For the next 13 weeks, we are going to travel through the New Testament Book of Hebrews. For many people, the Book of Hebrews is a favourite New Testament Book. For others, it is on a little bit on the dry side with a few favourite bits in it somewhere.
I think we can safely say that the Book of Hebrews is not a lightweight book but it is a compressed, compact, meaty and heavyweight book and I hope as we travel with it, it will feed us and it will make us strong and joyful.
The Backstory to Hebrews
Hebrews was written to Christians with a Jewish background. People who knew the Old Testament pretty well, especially the Greek translation of the Old Testament is often called the Septuagint or the LXX being the Roman Numerals for 70 based on the fact that 70 Scholars were given the task of translating the Old Testament into Greek, and this is the translation that seems to be well known because it’s the one that is regularly quoted.
Now because the Jewish Temple was still operating and we can assume this from Chapter 10 verse 2 which makes a very clear reference to the sacrifices still going on, we can conclude that the letter was probably written before 70AD when the Temple was bulldozed, and most scholars put it at around 63/64AD. And the rituals of the Temple, of course, were a big drawcard still for these Christians who were Jews by background because the Temple was providing a huge, a multi-faceted, multi-sensed experience.
If you were to drift back to the Temple, you would be there for the big building, not your little home group and you would be experiencing the sacrifices and all the sights and the sounds and the smells of the great Temple.
You see that now these new converts who have put their faith in Christ are being asked to trust somebody whose life has gone, whose death has gone and who can’t be seen and can’t be physically heard and yet they are being told that He is superior and they must keep trusting Him and all they have to go on is the Word of God. No wonder when the going got rough, these new Christians in the 1st Century, found it tempting to give up and to go back to something that was easier, more popular and more protected and more dynamic and in a sense more sensational.
One writer says that the Hebrews, the people to whom this letter was written, were facing three great pressures and many of you this morning would identify with all three of them.
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One of the pressures is a kind of a passive danger, and that is to just be weary of the faith – just be fatigued in believing and following, and that’s why the writer of this letter keeps on exhorting the readers to “don’t give up – keep going”.
The other pressure or great danger for these Hebrews was a more active danger. This was the active temptation to give in to rebellion or to reject the faith, and that’s why the warnings are there. If you turn your back now on Christ, it will be more serious for you.
And the third pressure is the outward danger of just being persecuted or seriously tested for your faith, and so the writer says (some of you have already experienced the loss of your property) and that’s why there are so many encouragements in the letter of the Hebrews calling on the people to hang on and to trust a very great Christ and better things are ahead which will outweigh all the losses.
These are permanent pressures and that’s why the letter has been a great encouragement, challenge and blessing to so many Christians over the Centuries.
Who Wrote Hebrews?
You can be pretty sure it wasn’t the Apostle Paul because of Chapter 2:3 which says that this salvation was confirmed to us by those who heard him. And you’ll see that the writer is distancing himself from those who heard him. The writer is saying ‘I didn’t hear him – I’ve heard from those who have heard him’.
So this writer is not an Apostle. Paul, of course, took great pains to reveal himself in the letters as being the writer and the Apostle so that people would know that the letter was his and could read it with confidence but here the writer makes no such claim. So we can be pretty sure that it’s not the Apostle Paul. And the language is very different from Paul’s as well.
Now there are many theories on the author. Some people have thought it was Barnabas, some people have thought it was Apollos. But in the end, we just don’t know, and we know that this author was a very fine Pastor because he knew how to warn and well as to encourage. He knew how to say the hard things as well how to say the soft things.
Now if you want to get your head around the letter as a whole as we begin the whole thing, I want to suggest to you that the first chapters are asking the readers to ‘hang on to the Word that they have been given’.
If you can imagine taking your children to the Easter Show and your children are aged 12, 13, 14 or 15, and so they are capable of being told ‘go and enjoy yourself’. You say to your children ‘I want you to go and enjoy yourself, but we are meeting back on this very spot at 4 o’clock’. ‘That’s the lift home is at 4 o’clock from here’. And so the children are able to run as it were through the Easter Show and there are many things to enjoy and there are many things to be distracted by and there may be are many temptations but the important thing they need is to keep the message in their head that this is where we are to be, and this is why we are to be there.
And the writer of Hebrews is saying ‘make sure the message of Christ dominates in your head’.
The second bit of Hebrews is basically a call to appreciate or grasp what Christ has done on the cross and again this would be like the parent at the Easter Show saying to the children ‘I’m giving you a little piece of paper – it doesn’t look much, it’s not looking impressive but if you carry this piece of paper wherever you go, it will give you the rides you want, it will give you the show bags you want, it will give you the lunch you want, it may not look much, but it opens the doors.
