Why Hebrews?

Back in late 1977, everyone seemed to be talking about a new science fiction film: Star Wars – and it’s still talked about today! It had all the elements of a great story; good versus evil, the small Rebel Alliance pitted against the Empire and its death star, heroes and villains. We became acquainted with futuristic ‘blasters’ and light sabres as well as the phrase that has entered common parlance ‘may the force be with you.’ Some Christians have noted some Christian themes in the film series such as athe struggle between good and evil, but at its heart Star Wars has what seems to me to be a deeply unchristian view of good and evil. They are presented as connected features of ‘The Force’ :the so-called dark and light side.

The bible presents a very different picture of reality. There is a personal God of the Universe (rather than an impersonal force), in fact he’s beyond the universe as his existence is not dependent on matter, time and space. He is the creator of all that we see. God is presented as the source and possessor of all that is right and good. As for evil, the bible gives us some remarkable insights into its origin (and it does have an origin). An appreciation of these insights will help us as we come to  study this book of Hebrews.

  1. Eternity past

We live in time and space, but we are aware of a reality that is beyond time and space. If something is not bounded by time we tend to think that application of time terminology is somehow inappropriate, but the bible speaks of an eternity past (before the formation of the world) and apparently an eternity future that comes after the existing heaven and earth are ‘passed away’ (Revelation 21:1). Some events took place before the foundation of the world that have a significant bearing on our lives and of those of the Hebrews.

Two  passages in the Old Testament give us some insights into the career of the angel Lucifer also known as Satan. The passages are in Isaiah (14:12-15) and Ezekiel (28:11-19). Both passages seem to simultaneously describe features of earthly kings and Lucifer. Before the world was made it seems that God created a group of beings we know as angels, the number of angels created is not disclosed, but it seems that they form a large number: ‘countless thousands’ or ‘innumerable’ (Hebrews 12:22), 10,000 times 10,000 (probably meaning ‘a very large number’ but literally 100 million – Revelation 5:11). The greatest angel among these was Lucifer (which means ‘bearer of light’). Lucifer was given an official  position: You were anointed as a guardian cherub, for so I ordained you (Ezekiel 28:14). In Ezekiel’s day, kings with authority were ordained (Hebrew word Mimshach). Lucifer had been given a position of delegated authority. Thus, God handed some of his sovereignty to Lucifer. This may seem like a strange even risky course of action, but God does not make robots! He makes persons with ability to willingly love him and worship him. Lucifer’s original condition was one of perfection: You were the seal of perfection, full of wisdom and perfect in beauty (Ezekiel 28:12b). Some theologians have suggested that just as the role of Jesus is to represent God’s love, light and life to this world, so also (as his name partly indicates) Lucifer had a similar role of representing God’s light, love and life in the heaven domain. Lucifer however exercised his God-given free will to choose to rebel against God and take God’s glory for himself. Lucifer’s desire was to ‘raise my throne above the stars of God,’ and to ‘make myself like the Most High (Isaiah 14).’ As Ezekiel records of Lucifer, ‘wickedness was found in you.’ It is clear that Lucifer desired nothing less than God’s universal throne! Lucifer was not alone in his rebellion; we learn that a number of angels joined him– Revelation 12 indicates that as many as a third of the created angels followed in Lucifer’s rebellion.

God’s response to this rebellion was to remove from Lucifer his authority to rule, he was removed from office and was ‘driven in disgrace from the mount of God (Ezekiel 28).’ The mount of God here seems to refer to the governing authority of God. Satan would still have access to the heaven domain but would no longer have authority in it. Moreover, the bible indicates that Lucifer from that point was to be known as Satan, which means accuser or adversary.

  1. The creation

Just as God had made Lucifer and seems to have granted him a delegated authority in the heaven domain, so God also made man and granted him a delegated authority in the earth domain. Genesis 1:  Man was to rule over, or have dominion over God’s created earth. Genesis 1: ‘Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground (verse 26).’ The Psalmist states: ‘what is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them? You have made them a little lower than the angels and crowned them with glory and honour.You made them rulers over the works of your hands; you put everything under their feet.’ These are remarkable indicators of the value of human life and of our original place in God’s creation. It is a tragic fact in our period of history that every school and university in the United Kingdom teaches our children and young people that human beings are of no intrinsic value, we are just collections of biochemicals that have arisen from the primordial sludge. If we do not understand our origins and our God-given place in this world how can we hope to live meaningful lives?

Into the perfect created world stepped Satan! His plan was to take God’s kingdom from him and to ascend to make himself ‘like the most high.’ It seems that part of his plan was to take control of earth domain from mankind. Satan’s efforts to take control involved three progressive elements, firstly he introduced a doubt of God’s sincerity into the minds of Adam and Eve: ‘Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’ (Genesis 3:1).’ Secondly, he denied the truth of God’s word, in response to Eve’s recounting of God’s instruction not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, Satan simply denied God’s word: ‘you will not certainly die.’ Finally, Satan defamed God’s character: ‘For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’ Satan was in effect saying that God could not be trusted, he was deliberately and dishonestly holding back from Adam and Eve. This all sounds sickeningly familiar. Stephen Fry, the famous English actor, adored by the British public, states with great conviction that there is no God, and if there was a God he would say to him, ‘Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world that is so full of injustice and pain.’

