To The Hebrews

Background

The letter to the Hebrews (a presumptive title based on the content, but never explicitly stated) was written between 49–70 AD, and probably toward the end of that range. Since the Levitical system was still in place, being referred to in the present tense throughout the letter, it must have been completed before the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD.

It is the only Letter that mentions Timothy in prison (13:23), which could weigh toward its having been written after the death of Paul. But there is at least one other reason to reject Pauline authorship: Heb. 2:3 states that the author(s) (5:11, 6:9, 8:1 etc. use the pronoun “we”, yet 11:32 uses “I”) had not heard Jesus personally. In addition, Paul always signed his letters, at least partially to guard against forgeries. He had no reason to hide his identity, and it would have been very much out of character for him to do so.

Though it has the most sophisticated Greek of all the Letters, its author remains a mystery. In fact, there seems to have been a deliberate hiding of the author(s)’ identity. Luther suggested Apollos, and later research has suggested Apollos’ teacher, Priscilla (a.k.a. Priska) or possibly her along with her husband Aquilla. Priscilla had been mentioned by Paul as a co-worker. And female authorship would explain the omission of the author’s name, as it would not only have gone against social norms of the time, but also could result in the woman’s torture and death at the hands of the Roman government. She, her husband, and Timothy had all worked together with Paul.

There is only one spot in the entire letter that is cited as proof that the author must have been a male. In 11:32 the pronoun “me” goes with the verb “to relate”, and that verb is in the grammatical masculine. Yet not only is this a great stretch upon which to base male authorship of the whole letter, it ignores the use of what is called the “authorial masculine”, and that this is the only occurrence of this form in the entire New Testament (Strong’s Concordance no. 1334).1 All other forms of the word have no grammatical gender associated with them. There is little doubt that if this occurrence of the word had the feminine grammatical gender, no scholar would cite it by itself as proof of a female author.

(Lest anyone make the accusation that this is all some modern feminist invention, note that the first scholarly argument for Priscilla’s possible authorship was done by the German scholar Adolf von Harnack in 1900.)2

Another candidate is Barnabas, who was a Levite (Acts 4:36, and the content of Hebrews is of course heavily Levitical), yet like Paul, there would have been no reason to hide his identity. Other names offered include Clement of Rome and Luke.

The letter’s theme is the absolute supremacy and uniqueness of Jesus. Much time is spent on explaining the purpose and symbolism of the Levitical system and its fulfillment and annulment in Jesus. It is loaded with theological meat, making it an excellent one-stop resource for defending the faith against all sorts of false teachings.

Outline

  1. 1:1–3:6 Jesus, the Focal Point of History
    1. 1:1–4 Introducing Jesus
    2. 1:5–2:18 The superiority of Jesus above Messengers
      1. 1:5–2:4 By virtue of his divinity
      2. 2:5–18 By virtue of his humanity
    3. 3:1–6 The superiority of Jesus as Ruling Priest above Moses
  2. 3:7–11 Warnings from history
  3. 3:12–15 Encouraging each other while there is time
  4. 3:16–4:11 Entering God’s “rest”
  5. 4:12–5:10 Jesus as Ruling Priest in a new Order
  6. 5:11–6:19 Diversion to discuss maturity
  7. 6:20–10:36 More about Jesus as one like Melchizedek
    1. 6:20–7:10 A new order
    2. 7:11–17 A new priesthood
    3. 7:18–28 A new law
    4. 8:1–13 A new offering
    5. 9:1–11 A new temple
    6. 9:12–10:18 A new contract
    7. 10:19–36 A new relationship
  8. 10:37–11:40 By faith
  9. 12:1–2 Our examples to follow
  10. 12:3–11 Children of God
  11. 12:12–13:7 Our response
  12. 13:8–15 Warnings to stay sharp
  13. 13:16–19 The wisdom of following the examples of proven leaders
  14. 13:20–25 Final blessings and greetings

1:1–3:6 Jesus, the Focal Point of History

1:1–4 Introducing Jesus

This letter begins, not with a greeting or other pleasantries, but with a simple statement of fact. But it says two important things about how God speaks to us that many ignore: little by little, and in many ways. God has not chosen to dump everything out at once, but to gradually tell us more and more, in order to bring us to Jesus at just the right time in history. And he does not always speak in the same way, but he does always speak through approved prophets, attested by their perfect accuracy (see Deut. 18:22). In light of that, we must not make the mistake of uncritically applying principles or rules for one epoch onto another. God’s character never changes, but his dealings with us certainly do.

