by Chris Ritter
What is the most difficult book in the New Testament? The overwhelming number of votes would go to The Revelation. Its vivid symbolic imagery lends itself to all kinds of interpretations and misinterpretations. A mentor of mine surprised me once by saying that Revelations is no so tough. He claimed the most difficult book of the New Testament is Hebrews. Over the years I have come to agree with him. Hebrews assumes a mastery of the Hebrew Scriptures that most of us do not possess. But what a rich a essential book!
If you only ate fast food, you might have a lot of extra time on your hands, but I am not sure you would be healthy. And I am sure you would be missing out on the greatest foods available. Some things need to be marinated over night, slow roasted, and made with love. The reason why our favorite dishes are special is because they take many steps or great skills to perfect. This summer we are going to be dining on the Book of Hebrews. It’s going to be so worth the extra effort.
Hebrews is a mystery. What it is? An epistle? It ends like a letter, but it doesn’t start like one. No one knows for sure who wrote it. It is assumed by many that Paul wrote Hebrews. After all, it mentions Timothy and he is closely associated with the ministry of Paul. But Hebrews refers to “our brother, Timothy.” Paul never called Timothy his brother, but his son in the faith. The author of Hebrews refers to the apostles as “they.” Paul might call himself the least of the apostles, but he never claimed he was anything other than a legitimate apostle. No, Paul did not write Hebrews. You can always tell a letter from Paul. The first word is always “Paul.”
Martin Luther suggested the Apollos wrote Hebrews. That is an interesting suggestion. Apollos (mentioned in Acts and the letters of Paul) was known for his brilliance, and whoever wrote Hebrews was brilliant. The most sophisticated Greek in the New Testament is in Hebrews. Apollos was extremely knowledgeable of the Hebrew Scriptures and was a gifted teacher. I think we can say it was either Apollos or someone very much like him. Origen in the 3rd Century said, “God knows” who wrote Hebrews and that will have to suffice for us.
Not only do we no know who wrote it, but we don’t really know to whom they were writing.
Origen in the early Third Century said, “Only God knows who wrote the Book of Hebrews” and he, of course, is right.
Not only do we not know who wrote Hebrews, we do not know who it was written to. It was certainly written to believers. It was written to believers who had a strong Jewish heritage and identity. It was perhaps written to Christians in Rome, because it says, “Those from Italy greet you.” [If I travelled down to Florida next winter to visit our snowbirds and wrote a letter back to the church to ask you to send me more money to buy a wave-runner, I might say, “Those from Illinois say hello.”]
When was Hebrews written? It was certainly written before AD 70 because the author predicts the whole temple system will pass away. In 70 AD it did in such a dramatic way that the author of Hebrews could not have anticipated. The temple was destroyed by the Romans during a Jewish revolt. The letter would have been written in light of this had that already occurred… because it would have proved the author’s point.
But the real beauty is to be found in why the letter was written. And that’s what I want to talk to you about today as we jump into Chapters One and Two of this amazing book. We are going to meet Jesus all over again in the pages of Hebrews. Selected verses:
Hebrews 1 & 2
1 In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. 3 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. 4 So he became as much superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is superior to theirs.
5 For to which of the angels did God ever say,
“You are my Son;
today I have become your Father”?
“I will be his Father,
and he will be my Son”?
6 And again, when God brings his firstborn into the world, he says,
“Let all God’s angels worship him.”
7 In speaking of the angels he says,
“He makes his angels spirits,
and his servants flames of fire.”
8 But about the Son he says,
“Your throne, O God, will last for ever and ever;
a scepter of justice will be the scepter of your kingdom…
14 Are not all angels ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation?
2 We must pay the most careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away. 2 For since the message spoken through angels was binding, and every violation and disobedience received its just punishment, 3 how shall we escape if we ignore so great a salvation? This salvation, which was first announced by the Lord, was confirmed to us by those who heard him. 4 God also testified to it by signs, wonders and various miracles, and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will.
