Growing in Christ
"He opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures." Luke 24:45
Practical and Pastoral Observations on the Book of Hebrews (please read each chapter slowly and meditatively before reading observations below):
Introduction: This wonderful letter encourages us to stand firm under persecution for the sake of Christ and His sacrifice for us. Christ is superior to the prophets, angels, Moses and the old covenant of Judaism, for salvation. The author points to the examples of faith of many who have gone before in difficult circumstances (Hebrews 11), facing hardship and trusting God despite their circumstances for eternal reward. The purpose of the letter is specifically to encourage Jewish believers of approximately 65 AD not to revert to Judaism to avoid persecution and hardship. A factor in the dating of the letter is that the destruction of the temple in 70 AD is not mentioned, though the temple and its sacrifices is referred to often, presumably because this destruction has not yet occurred. While the author does not identify him or herself, a wide range of candidates have been suggested - including Paul, Barnabas, Apollos, Silas, Aquila and Pricilla, and Clement of Rome. The letter remains one of the few in the Bible remaining anonymous. For more on the amazing uniqueness of Christ and the Gospel, including the context of world religions, click here.
Majestic Beyond Measure: Jesus is the Son and Word of God, heir of all things, through whom the Father made the world (v.2). The Son is the outshining of the Father's glory and the exact representation of His nature. Christ sustains all things His Father has made through Him, has cleansed all sin so completely on the cross as to be able to be seated at the place of honor at His Father's right hand (v.3).
Jesus is Superior to the Prophets: The opening four verses are one majestic sentence in Greek, not a customary greeting, but like a formal Greek oration, a foretaste of the majesty of Him who is the subject of this letter and reason for our encouragement and confidence in all hardship up to and including persecution and death.
Jesus is Superior to Angels: He is greater than the angels who served Him in His advent and will return with Him at His return. Jesus was often assisted by angels in His incarnation and these "ministering spirits" are sent to serve us also in our pilgrimage and mission to "show and tell" the Kingdom of God as we strain ahead to inherit salvation (v.14).
Angels are created spiritual beings with free will, accountable to God as are we. Some angels, with Lucifer, exercised their free will in rebellion against God and became demons. Christ is over them and us all.
Application: I will not go beyond scripture in speculation about angels, grateful for their obedience to the Father in helping us, recognizing always that Christ is above them and believers who have gone before (Hebrews 11), and do not therefore pray to or worship either saints or angels but Christ alone.
v.3: "He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature, and upholds all things by the word of His power. When He had made purification of sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high."
My Prayer: Father, how amazing is Your created order, seen and unseen; and work of redemption in Christ who is above all things, seen and unseen - good and evil - for our salvation. Lord help me walk in confidence in that which I cannot see, knowing that You have sent angels to serve and Christ to save. Thank you for Your peace in Him. Amen.
The Incarnation: Jesus shared our flesh and blood (v. 14) becoming, in His incarnation, like us (v.17) and with us, lower than the angels (v. 9). He was refined by temptations (v.18) and suffering (v. 10) and He tasted death (v. 9) for all who receive His gift. He became our merciful and faithful high priest (v. 17), bearing Himself the just wrath of God against our sins ("propitiation" v. 17) in order to be the author of our salvation (v. 10), sanctify us (v.11), render powerless the devil (v. 14), free us from the slavery of the fear of death (v.15) and bring those who receive Him into glory (v.10).
To Make us His Brothers and Sisters: Amazingly, Jesus is not ashamed to call us - though He is Holy God and we sinners - brothers and sisters (v.11). Whereas He does not give help to angels, He gives help to us (v. 16) who are tempted (v.18). Amazingly, further, the world to come will be subject to those who are redeemed (v.5-8).
To Make us Free: Freedom from slavery at any level is an wonderful thing. Freedom from fear of death and the devil unspeakably more so (v. 14-15). Giving up this natural fear does not come naturally and for some Christians requires repeated reminders of His amazing grace.
v.14-15: Since the children have flesh and blood, Jesus too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death-that is, the devil-and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.
My Prayer: Father, how great is the love you have for us, how great the freedom bought in Christ! I praise you and ask only that I might understand and enter into the fullness of what You have already done. Help me stand strong against the evil one when he tempts or attempts to inspire fear. You alone are my Lord and God!
The Risk of Drift: The letter is written to a context of persecution but not only is it possible to be driven from the Gospel, it is also possible to drift away (v.1) or simply neglect salvation, though given by God incarnate Himself (v.3b-4). The cost of doing so is great (v.2-3).