There is a tone of finality when it says, “but in these last days he has spoken”. Jesus was the culmination of history, the point to which all the “little by little” was aimed. Since God “has spoken” we can deduce that he speaks no more through the prophets to reveal things we need to know. He has given us all we need. This is not to say anything about the spiritual gifts, but simply to close the canon of scripture. Yes, the Letters were written afterwards, but they all point to Jesus and record for later generations what would surely have been lost to them. They were the eyewitnesses of the risen Jesus, commissioned by him to speak on his behalf.

Jesus is said to have “made the ages”. Other translations put it as something like his having made the universe. Certainly that’s true (Col. 1:15-20), but the context here is about God’s having revealed his will gradually through the ages. The Greek word is where we get our word “eon”; if the universe were the intended meaning here, the Greek word would have been our “cosmos”. So Jesus is the One who made the gradually unfolding revelations which were designed to present him to us at just the right time in history.

Jesus is further described as “the radiance of God’s majesty and the exact likeness of his core being”. That being the case, how can anyone argue that Jesus is eternally subordinated to the Father, as is becoming popular among many Christian writers today? They look only at the following statement about his having sat down at the right side of the Majesty. But even there, we see that Jesus is both separate from and equal with the Father. Note also that Jesus is the radiance of God, not only of the Father; those are two different words in the Greek (theos and pater). We must not mentally substitute the meaning Father when we read the word God. (And technically, both the Father and the Spirit “fathered” the humanity of Jesus; see Luke 1:35.) Adding the statement about Jesus “holding everything up”, we understand him to be the Agent of creation.

And of course this all has its ultimate purpose in Jesus’ sacrifice for sins. But having accomplished that, he rose again and was returned (not taken for the first time) to his former glory as God (see also Phil. 2:5–11). Jesus, since his incarnation, has had both his eternal divine nature and his human nature, the so-called “hypostatic union”. This causes us confusion because we don’t always see which aspects of his relationship to the Father and Spirit are representative of his divinity and which are of his humanity. There is no hierarchy within the divine Trinity, but there is regarding Jesus’ humanity. We simply cannot grasp how the two are joined. But it is this joining that makes it possible for us to be adopted as children of God. That is why Jesus is the only Way to the Father, such that only if we are united with Jesus can we be considered righteous in God’s eyes.

1:5–2:18 The superiority of Jesus above Messengers

When we read that Jesus became above the Messengers, we must remember that this only applies to his humanity, not his divinity.

1:5–2:4 By virtue of his divinity

Now the writer goes into the many ways in which Jesus is not, and never was, a mere Messenger. And how much more clearly can his eternal divinity be stated than this? “God, your throne is eternal, and the scepter of uprightness is the scepter of your Kingdom… and for that reason your God annointed you…” Jesus was always God but also became human at a point in time. And again, Jesus is said to be the one that “laid down the foundations of the earth in the beginning.” In contrast, Messengers are described as servants that minister to believers. And someday we will be their judges (1 Cor. 6:3).

Although Messengers are our servants, we must remember that we are presently not as powerful as they. The writer warns that to disobey what God delivered through a Messenger was severely punished. Yet the point here is mainly that since such punishment was associated with Messengers, then how much greater punishment will be associated with rejecting the good message brought by and through Jesus, who is so much greater than they?

2:5–18 By virtue of his humanity

Continuing the theme of contrasting Messengers with God or humans, it is pointed out that humans, not Messengers, were the very reason God created everything. And here again, Jesus is shown to have only temporarily been made lower than the Messengers, then exalted back to glory.

The reason Jesus was made lower was to share in our humanity and to experience physical death on behalf of everyone. This opened the door for everyone who accepted him to be saved. As a result, all of us who have believed in him are one family, to the point where we are exalted above the Messengers, being children instead of servants. Jesus shared in our humanity, which is not true of Messengers.

Now we see in vs. 16 that he did all this for “the descendants of Abraham”. Calvinism claims this as proof of Limited Atonement, or the theory that Jesus only died for “the elect” and not the whole world, but that takes it out of context. The contrast here is primarily between people and Messengers, within the larger context of the Hebrews. And we cannot simply discard all the other scriptures that clearly show Jesus having died for the whole world. Logically, to say Jesus did this for a particular group is not to say he did so for only that group. Yes, it was for Abraham’s descendants— and everyone else as well.

3:1–6 The superiority of Jesus as Ruling Priest above Moses

Since Jesus is greater than any Messengers, it follows also that he is greater than Moses. Moses was a favored servant, but Jesus became God’s Son; therefore all who trust in Jesus, not Moses, are members of God’s household. So the Holy Spirit pleads with all people to not follow the example of rebellious Israel, but to hear God’s voice.

