“Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days He has spoken to us by His Son” (Hebrews 1:1-2).
With these words, the letter to the Hebrews opens. Without greeting any individual or local church, the author immediately starts his argument which resembles a sermon (cf. Hebrews 13:22-25). We do not know who wrote the letter to the Hebrews. Scholars think it was Paul, but that is uncertain. It was addressed to Jewish Christians who were well acquainted with the Jewish religion.
The reason for writing was the apostasy threatening these Christians. They probably suffered persecution which caused them to lose the awareness of what God had done in His Son, Jesus Christ. Consequently, the urgency was high. In the letter that the apostle wrote, five explanations of the superiority of Christ alternate with five penetrating warnings. Both the explanations and the warnings increase in length and intensity during the letter.
1. Christ, as the Son of God, is higher than the angels (Hebrews 1:1-2:4)
After an introduction (Hebrews 1:1-4), the apostle proves that Christ is higher than the angels with a long series of quotes from the Old Testament. The Hebrews should not be distracted by people who say that revelations through angels are important. They should fully focus on Christ, because God has revealed Himself in Him. “How shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation?” (Hebrews 2:3).
2. Christ as a human is superior to Moses (Hebrews 2:5-4:13)
Christ is truly human and for a short time was lower than the angels, but now is exalted again. He did all of this for the salvation of man. He is able to help people who are tempted because He himself has suffered when tempted (Hebrews 2:18). Christ is not only exalted above the angels, he also exceeds Moses, the great prophet of the Jews, in faithfulness. Using the example of the people of Israel, the apostle encourages his readers to enter into the promised rest. They should not, through unbelief, neglect or ignore the promise proclaimed by the gospel, but they should listen to the Spirit and receive the eternal rest of God.
3. Christ, as high priest, is higher than Aaron (Hebrews 5:1-6:20)
In Christ, believers have confidence to access the throne of God. Jesus, the Son of God, is the great High Priest through whom they may approach God: “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16). Through scripture, the apostle proves that Christ, as high priest, stands above Aaron (Hebrews 5:1-10). This expository section is followed by a long and earnest call to become spiritually mature. If the readers fall away from their trust in Christ, there is no other way to be saved.
4. Christ as high priest after the order of Melchizedek (Hebrews 7:1-10:39)
In this section the apostle shows that Christ is not a Levitical priest, but a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek. Levi was already subservient to Melchizedek through Abraham, so the Levitical priesthood is of less worth than that of Christ. Christ consecrated the new covenant, which had already been announced by the prophets. He is the high priest of the new sanctuary and the new covenant.
The ceremonies in the Old Testament could not bring about real reconciliation, but the perfect sacrifice of Christ ratified the testament and His blood consecrated the new covenant. “But as it is, He has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself.” (Hebrews 9:26). “For by a single offering He has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.” (Hebrews 10:14). Following this account of Christ’s high priesthood under the new covenant, the apostle calls his readers to have confidence. If we despise this path to God, a terrible judgment will follow, so do not reject the blood of Jesus!
5. Faith and life (Hebrews 11:1-13:25)
One of the most the well-known chapters in the Bible is Hebrews 11 about Old Testament examples of faith. The apostle shows that all these people believed in the promise of Christ, even though it was not yet fulfilled. These examples show the fullness and power of faith. The cloud of witnesses encourages believers to persevere:
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the Founder and Perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:1-2).
Finally, perseverance in faith should be the practice of everyday life. The apostle encourages his readers to be loving and to do good. He concludes this sermonic letter with a blessing and greeting.
The message for us
- God has revealed Himself completely and irreplaceably in Jesus Christ
- Jesus is higher than the angels.
- Jesus is both God and man.
- The old covenant is insufficient. The new covenant is better than the old covenant.
- Faith is necessary to please God and to share in salvation.
- Faith results in perseverance. Faith expresses itself in good works.