Two themes occupy this chapter: 1.) the superiority of Christ to Moses (v.1-6), and 2.) our need for perseverance in clinging to Christ (v.7-19), holding fast to our moorings, avoiding the error of Israel who failed to enter their rest in the days of Moses.
The Superiority of Christ to Moses: great as Moses was, Jesus is as much greater as the builder of a house is greater than the house (v.3). Jesus was crucified because the Pharisees recognized this claim.
Jesus our Mediator: Jesus, who calls us, is both Apostle (representing God to us) and High Priest (representing us to God), (v.1). His gift to us includes the call be faithful to His grace as He is faithful (v.2), holding fast to our confidence and hope, firm to the end (v.6).
Perseverance in Grace unto Rest: Our calling and mission cannot be completed if we fall away (v.12) by allowing our hearts to be hardened by sin (v.13) or unbelief (v.19). God's desire is that we enter fully into His rest, in history and eternity. This rest includes His glorious grace, presence and provision.
Application: when I am conscious of weariness, temptation or Satan's deceitful wiles pressuring me to turn aside, I will look to Jesus and say, "Jesus, stand by and strengthen me to be faithful as You are faithful."
v.6: "...hold fast our confidence and the board of our hope, firm until the end."
My Prayer: Lord Jesus, stand by and strengthen me to be faithful as You are faithful each time I feel weariness, temptation or Satan's deceitful wiles pressuring me to turn aside. You are faithful and able and full of grace; I praise you!
God's purpose is to give us rest - on many levels: from temptation and sin, from sickness and strife, from frustration and death. All this and more is salvation. Rest is prefigured in God's own satisfaction and contentment with creation, it is pointed to in Israel's entrance into Canaan (v.8), it is completed in heaven. v.9 There remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God.
Embracing God's promise involves on our part faith (v.2) and diligence (v.11). To enable us success God has given His word to convict and guide (v.12-13) and Jesus as High Priest providing grace, mercy and help on our pilgrim journey (v.14-16).
Jesus is central to all. He is the living Word of God (the Logos of John 1). He is the Son of God who has passed through the heavens (v.14) to come to us incarnate as High Priest to forgive and strengthen us to complete our journey and enter into God's rest.
As we hold fast (v.14) to Christ, we replace our reliance on ourselves to save ourselves with reliance on Christ to save us - which replaces in us anxiety with peace, i.e. rest, and we look forward with confidence to future rest in heaven. At that time we will rest finally and fully with God, who has completed both creation and redemption, and enjoy His rest from temptation, sin and death forever.
Personal Application: I will read God's word daily and allow it to reveal my own heart to me (v.12) as God already sees me (v.13) that I may respond to His shaping of me in Christ. I will not harden my heart (v.7) when He speaks anything difficult to hear but run to Him for power to change (v.16).
My Prayer: Father thank for providing both the promise of rest and the means of entering into Your promise. All is grace. All requires complete surrender and reliance on You. This I do gladly. Fill me in my utter reliance on You afresh, in Jesus name. Amen.
Jesus is our entirely sufficient High-Priest: a man and therefore able to represent us to God (v.1), compassionate (v.2), chosen by God (v.4-6) and deepened through suffering (v.7-8).
Jesus was of the tribe of Judah; not a Levite, but of the order of Melchizedek (v.10). Both Jesus and Melchizedek (Genesis 14:18-20) were men, king-priests, appointed directly by God and both called King of Righteousness and King of Peace.
Human and Divine: This chapter emphasizes the humanity of Christ, knowing weakness (v.2), the call of God (v.4-5), crying and tears (v.7), learning through suffering (v.8). Yet He is more than human, being as our High Priest who sacrificed himself, the source of eternal salvation (v.9), something no man could be.
Maturity: We grow in maturity through the Word of God (v.12-13), perseverance through time and practice (v.12,14) and by learning discernment between good and evil (v.14). The latter suggests the distinction is not as simple as may be assumed (though objectively true), as the nature of evil includes deception so we need to pray for the Lord's protection and help.
Personal Application: God's Word and Holy Spirit sharpen our discernment. v.14: "Solid food is for the mature who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil." Therefore:
I will trust God's view of good and evil rather than my own, as His eye is clear and mine often clouded.
I will not resist but seek training (v.12) though sometimes difficult and even painful, as Jesus was trained (v.8), knowing I've not arrived but have more to learn of true righteousness and peace.