3:7–11 Warnings from history

A warning is given here to do more than listen to true teachings, but also to put them into practice. The nation of Israel is held up as an example of people who had known the ways of God but turned against him. They had seen his great miracles and enjoyed his deliverance, yet they threw it all away and were then considered unworthy of their inheritance, in much the same way that Esau sold his birthright (Gen. 25:34, Heb. 12:16).

Notice the phrase “do not harden your hearts.” It is people who choose to harden their own hearts, not God who imposes it upon them to keep them from being saved. The people of Israel had done it themselves, or else the writer of Hebrews would not be warning their readers against doing the same thing. The implications of “today” and “enter my rest” will be discussed under “Entering God’s rest”.

3:12–15 Encouraging each other while there is time

It’s all well and good to heed a warning, but it helps a lot to have people reminding each other about it. We believers need to be in the continual habit of encouraging each other so that we do not “harden our hearts” as Israel did. Note the primary cause of their punishment: unbelief. It was not Jewish ancestry that would save the readers of this letter who might still be in unbelief, but only faith in God.

3:16–4:11 Entering God’s “rest”

Not all of the Israelis rebelled, but God punished those who did. It was the unfaithful, the rebellious, who would be kept out of God’s “rest”. God will not wait forever for people to change their minds, so it is imperative that we don’t put it off.

There are two erroneous teachings derived from this passage: (1) since Today is still continuing then the days of creation week must have been long ages, and (2) Israel’s having escaped from Egypt yet later being denied entrance to God’s “rest” must indicate possible lost salvation (Conditional Security).

The first error claims that if the seventh day is the day God rested from creative work, and if God still speaks of people entering his rest, then this must still be the seventh day. But that would mean all people, not just the righteous, have entered God’s rest. And it is clearly stated that a “Sabbath” still remains, meaning it hasn’t started yet. This passage clearly states that only the righteous can enter it, along with all other scriptures regarding salvation. So the rest spoken of in this context cannot be equated with that of the seventh day of creation. “Today” here is held in contrast to ancient Israel, not to creation week. Notice also that “God specified another day called Today.” Not all the “Todays” are the same.

Reference is made to creation week, and it specifically portrays the seventh day as symbolizing God’s rest. But note the direction of the symbolism: the literal seventh solar day is a symbol of God’s rest; God’s rest is not a symbol of the seventh day. And God’s rest will never end; the writer has repeatedly pointed out that the opportunity to enter God’s rest (Today) is temporary, but the rest itself is eternal.

The fact that Today is associated with God’s “rest” and is entered into by faith means it cannot be related to legalistic performance; it is God’s “rest”, not God’s “work”. Ch. 4 begins with an explicit statement to that effect: to enter rest is to stop doing one’s own work. To work for entrance into that rest (or to remain in it) is to lack faith.

The second error claims that since the history of Israel is to be an example and warning for us (see 1 Cor. 10), then the failure of many of them to enter the Promised Land must be teaching us that salvation can be lost. But one thing to remember is that the physical nation of Israel has always been a special class of people to God. They have enjoyed a relationship to him that no other ethnic group has had. Yes, they all “drank the same spiritual drink… and that Rock was the Anointed” (1 Cor. 10:4), but they did not have the Spirit indwelling them as believers do in this age, after Jesus came.

Salvation was never guaranteed to anyone either before or after the current age, the so-called Church Age (generally held to have begun at Pentecost). They had to persist in obedience or they could be lost. Not so with us who have the Spirit as a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance (2 Cor. 1:22, 5:5, Eph. 1:14). So they had to keep “drinking”, but we do not.

The writer is speaking to believers (3:12), but also to Jews. In that group there were likely some who were still really only trusting in their heritage, in Moses. That seems to be the point in spending so much time on ancient Israel. They are being asked to examine themselves, to be sure they had truly accepted the Gospel message, rather than relying on their being Jews to save them.

4:12–5:10 Jesus as Ruling Priest in a new Order

There is an abrupt end to the subject of God’s rest here, changing now to a discussion of the Word of God. This phrase or title “Word of God” has been taken to refer to the Bible, but it also clearly refers to Jesus personally (John 1:1, Heb. 1:2). So the phrase encompasses all that God has communicated to us, whether spoken by God’s own voice, through the prophets, in and by Jesus, or through his recorded teachings. The important thing is not the medium but the message; it is all “of God.” And because God has given us his Word, there are no more excuses, no more mysteries, no more hidden plans (1 Cor. 2). We must take a firm grasp of the Gospel, not keep it at a distance and only stay near it or take it lightly.

