A man from Leeds, England visited his doctor to have his hearing checked. The doctor removed the man's hearing aid, and the patient's hearing immediately improved! He had been wearing the device in the wrong ear for over 20 years!
I once asked a pastor friend, "Do you have a deaf ministry in your church?" He replied, "There are times when I think the whole church needs a deaf ministry—they just don't seem to hear me."
There is a difference between listening and really hearing, Jesus often cried, "He who has ears to hear, let him hear!" This statement suggests that it takes more than physical ears to hear the voice of God. It also requires a receptive heart. "Today, if ye will hear His voice, harden not your hearts" (Heb. 3:7-8). Many people have avoided the Epistle to the Hebrews and, consequently, have robbed themselves of practical spiritual help. Some have avoided this book because they are "afraid of it." The "warnings" in Hebrews have made them uneasy. Others have avoided this book because they think it is "too difficult" for the average Bible student. To be sure, there are some profound truths in Hebrews, and no preacher or teacher would dare to claim that he knows them all! But the general message of the book is clear and there is no reason why you and I should not understand and profit from it.
Perhaps the best way to begin our study is to notice five characteristics of the Epistle to the Hebrews.
The word better is used thirteen times in this book as the writer shows the superiority of Jesus Christ and His salvation over the Hebrew system of religion. Christ is "better than the angels" (Heb. 1:4). He brought in "a better hope" (Heb. 7:19) because He is the Mediator of "a better covenant, which was established on better promises" (Heb. 8:6).
Another word that is repeated in this book is perfect; in the original Greek it is used fourteen times. It means a perfect standing before God. This perfection could never be accomplished by the levitical priesthood (Heb. 7:11) or by the Law (Heb. 7:19), nor could the blood of animal sacrifices achieve it (Heb. 10:1). Jesus Christ gave Himself as one offering for sin, and by this He has "perfected forever them that are sanctified" (Heb. 10:14).
So the writer is contrasting the Old Testament system of Law with the New Testament ministry of grace. He is making it clear that the Jewish religious system was temporary and that it could not bring in the eternal "better things" that are found in Jesus Christ.
Eternal is a third word that is important to the message of Hebrews. Christ is the "author of eternal salvation" (Heb. 5:9). Through His death, He "obtained eternal redemption" (Heb. 9:12) and He shares with believers "the promise of eternal inheritance" (Heb. 9:15). His throne is forever (Heb. 1:8) and He is a priest forever (Heb. 5:6; 6:20; 7:17, 21). "Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, and today, and forever" (Heb. 13:8).
When you combine these three important words, you discover that Jesus Christ and the Christian life He gives us are better because these blessings are eternal and they give us a perfect standing before God. The religious system under the Mosaic Law was imperfect because it could not accomplish a once-for-all redemption that was eternal.
But why did the writer ask his readers to evaluate their faith and what Jesus Christ had to offer them? Because they were going through difficult times and were being tempted to go back to the Jewish religion. The temple was still standing when this book was written, and all the priestly ceremonies were still being carried on daily. How easy it would have been for these Jewish believers to escape persecution by going back into the old Mosaic system which they had known before.
These people were "second generation believers," having been won to Christ by those who had known Jesus Christ during His ministry on earth (Heb. 2:3). They were true believers (Heb. 3:1) and not mere professors. They had been persecuted because of their faith (Heb. 10:32-34; 12:4; 13:13-14), and yet they had faithfully ministered to the needs of others who had suffered (Heb. 6:10). But they were being seduced by teachers of false doctrine (Heb. 13:9), and they were in danger of forgetting the true Word that their first leaders, now dead, had taught them (Heb. 13:7).
The tragic thing about these believers is that they were at a standstill spiritually and in danger of going backward (Heb. 5:12ff). Some of them had even forsaken the regular worship services (Heb. 10:25) and were not making spiritual progress (Heb. 6:1). In the Christian life, if you do not go forward, you go backward; there is no permanent standing still.
"How can you go back into your former religion?" the writer asked them. "Just take time to evaluate what you have in Jesus Christ. He is better than anything you ever had under the Law."
The Book of Hebrews exalts the person and the work of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. When you realize all that you have in and through Him, you have no desire for anyone else or anything else!
The writer calls this epistle "the word of exhortation" (Heb. 13:22). The Greek word translated "exhortation" simply means "encouragement." It is translated "comfort" in Romans 15:4, and "consolation" in 2 Corinthians 1:5-7; 7:7. This word is related to the Greek word translated "Comforter" in John 14:16, referring to the Holy Spirit. The Epistle to the Hebrews was not written to frighten people, but to encourage people. We are commanded to "encourage one another daily" (Heb. 3:13, niv). It reminds us that we have "strong encouragement" in Jesus Christ (Heb. 6:18, nasb).