My Prayer: Father, thank you for Jesus who is my entirely sufficient High Priest. Help me benefit not only from His sacrifice but also from His training in righteousness. Enable me to discern good and evil sharply, quickly and to turn to the right immediately. Thank you that this doesn't mean turning from sinful people but only from being influenced by them in the wrong direction. Rather, may Christ through me draw others to Himself.
God in Christ is our sure and certain hope (v.19) confirmed by Father and Son. God's purpose, promise and oath is eternally unchangeable (v.17); He cannot lie (v.18). Christ is our forerunner who has entered heaven through the veil (v.20) (forerunner is image of scout reconnoitering or herald announcing victory; others will follow). Though unseen in heaven, He is our anchor (v.19) and our anchor holds despite storm. We inherit the promises through patient faith (v.12). "(May) we who have taken refuge (in Christ) have strong encouragement to take hold of the hope set before us. (v.18) "
Vs.4-6 have caused concern that salvation might be lost by neglect or sin. The verses are better seen as an urgent call not to yield to persecution or waste time or opportunity for the Gospel, that fruit or reward not be lost (v.7-8).
Pressing On: Foundations are needful (v.1-2) but not sufficient to the purpose of the architect of the building. Let us press on to the Lord's full purpose. Let us be deepened for this purpose through His wonderful gifts (v.4-5) and go on to the maturity which includes Christlikeness of spirit and character and redemptive, sacrificial mission to the lost in His name.
Personal Application: I will not doubt the Lord's word or promise in times of storm. I will not yield to pressure or persecution. I will hold on to the anchor line, with faith and patience (v.12) persevere through the storm into the sunshine of His presence. I will encourage others with the truths of this chapter also.
My Prayer: Father, thank you for the strong encouragement of this chapter; for the certainty of what Christ has achieved as our forerunner and that, whatever the storm, our anchor holds.
Jesus is Superior to the Priesthood of Levi: The concept is a bit complex but important. The Mosaic priesthood followed the line of Levi. Jesus however was born of the tribe of Judah, not of Levi, and accomplishes what the Levitical priesthood could not (v.19). v.25: "He is able to save forever those who draw near to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them."
Melchizedek, who preceded Abraham and was greater than him (Gen.14:17-20; Ps.110:4), was a priest and king of righteousness and peace (v.2). He was as such a type of Christ's superior priesthood, yet to come, which set aside the Levitical priestly order (as evidenced in the tearing of the separating curtain, Matt. 27:51).
Christ is greater than Melchizedek who was superior to both Abraham (v.7) and Levi (v.8-9). Christ (in the order of Melchizedek, rather than of Levi) brings a better and permanent covenant (v.22). This superiority is expressed in that Christ is appointed not by the law of Moses but by an oath of God (v.28) and then makes His sacrifice, not daily without permanent effect, but perfectly once for all (v.27). Jesus is holy and innocent (v.26) intercedes for us always (v.25) and able to save forever.
Jesus' ministry of sacrifice of Himself on the cross (once and for all) and His intercession for us (on-going to this day) are not to be separated. Jesus' sacrifice equips us for our pilgrimage, Jesus' intercession sustains us in it. An example of Jesus intercession can be found in John 17.
Hope in Christ (not the Law): Our mission then is not to place our hope on a Levitical law which (though it can call us to be perfect) can in itself make no one perfect (v.19); rather to place our hope in Christ's perfect sacrifice which brings us, in Himself, to complete and lasting communion with God.
The setting aside of the Law, which has had its good purpose but which must yield to Christ, is affirmed by Paul in passages such as Romans 7:1-6; 2 Corinth 3:7-11; Galatians 3:19-25.
Personal Application: I will rejoice in the peace and righteousness (v.2) of Christ and pursue Him only. I will respect the law as calling me to righteousness but recognize it cannot make me righteous or bring me peace. I will not however use freedom from the need to trust in the law to save, as an excuse for thoughts or deeds beneath Christ (v.26) but look always to reflect the grace and glory of Christ.
My Prayer: Father, thank you for the freedom and hope that is in Christ to live without fear or pressure to pursue the perfection which is Christ's alone. Focus me to pursue Him alone in whom is all else.
