Hebrews is written to Hebrews. Hebrews is not written to Gentile Christians. Whilst not all God’s word may be written to us, we can certainly say that all of God’s word has been written for us – there is much in Hebrews that is helpful for us as Gentile Christians.
The story of the Hebrews is one of promise and failure. God has founded his rescue plan for this world on promises he made to Abraham. It is through the promises to this nation that Jesus has already come as a sacrifice for our sin, it is through the promises to this nation that the gift of the Holy Spirit came and it will be through the promises to this nation that God’s kingdom will fully come on earth as it is in heaven. The failures however are just as clear just as the promises! Much of the story line of the bible is the failure of the Hebrews to fulfil the role than God had set out for them. That’s not to say that there are not many wonderful examples of faith to be found in individual Hebrews (as we shall see in chapter 11), but collectively the people have been a failure. They still are today.
The prophet Zechariah foresaw a time when the Hebrews would collectively turn back to God. It would come at a time of great opposition from all the nations. Zechariah describes a dark day when the nations, in a programme inspired by Satan’s ambition to completely dominate this world, would seek to destroy God’s chosen people. It would be under these dire circumstances that Zechariah records these words: “10 ‘And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and supplication. They will look on me, the one they have pierced, and they will mourn for him as one mourns for an only child, and grieve bitterly for him as one grieves for a firstborn son.” The people will be cleansed from ‘sin and impurity (Zechariah 13:1).’ This will a time of great testing for God’s repentant people, the oppression of the nations will be great (see Zechariah 14:2), but God will come and fight for his people and he will be king over all the earth.
The Hebrews will need great encouragement to get through those dark days. There seems little doubt that this 4th chapter of Hebrews will be used to fortify their resolve during that time of testing. We can learn from this too as we go through periods of testing in the church.
- A rest for the people of God
Moses had led the people out of the slavery of Egypt and God had facilitated and enabled this by a series of remarkable miracles. God’s promises to Abraham (of a land and blessing) were about to be fulfilled, all that was required was faith in the promises, faith based on the evidence of God’s remarkable deeds in Egypt and in the escape across the Red Sea. As the people stood ready to enter the land, Moses sent 12 spies to check things out. The report came back that the land was ‘flowing with milk and honey!’ It was just as God had promised, but there was a problem – the towns were fortified with thick high walls and many of the people were huge and formidable. Ten of the spies reported that the task was too difficult, they could not and should not enter the land for fear of their lives: the nation would be wiped out. Two spies had faith however; Joshua and Caleb. They urged the people to enter, God would be with them as he had been when they came out of Egypt. It was time for the people to collectively choose what they would do. This was a moment of decision. The bible is replete with instances of people faced with moral choices, choices that would impact their immediate and ultimate destiny. How would the people choose? When it came, their decision was unambiguous and decisive: ‘we should choose a leader and go back to Egypt (Numbers 14: 4).’ They did not enter the land, in fact the generation who made this decision were sentenced to 40 years of wandering in the wilderness: they never did enter the land of milk and honey, that generation would never ‘enter his rest (Hebrews 3: 18).’
Now the writer to the Hebrews makes this remarkable statement: ‘since the promise of his rest still stands, let us be careful that none of you be found to have fallen short of it.’ The Hebrews are to face another point of decision. It seems that the writer assumes that his readers have expressed faith, they are born again, but now they must stay resolute as a group in order to bring about the rest they eschewed all those years ago.
It seems that at each of Israel’s key points of decision, the good news was proclaimed to them. In our Christian era we automatically assume that the good news (gospel) is the message that Jesus has died for the sins of the world and that each person can receive forgiveness, new birth and eternal life by believing on him. This is indeed the gospel, but a gospel was preached to Israel before Jesus died on the cross. What good news was this? It was preached by John the Baptist (e.g. Luke 3: 18), the disciples (e.g. Luke 9:6) and by Jesus himself (e.g. Luke 4:18). This gospel was about the coming kingdom of God: the message for Israel was to repent, to be ready to welcome the king who would sit on David’s throne. Acceptance would bring rest. The message preached by John, Jesus and the disciples brought no rest for that generation, why? because that generation did not obey (verse 2 and 7). Now there is a new opportunity for Israel: ‘6 Therefore since it still remains for some to enter that rest, and since those who formerly had the good news proclaimed to them did not go in because of their disobedience, 7 God again set a certain day, calling it ‘Today’ (verses 6 and 7).’ The writer now quotes from Psalm 95 for the 4th time: ‘Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.’ The key point is that whilst God has promised a day when this rest will be realised (the coming of his kingdom on earth, the rule of the Messiah on David’s throne and so on) it can only be realised when the Hebrew people hear the message and are receptive to it. Entering the rest is thus dependent on the collective choice of the Hebrews.