At this point we must answer the usual question: "But what about those five terrible warnings found in Hebrews?"
To begin with, these five passages are not really "warnings." Three basic words are translated "warn" in the New Testament, and the only one used in Hebrews is translated "admonished" in Hebrews 8:5 (kjv, where it refers to Moses) and "spake" in Hebrews 12:25. Only in Hebrews 11:7 is it translated "warned," where it refers to Noah "being warned of God." I think that the best description of the five so-called warning passages is the one given in Hebrews 13:22—"exhortation" (kjv), or "encouragement" (berk). This does not minimize the seriousness of these five sections of the book, but it does help us grasp their purpose: to encourage us to trust God and heed His Word.
The Epistle to the Hebrews opens with an important declaration: "God... has spoken to us in His Son" (Heb. 1:1-2, nasb). Near the close of the book, the writer states: "See to it that you do not refuse Him who is speaking" (Heb. 12:25, nasb). In other words, the theme of Hebrews seems to be: "God has spoken; we have His Word. What are we doing about it?"
With this truth in mind, we can now better understand the significance of those five "problem passages" in Hebrews. Each of these passages encourages us to heed God's Word ("God ... has spoken") by pointing out the sad spiritual consequences that result if we do not. Let me list these passages for you and explain their sequence in the Book of Hebrews. I think you will see how they all hang together and present one message: heed God's word.
Drifting from the Word—2:1-4 (neglect)
Doubting the Word—3:7-4:13 (hard heart)
Dullness toward the Word—5:11-6:20
(sluggishness) Despising the Word—10:26-39
(willfulness) Defying the Word—12:14-29 (refusing to hear)
If we do not listen to God's Word and really hear it, we will start to drift. Neglect always leads to drifting, in things material and physical as well as spiritual. As we drift from the Word, we start to doubt the Word; because faith comes by hearing the Word of God (Rom. 10:17). We start to get hard hearts, and this leads to spiritual sluggishness which produces dullness toward the Word. We become "dull of hearing"—lazy listeners! This leads to a despiteful attitude toward the Word to the extent that we willfully disobey God; and this gradually develops into a defiant attitude—we almost "dare" God to do anything!
Now what does God do while this spiritual regression is going on? He keeps speaking to us, encouraging us to get back to the Word. If we fail to listen and obey, then He begins to chasten us. This chastening process is the theme of Hebrews 12, the climactic chapter in the epistle. "The Lord shall judge His people" (Heb. 10:30, italics mine). God does not allow His children to become "spoiled brats" by permitting them to willfully defy His Word. He always chastens in love.
These five exhortations are addressed to people who are truly born again. Their purpose is to get the readers to pay close attention to God's Word. While there is some stem language in some of these passages, it is my understanding that none of these exhortations "threatens" the reader by suggesting that he may "lose his salvation." If he persists in defying God's Word, he may lose his life ("Shall we not much rather be in subjection unto the Father of spirits, and live?"—Heb. 12:9). The inference is that if we do not submit, we might die. "There is a sin unto death" (1 John 5:16). But if the Epistle to the Hebrews teaches anything, it teaches the assurance of eternal life in a living High Priest who can never die (Heb. 7:22-28).
Some students try to explain away the "problem" of "losing your salvation" or "apostasy" by claiming that the readers were not truly born again, but were only "professors" of Christian faith. However, the way the writer addresses them would eliminate that approach; for he called them "holy brethren, partakers of the heavenly calling" (Heb. 3:1). He told them that they had a High Priest in heaven (Heb. 4:14), which he would not have written if they were lost. They had been "made partakers of the Holy Spirit" (Heb. 6:4). The admonitions in Hebrews 10:19-25 would be meaningless if addressed to unsaved people.
The Epistle to the Hebrews is a book of evaluation, proving that Jesus Christ is better than anything the Law of Moses has to offer. The epistle is also a book of exhortation, urging its readers to hear and heed the Word of God, lest they regress spiritually and experience the chastening hand of God.
As you study this book, you will find yourself asking: "What am I really trusting? Am I trusting the Word of God, or am I trusting the things of this world that are shaking and ready to fall away?"
This letter was written to believers at a strategic time in history. The temple was still standing and the sacrifices were still being offered. But in a few years, both the city and the temple would be destroyed. The Jewish nation would be scattered, and this would include Jewish believers in Jesus Christ. The ages were colliding! God was "shaking" the order of things (Heb. 12:25-29). He wanted His people to have their feet on the solid foundation of faith; He did not want them to trust in things that would vanish.
