I have been writing these articles for the local newspaper. So I thought I would publish them here as well.
It has long been my opinion that the Christian community has suffered from a “glazed-eye syndrome” when reading the Bible. Especially in communities such as rural North Dakota, Bible reading is the norm for most families. However, many people have never really read the Bible in the sense of asking questions about its meaning. People are in such a hurry to apply the Bible to their lives (a very laudable goal, and the true goal of Bible reading in the end) that they do not take the trouble to find out the meaning of the text that they are seeking to apply to their lives. If there is supposed to be a balance between explanation and application in sermons, for instance, there tends to be a distinct lack of balance in favor of application at the expense of explanation. It is in the hope of correcting this imbalance that I intend to offer a series of explanations on Paul’s epistle to the Hebrews. The explanations will end in application, never fear. However, we must know why it is that the text tells us to believe in Jesus Christ and to act accordingly. If we do not know why, then we will be swept along by every wind of doctrine (Ephesians 4:14).
I propose for us to study the book of Hebrews, since it is so little understood in the Christian community today. Paul argues very differently than we would today. The arguments sound foreign to our ears, especially when it comes to sacrifices, Melchizedek, rest, and genealogies. Nevertheless, the book has immense importance for our understanding of Jesus Christ, and the sacrifice He became when He came to earth.
Did Paul write Hebrews? Most scholars today say that Paul did not write Hebrews. It does not matter much for our purposes whether Paul or someone else wrote it, unless a denial of Pauline authorship also implies a denial of the book’s inspiration and inerrancy. I believe it does not. However, I also believe that Paul wrote Hebrews.
Paul probably preached this sermon to Greek-speaking Jews (though a few Gentiles might have been present). The method of argumentation follows closely what the Jewish rabbis did in their interpretation of the Old Testament. This style of argument would have baffled a normal Gentile. Therefore, it is reasonable to conclude that the Jews were the recipients of this sermon. However, they were well-educated Greek speakers. The Greek of this letter is highly polished and refined (and therefore difficult, argh!).
The book of Hebrews is a word of exhortation (13:22), of which the main point is the high priestly work of Jesus Christ (8:1). “Word of exhortation” is another way of saying “sermon.” The fact that Hebrews is a sermon explains why some of the normal greetings (which we would expect in a letter) are “missing” from the beginning of Hebrews. Hebrews ends like a letter, however. Therefore we must suppose that it was a sermon that got turned into a letter. In chapter 8, verse 1, when Paul says that “the point in what we are saying is this,” what he is really saying is that this is the main point of the sermon: we have such a high priest. He is referring to Jesus.
And now for the first few verses of the book: 1:1 “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, 2a. but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son.” I give you here the English Standard Version, which, in my opinion, is the best translation available.
This passage works by a series of contrasts. The main contrast is that of revelation itself: revelation through the prophets is contrasted with revelation through the Son, Jesus Christ. The first contrast is that of time: “long ago” versus “these last days.” This refers to when the revelation was given. The second contrast is between the “many times and in many ways” with “by his Son.” The first term refers to the fragmentary character that Old Testament revelation had, since it happened over a long period of time. Jesus, on the other hand, is a unity, a whole. He fully revealed the Father to His people all at one time. The third contrast is that of the means of revelation: God used many different ways of communication in the Old Testament to reveal Himself to the people, such as dreams, signs, miracles, speech, writing, etc.; in Jesus Christ, there is only one way to see the Father revealed: in Jesus Christ Himself. The fourth contrast is that of the recipients: God spoke previously “to our fathers,” whereas in this time, He has spoken “to us.” The fifth and final contrast is that between the prophets (“by the prophets”) and the Son (“by the Son”). This refers to the people through whom God chose to reveal Himself.
It is important to remember, however, that there are significant areas of similarity between these two ages of revelation. In both it is God who does the speaking. Secondly, the Old Testament’s message does not contradict the New Testament. We cannot believe that there is a contradiction between the Old and New Testaments if we are to maintain our Christianity. Jesus says that the entire Old Testament is written about Him (Luke 24:24ff and John 5:46). As Augustine says, “The Old is in the New revealed; the New is in the Old concealed.” This is the reason why Paul quotes the Old Testament so much in this sermon. The Old Testament points to Jesus Christ.
So, now for application: in whom will we trust? Do we trust what the world will say to us, or will we trust what God says (and has said in the past) to us? God tells us to believe in Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is the ultimate and final revelation of who God is. Jesus ushered in a new era by His death and resurrection. No longer are we under the shadow of the unclear and lonely Old Testament. We have the full light of day. Woe to us, if we do not heed its words (see 2:1)! We must have Jesus Christ as our high priest. Why? Because we are sinners. As Paul will say later, “without the shedding of blood, there can be no forgiveness of sins” (9:22). Therefore, there needed to be a sacrifice. In the Old Testament times, that meant an animal sacrifice. However, “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” Therefore, a better, more perfect sacrifice was needed, in fact, Jesus Christ, the spotless lamb of God. Believe in Him.