Unexpressed (and often unwitting assumptions) and confirmation bias can easily cloud our thinking and judgment. Since we live in the ‘church age’ and since this era has continued for the best part of 2,000 years, we tend to approach the bible from a church age-perspective. The reality is that the bible is a Hebrew book.
From the 12th chapter of Genesis, all the Old Testament relates to the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. In the New Testament, the gospels are concerned with the ministry of Jesus to Jews. The first third of the book of Acts relates to activities of the disciples in Jerusalem and other New Testament books such as Romans, Galatians, Hebrews, James and Peter’s epistles address Jewish themes.
In his letter to the Romans, the apostle Paul explains how and why there is a divergence in God’s dealing with Israel and Gentiles. In describing the rejection of both Jesus and Holy Spirit, he likens Israel to an Olive tree: because of their unbelief, branches of the tree were broken off. This enabled branches of a wild olive shoot (non-Hebrews) to be grafted onto the original Hebrew root. This picture describes the church age, but Paul warns the Gentile branches not to become arrogant of their new position. Paul is very clear that there will come a time when Israel will be restored: ‘how much more readily will these, the natural branches, be grafted into their own olive tree! 25 I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers and sisters, so that you may not be conceited: Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in, 26 and in this way all Israel will be saved. (Romans 11: 24-25).’
It thus seems likely that the letter to the Hebrews has high relevance for the Hebrews once ‘the full number of the Gentiles has come in.’ This is consistent with the introductory setting in chapter 1 verse 2: ‘in these last days.’ Moreover, since the book was likely to have been written just prior to the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 AD, by which time God’s focus was on the church composed largely of ‘ingrafted branches,’ the book will become highly relevant to Hebrews when the process of re-grafting back into the olive tree takes place. This raises a question as to the benefits that re-grafting will bring. Israel’s role is to be a light to Gentiles and to bring glory to God: Jerusalem will become a centre of worship once Jesus returns in power and sets up his Jerusalem-based kingdom on earth.
Chapter 2 begins with one of five specific warnings in the letter. It seems best to understand these warnings as relating to Israel’s future role as the nation through whom God will bring about his righteous reign on earth. More of this later.
- Paying careful attention
There is a general sense in which we must all pay careful attention to spiritual things. When we believe in the Lord Jesus and receive him we become his children. This is the new birth and it is an irreversible process: once we are God’s children, we cannot become anything less. But we can be obedient children or disobedient children! Paying attention to what we have heard is important for our spiritual health, but this idea is most likely not what the writer to the Hebrews is getting at in verse 1 (We must pay the most careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away). The issue is ‘salvation.’ The question is what salvation? In our church-age we rightly think of salvation as the new birth: the receiving of Jesus as our rescuer, forgiveness of sin, a new life and the presence of the Holy Spirit. This is indeed salvation, but there is a specific and different salvation that Hebrews speak of. When Jesus was presented in the Temple, Simeon took the baby in his arms and declared 9 ‘Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may now dismiss your servant in peace. 30 For my eyes have seen your salvation, 31which you have prepared in the sight of all nations: 32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.’ Simeon saw that in Jesus there would be a salvation that would concern bringing glory to Israel. Likewise, on the same occasion, Anna on seeing the baby, gave thanks and ‘spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.’
This salvation was first announced by the Lord, was confirmed to those who heard the Lord and was further confirmed by signs, wonders, miracles and gifts of the Holy Spirit (verse 3). The message of Jesus was delivered to Jews and was simply ‘repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand (Matthew 4:17).’ If the people had a change of mind, then the circumstances would be created for the coming of the kingdom and God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven. The prophet Isaiah described in detail the conditions that would prevail on earth under the righteous rule of the Messiah, he described how the ‘eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped…the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy (Isaiah 35:5).’ Interestingly when John’s disciples asked if Jesus really was the Messiah, they were invited to review the evidence: ‘Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor (Luke 7:22).’ This was a foretaste of the salvation that Israel was to look for. Similarly, when the Holy Spirit came, the disciples and early believers were given glimpses of the coming kingdom by means of signs, wonders and miraculous gifts: ‘12 The apostles performed many signs and wonders among the people. ... 16 Crowds gathered also from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing those who were ill and those tormented by impure spirits, and all of them were healed (Acts 5).’ Thus, with this salvation in mind, the Hebrews are warned: ‘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?’ Failure to pay ‘the most careful attention’ could lead to the Hebrews drifting away. The Greek verb for drift away is pararrhueō, which means to glide by or pass by. Whilst on holiday in Turkey last year we had an evening sail and just before the sun went down, we swam near one of the islands off the coast of Kalkan. To our concern, as we swam in the sea, the skipper of the boat had some trouble in getting the anchor to bite and started to drift away from us. It wasn’t far, but it was far enough! a modest current meant that we were soon struggling to get back close to the boat. We had drifted away from safety. The Hebrews needed to heed the message of God’s provision of salvation for Israel, judgment would come on the generation that ignored this. Sadly, Israel’s history is of such repeated failure – there could be no escape if this salvation was ignored. We too can learn from this in our church age, our salvation is guaranteed by the blood of Jesus, but what a dreadful thing it is when we show such little concern for the importance of what God has done for us: we too must pay careful attention to what we have heard.