10 In bringing many sons and daughters to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through what he suffered. 11 Both the one who makes people holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters…
14 Since the children have flesh and blood, he 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— 15 and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. 16 For surely it is not angels he helps, but Abraham’s descendants. 17 For this reason he had to be made like them, fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. 18 Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.
My bride of 31 years, Becky, has been battling some tremendous shoulder pain. She is on Prednisone and taking physical therapy for it. We have been trying to get her on the road to recovery. I asked her if a massager might help, and she didn’t think so. So I was walking around the store looking for something like might help her discomfort… and I ran across shower heads.
Now, we already had a shower head. It does everything a shower head is supposed to do. But this was a fancy shower head. Ours doesn’t detach. This one detaches. It has multiple settings on it. You can put the water where you want it. Not only did it help Becky’s shoulder, but it also makes washing the dog so much easier. You can power wash between your toes. In a word… it is BETTER. (Although our water bill may not be better.)
Some things are subjectively better. Creamy peanut butter is better than crunchy. Dogs are better than cats. The Cardinals are better than the Cubs. (The Cubs are undefeated this season, however). You can argue with me on those points. But other things are objectively better. No one wants to go from high speed internet back to dial-up. No one is looking to go back to rotary phones. No one getting gall bladder surgery tells their surgeon to do it like it was done in 1950.
One word you will read over and over again in Hebrews is “better.” The New Covenant is Greater than the Old Covenant because we have a better Savior, a better salvation, a better tabernacle, and a better hope. The New Covenant is better because Jesus is better… Jesus is greater… than anything. We are going to meet Jesus in the pages of Hebrews.
Speaking Through the Son
Hebrews opens these words: “In the past God spoke at various times and various way.” This is really the story of the Old Testament. God creates and God speaks to His creation. When creation fell through human sin, God begins to reveal himself in different ways:
- To Abraham he spoke as three mysterious strangers.
- God spoke to Moses through a burning bush.
- God spoke to kings through Prophets.
- To Balaam, God spoke through a Donkey!
These were messages, but fractured messages. The prophets had a flash of inspiration. They revealed something about God, but provided only a fragmentary glimpse of God’s nature, will, and character.
But in these last day, God has spoken to us by His Son… the heir of all things, through whom he made the universe.
- “He is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being.” You want to know what God is like? Just look at Jesus
- He is our future… “the heir of all things.”
- He is our past… “the agent of creation.”
- He is our today… “he sustains everything by his very being.”
Jesus is not just A revelation of God. Jesus is THE revelation of God. There will never be any improving upon Jesus.
In the past 2,000 years, humanity has advanced in science, technology, government, knowledge of the physical universe, and so many other areas. No one has ever improved on the ethical teachings of Jesus. And you can’t improve on Jesus’ saving work. He offered himself for our sins. He was the only one who came as both 100% God and 100% man. He is the only one qualified to be our Savior.
Jesus is both the better medium and the better message.
Angels & Intermediaries
Now that the author of Hebrews has introduced us to Jesus in this cursory way, he will compare Jesus with some of the things his audience is tempted to look to. The first thing he mentions are angels.
In some pockets of First Century Judaism, there was an intense interest in angels. Are angels a good thing? Yes, they are. They have their place in God’s creation. My mom collects angels. She has them all over her house.
It was thought by some in the First Century that when God said, “Let us make” in Genesis One he was talking to the angels. So God commanded that the universe be created and the angels actually did the work. So angels continued to have administration over various aspects of creation as principalities and powers. So if you knew which angel to talk to, you could get something done for you. (Sort of like someone praying to the right Saint.). They had a complex system of names for all these angels.
But the author of Hebrews is going to cite no less than Seven Old Testament Scriptures to show that the Son of God is so much better than the Angels of God.
So many people are looking for some sort of mediator between them and God.
- “Let me pray to a saint so they can get me in good with God.”
- “Let me find the right TV preacher to connect me with God.”
- “Let me find the right song to experience God’s presence.”
Hebrews tells us that the only mediator we need in Jesus. It is Jesus who created all things. It was Jesus that came to us in the form of a baby. It was Jesus that died for us. It was Jesus that rose again for us. I need no other go-between. In fact, you should be very suspicious of anyone that tries to place themselves between you and God… even if it is a pastor or teacher. If they don’t point you right to Jesus… run the other way.
