Author unknown, though Jerome and Augustine thought it was by Paul.
The primary purpose of the Letter to the Hebrews is to exhort Jews and Christians to persevere in the face of persecution. The central thought of the entire Epistle is the doctrine of the Person of Christ and his role as mediator between God and humanity.
The epistle has a dual Christology, treating Jesus as both exalted Son and as high priest.
Maps the new covenant onto the old, extolling key figures from the Hebrew Bible, while also emphasising the more privileged perspective of the present. A key rhetorical figure is ‘by how much more…’
God in the past spoke to the fathers by the prophets; in the last days, he has spoken by His son. The son is the heir of all things, through whom the worlds were made. The son is the brightness of God’s glory and the express image of His person. He has by Himself purged our sins, and sits at the right hand of Majesty. He is better than the angels, and has obtained a more excellent name than them through inheritance. Psalm 2 and 2 Samuel 7:14 are cited to emphasise the uniqueness of the sonship. Angels worship the son. God says to the son that his throne is forever – heaven and earth will perish, but the son will remain. Angels are lesser beings – ministering spirits for those who will inherit salvation.
We must heed the things we have heard, and not drift away. If we must take the word which came by angels seriously, how much more seriously must we take the word which came by the Son of God - who has been proven to be greater than the angels? We know Jesus is human, because God has put the world in subjection to man, not angels – ‘What is man that you are mindful of him?’ Jesus was made a little lower than the angels, suffered death yet was crowned with glory and honour, and tasted death for everyone. Jesus brings many sons to glory, making them perfect through suffering, and calling them brethren. Through death he destroyed him who has the power of death – the devil. Jesus does not give aid to the angels, but he does to the seed of Abraham. Jesus is our faithful high priest, making propitiation for the sins of the people.
Jesus the high priest was faithful to Him who appointed him, as Moses also was faithful. Jesus is more worthy of glory than Moses. Why did Jesus receive more glory than Moses? Because Moses was a servant in God’s house, but Jesus is both the builder of the house and a Son in it. Quoting psalm 95, we are admonished not to go astray and harden our hearts, as the wilderness generation did.
Continuing the analogy of not entering God’s rest (‘they shall not enter my rest’) after the years in the wilderness, we are exhorted to have faith. Joshua does not completely fulfil God’s promise of rest – and the idea of entering into rest (through Jesus) is equally alive today. By analogy to the Sabbath, entering rest is described as a ceasing from work (Lutheran works as opposed to faith? Or the work and practice of the law?). The word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than a two-edged sword. Jesus, our high priest, can sympathise with our weakness, and was tempted as we are, but is without sin. Let is therefore come boldly to the throne of grace.
High priests are called by God to offer sacrifices for sins. They do not glorify themselves, and nor does Christ, who is a high preist according to the order of Melchizedek. Christ offered prayers with vehement tears and cries, and learned obedience by the things that he suffered. Having been perfected, he became the author of eternal salvation. However, you have become dull of hearing, and have regressed from being teachers to being students, from needing solid food to needing milk. As such, they have become unskilled in the word of righteousness, and as babes.
The very basics – repentance from dead works, faith, baptism, the laying on of hands, resurrection of the dead and eternal judgment – can be passed over. Repentance is impossible for those who have fallen away after receiving blessing from God. Earth which bears useful herbs is blessed by God; but earth that bears thorns and briars is cursed and rejected. The writer expressed a confidence of better things of his addresses, however. God has not forgotten your work, therefore do not become sluggish. God’s promises (such as that made to Abraham) are reliable, but He swears by Himself. Hope is the anchor of the soul, and enters the Presence behind the veil.
The story of Melchizedek is recounted. Melchizedek means ‘king of righteousness’ and, he was also ‘king of peace’, because Salem (where Melchizedek was king) means ‘peace’. Melchizedek had no genealogy – made like the Son of God, having neither beginning of days nor end of life. He was a priest and a king. Melchizedek is greater than Abraham because Abraham paid tithes to Melchizedek, and because Melchizedek blessed Abraham. Perfection was not achieved through the Levitical priesthood, so another priest had to rise according to the order of Melchizedek, not the order of Aaron. Jesus could not be a priest according to Mosaic law, because he was of the tribe of Judah, not Levi. Another priest has come not according to the law of a fleshy commandment, but according to the power of an endless life. Psalm 110: ‘You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.’ The former commandment of the law is annulled as a means of establishing our relationship with and access to God. Jesus was made high priest by the direct oath of God. Jesus is the surety of a better covenant. An unchanging priesthood means a lasting salvation. Jesus is better qualified to be a high priest than any priest from the order of the Law of Moses. The sacrifice he offered up was himself.