And the writer of Hebrews is saying that the work of Christ did on the cross – it may not look as impressive to you as what’s going on in the Temple next door but actually this work of Christ is the work that opens all the doors and all the privileges and all the blessings, and you must keep trusting in Him.
And the last bit of Hebrews really from chapter 11, 12 & 13 is a call to have faith – to persevere – to believe God will keep his great promises. So there’s a little bit of an overview.
Seven Facts About Christ
“In the past, God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days, he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in Heaven. So he became as much superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is superior to theirs.”
There are a number of reasons why the original readers and we today need to understand Jesus. First, of course – he is superior to all that is Jewish in his person and his work and so if the readers continue to settle for the Jewish ritual, then they are settling for the signpost which is pointing them to Christ who is the destination. They are settling for the signpost and missing the destination.
And the second reason that the original readers and we today need to get the greatness of Christ clear is that we need to be clear when we are faced with Jesus’ humility that he is great and when we are faced with his invisibility that Christ is great. In other words, there is a call, from this letter. Is there anybody out there who is prepared to go by what God says? Is there anybody who is prepared to keep going in the Christian life by what God says to us? Because it will be enough but if you fall into the trap of thinking – well I need more – well you may be misleading.
So that’s why chapter 1:1 says ‘in the past God spoke in many ways and in many times’, and you can think of all the Old Testament prophets and all the situations where God spoke and all the documents of the Old Testament but in the last days and the last days as you know is the days that we are in between the Resurrection of Jesus and the Return of Jesus, he has spoken by his Son, or the original language says ‘he has spoken in Son’.
I write to you ‘in ink.’
I speak to you (says the writer) in Son
In other words, I am presenting him – he’s the way I am speaking to you – says, God.
So Jesus is not just the new messenger in a long line of messengers, he is the Message.
He’s not just one book on the library shelf; he is the Library.
He’s the story of the Library
And the writer says I’m going to give you seven facts about Jesus which will stretch your mind and heart. And if there’s anyone here this morning and you’ve got a small view of Jesus, and you think that He’s just a man who lived, just look at what the writer says, look at verse 2.
- Jesus is the heir of all things. Everything belongs to him. He will inherit everything. Think of what you plan to inherit. Think of what your children are one day going to inherit. In the end, everything will end up with Jesus.
- Jesus is the agent behind the universe. It says ‘through whom he made the universe’. The Old Testament tells us that God made the universe through his word and through his wisdom and now we are being told that word and that wisdom is a Person. Everything was made through Jesus.
- Jesus is the radiance or the representation of God’s glory. He’s not just reflecting it like a mirror; he is producing it. He is the glory. He shines himself, and he is the portrait or the picture of God himself. He is the visible God.
- Jesus sustains all things by his powerful word. He upholds, he carries, and he governs the world. It is not random, it’s not self-propagating but he sustains the world, and he does it with his word. And when you think about it, there is a lot happening in the world. There is a lot happening in the cosmos. There are planets that are turning. There are solar systems that are going through transformations, and across our little planet there are massive things happening to do with tides and wind and births and breeding and all manner of things happening across our creation, and Christ sustains it. He tells it what to do.
- Jesus provided purification for sins, or we might say he provided forgiveness, he provided salvation, and he provided an answer for our sins. It is an unusual phrase ‘purification for sins’, but it’s very suitable for the Hebrews who are the first readers. And as we’ll see in later chapters, the Jewish ritual had to be done every day, all the time, but for Jesus, he finished his job for all of us on one Good Friday.
- Jesus ‘he sat down at God’s right hand’ – the right hand, of course, being the place of honour and the place of power. He sits because his work is done. He’s not like the Old Testament priest who turns up at work and stands and stands, and when they finished their lives, they die. No Jesus is finished and sat down at the right hand of God. Incidentally, there is only one reference in Hebrews to the Resurrection, and that comes in chapter 13, and you might wonder why the Resurrection doesn’t get a lot of attention in Hebrews, and the real reason is that the writer is interested in presenting Christ who died and was exalted to the throne. So it almost fills in the whole picture by saying he just didn’t rise, he was exalted to the right hand of the majesty on high.
- Jesus is therefore superior to the angels. He is superior to the heavenly beings even though they are heavenly and even though they reveal God’s message. And the reason that Jesus is superior to them is because he is their Maker and because he is the Message and because he is the one and only Saviour and especially because he is the Son.
Now, friends, this first little section is basically telling us that if you want to find out something about how God communicates or about the creation or about salvation you just can’t understand it without Jesus.
