Hebrews - Don't be Deceived
hen we open the Bible at the book of Hebrews we are entering a foreign world of sin, salvation and sacrifice. It is a world where the old faith has been replaced by a vibrant new one, which focuses exclusively on the person of Jesus. The readers are torn between two pathways: should they trust this new faith, or stay with what is tried and tested? Who was this Jesus and what did his death accomplish? These are some of the questions this book seeks to answer – and the answers are timeless, as relevant to us today as to the first Christians 2000 years ago.
Have you ever felt like giving up? Hebrews 1:1-3 Hebrews is different from any other book in the Bible: it has no customary greeting and we do not know with certainty who wrote it. In omitting his name the author may have left us a puzzle, but he purposely deflects our attention from himself and his authority, to God. He is not writing to young Christians but mature believers, those who ‘by this time ought to be teachers’ (Heb 5:12). Trials have tested their faith and they are tempted to abandon Christ and turn back to Judaism (Heb 10:32f). This letter is for those who are thinking of giving up!
The old way The writer begins in v.1 by comparing the Old Testament revelation of God with the New, yet he does not do what we would expect and belittle the Jewish faith. It was God who spoke in the past ‘to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways’ (1:1). They carried the authentic word of God. Peter makes the same point in 2 Pet 1:20-21. It is a profound mistake to think that the Bible is a book simply written by men, merely stories or history with which we are free to disagree at any point which seems difficult or unacceptable. At our own peril we invent a ‘pick and mix’ religion and, like Marcion, ‘attack the Bible with a penknife’, taking only the books or parts which fit our preference. ‘All scripture is God breathed' says Paul to Timothy (2Tim 3:16), and Hebrews affirms that God’s voice was heard in the prophets - but it was not his complete or final voice. In the past ‘God spoke at many times and in various ways’. We understand that each prophet, historian or poet received a little of the revelation of God: from Genesis to Malachi God was adding to his word and explaining himself more fully. Sometimes the voice was audible, as it was to Moses on Sinai (Heb 12:19); to others (like Joseph and Ezekiel) he spoke in dreams or visions. Yet even when all these were put together the picture was still inadequate to reveal the full character of God. And it was now over 400 years since God inspired the last prophet, Malachi. The days of partial revelation were now complete. God had a new way of speaking to the world.
The new way ‘In these last days he has spoken to by his Son’ (v.2). This is God’s new way of speaking to us. It is as if all history had been preparing humanity for this ultimate revelation. Now, finally, God is able to send not a prophet but his Son; not a partial message, but all that he longed to say embodied in one person. This means that Jesus is unique, the greatest and final message God has to give. From the closing of the Book of Revelation to the present day any message that purports to come from God but ignores Jesus is a false prophecy, since it did not come through the Son, God’s final mediator. If we really want to know what God is like we must ask who this Son is, and why his message is so much better than the old one.
Who is the Son? We find him described in vv.2b-3 in relation to three things - to creation, to God and to ourselves.
1 The Son’s relation to creation Jesus is ‘heir of all things’ (v.2). This is particularly interesting because when Christ was appointed heir of creation the universe had not been yet made. The very next clause says ‘through whom he made the universe’. We are seeing a Christ who stands outside time and existed before time (see John 1:1). We should also note that an heir can only inherit once there has been a death. At the beginning of time Jesus stands appointed as the one who will inherit the whole universe at the end of all things. In Revelation 1:8 at the end of time we find this same Jesus saying ‘I am the Alpha and the Omega…who is, and who was, and who is to come’. The Son of God predates time, he supersedes time, and at the end of time he will be there to receive the honour and praise (Rev 11:15b). All this is Christ’s by divine appointment, but the death which must come before he can inherit it is his own (Heb 5:8-9). He stepped out of heaven and humbled himself so that he could become obedient to death, even death on a cross. Because of this he has received the name that is above every name (Phil 2:9-11). He is Lord by appointment, Lord by right of inheritance and Lord by right of creation. Our next clause tells us that he was not simply present at creation, but he was God’s instrument in the very creation itself - ‘through whom he made the universe’ (v.2). It is as if God designed the universe and Jesus constructed it. This is a similar relationship to thought and word. A book describes a world that existed only in the mind of the author until words gave it flesh. The difference with Jesus, the Word of God, is that with him the worlds in the mind of God became our reality. God the father conceived it and Jesus the Son enacted it. He spoke and listening to his voice countless galaxies, stars and planets sprang into being. Not only did Christ begin the world, he also sustains it – ‘upholding all things by the word of his power’ (v.3 AV). This world is no child’s toy waiting for the battery to run down. Christ is intimately involved in the world he has created. God’s providence is still powerfully at work throughout the successive ages of time. This does not mean that everything will happen as we want it to, nor that there will be no evil in this world. The first book of the Bible introduces us to a fallen creation where chaos and evil have taken hold in the ordered world which God created. It does mean, however, that nothing will happen that is outside God’s knowledge and control, that in every circumstance God will be actively at work on behalf of those who love him (Rom 8:28). Providence is not explained here, it is simply stated; the word of Christ is the power which holds the universe together. We may be confident that God’s Son is guiding this universe towards its appointed destiny. Nothing in all creation is outside his creating and sustaining power. This leaves a lot of issues unresolved: how much free will do we have and how much are our lives planned out? The most important thing to realize is that if Christ created and sustains the universe and we are out of harmony with him, then we are actually out of harmony with the whole of the created order! In the whole universe the only thing that can resist the will of God is the unsubmitted will of men and women. The essence of sin is to be self-centered and self-sufficient, rather than God-centered and finding our sufficiency in him. We need to place ourselves under the authority of the God who speaks in his Son, so that we may find his destiny and purpose for our lives.