The New in Christ: The sacrifice and intercession of Jesus our High Priest replaces the Levitical priesthood in three ways:
Jesus brought a superior gift to offer (v.3), He offered the perfect sacrifice: Himself,
Jesus did not offer Himself in the tabernacle erected by Moses according to a pattern from heaven (v.5) but offered Himself in the true tabernacle, heaven, pitched by God Himself (v.2 and 9:11),
Jesus thereby produced the better new covenant (v.6), since we failed to keep the first covenant (v.9), as promised in Jeremiah 31:31-34.
The End of Human Religion: The work of Jesus on the cross, which brought an end to the covenant based on repeated sacrifice, replaced that "religion" with the Gospel. The Gospel is the good news of the work and gift of God in our behalf on the cross; the "religion" so joyfully there replaced is the hard work of man seeking, but failing, to meet God's righteous standards.
v.13: When He said "a new covenant" He has made the first obsolete. But whatever is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to disappear.
Personal Application: I will respect and desire God's holiness "without which no one will see God" (Heb. 12:14), our changeless goal, no less in the new covenant of Christ. I am joyful rather that the very righteousness of God's Kingdom is His accomplished gift to me on the cross and that He sustains me in growing holiness through His intercession.
My Prayer: Father, thank you for showing Moses the pattern leading to the holy of holies (v.5) and fulfilling the reality of that "copy and shadow" in Christ. Thank you that we can now freely and forever enter in.
Jesus is the Way (John 14:6): The way (v.8) into the Most Holy Place, prefiguring heaven, was not yet provided in the old covenant.
The old covenant was external (v.10, 13), not able to cleanse the conscience (v. 9, 14), though often repeated. Christ's death, the once-for-all sacrifice creating the eternal new covenant, is superior to the sacrifices of the first covenant:
Jesus brought his sacrifice into heaven for us (v.24) rather than into a man-made tabernacle representing heaven (v.11),
Jesus did not seek to enter with an offering of the blood of goals and calves (v.12) but by means of His own blood,
Jesus did not provide an offering again and again to no lasting avail (v.25) but provided, once-for-all (v.26) when He died in ransom for us (v.15), an eternal inheritance (v.15) which can never spoil or fade.
The description of the tabernacle, the human "copy" of the reality of heaven (v.24) described in vs. 1-5 and in Exodus, provides yet a spiritual path for worship.
The Necessity of Christ's Death: As with a human will (Last Will and Testament), our inheritance does not come without the death of the one who gives us our inheritance (v.16-17). Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness (v.22). Christ's shed blood and death makes possible our forgiveness, cleansed conscience and our anticipated eternal inheritance from heaven.
Salvation History: The gift of salvation has been given by God in three stages:
the old covenant and tabernacle was given as background, as a copy of the heavenly sanctuary and pointer to the reality Christ would bring so we could more fully appreciate the richness of His gift,
Jesus came in the flesh from heaven to appear for us on the cross and in heaven in God's presence (v.24),
Jesus will come again, not to bear our sin but to bring the full fruit of salvation to those who are waiting for him (v.28).
Personal Application: I will value the Old Testament as necessary for full appreciation of the New Testament. I will make it my life priority to worship Him who gave himself for me. I will look forward to Christ's return to see yet more, the full fruit of that salvation won for us in His ransom for our freedom (v.15).
My Prayer: Father, as so often as we approach the experience of true worship (John 4:23-24; Rev. 1:17), words fail me and I thank you for the (prayer) language of the Spirit. How great and good and gracious and majestic you are! Give me words to sing your praises! Thank you for eternity to learn to worship you worthily.
The Old Testament Law points to our need for Christ and displays His superiority:
the Old Testament Law is but a shadow of God's perfect righteousness which has come in the cross of Christ (v.1),
it's sacrifices are repeated, in fact showing their inadequacy to accomplish that for which they are intended (v.2-4, 11)
Christ offered Himself up once-for-all, bringing an end to the sacrificial system of the law and bringing something better, and eternally so (v.9, 12, 18).
God set aside the first covenant to establish the second (v.9).
The New Covenant: God desires, rather than a sacrificial system, a simple willing and obedient heart (v.7). Kierkegaard spoke of this in the title of his book "Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing." God establishes in this way a covenant relationship in our hearts and minds (v.16) which enables worship in spirit and truth (John 4:23-24). This has several additional effects:
we may come to the Lord with confidence (v.10) and assurance (v.22),
we have reason to press on to the goal unswervingly despite demonic or human opposition (v.23, 32-34),
we embrace the cross passionately as there is no other sacrifice for our sin leaving only judgment for those who reject Him (v.26ff).