If we take a look back to Psalm 95 we see that it comes in two parts, the first part expresses the features of the rest that was available to Israel: the Psalmist speaks of joy, thanksgiving, music and song, he speaks of the Lord as king of the earth and of a worshipful relationship of Israel with the Lord. Having described the conditions that this rest will bring, the Psalmist warns of the impact of failure to hear God’s voice – it is this warning that the writer to the Hebrews refers to.
- The word of God
The writer to the Hebrews has been urging the people not to repeat the mistakes of previous generations. Having made this warning, he now brings two important aspects of the warning to the attention of the Hebrews, first he speaks of God’s discernment in judgment and second God’s deliverance in grace.
The judgment spoken of concerns God’s word. Here’s what the writer says: ‘12 For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.’ There is some evidence that the biblical view of mankind is that we are comprised of body, soul and spirit. The body enables us to be conscious of the world around us through our senses, the soul enables us to be conscious of self and the spirit enables a consciousness of God. It seems that at the time of the fall, the spirit in mankind was impacted by sin and we are by nature sinful. It is this that has necessitated God’s rescue plan which brings about the new birth and the implantation of a new spirit. The writer to the Hebrews indicates that God’s word gets right through to the substance of human beings, it penetrates like a sharp sword to the soul, the spirit and the bones and marrow. There is no place in the human person to which it cannot reach. There was a famous advert for a brand of beer that claimed it reached the parts that other similar products could not! It was a silly (but memorable) advertising slogan – contrast this with God’s word that gets to every part of the human person; body, soul and spirit! This is notable, but it’s also rather concerning because God’s word also judges not just actions, but the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Nothing is hidden from God’s sight, everything is uncovered and laid bare.
The BBC have recently produced a drama based on the ‘Profumo scandal.’ It tells the true story of John Profumo, the minister of war in the early 1960s who tried to cover up his immoral activities with a young woman. He mistakenly thinks that his wealth and power can cover up the truth. The drama shows the unravelling of his life as the truth inevitably is uncovered in a very public and dramatic way.
If, like me, you find the thought of everything in your life being uncovered and laid bare concerning, not to say frightening, read on, because there is good news for the Hebrews, and (since we are participants in the New Covenant just as much as the Hebrews), there is good news for us too.
- Jesus, a great high priest
God’s word gets to the heart of the human condition and our sinful nature: this discerning of our condition demands judgment, but God doesn’t leave us in the lurch, he provides a solution to our predicament. We have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven. The thought of a high priest doesn’t sound that good, does it, but we need to understand how this would resonate with the Hebrew recipients of this letter. Israel has for centuries observed three seasons of feasting, the spring feast which comprises the feasts of Passover, Unleavened bread and First fruits, the early summer feast of Pentecost and the autumn feast which comprises the feasts of Trumpets, Atonement and Tabernacles. The feast of Atonement (also known as Yom Kippur) takes place on a specific day; the day of atonement, the 10th day of the 7th month. On this day, the high priest prepared himself by making sacrifices, washing and wearing specific clothing. He then took two goats, one goat was sacrificed. The blood of this goat was then sprinkled onto the atonement cover (the lid on the ark of the covenant, that was kept in the ‘holy of holies’). This act made atonement for the sins of the ‘whole community of Israel.’ Access was prohibited into the holy of holies. It was only once a year, on the day of Atonement that the high priest was allowed access. Having completed this part of the process, the high priest then took the remaining goat and with both hands placed on its head, he confessed all the sins of the people. This goat (the so-called scapegoat) is then released into the wilderness and carries ‘on itself all their sins to a remote place.’ See Leviticus 16 for more details. As we shall see later in this book of the Hebrews, Jesus provides a permanent and lasting solution to our sin problem. The High Priest had to enter the most holy place every year on the 10th day of the 7th month, but Jesus has completed his perfect sacrifice. He is now our high priest. In the same way that the first goat satisfied God’s righteous demands annually, Jesus’ sacrifice satisfies God’s righteous demands permanently. In the same way that the second goat annually removed the memory of the sin to a place where it would be forgotten, so Jesus permanently removes the memory of our sin: ‘Their sins and lawless acts I will remember no more (Hebrews 10:17).’
This is good! But it gets better. Jesus is not some distant perfect person tutting every time we do something wrong, no he has ‘sympathy for our weakness. (verse 15)’.Why? because he has been through the same experience as us – the only difference is that he did not sin! Richard Dawkins complains that God is watching our every move, thought and action in order to bring judgment! This is not the God of the bible!
Given that we have such a high priest acting on our behalf, should this change the way we go about things? Most certainly yes! In view of all this, the writer closes this chapter with these words: ‘16 Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.’ What a great encouragement for the Hebrew believers and what a great encouragement for us too!