- He’s the key to the communication
- He’s the key to the creation
- He’s the key to the salvation
- He is supreme
- He is superior
- He is the greatest
I was reading through the week that when the Muslims call out their familiar phrase Allahu Akbar is a very clever phrase because it doesn’t just say Allah is great, it says Allah is greater. It is a comparative and if you were to ask greater than what? Or greater than who? They would say ‘greater than you name it’.
But you see what the writer of Hebrews is saying – he is moving into the Theology of superlative. He is saying ‘Jesus is the greatest, he is supreme, and he is superior’. There isn’t an area in revelation, creation or salvation where he’s isn’t completely comprehensively in charge of. He is the greatest.
So that’s why of course we need to take him seriously if we are to understand what he says because look who says it and what he does because look who does it. So there are the seven facts.
Seven Quotes about Jesus
Now the second section this morning is Seven Quotes about Jesus. Seven quotes from the Old Testament. Seven quotes from the Septuagint. And this is verses 5-13. I won’t read it for us again but why does the writer gather these seven quotes? And the answer is that he wants to show the superiority of Jesus over angels. Who cares about angels?
Are we expected to think that these Hebrew readers were some kind of eccentric angel-worshippers? The answer to that question is no. Look at verse 2 of chapter 2. If the message spoken by angels was binding and every violation and disobedience received its just punishment, how should we escape if we ignore such a great salvation?
Do you see the angels were the messengers or the mediators of the Old Testament message? Now in case you are not sure about this, I checked, and I discovered the burning bush – it actually says in Exodus chapter 3 that Moses came face to face with an angel in the bush speaking, speaking as it were for God. And then of course if you think about God speaking on Mt Sinai (the great Old Testament meeting place of God and his people and the Commandments and all the Laws) were actually told in the Book of Acts under the speech of Stephen that this was a message mediated to the people of God by an angel.
So the angels were mediators of the message, and in case any of the Hebrews attempted to say ‘we must go back to the Old Testament message because it was mediated by angels’ here is the writer saying ‘no you are at perfect liberty to move on because Christ is infinitely superior to the angels.
So here is the writer at pains to show that Christ is utterly superior with an utterly superior message. And the message, of course, is he is the Son, and he has done the work, and he is on the throne, and what he says and what he does is trustworthy. So here are the seven quotes – we are going to run through them and ‘hold on to your hats’!
“You Are My Son”
First of all a quote from Psalm 2 “you are my son”. God never said that to an angel. “Today”, says the writer “you are my son”. And why does it say “today I’ve become your Father”? When of course the Son has always been his Son – I think the point is that it is being powerfully and publically announced. Because you have done the work of purifying of sin and because you have done the work of rising to the throne, I am announcing it in a powerful and public way.
“I Will Be His Father”
The second quote from 2 Samuel 7 in verse 5. “I will be his Father,” says God. He never said that to an angel. Now interestingly God said that to King David, but he said it to King David because he was talking about the kingdom, the kingship and ultimately, of course, the Messiah.
“Let Angels Worship Him”
The third quote in verse 6 is in Deuteronomy 32 and this simply says “let angels worship him”. Do you want to know where the angels fit in? They should be on their faces before Jesus. They should be on their knees. Jesus is SO superior to an angel that an angel should be on his face before Christ. And when it speaks of ‘firstborn’ in verse 6, it means, of course, the one with priority.
“The Angels Are Winds of Fire”
The fourth quote in verse 7 comes from Psalm 104 and it says ‘the angels are winds or fire’ which simply means they have a job to do in creation, but they are part of creation.
“Your Throne O God is Forever”
The fifth quote in verses 8-9 comes from Psalm 45 and it says ‘your throne O God is forever’. This quote is attributed to Jesus. Your throne O God, O Jesus, is forever. Originally, of course, it was said to God’s chosen king but here it is being said of Jesus who is King and God. And you will notice that Jesus is anointed with the oil of joy or gladness – I really like that. He is a joyful king, he is a rejoicing king, and he is a glad king.
“Everything Will Perish But You O Lord Remain”
The sixth quote in verses 10-12 comes from Psalm 102 and it says ‘everything will perish but you O Lord remain’. The creation will go and be replaced or renewed but you O Lord, Lord Jesus, will remain. Again this is directed to Jesus.
“Sit At My Right Hand”
And the seventh and the last quote in verse 13 is from Psalm 110 which is the most quoted Psalm in the whole of the New Testament, and it’s the quote that says “sit at my right hand”. Well, he never said that to an angel. He might have said to the angels “you should worship, or you should serve”, but he says to Jesus you must rule and you are on the throne.
And in verse 14 he finishes by saying “angels are ministering spirits”. They are servants, and Jesus is the King.
So, friends, do you see there is a comprehensive contrast being painted between the angels and their mediation and their messenger role and Jesus and his mediation and his messenger role and the comprehensive contrast is that he is on the throne and the angels are just part of the creation to worship in and to serve.