- A coming kingdom
The coming of the Messiah will involve the salvation of Israel as well as the removal of Satan from his position of rulership on the earth (see Revelation 20). Who exactly will reign on the earth at this time? Not the angels, but rather man. This is true restoration of the original set up on earth when Adam was given a position of rulership. Adam sinned and his sin had an impact on us all. The apostle Paul says that we are all ‘in Adam.’ We are all affected by his sin, we are all alienated from God. Mankind lost the position of rulership on the earth and Satan took over. Adam was given a place in God’s order that was distinct from that of the angels. The writer quotes from Psalm 8 in relation to Adam and mankind’s original place in God’s creation: ‘What is mankind that you are mindful of them, a son of man that you care for him? You made them a little lower than the angels; you crowned them with glory and honour and put everything under their feet.’ Note how this original state is so very different from the ideas propounded today. We are told that we are just part of the animal kingdom, our origins are in lower forms of life. No. We are created in God’s image and mankind’s original estate was that of being crowned with glory and honour. Rather than being just another animal ‘everything was under their feet.’
This elevated status is not however what we observe: ‘yet at present we do not see everything subject to them (verse 8b).’ Indeed, we do not: we observe the result of being in Adam, of being subject to sin and death and separation from God, living in a fallen world under Satan’s rulership. Thankfully this is not all we see! We see Jesus too! ‘9 But we do see Jesus, who was made lower than the angels for a little while, now crowned with glory and honour because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.’ God has provided a solution to the problem of Adam we are all ‘in Adam’ that is our nature. The apostle Paul describes Adam as the ‘first man’ but there is a ‘second man’ (1 Corinthians 14: 47). The failure of the first man brought sin and death to us all, but the second man, Jesus Christ has changed the game! Notice how the writer to the Hebrews takes the statement from Psalm 8 (which describes the original status of Adam before the fall) and applies it to the second man: ‘But we do see Jesus, who was made lower than the angels for a little while, now crowned with glory and honour (verse 9).’ How so? Because ‘he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.’ The death and degeneration that Adam brought to all (we are all in Adam) could be changed because Jesus took that death on himself on behalf of everyone. How can this come about? There is only one way, we must be in Christ rather than in Adam. This comes about by Faith. Faith has been (wrongly) described as belief in something for which there is no evidence. Faith is committing to something (or someone) based on evidence. I have faith that the National Westminster bank will take care of my money (based on their track record and security systems and infrastructure), I do not have faith that my money would be safe in a tin box under my bed. Jesus did indeed die on the cross and the evidence shows convincingly that he conquered death, it is in this person that we put our faith.
In discussing this work of Jesus in restoring mankind’s place, we do not talk just of the Hebrews but of everyone. This is because Jesus suffered death ‘so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.’ His death is for all, all may be rescued and restored, but this is not forced on all against their will. It is for those who believe.
- More about Jesus
The final 9 verses of chapter 2 seem to speak of at least four things, 1). Jesus is the pioneer of salvation who brings a completion to God’s plan through the cross, 2). Those who believe become members of God’s family, 3). The power of death is broken, and finally 4). There is present help available through Jesus.
Verse 10 speaks of bringing many ‘sons and daughters to glory.’ This is about the difference it makes being in Adam or being in Christ. As a result of the fall, men and women are not the way they ought to be and not the way that God intended them to be, but in Christ they are brought to glory, to their rightful place. For sure this is not yet fully accomplished, but when we believe we are restored to a position of glory as we shall see in the next few verses. It is through this that God makes ‘the pioneer of their salvation perfect through what he suffered.’ What could this mean? Jesus is indeed the pioneer; he is the first to bring about this transformation and it comes through his suffering on the cross. In what sense could he be made perfect? Isn’t he already perfect? The Greek word translated perfect in the NIV bible has been translated ‘to carry to the goal of consummation.’ The word speaks of an intended goal and the realisation of that goal. At the beginning of the year, many companies set out the goals for their projects and their business – at the end of the year, bonuses for staff are awarded based on the goals that are successfully reached. Jesus reached the goal of being the pioneer of mankind’s rescue though his suffering.
The impact of what Jesus accomplished is far reaching; ‘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.’ The remarkable thing is that when we participate in this rescue we become of the same family as Jesus Christ and Jesus is ‘not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters.’ If the Hebrews had any doubt about this, the writer quotes from the Old Testament to back up his statements (see verses 12 and 13).
In our natural state we are held under the power of the evil one – he is the one who exercises power over this world and that power involves the power of death. Mankind is in fear of death. There is something unnatural about death, it is not the way that God intended mankind to be. It is through the death of the Lord Jesus Christ that the power of death is rendered inoperative (verse 14 and 15). For the Christian, there is great comfort in this: Jesus has already demonstrated his power over death! How the disciples were amazed when they met the risen Lord Jesus - his death and resurrection give us confidence that we need not be held in the slavery that is the fear of death.
I think the older one gets the more one sees just how difficult and testing life can be! When we were learning to ski the other week, the instructor said that he would progressively make things more difficult for us! There would be the risk of falling as he took us on steeper slopes and on parts of the piste that were more challenging. He knew from his own experience what this was like, he knew the fear of facing a steep incline on slippery skis! Because of this, he knew just how far to push, and he knew how to help us navigate (what was for us) testing parts of the slopes. In the same way, Jesus has been through it all himself, he knows what it is to sweat drops of blood. Because of this, he can help when we go through the tests that life inevitably brings. What great encouragement this will be for Hebrews as they go through difficult days and what a great encouragement this is for us too!