We know the story, both Adam and Eve disobeyed God’s specific instruction and in so doing they surrendered their role as rulers of earth domain to Satan. This world now belonged to Satan. The impact on mankind was profound. The instruction not to eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil was accompanied by a consequence: ‘you shall certainly die (Genesis 2: 17).’ The original Hebrew mentions death twice, it can be translated ‘to die you shall die’ or ‘in dying you shall die.’ In what sense did this impact mankind? It seems that Adam’s sin brought about a double death in the sense that there was a spiritual death – the relationship between Adam and God was ended and secondly there was a physical death – one day Adam’s physical life would come to an end. This is the world we inhabit, a world in which mankind has lost its place as God’s delegated rulers of earth domain, a world in which mankind is dead spiritually and has an inbuilt destiny of physical death, a world that is now Satan’s territory.

  1. God’s response

In dealing with man’s rebellion and Satan’s acquisition of mankind’s rulership of earth domain, God set in train a restoration programme. The key elements of the restoration programme are contained in the statement God made to the serpent (Satan) after man’s fall. Here’s the key part of that statement: ‘And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel (Genesis 3).’ In many ways this statement is a summary of the entire bible-story. So who exactly are these players and how will all of this play out?

The serpent who successfully tempted Adam and Eve was of course Satan himself. If Satan was indeed going to appropriate God’s universal kingdom he needed to have control of earth domain and he needed to develop his own group of subjects over which to rule. In God’s design, mankind was to take the role of delegated ruler – Satan thus required his man to ultimately take this role. In the final book of the bible we discover more about Satan the serpent and his offspring and how God’s prophecy will work out. First, Satan the serpent is described thus (Revelation 12:9): ‘The great dragon was hurled down, that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him.’ This ejection of Satan from the heaven domain prepares the way for a final confrontation between Satan, his offspring, the woman and the offspring of the woman. Who then is the woman? In Revelation 12 we read the following: ‘A great and wondrous sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth,’ and then in verse 4: ‘The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that he might devour her child the moment it was born. She gave birth to a son, a male child, who will rule all the nations with an iron sceptre. And her child was snatched up to God and to his throne.’ It seems that the identity of the woman is Israel, the symbolism of the sun, moon and 12 stars reminds us of Joseph’s dream of the founding family of Israel (Genesis 37). The offspring of the woman is of course the Messiah, Jesus: ‘She gave birth to a son, a male child, who will rule all the nations with an iron sceptre. And her child was snatched up to God and to his throne (Revelation 12:5).’ This leaves the identity of the offspring of Satan – again Revelation (chapter 13) gives us the identity and career of this individual: And I saw a beast coming out of the sea. He had ten horns and seven heads, with ten crowns on his horns, and on each head a blasphemous name.The dragon gave the beast his power and his throne and great authority.’

We could summarise these and God’s prophecy in the diagram below. We see enmity between Satan and the woman and a conflict between Satan and the offspring of the woman. Satan will strike the heel of the offspring of the woman. The bite of a snake is often associated with death. You will recall the time during Israel’s wandering in the wilderness: as a judgment for the rebellion of the people God sent venomous snakes among the people. Many who were bitten died. In God’s mercy a solution that simply required faith was provided, all the people had to do was to look at a snake Moses had made of bronze and they would live. Satan would strike the heel of the offspring of the woman – this would be a deadly strike. We know that this is indeed what happened as Jesus was killed on the cross. The offspring of the woman however would crush the head of the serpent. The Hebrew word translated as ‘head’ can mean literal head but often means chief or rulership or leadership. Given the context of Satan’s efforts to usurp God’s rulership of his universal kingdom and the immediate context of Satan’s take-over of the delegated rulership of mankind in the earth domain, it seems that the crushing of Satan’s head by the offspring of the woman is about the removal of Satan’s rulership of the earth domain. Currently Satan is the ruler of this world, he is thus described by the Lord himself (John 12:31).

Hebrews 1

You may be wondering what all this has got to do with an introduction to the book of Hebrews! There is a key role played by the woman in this great battle. The woman we have identified as Israel. It is thus not at all surprising that Israel features as one of the most prominent themes in the bible. I once estimated (on the basis of numbers of pages of text) that almost 90% of the bible text concerns Israel. Satan no doubt calculates that if he can destroy both the woman and her offspring, he will win this war. History tells us that Israel has come under Satanic attack down through the years – they admittedly often haven’t helped themselves much, but even within the last 100  years we have seen an attempt to obliterate the Jews and now that they have to a degree returned to their land, many nations have as their stated aim to destroy Israel. Many in one of the main political parties in the UK hold strong antisemitic views. This shows us that this war is not yet over. As we study the book of Hebrews we will see that God’s work with Israel over the centuries is not finished, it cannot be, the final victory over sin and death and Satan is dependent on it!