There is a controversy here over the statement that Jesus was tempted in every way just as we are. Could he have sinned? Some say no, it was impossible for Jesus to sin. But what it says here indicates otherwise. Jesus is being portrayed as one who is like us, who can sympathize with our struggles against sin. This would not be the case if Jesus had no capacity to sin. He is held up as the One who resisted it, which would be pointless if tempting him had been a waste of time. And because Jesus withstood temptation, we have absolute confidence in approaching God. This confidence is in him, not in us, and he will never fail. Our salvation is assured, because we have a perfect, sinless, and sympathetic Ruling Priest.

The theme of Jesus as our Ruling Priest is now introduced but will be developed more fully later. Notice first of all that a priest represents people to God, not God to people (that would be what prophets do). Jesus is thus shown to be our representative in his humanity. And in spite of being God, as a human he did not appoint himself priest, just as the Israeli priests could only be selected by God. But unlike a human priest, Jesus had none of his own sins to atone for. In addition, he was not a priest in the order of Aaron or Levi, but in a new order: Melchizedek.

5:11–6:19 Diversion to discuss maturity

The writer now interrupts the issue of Jesus as priest to stop and address a problem with the people being written to, and it begins a passage of scripture that has been hotly debated for centuries.

The writer has a lot to tell them but is hampered by the people’s lack of maturity. They should have reached the level of teachers by this time, but instead they were stuck in spiritual infancy. They were still going over and over the basics of salvation; they had made no effort to dig deeply into the words of God, preferring instead the easy “milk”. Another factor was that Jews were under much pressure to stay in familiar territory (ref. Egypt) instead of stepping out in faith (ref. the Promised Land). The writer has spent a lot of effort up to this point, making illustrations from Israel’s history that should spur the people on to confident trust in Jesus. But they are tiptoeing, crawling slowly, barely grasping what salvation means and possibly becoming “homesick” for the old familiar ways.

Now to the meat of the controversy. Much hinges on details of grammar that are often overlooked. But from a careful study of the grammar we know this is not a hypothetical scenario (“if salvation could be lost it would be impossible to regain”) since no word such as “if” is in the Greek text here. And we know it isn’t about those who were never saved because it would be difficult to use language clearer than the four phrases to describe real believers. Further, we know it is about salvation and not only rewards, again because of those four phrases.

The Greek grammar for “re-crucifying” and “holding up to public mockery” is the present active participle, which indicates a presently-continuing action, not a past action. So the passage is saying that as long as people remain in rebellion against that which they once knew to be true, they are symbolically nullifying the sacrifice of Jesus. Conversely, if they discontinue this rebellion, they can change their minds again. This may seem illogical (they cannot change their minds until they change their minds), but we see this same issue in 2 Cor. 3:16 (their minds are covered, but the cover is removed if they change their minds). See also Gal. 3:1-5 and 4:9.

In other words, it does not teach that if a person renounces a once-genuine faith then they can never repent. Instead, like the other passages cited, it means that as long as people practice legalism and salvation by good deeds, they are saying that Jesus’ sacrifice meant nothing. But if such people repent, they can move on to deeper spiritual things.

This issue is very important regarding the popular practice of Christians turning to all things Hebraic. While there is value in understanding the practices and feasts in regards to how we understand the New Testament, we must be on our guard against considering these things mandatory or indicative of spiritual superiority. Things that give us feelings of spirituality, such as rites and feast days, can be very subtle traps since they substitute faith and knowledge with feelings and experiences.

After all this, the writer assures the people that they are not among those who re-crucify the Anointed and then turn back again to the importance of growing to maturity. They use the illustration of good soil that produces a crop. Note that what is burned here is not the ground itself, but the crop. Remember that in 1 Cor. 3 Paul speaks of our works being like a building that God will test by setting it on fire. We ourselves are saved but any works that were of poor quality will be burned up. So it is useless works that are cursed and burned, not people or souls.

But the writer is confident that such poor crops will not be produced if the people grow up. Already they have a few good deeds to their credit, and God will not overlook them. They long for them to produce a good crop in full measure, to receive their full inheritance. Once again, the inheritance itself is stated as being obtained by faith, not works (5:12). Works are the crop the soil produces; good deeds and outward actions are what we expect to see from the saved. (This concept is developed in more detail in the commentary on the Letter of James.)

