It is easy to misread the book of Hebrews. If you have a study bible it will probably tell you that the book of Hebrews is concerned about Jewish Christians leaving the faith and going back to Judaism. The problem with this point of view is that the text never says anything like that. Never does the writer of Hebrews give any indication that they think the Law of Moses with its sacrifices and rituals was better than following Jesus. In fact, when we look at first century Christianity we do not see a clean break in the minds of Jewish Christians. Jewish Christians did not see themselves leaving Judaism but saw Christianity as the fulfillment of Judaism, and rightly so. Christianity is not a new religion as if the Jews left one for another. Rather, Jesus is the fulfillment of everything the scriptures were pointing toward and Jewish Christians understood that.
So where did this idea come from that Jewish Christians are leaving Christ and going back to Judaism? The problem is called mirror reading. What this means is that because the author speaks to an issue we mirror that issue as a problem with the audience. But we should recognize that this is a failed way to read scriptures. Just because I preach a text on anger or faith does not mean that we should assume that the church has a problem of anger or a problem with faith. The New Testament is not 1 Corinthians where we are right to do mirror reading because Paul said that these were things that those Corinthians wrote about. So let us erase the idea that the book of Hebrews is trying to keep Jewish Christians from turning back to Judaism. Nothing in the book of Hebrews says this. So what is the book about? Turn to Hebrews 13:22 and see what the author says he is doing.
I appeal to you, brothers, bear with my word of exhortation, for I have written to you briefly. (Hebrews 13:22 ESV)
A word of exhortation is another way to describe a sermon (cf. Acts 13:15). In Acts 13 Paul is asked in the synagogue to deliver a word of exhortation after the Law and Prophets were read. The book of Hebrews is a sermon of encouragement. The book starts like a sermon because it does not identify the author, have recipients, nor a section of thanksgiving. The book starts like a sermon, diving right in to the message of exhortation. If you have read through the book of Hebrews before you will notice that there are five warning sections to not give up. Look at Hebrews 2:1-4 where these Christians are told to pay close attention so that they do not drift away from their great salvation. In Hebrews 3:7-4:13 they are to watch out for an unbelieving heart and hold on to the original confidence to the end (3:12; 3:14). In Hebrews 5:11-6:12 he tells them to not be dull hearers and to not fall away. In Hebrews 10:19-39 he warns that they cannot continue sinning. In Hebrews 12:1-29 he warns them to not fail to obtain the grace of God and to not refuse to listen to God. Each warning section has a call for endurance.
We know that the book of Hebrews speaks to how Jesus is better than so many things. But the reason that the writer shows us that Jesus is better is not so that they will stay Christians and not go back to Judaism. Rather, it is so that they will stay Christians and not fall away from the faith. These Christians are discouraged. They are not being persecuted to the point of death, as Hebrews 12:4 makes clear. But they are experiencing humiliation, rejection, and marginalization. Adopting the lifestyle of a Christian has caused them to be considered antisocial and subversive. They were the subject of prejudice, insult, rumor, and slander, even being made targets in local legal actions. It was consider dishonoring and dangerous to be associated with the name “Christian.”
The situation is not a crisis of persecution but of losing their commitment because of the difficulties of being dishonored by society. These believers are losing their status in the world and losing esteem in their neighbors’ eyes. They are losing approval from the outside world and as such are losing status and even property for being a Christian. The social culture of control is wearing these Christians down. They are tempted to quit under the pressure of constant hardship and rejection.
So what is the sermon of Hebrews going to do to help these Christians to stand firm and not give up? He preaches to them about how great Jesus is. The solution to the crisis of faith is having a more substantial view of Jesus who is better than all of life. This knowledge produces endurance. They need to have a greater appreciation of Jesus so that they will stand fast in the faith. Our endurance in the faith is in direct proportion to the clarity by which we see Jesus and understand what he has done on our behalf.
Discouragement. What believer has not felt its numbing grip pull us into the mire of self-pity and despair? The book of Hebrews is God’s book to pull us out of discouragement and help us stay the course of commitment toward God. Now the book has much more relevance to us when we properly frame its purpose. As we study through Hebrews please consider how this passage is supposed to exhort and encourage us in the faith. With a discouraged group of Christians who are facing pressures from society because of their faith, let us consider how the book of Hebrews begins its sermon.
God Has Spoken (1:1-2)
“Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days has spoken to us by a Son.” In the past God spoke by the prophets at different times and in different ways providing pieces of God’s revelation to the ancestors. Information came from God through prophets in pieces in different ways and at different times. But now God does not speak through messengers but through a Son. The contrast is not regarding who the Son is, but the difference in status. Before God spoke through messengers (the prophets) but now God spoke through a greater person because he is the Son. It was marvelous enough that God should speak through the prophets. But now comes an extraordinary truth: God has spoken to us in one who is by his very character and nature a Son. Someone greater, the Son, has come revealing the full message about God one time in these last days. The Son is God’s final message.