Personal Application: I will persevere in faith and confidence in God's faithfulness - both in the face of my own fallen nature and in the face of Satan's ruthless hatred of God's righteousness - not shrink back in the heat of these battles but persist in faith and be saved (v.35-39). v.39: We are not those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who believe and are saved.
My Prayer: Father, thank you that all effort to establish my own righteousness has evaporated; all that remains to me is to cling to the cross of Christ to be saved. I do so with gratitude and with confidence and joy!
Our ultimate confidence alone is in the Faithfulness of our Ultimate God: God-in-Christ is ultimate reality, saving (through the cross and resurrection) and sustaining us through the hostility of the world (v.32-38), ultimately to His heavenly city (v.10, 16).
God has from the beginning prepared the ages (or "eons", sometimes translated "worlds," i.e. time, space and the material world (v.3). We can have confidence both in His planned means and ends. Though we die before seeing the fullness of the promise (v.13, 39) we will see what God has prepared for us.
Faith: is built on and rooted in this certain foundation underlying all history. A key word is "hupostasis" (v.1 and in 1:3) meaning the essence, underlying substance or support giving solid reason for confidence. Therefore v.1 "Faith is the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen."
The Old and New Covenant: Continuity with the Old Covenant: The way to live as God's people today is to live as God's people did under the old covenant; by faith in God's promises, enduring the opposition and suffering encountered in this world. The pilgrim's true homeland is a heavenly city (v.16), unseen but yet certain. Gift of the New Covenant: The new covenant is the "something better" (v.40) which began with Christ's sacrificial work (8:3-10:18). The New Covenant is the substance of the hope of those of the Old Covenant.
Personal Application: Our mission is to be faithful, persevering and encouraging others to be and do the same. I will stay in close communion with the Lord who saves and sustains me. He gives strength to persevere and endure, trusting His promises. I will not turn back or aside.
My Prayer: Father, thank you that Jesus is the way, has Himself walked the way of faith, hope and the cross, and is showing the way, day by day.
Jesus Leads, I follow: Jesus leads the way to the unshakeable Kingdom (v.27). The saints of the ages cheer us on as we shake off sin and distraction (v.1) following Him, not only to Mount Zion (vs.18-24) but to the heavenly reality which is more glorious (vs.25-29).
v.1: Since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.
The Goal: The purpose of the path is to mould us as disciples and to get us to the goal safely - the Kingdom which cannot be shaken. We travel with the end in view. Persevering two-thirds of the way has no value. The world wobbles and decays; that which cannot be shaken or perish is Christ, the Word of God, the Cross, the Righteousness of the Father, His perfect judgment and grace...
Personal Application: The Father's discipline I will value, not resist, as it keeps me out of the ditches on either side of the rugged path. I will not refuse Him who is speaking (v.25) but yearn to hear His voice to know His heart and ways in order to walk in them.
My Prayer: Father strengthen my feeble knees (v.12) that I may persevere and finish well. Give me joy (v.2) looking forward to that which is set before us, and preserve me to enter the unshakable Kingdom, dross burned away (v.29), with gratitude unspeakable (v.28).
The Supremacy of Christ: Our great High Priest calls us to holiness and the highest standards (vs.1-6, 15-16) as we follow Him in spite of hardship and persecution. In this we imitate the lives of leaders who have gone before, both human and Christ Himself (v.7-8).
Practical Outcomes: We love our fellow-pilgrims (v.1) as well as strangers (v.2), we remember and show compassion to those in prison or otherwise ill-treated (v.3), honor the marriages of others as well as our own (v.4) and refuse to allow false dependencies such as money to corrode our character as we necessarily turn to trust God the Father alone (v.5).
Strengthened by Grace: In light of the challenges in life and opposition as followers of Christ we face, it is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace (v.9) so abundant in Christ. It is to Him we go outside the camp as we pursue the glorious city of His promise (Pilgrim's Progress) to come (v.13f).
Personal Application: I will joyfully follow Christ and honor those for whom He gave His life in ransom sacrifice. If I seek not the things of this world ultimately and am wrong to hold only to Christ, I loose only that which is temporary; if I am right to cling to Christ, I loose only that which is temporary and gain eternal grace and glory.
My Prayer: Father, strengthen me for the journey ahead, perhaps through hardship or suffering, keep my eyes and heart on Jesus, and bring me safe to my eternal home You have created for those who trust You alone. Amen.
"Now may the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen." (13:20-21)