I believe that the church today is living in similar circumstances. Everything around us is shaking and changing. People are discovering that they have been depending on the "scaffolding" and not on the solid foundation. Even God's people have gotten so caught up in this world's system that their confidence is not in the Lord, but in money, buildings, programs, and other passing material things. As God continues to "shake" society, the scaffolding will fall away; and God's people will discover that their only confidence must be in the Word of God.
God wants our hearts to be "established with grace" (Heb. 13:9). That word "established" is used, in one form or another, eight times in Hebrews. It means: "to be solidly grounded, to stand firm on your feet." It carries the idea of strength, reliability, confirmation, permanence. This, I think, is the key message of Hebrews: "You can be secure while everything around you is falling apart!" We have a "kingdom which cannot be moved" (Heb. 12:28). God's Word is steadfast (Heb. 2:2) and so is the hope we have in Him (Heb. 6:19).
Of course, there is no security for a person who has never trusted Jesus Christ as his own Saviour from sin. Nor is there security to those who have made a "lip profession" but whose lives do not give evidence of true salvation (Matt. 7:21-27; Titus 1:16). Christ saves "to the uttermost" (i.e., "eternally") only those who have come to God through faith in Him (Heb. 7:25).
I like to tell congregations the story about the conductor who got on the train, began to take tickets, and told the first passenger whose ticket he took, "Sir, you're on the wrong train." When he looked at the next ticket, he told that passenger the same thing.
"But the brakeman told me to get on this train," the passenger protested.
"I'll double-check," said the conductor. He did and discovered that he was on the wrong train!
I fear there are many people who have a false faith, who have not really heard and heeded God's Word. Sometimes they are so busy telling everybody else what to do that they fail to examine their own situations. The Epistle to the Hebrews is a book of examination: it helps you discover where your faith really is.
The focus in this book is on the future. The writer informs us that he is speaking about "the world to come" (Heb. 2:5), a time when believers will reign with Christ. Jesus Christ is "heir of all things" (Heb. 1:2) and we share the "promise of eternal inheritance" (Heb. 9:15). Like the patriarchs lauded in Hebrews 11, we are looking for that future city of God (Heb. 11:10-16, 26).
Like these great men and women of faith, we today should be "strangers and pilgrims on the earth" (Heb. 11:13). This is one reason why God is shaking everything around us. He wants us to turn loose from the things of this world and stop depending on them. He wants us to center our attention on the world to come. This does not mean that we become so heavenly minded that we're no earthly good. Rather it means that we "hang loose" as far as this world is concerned, and start living for the eternal values of the world to come.
Abraham and Lot, his nephew, illustrate these two different attitudes (Gen. 13-14). Abraham was a wealthy man who could have lived in an expensive house in any location that he chose. But he was first of all God's servant, a pilgrim and a stranger; and this meant living in tents. Lot chose to abandon the pilgrim life and move into the evil city of Sodom. Which of these two men had true security? It would appear that Lot was safer in the city than Abraham was in his tents on the plain. But Lot became a prisoner of war! And Abraham had to rescue him.
Instead of heeding God's warning, Lot went back into the city; and when God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot lost everything (Gen. 19). Lot was a saved man (2 Peter 2:7), but he trusted in the things of this world instead of trusting the Word of God. Lot forfeited the permanent because he depended on and lived for the immediate.
Martyred missionary Jim Elliot said it best: "He is no fool to give what he cannot keep, to gain what he cannot lose."
You and I as God's children have been promised a future reward. As with Abraham and Moses of old, the decisions we make today will determine the rewards tomorrow. More than this, our decisions should be motivated by the expectation of receiving rewards. Abraham obeyed God because "he looked for a city" (Heb. 11:10). Moses forsook the treasures and the pleasures of Egypt because "he had respect unto the recompense of the reward" (Heb. 11:26). These great men and women (Heb. 11:31, 35) of faith "lived in the future tense" and thus were able to overcome the temptations of the world and the flesh.
In fact, it was this same attitude of faith that carried our Lord Jesus Christ through the agony of the cross: "Jesus... for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame" (Heb. 12:2). The emphasis in the Epistle to the Hebrews is: "Don't live for what the world will promise you today! Live for what God has promised you in the future! Be a stranger and a pilgrim on this earth! Walk by faith, not by sight!"