To show them that our salvation itself is not in danger of being lost, Abraham is held up as an example. God made unilateral promises to him, promises that depended completely upon God alone, that he would surely bless Abraham no matter what. Likewise, our inheritance is sure and guaranteed by the blood of Jesus who sealed the contract. It is this guarantee that is our hope, so any teaching that robs believers of this hope and chips away at their confidence in the promises and guarantees of God can only produce a life of fear and legalistic performance. (See commentary on Romans for discussion on the “license to sin” accusation.)

6:20–10:36 Continuing on Jesus’ new priestly Order

Now we begin a long discussion of the new priestly order of Melchizedek.

6:20–7:10 The Order of Melchizedek

The Old Testament account of Melchizedek is found in Genesis 14. Not much is said about him other than being a priest and king of Salem (an older name for Jerusalem). Although Genesis is filled with genealogical records, Melchizedek appears suddenly and then is never mentioned again in Genesis. Psalm 110, which Jesus applied to himself, is the only other OT mention of him, and it only refers to the order of that priesthood. It’s possible that he was a pre-incarnation of Jesus, but we simply don’t know.

Many preachers make a big deal out of the fact that Abraham paid this priest one tenth (a “tithe”) of the spoils of a battle. But there is no record of Abraham tithing on any other occasion, or that he had a regular practice of tithing to anyone else. And it was not based upon his regular income but on one war’s captured goods. The whole reason the writer brings this up is to say that Levi, who only ever collected tithes from the Israelis, could be technically credited with paying a tithe to the superior priesthood of Melchizedek by virtue of being a descendent of Abraham.

But the words in Greek, os epos eipein, literally “as say to say”, mean “so to speak” (translated here as “you could even say”); it is not a statement of a literal fact, that somehow Levi existed as a person at that time. A person does not exist until an egg is fertilized, or else we’d have to consider all the sperm and eggs throughout human history as separate people. (What happens when they join together?) And if it were true that Levi was not required to pay the tithe since he was literally in Abraham when he paid it, then none of the other descendants of Abraham would have to pay it either.

So beware of stretching this “credit through genetics” analogy. If we are all supposed to have sinned because we all descend from Adam and were “in him” at his creation, then we could also claim to be righteous since we all descend from Noah and his family, or even our own parents if they were saved. Yet this is obviously not the case as the scriptures clearly state, so neither can we be credited or blamed for sin just because we descend from Adam. (More detail about that is discussed in the commentary on Romans.)

7:11–17 A new priesthood

“So then” or “Therefore” refers to the argument just completed about the Melchizedek priesthood being superior to the Levitical priesthood. If the Levitical one had been adequate to deal with sin, then there would have been no need for another priesthood.

But what is often overlooked is the fact that when the priesthood changes, so does the Law. They are inseparable; where one goes, there goes the other. Moses only gave the tribe of Levi access to the priesthood, but not the tribe of Judah from which Jesus came. And unlike the Levitical priesthood, the Melchizedek one is permanent; Jesus holds the office of Ruling Priest forever. (Incidentally, this is an excellent rebuttal to Mormonism’s dual priesthood of Aaron and Melchizedek. They cannot coexist, and no Mormon can claim to be of the tribe of either Levi or Judah.)

So since the priesthood we are under is that of Melchizedek and not Levi, we are not in any way obligated to observe any law associated with Levi. This has obvious implications for the matter of legalism for believers. Most believers think we must still obey the Ten Commandments, but they were only given to Israel under the priesthood of Aaron/Levi. And Gentiles should remember that they were never under the old Law at all.

7:18–28 A new law

The old law could not save or perfect anyone, and note that it has been annulled (see ch. 9 for discussion on how Jesus’ death accomplished this annulment of an “eternal” law). But God sealed this new priesthood with an oath: that Jesus would be a priest in the order of Melchizedek forever. There is no other priesthood to come, since this one alone can bring people to perfection. Unlike the old system where sacrifices had to be repeated, Jesus only needed one sacrifice of his own blood, once and for all. It is a great insult to God to claim Jesus didn’t do enough.

8:1–13 A new offering

Jesus, our Ruling Priest, serves in the heavenly sanctuary made by God. The earthly temple of Israel was a type or shadow of the real one in heaven, which is why it had to be made to such precise specifications. But it should be obvious that the heavenly temple, Ruling Priest, and sacrifice are infinitely superior to the earthly ones. And because of that, the New Testament (contract or covenant) is greatly superior to the Old. And as the writer already pointed out, there would have been no need for a greater contract unless the old one was imperfect and defective.