Text summarises points made about Jesus as high priest. Jesus presides over a superior priesthood, with a better covenant, and better promises. The fact that God has established another covenant proves that there is something lacking in the old covenant. Jeremiah 31:31-34 is quoted – its theme is the instituting of a new covenant. The old covenant has been made obsolete.
The old covenant had a tabernacle with furnishings. The priest atoned for his own sins, and for the sins of the people, once a year. Christ comes with a greater and more perfect tabernacle. The sacrifice is not the blood of goats and calves, but his own blood. Through this sacrifice, those who are called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance. A testament (in the sense of a ‘last will and testament’) only takes effect when the person making the testament dies. Therefore Jesus had to die for the testament – the covenant – to take effect. As priest, Christ enters not into the Holy of Holies, but into heaven itself. Unlike a Mosaic priest, who must sacrifice regularly, Christ’s sacrifice is made only once.
Sacrifice under the old covenant could not truly take away sin. Psalm 40 is quoted. Christ’s work is finished, and he sits at the right hand of the Father, with his enemies as a footstool. The veil separating off the Holy of Holies is Christ’s flesh, and we can boldly pass through it into the presence of God. Let us hold fast to the truth. ‘Let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching.’ Anyone who has rejected Moses’ law dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. Trampling the Son of God underfoot is worthy of far worse punishment. Take heart in your discouragement, and remember how you have stood for God in tough times before. Draw on your past experience to gain strength to endure for the future.
Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. The elders obtained a good testimony through it. By faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, and that there is a difference between the visible and the invisible. Abel’s offering showed more faith than Cain’s. By faith Enoch was taken away, and did not see death. Without faith it is impossible to please God. Noah, Abraham and Sarah are also models of faith. These died not having received the promise, but seeing it afar in faith. They were strangers and pilgrims on earth, desiring a better, heavenly country. God has prepared a city for them. By faith, the sacrificed Isaac was returned as if from the dead. By faith Abraham blessed Jacob and Esau, and Jacob blessed his sons. By faith Joseph gave instructions about his bones. By faith, Moses’ parents hid him when he was born. By faith, Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt, kept the Passover, crossed the Red Sea. By faith Jericho was taken, and Rahab saved. Heroes from Judges are also cited, along with a list of victories and sufferings. We have even more reasons for faith, having received the promise.
Since we have a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside sin, and run the race with endurance. Jesus is the author and finisher of our faith. Do not become weary and discouraged – consider how much hostility Jesus endured. Proverbs 3 is cited – whom he Lord loves, he chastens. Chastening is a sign of sonship. How much more we must submit to God than to earthly fathers! God chastens us so we may be partakers of His holiness. Though painful, chastening results in the peaceable fruit of righteousness. Strengthen the hands which hang down, and the feeble knees, and make straight paths for your feet. Pursue peace and do not be bitter – do not sell your birthright like Esau. You have come not to mount Sinai (fenced off, black, dark, tempestuous), but to mount Zion and the city of the living God. There were consequences for rebelling at Mount Sinai. How much more should there be consequences for resisting God’s greater work at Zion? We are receiving a kingdom which cannot be shaken.
Let brotherly love continue. Entertain strangers, for they may be angels. Remember prisoners and those who are mistreated. Marriage is honourable, fornication is not. Be content and not covetous. Follow your leaders. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. There is no need to cling to Levitical rites of offering. Animals for sin offerings were burned outside the camp – in the same way, Christ was offered up outside the gate of the city. We seek the city to come. Let us offer the sacrifice of praise to God. Let us be joyfully obedient to our leaders. God brought Jesus from the dead through the blood of the new covenant. Our brother Timothy has been set free, with whom I shall see you if he comes shortly. Those from Italy greet you. Grace be with you all. Amen.