A Survey of the Book of Hebrews
In this study paper, I present a brief survey of the Book of Hebrews, and bring out some of the main ideas which the writer wishes to convey. To simplify this difficult task, I have summarized seven points in which Christ and the gospel are shown as superior to the covenant and system connected with Moses. As R.F. Weymouth states, in his introduction to the Book of Hebrews: "The unquestionably divine origin of the Jewish dispensation is made use of for laying emphasis upon the infinitely superior glory of the Christian order. ... if the shadow was divine, how much more must the substance be!" (New Testament in Modern Speech, p. 596).
The Book of Hebrews, then, presents the idea that the "substance" is superior to the "shadow", and the "new" is superior to the "old". The word "better" is used thirteen times in the Book of Hebrews (Young's Concordance). Let us consider this "something better" (Heb. 11:40) for the new covenant believer, as presented in the Epistle to the Hebrews.
In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature, upholding the universe by his word of power. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has obtained is more excellent than theirs.
But we see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for every one.
With respect to the excellence of the name of Jesus, we read in Phil. 2:8-11:
And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
So, we see, then, from the above scriptural references, that the excellence of the name of Jesus is connected with his humility in assuming human form (made lower than the angels) and his obedience unto death on a cross.
Therefore, holy brethren, who share in a heavenly call, consider Jesus, the apostle and high priest of our confession. He was faithful to him who appointed him, just as Moses was faithful in God's house. Yet Jesus has been counted worthy of as much more glory than Moses as the builder of a house has more honor than the house. (For every house is built by some one, but the builder of all things is God.) Now Moses was faithful in all God's house as a servant, to testify to the things that were to be spoken later, but Christ was faithful over God's house as a son. And we are his house if we hold fast our confidence and pride in our hope.
Here, we learn that Moses testified "to the things that were to be spoken later", which directs us to the new covenant. And the symbol of the house here mentioned is taken from Numbers 12:6-7:
And he said, 'Hear my words: If there is a prophet among you, I the LORD make myself known to him in a vision, I speak with him in a dream. Not so with my servant, Moses; he is entrusted with all my house.'
We see, then, that Moses (the servant) is great, but the Son (Christ) is far greater!
For we who have believed enter that rest, as he has said, 'As I swore in my wrath, They shall never enter my rest', although his works were finished from the foundation of the world. For he has somewhere spoken of the seventh day in this way, 'And God rested on the seventh day from all his works.' And again in this place he said, 'They shall never enter my rest.' Since therefore it remains for some to enter it, and those who formerly received the good news failed to enter because of disobedience, again he sets a certain day, 'Today', saying through David so long afterward, in the words already quoted 'Today, when you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.' For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not speak later of another day. So then, there remains a sabbath rest for the people of God; for whoever enters God's rest also ceases from his labours as God did from his.
We read here an intricate explanation of the sabbath rest. We are told that Joshua, who led the Israelites into the Promised Land, did not give the people rest. So, "today", there remains a sabbath rest for God's people. This reference to "today" shows us that this must refer to the believers under the new covenant. These new covenant believers, then, enter God's rest by ceasing from their labours; that is, they no longer rely on works to enter that rest, but rather enter that rest through faith. So, the "sabbath rest" pictures salvation through faith, as we read of in Eph. 2:8: "For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God -- not because of works, lest any man should boast."
For this Melchizedek, king of Salem, priest of the Most High God, met Abraham returning from the slaughter of the kings and blessed him; and to him Abraham apportioned a tenth part of everything. He is first, by translation of his name, king of righteousness, and then he is also king of Salem, that is, king of peace. He is without father or mother or genealogy, and has neither beginning of days nor end of life, but resembling the Son of God he continues a priest for ever.
In the passage above, Melchizedek represents a "royal" priesthood, for his name means both king of righteousness and king of peace.
Now if perfection had been attainable through the Levitical priesthood (for under it the people received the law), what further need would there have been for another priest to arise after the order of Melchizedek, rather than one named after the order of Aaron? For when there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the law as well. For the one of whom these things are spoken belonged to another tribe, from which no one has ever served at the altar. For it is evident that our Lord was descended from Judah, and in connection with that tribe Moses said nothing about priests.
From the above passage, we understand that perfection was not attainable through the Levitical priesthood. Thus, Jesus is pictured as that other priest "to arise after the order of Melchizedek".
This becomes even more evident when another priest arises in the likeness of Melchizedek, who has become a priest, not according to a legal requirement concerning bodily descent but by the power of an indestructible life.
Thus it was necessary for the copies of the heavenly things to be purified with these rites, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these. For Christ has entered, not into a sanctuary made with hands, a copy of the true one, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf.
In the above passage, Christ is pictured as the mediator between God and man, for he has entered the "sanctuary" of heaven, there to "appear in the presence of God on our behalf."
Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said, 'Sacrifices and offerings thou hast not desired, but a body hast thou prepared for me; in burnt offerings and sin offerings thou hast taken no pleasure. Then I said, Lo, I have come to do thy will, O God, as it is written of me in the roll of the book'. When he said above, 'Thou hast neither desired nor taken pleasure in sacrifices and offerings and burnt offerings and sin offerings' (these are offered according to the law), then he added 'Lo, I have come to do thy will.' He abolishes the first in order to establish the second. And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.
In the above passage, we learn that the sacrifices offered according to the law have been abolished in order to establish Christ's superior sacrifice. And we are told that by the will of God, new covenant believers have been "sanctified" (set apart as holy) through the offering of the body of Jesus once for all.
In Hebrews 11:1, there is a definition of faith: "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." The writer of Hebrews then goes on to list many heroes of faith from the old covenant, and also to speak of their faithful acts. At the end of the 11th chapter, we read: (verses 39-40): "And all these [heroes of faith], though well attested by their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had foreseen something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect."
Now, as the writer to the Hebrews is writing to new covenant believers, he again points them to Jesus: "Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith ... " (Hebrews 12:1-2).
Thus, the new covenant, with its promises based on faith in Christ, is superior. And just how superior is shown in Hebrews 12:22-24: "But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven, and to a judge who is God of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant ..."
In conclusion, I would ask: Is the Book of Hebrews relevant for believers today? And for an answer, I will turn to Explore the Book, where J. Sidlow Baxter tells us: "The Holy Spirit has overruled the writing of it [the Book of Hebrews] to reveal great and precious truths, such as that of our Lord's heavenly priesthood, which all believers need to know. Although its standpoint is primarily Hebrew, it expounds some of the profoundest fundamentals of the Christian revelation, and should be mastered by all who would know with fulness the provisions which are ours in the new covenant." (Part VI, p. 267).
Baxter, J. Sidlow, Explore the Book, 1966: Marshall, Morgan,
and Scott, Ltd. (London).
Holy Bible (Revised Standard Version), 1972: Thomas Nelson Inc. (Nashville).
Weymouth, R.F., New Testament in Modern Speech, 1978: Kregel Publications (Grand Rapids).
Young, Robert, Analytical Concordance to the Holy Bible, 1971: United Society for Christian Literature (London).
Copyright © 1996 by Deborah Cox
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