Hebrews Chapter Two opens with a warning: Let’s not drift away from this great salvation shown to us in Jesus Christ. It is easy to drift when you are driving. You just start to naturally steer toward whatever you are looking at. Hebrews 12 is going to tell us to fix our eyes on Jesus.
Don’t drift. He is also going to tell us not to neglect: “How shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation?” Don’t neglect your salvation. Rejoice in your salvation. Study your salvation. Use your salvation to grow into the image of the one that saved you.
We have this better salvation. It was…
- Announced by the Lord
- Confirmed by the Apostles
- Testified by the coming of the Holy Spirit into our lives.
Through this Salvation God has brought many sons and daughter to glory!
Verse 10 used to confuse me. It says that God “made the pioneer of our salvation perfect through what he suffered.” Wasn’t Jesus perfect before he suffered? Absolutely he was… and is. But, through his suffering, he became perfect for ME. He became just the Savior I needed. A perfect sacrifice.
Hebrews 2:11 says that, by His death, Jesus brought me into his family and is not ashamed to call us his Brothers and Sisters. Jesus assumed my status so that I could assume his status with the Father.
Verse 14 expounds upon the mystery of the incarnation. God became flesh and blood. Why? He became like me so that I could become like Him. He broke the power of death, disarmed the Devil, and freed us from the slavery to our past.
He didn’t do this for any angel. He did it just for us. Just for you. Just for me.
A Compassionate High Priest
Because he took on human form, he understands human weakness. He knows what it is like to be tempted. He knows what it is like to be harassed by the devil. He knows what our human frailties are all about.
That makes him a “merciful and faithful high priest.” He suffered when he was tempted, and he is able to help us when we are tempted.
Hebrews has much more to say about the High Priesthood of Jesus. A priest represents God to the people, and the people to God. Like an angel, they are an intermediary. There is a sense in which every believer is a priest of God. That is one of the main tenets of the Protestant Reformation: “The Priesthood of all believers.” But this is just a reflection of our Great High Priest Jesus.
He is a better priest.
He brought a better sacrifice… his own blood.
If you read the Old Testament, you will learn more that you ever wanted to know about priesthood, the temple service, and sacrifices. The law goes into great detail how the tabernacle was to be laid out. How the priests were to dress. The sacrifices they were to offer.
There are detailed descriptions of how the Holy Place was to be furnished. This is the place where the priests did their work. You had the altar where the sacrifices were burned. You had the altar of incense.
Do you know what was never in the temple? A chair. The priests had no place to sit down because the work was never done.
Hebrews 1:3 says this about Jesus, “After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in Heaven.”
This sacrifice, the sacrifice of his own blood, he offered once and for all for your sin… past, present, and future. When this priest does a job, it is done. In fact, that is what my High Priest said from the cross, “It is finished.”
“He died for my future sins? I understand him dying for my past sins… but my future ones, too?” When he was on the cross, all your sins were future sins! He offered a sacrifice that was enough for you and me, once and for all.
When a believer doubts their forgiveness, they are really doubting whether the blood of Jesus was enough.
Let me tell you along with Hebrews: It is enough! God’s holiness is satisfied. Our big brother Jesus has pass through the Heavens for us. His work of salvation for us is complete.
So Great a Salvation!
Friends: Jesus is greater. He is greater than any mediator you and I could ever dream up. He is greater than our past. Greater than our sin. Greater that those things that bedevil us.
We are saved with a great salvation. If you don’t know this salvation, I invite you call upon Jesus to save you this very morning. If you have received this salvation, I challenge you to not drift from it… not neglect it. But fix your eyes and your heart on Jesus, the Captain of our Salvation.
One of the ways we fix our eyes on Jesus and his finished work is through Holy Communion. This is the God-ordained way for the redeemed to celebrate their redemption by the body and blood of Jesus. It is fitting that we end this message by coming to the table that declares we live under a new covenant instituted by his blood.