 and 2 we see that the message of the Son is superior to the message of angels, in chapters 3 and 4 we see that it is superior to the message of Moses, the other servant of God used to deliver the message of the law. That is how the preacher opens chapter 3, by commending Moses’s faithful service as a servant and yet telling of Christ’s glorious service and as a son (3:2-6). While Moses’ testimony is good, Christ’s is better because the testimony of Moses was testifying to the things that would be spoke later through Christ (3:5). That is why when God’s Spirit speaks to us through the testimony of God’s Son today, we must ensure we do not fail to believe just as the Israelites did when God’s Spirit spoke through God’s servant Moses in the wilderness (3:7-19). Failure to properly respond to this message of the Superior Son will mean you will not enter the rest of the promised land, but will die in the wilderness (4:1-10). Therefore, we must expose ourselves to the message of the Son, the Word of God which is ‘living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart’ (4:12). Chapter 1-4 declare that the message of great salvation is the message of the superior Son, and we must respond to it accordingly. At the heart of this first section we see in summarised perfectly, ‘Therefore…consider Jesus, the apostle and high priest of our confession’.
Even as the author is building this first pillar of exposition, the message of the superior Son, he is pointing to his next section. The theme of the ministry of the superior Son, set out in chapters 5-10 are foreshadowed even in the first few chapters as the high priesthood of Christ comes into focus (1:3; 2:17; 3:1; 4:14). This great theme is then taken up from Chapter 5 and provides us with perhaps the greatest contribution of the book of Hebrews to the Bible. Indeed, apart from John 17 there is no other passage in the New Testament that clearly sets out the high priestly ministry of our Saviour. Indeed, Douglas Moo points out that no other book in the New Testament even calls Jesus a priest.
Starting with Psalm 2:7, the same text that he used at the beginning of the first section (1:5), the preacher steps through the different aspects of the ministry of the superior Son: his origin (5:1-10), order (5:11-7:28), ordinance (8:1-13) and offering (9:1-10:18). Each of these aspects of his ministry is contrasted with what went before and proved to be far superior in every way. Right at the heart of this section the preacher summarises the main point of his exposition, ‘Now the main point in what we are saying is this: we have such a high priest…’(8:1). The message of such a great salvation (chapters 1-4) and the ministry of such a high priest (chapters 5-10). The message and ministry of the superior Son are the two pillars at the heart of this sermon and form the exposition upon which the exhortation is based, the content from which comes the call.
3. The Call of Hebrews
If that is the content, what is the call? What is the exhortation that comes off the back of such an exposition? The preacher applies these two areas of study in one main way: to exhort his hearers to faithfulness.
A survey of the warning passages, or rather the exhortation passages, within the book will demonstrate that there is one phrase that is continually pressed into the ears of the hearers: hold fast (3:6; 4:14; 6:18; 10:23). They were called to hold fast their confidence and boasting in the hope set before them (3:6; 6:18), to their confession (4:14; 10:23). Surely this is their confident hope and confession that Jesus is both their apostle and high priest (3:1). Having received the message of the Son and believed the ministry of the Son, the preacher calls for them to persevere. He calls them to steadfast faithfulness.
Such a call is no unique, or even rare for books in the New Testament. However, what is particularly valuable about this call in Hebrews is that it tells you how to complete it. Not only does the preacher exhort his hearers to faithfulness, but he explains how they can be faithful. He explains how they can persevere, how they can hold fast to their confession until the end.
The book of Hebrews is a call for faith-filled faithfulness. On each of the occasions that he exhorts his readers to faithfulness he instructs them either by example or explanation that they can do so through faith (3:12; 4:1-3; 6:18; 10:37-39). This is clearest at the end of the second section, where the exhortation is perhaps the strongest. At the end of what is probably the weightiest warning passage, where the sword of God’s word is the sharpest the path laid out for us is the clearest (10:36-39). The key to perseverance, to not shrinking back in our spiritual lives, is faith, for ‘the righteous shall live by faith’. And so the author finally takes up this thought and carries on exhorting his hearers into the great chapter on faith (11:1-39), laying out the faith of our faithful forefathers in the faith. That when faced with the choice between disobedience and faithfulness we can overcome the world, the flesh and the devil by having faith like our forefathers trusting in the promises of God. Trust the message and ministry of God’s Son. Whether it is lust, greed, pride, envy, shame, anger, anxiety, adultery, idolatry or immorality, the answer is faith. Christians are a people perpetually proclaiming, ‘I believe; help my unbelief’. (Mark 9:24)
Perseverance, holiness and faithfulness in the Christian life are ultimately not achieved by mere determination, discipline or duty, but by faith. ‘By faith Moses…refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward.’ (11:24-26). Faith-filled, faith-fuelled, faith-fired faithfulness. That’s the message of the book of Hebrews. And that’s why we need to study, savour and saturate ourselves with the book of Hebrews.
This appeal and application keeps going into the final two chapters of the book. In what feels like the start of the conclusion, the preacher appeals to his hearers, that in pursuing this faith-filled faithfulness, they are to do so ‘looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith.’ (12:2). Indeed, this is surely where the glory and the majesty of the book of Hebrews comes from, it draws our eyes to Jesus. As we understand the message and ministry of the superior Son, we look to him in faith. That is how we persevere and progress in holiness, that holiness we must strive for because without it we will not see the Lord (12:14). Hebrews is the book that draws our eyes to Jesus, so that by looking in faith to Jesus, we might someday see God.