And again we see that the old law is fading away. At the time of the writing the Jews were still in a contractual relationship with God, but he would soon disperse them for unbelief. So the law, though officially annulled, was still fading out and not completely gone. Technically, though, the Israelis had broken it long ago and effectively annulled it then, but a contract is between two parties. So Jesus had to die to end God’s obligation to it.

Many people think we should still be held to the Ten Commandments and cite Mt. 5:17-18 for support. But not only do they ignore the clear statement here, they miss the meaning of the passage in Matthew. Jesus was saying that he had come to fulfill every single prophecy, as well as to fulfill the law. Thus people are no longer able or obligated to fulfill either.3

Jesus did not come to perpetuate the Law which is tied to the old Levitical priesthood, but to replace it with a superior one. What he fulfilled was prophecy. Of course, to be the spotless sacrificial Lamb he had to perfectly obey the old Laws, which he did. But that means only those who are united with Jesus really keep it, not by their own efforts, but by virtue of Jesus having kept it. And just as re-sacrificing Jesus is a slap in His face, so also is trying to keep the Law that Jesus already kept.

9:1–11 A new temple

Here we see details about the Temple, and the point of it all is to impress upon us the lengths to which God went to symbolize the superior one in heaven. The curtain symbolized that the Holiest Place was not to be seen until Jesus came with the sacrifice of his own blood. This gives added significance to the tearing of that curtain in the earthly Temple when Jesus died. It was the end of all sacrifice.

9:12–10:18 A new contract

Given the fact that Jesus’ blood was far superior to that of mere animals, we can rest assured that it cleansed us completely from sin. He is the one and only Mediator of this New Testament, one which is between God and all people, not just one nation. His death paid the ransom for all mankind and canceled the charges against us.

Now we are given a perspective on all this from ordinary civil law. A Will (or “Testament”) is not in effect until the one who made it dies. That is the reason for blood being required in the old sacrifices. Only death can put an end to sin; without this bloodshed there is no cleansing, no cancellation of the laws against us. (The Roman Catholic Church calls the Eucharist an “unbloody sacrifice”, which this verse shows to be ineffective.)

But just as the earthly sanctuary had to be cleansed with blood, so also did the heavenly one. And no animal’s blood could be good enough for that, but only the blood of God in the flesh, Jesus. Yet unlike the earthly sanctuary, the heavenly one only needed one cleansing. And just as people are only able to die once and then face judgment (a good thing to remember when dealing with the concept of karma or reincarnation), so too Jesus only needed to die once to take away all sin. He will appear again, but not for taking away sin. Instead it will be to bring us our promised deliverance. (See the section By Faith for discussion of the number of times a person can die.)

Again it is emphasized that the old Law was a shadow of better things to come, namely the new covenant sealed in Jesus’ blood once for all. That old Law could never perfect anyone, as proven by the fact that the sacrifices had to be repeated. All the repeated sacrifices did was remind the people of their sins. But God was preparing them for the ultimate Sacrifice that would only be needed once. And again, we see that “he takes away the first in order to establish the second.” This is also what Jesus referred to in his illustration of the wineskins (Mark 2, Luke 5); the old and the new cannot be mixed.

To further emphasize the fact that Jesus completed our redemption, we see that he sat down at God’s right hand and is waiting until all his enemies are humbled before him; he is not still sacrificing. And yet again we see this point which cannot be over-emphasized: “By one offering he has finally completed the holy ones.” It’s a finished work and it cannot ever be undone by anyone.

10:19–36 A new relationship

Here is another “therefore”, and it is the consequence of all the previous teachings: we are free to boldly go into the "Holy of Holies", the inner sanctuary, to the very presence of God. This is now possible because of the blood of our new Ruling Priest, which was “sprinkled on our hearts” when we believed. We need not waver in our confidence in him since he is perfectly trustworthy.

Verses 24 and 25 are perhaps the most famous verses in Hebrews, with the possible exception of the “faith chapter” to follow. Yet they are not without controversy, because many take it to sanction mandatory “church” attendance.

While it’s true that believers are always encouraged to work together as a body (see also 3:12–15), many in the churches use these two verses as a club to beat people over the head for not attending services regularly. But typically, such services are not real Biblical fellowship at all. People can attend for many years without even being saved, and the churches admit this. And many more only go to worship God, never really getting to know the people.

Showing up in appointed places at appointed times to perform appointed rituals is not what the writer is talking about here at all. Instead, it’s about not only staying close to sound teaching but also interacting in the daily lives of other believers for the purpose of both serving and being served. The churches should first clean their own houses and check up on the regular attendees before hunting down the “members” who are at least being honest. And they need to ask themselves why people drift away in such large numbers.