2 The Son’s relationship to God is shown first by the word ‘radiance’ (v.3). As the sun’s rays reveal the heat and power of the sun, so Christ reveals the glory of God. Just as we cannot look directly into the sun’s face without being blinded, so it is with God. The sun’s radiance safely reveals its glory, and it is Christ who brings us the warming revelation of God’s nature. The great Puritan writer Thomas Watson put it this way: ‘Through the lantern of Christ’s humanity we behold the light of deity’. Then in case we do not yet appreciate whom we are dealing with, we are told that Jesus is ‘the exact representation of (God’s) being’ (v.3). He carries the imprint of God. Have you ever noticed how the Post Office keeps updating the image of the Queen on our British stamps? They want to better represent her current appearance. But our image of God does not need to be updated, for Christ is the perfect, unchanging image if God – ‘the same yesterday and today and forever’ (Heb 13:8). Once a coin has been minted, it will forever bear the representation of the Sovereign it depicts. It is as if Christ were the die cast image of God, the only one made in that mold, carrying the hallmark or imprint of divinity. All we need to know of God is found in Jesus. Any other revelation is partial, potentially misleading or plain false. In the Old Testament the glory of God shone in the cloud above the camp of the Israelites as they travelled in the desert. Now in Jesus we behold the glory of God in the face of Christ - a glory that will never be removed. In relation to creation Christ is its builder, sustainer and heir. In relation to God he is his exact representation, the radiance of his glory, God made comprehensible.
3 The Son’s relation to usis as Saviour. ‘He provided purification for our sins’ (v.3). God knew from the start that we would sin and the method of purification was explained for many years through the animal sacrifices of the Old Testament. ‘Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness’ (Heb 9:28). Christ’s mission is seen in these words: he came to purify a people by the shedding of his blood. In Hebrews we see Jesus not only as a sacrifice, but also as High Priest offering his own blood in the presence of God. He is the one final sacrifice to end all the temple offerings. As the blood of the sacrificial animal was a substitute for the Jewish worshipper and accepted in payment to God for his sins, so Christ’s blood now stands as the substitute offering for all who come to God through faith in him. The difference between Jesus and the Jewish High Priest is that the High Priest only offered the blood of animals, whereas Jesus offered his own lifeblood. Moreover the High Priest never sat in God’s presence. He always stood to minister and could never remain in the temple’s holy place. Yet Jesus, after his ascension, ‘sat at the right hand of the majesty in heaven’ (v.3). The King James Bible says ‘when he had by himself purged our sins he sat down’. Christ needs no one else to help him cleanse our sin; his one offering is enough (Heb 7:27). He came from heaven to reveal God to us; now he sits in heaven to represent us before God. When we are troubled by the depth of our sin we should not be discouraged but look to the greatness of Jesus. What more do we need? Why should we turn away from God’s greatest revelation? God has sent his best; he has spoken to us in his Son. Not a partial message but a complete message for the last days of time. In fact Jesus did not simply carry the message; he was the message, for he said ‘anyone who has seen me has seen the father’ (Jn 14:9).
To hear God’s voice in these last days we need only to go to Jesus. God’s method has not changed. His full and final revelation came through his Son and God still speaks in and through his Son today.
Rev D Kevin Jones is a minister in St Peter, Jersey.
Headline Winter 2003/4 pp 10-12.