This letter is not a diet for "spiritual babes" who want to be spoon-fed and coddled (Heb; 5:11-14). In this letter you will find "strong meat" that demands some "spiritual molars" for chewing and enjoying. The emphasis in Hebrews is not on what Christ did on the earth (the "milk"), but what He is now doing in heaven (the "meat" of the Word). He is the great High Priest who enables us by giving us grace (Heb. 4:14-16). He is also the Great Shepherd of the sheep who equips us to do His will (Heb. 13:20-21). He is working in us to accomplish His purposes. What a thrill it is for us to be a part of such a marvelous ministry!
Dr. A.W. Tozer used to remind us, "Every man must choose his world." True believers have "tasted the good Word of God, and the powers of the world [age] to come" (Heb. 6:5); this should mean we have no interest in or appetite for the present sinful world system. Abraham chose the right world and became the father of the faithful. Lot chose the wrong world and became the father of the enemies of God's people (Gen. 19:30-38). Abraham became the friend of God (2 Chron. 20:7), but Lot became the friend of the world—and lost everything. Lot was "saved, yet so as by fire" (1 Cor. 3:15) and lost his reward.
The Epistle to the Hebrews exalts the person and the work of our Lord Jesus Christ. The first three verses set this high and holy theme which is maintained throughout the entire book. Their immediate purpose is to prove that Jesus Christ is superior to the prophets, men who were held in the highest esteem by the Jewish people.
In His person, Christ is superior to the prophets. To begin with, He is the very Son of God and not merely a man called by God. The author makes it clear that Jesus Christ is God (Heb. 1:3), for his description could never be applied to mortal man. "Brightness of His glory" refers to the shekinah glory of God that dwelt in the tabernacle and temple. (See Ex. 40:34-38 and 1 Kings 8:10. The word Shekinah is a transliteration of a Hebrew word that means "to dwell.") Christ is to the Father what the rays of the sun are to the sun. He is the radiance of God's glory. As it is impossible to separate the rays from the sun, it is also impossible to separate Christ's glory from the nature of God.
"Express image" (Heb. 1:3) carries the idea of "the exact imprint." Our English word character comes from the Greek word translated "image." Literally, Jesus Christ is "the exact representation of the very substance of God" (see Col. 2:9). Only Jesus could honestly say, "He that hath seen Me hath seen the Father" (John 14:9). When you see Christ, you see the glory of God (John 1:14).
In His work, Christ is also superior to the prophets. To begin with, He is the Creator of the universe; for by Him, God "made the worlds" (Heb. 1:2). Not only did Christ create all things by His Word (John 1:1-5), but He also upholds all things by that same powerful Word (Heb. 1:3). "And He is before all things, and by Him all things consist [hold together]" (Col. 1:17).
The word "upholding" (Heb. 1:3) does not mean "holding up," as though the universe is a burden on the back of Jesus. It means "holding and carrying from one place to another." He is the God of Creation and the God of providence who guides this universe to its divinely ordained destiny.
He is also the superior Prophet who declares God's Word. The contrast between Christ, the Prophet, and the other prophets, is easy to see:
|God the Son||Men called by God|
|One Son||Many prophets|
|A final and complete message||A fragmentary and incomplete message|
Of course, both the Old Testament and the Gospel revelation came from God; but Jesus Christ was God's "last word" as far as revelation is concerned. Christ is the source, center, and end of everything that God has to say.
But Jesus Christ has a ministry as Priest, and this reveals His greatness. By Himself He "purged our sins" (Heb. 1:3). This aspect of His ministry will be explained in detail in Hebrews 7-10.
Finally, Jesus Christ reigns as King (Heb. 1:3). He has sat down, for His work is finished; and He has sat down "on the right hand of the Majesty on high," the place of honor. This proves that He is equal with God the Father, for no mere created being could ever sit at God's right hand.
Creator, Prophet, Priest, and King—Jesus Christ is superior to all of the prophets and servants of God who have ever appeared on the sacred pages of the Scriptures. It is no wonder that the Father said, at the hour of Christ's transfiguration, "This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; hear ye Him" (Matt. 17:5). Two of the greatest prophets were there with Jesus—Moses and Elijah; but Christ is superior to them.
As we study Hebrews together, we must keep in mind that our purpose is not to get lost in curious doctrinal details. Nor is our purpose to attack or defend some pet doctrine. Our purpose is to hear God speak in Jesus Christ, and to heed that Word. We want to echo the prayer of the Greeks: "Sir, we would see Jesus" (John 12:21). If our purpose is to know Christ better and exalt Him more, then whatever differences we may have in our understanding of the book will be forgotten in our worship of Him.