Instead, what is stated here is that we are to motivate each other toward love and good deeds; that is the purpose of meeting together. Notice that worship of God is not even mentioned here, but only interactions between people, to encourage each other and to band together as we see the End approaching. And as we recall the discussion on chapter six, we see in this passage the antidote for the temptation to return to the old law. By sticking together and remembering the impossibility of keeping the old and new contracts at the same time, these people can be assured of keeping the rewards they have earned.

After defining the new relationship believers have with God due to Jesus’ sacrifice and our faith in him, verse 26 begins more discussion about the finality of all that. As before, the writer is not promoting the idea that the saved can be lost, but that those who hear the Gospel are not saved unless they accept it. To turn away from it and keep on sinning even after we’ve known the truth is to condemn ourselves. Notice the warning against failure to appreciate the blood of the new contract. We have already discussed the error of trying to make additional sacrifices, and that’s what this refers to. God will surely take revenge against all who treat Jesus’ sacrifice as inadequate.

After all that theology about the meaning and effectiveness of Jesus’ sacrifice, the writer adds an appeal to the people’s own experiences. When they were first saved they were persecuted but stood firm through it all. They must not throw all that away, but endure and receive their rewards.

10:37–11:40 By faith

We are not to be fearful and defeated, but to be faithful and overcome. And it is plainly stated that “we have faith for the security of our souls.” Security, not insecurity. Guarantees and security are neither guaranteed nor secure if they can be lost.

The famous “faith chapter” (eleven) begins with a definition: faith is a sure hope, a conviction about what is not seen. It is confident trust in the Person who will never fail us, even when we are overwhelmed with doubt or hardship or oppression. It is impossible to please God without trusting him, and to do that we must first of all believe that he exists. God makes himself known to all who seek him out in faith. This is no blind, baseless wish, but absolute assurance of something or someone due to that which we can examine. God made sure there were eyewitnesses to Jesus’ birth, life, death, and resurrection. The Gospels were written for the precise purpose of giving testimony, and the evidence is appealed to repeatedly throughout the New Testament as the basis of our faith.

There is no need to repeat the details of the passage, but only to touch on a few highlights. One of them is the account of Cain and Abel. When people read the Genesis account they often wonder why Cain’s sacrifice was unacceptable to God. Being a worker of the field and not raising animals as his brother did, we can speculate that he did not bring the required blood sacrifice. But here we see another factor: faith. Abel had a better sacrifice because he had faith.

Another very interesting point is the mention of Enoch, who did not die but was taken directly to heaven. The only other person ever to have this happen was the prophet Elijah. Why were these two taken without dying, while people like Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David were not? We can speculate that the others were just not pure enough, but God may have another purpose in future prophecy. It is possible that these will be the two “witnesses” of Revelation who will be murdered and then raised to life after three days.

However, there is nothing in scripture to require everyone to have died at least once. Heb. 9:27 simply states the norm, which is that people don’t die or face judgment more than once. Also, the phrase in 9:27 is “for people to die once,” not “once people die.” Some try to change the meaning to support the teaching of karma, but “one time” is a completely different meaning from “as soon as.” Likewise, some who were raised from the dead before Jesus did also died again, since no one but Jesus has yet received an immortal body. In addition, some Christians who are alive when Jesus returns will never have died at all (John 11:26, 1 Thes. 4:15,17).

We also see a contrast in this chapter. Some of these giants of faith received some rewards in this life, and others did not. Some were honored, but others were hunted like animals and brutally murdered. Yet they did not rail against God and say “Why didn’t he protect me?” as many do today. People seem to expect God to be like Santa Claus, who exists to only give them good things.

12:1–2 Our examples to follow

Considering the caliber of people who went before us, we should therefore stand strong and stop being content with spiritual infancy or worrying about whether or not we’ll get to heaven. And we do this not by focusing on self, as is popular in the churches today, but on Jesus. It is he who will bring us to completion, not us. He gave up the comforts and respect of his heavenly throne for people who were still against him. He, above all the others listed in the previous chapter, is our greatest inspiration and example.

Notice that it is not “our” faith of which Jesus is the Originator and Completer, but “the” faith (the article is implied in the Greek). He does not have to create faith in us as held by the fatalistic view; our faith is a choice we make. And the “race” we run to eventual reward is a matter of something we do; it must therefore be the opposite of a gift to be received, and thus not having to do with salvation from eternal wrath.