I was interested to see recently that when Sir Michael Parkinson interviewed Sir David Frost and then later Sir David Frost interviewed Sir Michael Parkinson. They got the opportunity to ask one another about their careers interviewing the famous people of the world. Michael Parkinson asked David Frost “who is the most interesting person that you have interviewed?
And before he answered I suddenly in my mind I raced around the hundreds and hundreds of people around the world who David Frost must have interviewed from kings, presidents and just everybody. Amazingly and interestingly David Frost said the most interesting person I have met is probably the Evangelist Billy Graham.
And he said the thing that sticks in my mind from the interview with Billy Graham is that I said to him in the course of the interview “surely your God if he a good God, surely our God, if he is a good and loving God, will, in the end, make it possible for everybody to be saved, everybody will be OK, everybody will be included”.
And Billy Graham’s answer to David Frost was “He is God – He doesn’t do what you want him to do – he doesn’t do what I want him to do – He does what is right – He does what he decides is right”.
And there is a sense in which this Hebrews writer is saying ‘do you realise that Jesus is God? He decides, he does what is right, he is in charge, we don’t tell him what to do, and we don’t bring him down if that were possible or even demote him if that were possible. He is in charge, and he is incomparably great’.
Now we need to get this and so did the 1st Century Hebrews. They needed to see how great Jesus is as the superior and supreme mediator because they are about to be faced with his ministry and they need to recognise that in his lowly and humble ministry he is still by identity the King of Kings.
It would be like turning your television on and finding yourself in the middle of the movie and you are faced with a series of prisoners, and one of the prisoners is in the position of paying the ultimate price of his life to let the other prisoners go free.
And you are quite impressed that this prisoner is going to stand in as a substitute for the others. Would it help you or interest you to know that the first 30 minutes of the films that you missed introduced that prisoner as the King of the country who has entered into the prison in disguise to let the citizens go free. It would be of some impact.
Imagine being told that the prisoner in the first 30 minutes of the films is the maker and the owner of the prisoners and that he has entered into the prison to set the prisoners free. That’s what the writer of the Hebrews is attempting to do. He is saying ‘I want to establish as clearly as I can the greatness of Jesus so that you’ll understand what to do when you face his humility and his ministry, and you’ll know what to do when you are faced with his invisibility because still, he remains the King of Kings and his word is utterly trustworthy, and his work is utterly brilliant’.
Now we in the 21st Century, we need to get this identify right as well so that we will know who came at Bethlehem and who died on Calvary and who rose on Easter Day and who sits on the throne today and who makes the promises we have in our Bibles – it’s this great King. We need this when we are having times of doubt.
Because when we are having times of doubt, we can ask ourselves the question – look I’m just not sure whether God is big enough for the big problems that I am thinking through.
You go back to the first verses of Hebrews and say to yourself ‘that’s absolutely impossible that he would not be big enough’. He knows how to solve those problems in a blink if he wants to and he’ll do it in his good time and in his good grace.
Or perhaps in our suffering, we ask the question ‘have I been forgotten now that I am suffering’? ‘Has God dropped me, is he punishing me’? We go back to the early verses of Hebrews, and we will see that that’s absolutely impossible. The one who has made purification for our sins and sits on the throne knows exactly how to look after us.
And when we are making our decisions or our plans or our priorities, friends, what an absurdity if we make plans and priorities and leave the greatness of Christ out of the picture! I mean we are insane, aren’t we? We are capable of making the most stupid decisions just as it were thrusting him behind our back and saying to him ‘well I’ll get to you later but right now I want to do this and you come and follow me’. What an absurdity if he is as great as he is and as good as he is.
So that’s why you see this Hebrews chapter 1 is calling on us like the angels to worship Christ with our heart and with our life’ and the call of Hebrews chapter 1 is ‘is there anybody listening this morning who can cope with what is told in God’s word and live it and not be at the mercy of your eyes and your ears and all the lies and all the fakes that are around us because we are being told that in Jesus we have somebody who is utterly trustworthy and utterly wonderful and utterly powerful and therefore to put your faith in him and to walk with him will be the wisest, sanest, safest and most wonderful decision you’ll ever make.
Let’s pray. Loving Father we thank you for giving to us this great chapter of truths which are huge and weighty and we ask that you would give to us the conviction which wavers in our minds and hearts and we pray that you would give us the willingness which is so weak and we pray that you would give us the wisdom which again fades and falters so that we might be those who read your word, trust your faithfulness, walk with Christ, trust his work, heed his word and serve and honour you in this fleeting world.
We ask it for Jesus’ sake – Amen.