The phrase “the last days” was very familiar term when the prophets spoke, referring to the time and events surrounding the arrival of the Messiah and his kingdom (Isaiah 2:2; Jeremiah 23:20; 25:19; Daniel 10:14; Hosea 3:5; Micah 4:1). The last days are when God’s saving promises would be fulfilled and the writer of Hebrews is saying these days have begun with the coming of the Son. These believers who are listening to this message no longer live in the days waiting for the fulfillment of what God had promised. They now live in the last days as do we, watching God fulfill his promises through a Son.
The Great Son (1:2-3)
The Son was appointed the heir of all things and through whom also he created the world. Sometimes we can wonder why Jesus is called the Son. It is not that God has children and that Jesus is one of his children, or that Jesus is a lesser god or a created god. We have to understand the significance of being the firstborn son in ancient times. The firstborn son had full rights and privileges in position and the right of inheritance. It is an expression of the distinction of his person while being fully God in all ways. The Father has promised everything to the Son as his inheritance. The content of the inheritance is “all things.” Further, as Creator, there is no part of our lives that are out of his control. Not only was the universe made for the Son, but it was made by the Son. There is no stronger claim for the lordship of Jesus than this. If you are the one who made something and for whom it was made, then you are its rightful master. This is what the writer of Hebrews is saying about Jesus. All creation was made through Jesus and made for Jesus. “All things” includes us. Therefore, we belong to Jesus.
This changes everything about how we look at ourselves and look at life. You were made for Jesus. Jesus made you for him. You were not ultimately made for work. You were not ultimately made for family. You were not ultimately made for hobbies and entertainment. You were made for Jesus. The reason that nothing in life satisfies is because you were not made for this life ultimately. You exist for him. You see that now your life has meaning and purpose and it is not to make a lot of money or have a happy family.
Not only this, consider these beautiful descriptions of Jesus. He is the radiance of the glory of God. Jesus shines the glory of God. We are looking at the glory of God in Jesus (cf. 2 Corinthians 4:6). Jesus is fully divine. He is the exact imprint of God’s nature. Jesus is the very image of God. As Jesus said, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). Not only this, but Jesus sustains the universe by his powerful word. Jesus continues to rule, is God, and everything exists and continues to exist because of him. Just as God’s word created the world it is God’s word that sustains the world. Because there is a creation, then there must be God because the world only exists and continues to exist because of his powerful word. Please just think about this idea. This whole universe only continues to exist because Jesus’ word says it can.
Purification For Sin (1:3)
This draws us to the thunderous point of the sermon’s introduction. Jesus made purification for sins and sat down at the right hand of God. Jesus is pictured as a high priest who made purification for sins and is pictured as a king, sitting down on a throne next to the Majesty on high (cf. Psalm 110:1). Jesus’ work is so perfect and so complete that Jesus is not standing and working for us, but has sat down. It is finished. His work is done. Priests under the Law of Moses never sat when offering sacrifices. But Jesus made purification for our sins and sat down, taking the place of honor, authority, and power. This is so stunning. Jesus made purification for our sins before you or I were in existence. Future sins were dealt with by Jesus. It is so easy to read past these monumental declarations in God’s word. Jesus is the Son. He is God in every way. All things were made by him and for him. He is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s nature. He upholds the universe by his powerful word. What does Jesus do with all that power and splendor? He makes purification for our sins and takes his seat at God’s right hand. The work is done. Your sins have been purified. Your sins have been dealt with. Jesus did his work and when he said, “It is finished,” that included your sins being covered. Jesus completed his work for you.
Listen to the encouragement to endure from the opening of this book. God has spoken completely, decisively, and finally in the Son and not in messengers. The Son is glorious and he fulfilled the promises of God. He made purification for our sins and sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high. How can we turn back when Jesus has purified your sins? Do not give up. Do not think that you cannot be a servant of Jesus because of your failures and sins. Jesus took care of our sin problem. Jesus has solved everything that would keep us from staying with God. Before you were born, Jesus solved the sin problem you would have. Are you quitting because of your sins? Jesus brought your purification. Your failings have been atoned for. One of the big reasons that I think we quit is because we see the sheer quantity of our sins and we throw in the towel. We fail again and we believe that this journey with God is hopeless. But you see that God solved the problem in Jesus before you knew you had a problem. God is telling us that he knows we sinned. Jesus is not having to get up because of you. He has made the once for all sacrifice for sins and he sat down. You do not have too many sins. Jesus came and made purification for all of those sins. How did God become the enemy? All that he has done was deal with our sins so that we do not have to experience judgment and wrath, but experience life. Do not trade Jesus out. Do not give up. God loves you where you are and made purification for your sins so that you could walk with him. Jesus made you so that you can be with him. Your purpose and your life is filled in Jesus.