12:3–11 Children of God

Some take verse 4 as referring to Jesus sweating “great drops of blood” in the Garden of Gethsemane, but no such connection is made by scripture (and the Gospels never say it was blood but only that his sweat was as profuse as blood dripping). All it says is that the people being addressed in this letter have not yet had to lay down their lives for the Gospel. But they have forgotten that they are adopted children of God, and as such, they will be disciplined as any good parent would discipline their own children. Parents aren’t responsible for other people’s children, so if God didn’t discipline us, it would mean we don’t belong to him. We must not abandon God for letting us suffer, any more than as children we would all run away from our parents for punishing us when we needed it.

12:12–13:7 Our response

With all that in mind, we should “work out” to get ourselves in shape, instead of being spectators that never make an effort to grow strong. We should do our best to get along with others, yet be vigilant to stand against error which could lead people astray.

Unlike ancient Israel, we have not come face-to-face with a consuming fire, darkness and gloom, a whirlwind, and a loud trumpet accompanying the voice of God. They were afraid to have him speak to them any more, and even Moses was afraid. Instead, we can come to God without any fear, as beloved children. So we have no excuses at all to stay away from God. On the other hand, if the first covenant carried the death penalty for any who failed to meet its requirements, how bad will it be for those who reject the second? All the more reason to come close to God instead of running away from him.

Chapter 13 begins with a curious statement: people have sometimes unknowingly given hospitality to Messengers. We must keep that in mind when we encounter strangers, as it could be a test from God of our true attitude toward others. But our motive should not be just to avoid being caught doing wrong; it should be that we genuinely care for people. We should also show our concern for those who have been imprisoned or suffered hardship for the sake of the Gospel.

There is a brief statement about marriage here. Apparently some had asked whether it’s okay for believers to marry, and the answer here is the same as that to similar questions to Paul from the Corinthians: Yes, believers can marry, and of course unfaithfulness is not permitted. Interestingly, the Bible never specifies what makes a couple officially married beyond physical union. There are no prescribed ceremonies, oaths, or official documents or sanctions by society. In God’s eyes then, they are married by the physical union.

Then the people are given general statements that should be obvious: Be content with what you have, take courage, respect those spiritually mature ones who have been watching out for you, and take their example of life and faith to heart. There are no such words as obey, follow, or submit in that statement about leaders. It literally reads, “Remember the ones-leading you who speak to-you the word of-the God of-whom contemplating the sequel of-the behavior imitate the faith.” And in the context the emphasis is clearly on following examples. We are to be like them, but of course not to excuse poor behavior or blindly follow the orders of a despot. This will be emphasized again shortly.

13:8–15 Warnings to stay sharp

Jesus is again presented as One to be trusted. He will never waver or change. And just as Paul wrote, this writer warns the people not to waste time arguing about the old laws or strange new teachings that didn’t come from God. Again the writer refers to the old sacrificial system as being inadequate, so that we must not go back to it but instead go “outside the camp” to Jesus.

13:16–19 The wisdom of following the examples of proven leaders

The only kind of “sacrifices” we can add are those of pure words of praise and of being the community of believers we were meant to be. And again, in vs. 17, the writer mentions leaders, who are guarding them from error. As stated before, this is not a command to obey every whim of a boss, but an appeal to the wisdom of staying close to those who are stronger in the faith than we are. The responsibility Elders have for the other believers is not to dominate or rule but to serve and protect. It is simply a smart move to listen to them.

The Greek here literally reads, “be-persuaded to-the ones-leading of-you and defer they for are-being-vigilant over the souls of-you as saying having-to-render that with joy this they-may-do…” Again, there is no mention of authority, rule, obedience, or punishment for failing to obey.

13:20–25 Final blessings and greetings

As the letter winds down with the typical farewells of the day, we see a commonly mistranslated statement. Most render it “a short letter”, which this obviously isn’t. Instead, the Greek clearly indicates that it was written in bits: “bear-with the word of-the entreaty and for through bits I-wrote-the-letter to-you.” This would explain some of the topic shifting as well. The letter was evidently not all written in one sitting, but here and there as time allowed.

  1. 1The references to all forms of the base verb are Acts 8:33, 9:27, 12:16; Mark 5:16, 9:9; Luke 8:39, 9:10; Heb. 11:32.
  2. 2A. von Harnack, Probabilia uber die Adresse und den Verfasser des Hebraerbriefes, Zeitschrift Fur Die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft, 1900
  3. 3G. Miller, Christian Thinktank