Thursday, April 10, 2003

Gleanings from Hebrews

Getting the Most out of Hebrews (2)

This is the second post in a series that will help you get the most from reading the book of Hebrews. To start at the beginning, click here.

Hints, Allegories, and Hidden Meanings

This post is a summary of a paper that I have published online. You can read the full paper by clicking here. The full paper gives more details and analysis and proposes a hermeneutic that offers common ground to dispensational and covenant theologians.

The Ideal

Although its detractors use terms like “hyper-literalism,” the grammatical-historical method of Bible study has much to commend it. Who can fault a system that strives for objectivity in its pursuit of the knowledge of God? The grammatical-historical method encourages us to read and study without predefined doctrinal lenses. It encourages us to seek out, recognize and put aside long held presuppositions about Christianity and the Bible. Consequently, with the Holy Spirit, an open mind, and hard study anyone can discover important truths and discern the amazing internal consistency of the scriptures.

The grammatical-historical method reads poetry as poetry, history as history, and prophecy as prophecy. At every juncture, the common idiomatic sense of language is what rules. In other words, the primary meaning of a passage of scripture is never an allegory, unless it is so declared by the author.


Hebrews opens with these words:

God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world. And He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature, and upholds all things by the word of His power. When He had made purification of sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much better than the angels, as He has inherited a more excellent name than they. For to which of the angels did He ever say, “You are My Son, Today I have begotten You”? And again, “I will be a Father to Him And He shall be a Son to Me”? (Hebrews 1:1-5, NASB)

After telling his readers that God has spoken to us through His marvelous son -- (and note that the author does not identify this Son until chapter 2) -- he quotes from two Old Testament passages. Here they are:

“But as for Me, I have installed My King Upon Zion, My holy mountain.” “I will surely tell of the decree of the Lord: He said to Me, ‘You are My Son, Today I have begotten You. (Psalm 2:6-7, NASB)

“When your days are complete and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your descendant after you, who will come forth from you, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for My name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be a father to him and he will be a son to Me; when he commits iniquity, I will correct him with the rod of men and the strokes of the sons of men, (2 Samuel 7:12-14, NASB)

The quotation of Psalm 2 presents little problem. You can read the psalm and connect it with a Messiah and have no discomfort at all. But the 2 Samuel quotation does present problems.

  1. It gives a time reference. Nathan tells David, "When your days are complete and you lie down with your father..." Hebrews implies something said in eternity.
  2. It has a specific context. The surrounding passage is about David wanting to build the temple, but God telling him that it will be his son that does so. When Nathan says, "He shall build a house for my name," the most logical and immediate meaning is that the Lord refers to Solomon. Hebrews tells us it was about God's own Son.
  3. There is reference to imperfection. Although this king of Israel will be as "a son to me." The Lord goes on to say, "when he commits iniquity, I will correct him." Are we to assume that Jesus sinned and needed correction?

So what are we to make of this linking of 2 Samuel 7 to God's true Son who is "the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature?" What gives Hebrew's author the freedom to apply this passage to Messiah, when the context and content clearly point to Solomon? If you continue reading Hebrews and looking up its Old Testament references in context, you will come up against similar disconnects of Old Testament Scripture.

The Dilemma

Although one might be an ardent practitioner and defender of the grammatical-historical method, it must be recognized that it has a fundamental problem. That problem, simply stated, is this, “If grammar and historical context are so vital to correctly dividing the word of truth, why did the New Testament authors sometimes violate it?  Should they not have been the very models of scriptural correctness?”

Apparently not: for the very first Old Testament reference in the New Testament has no sound connection to its original Old Testament context. Let me leave Hebrews momentarily and look at the first quote of the Old Testament in Matthew. Compare Matthew’s quotation of Isaiah 7:14 and the extended quote from Isaiah which follows:

Now all this took place to fulfill what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall be with child and shall bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel,” which translated means, “God with us.” (Matthew 1:22,23, NASB)

Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel. He will eat curds and honey at the time He knows enough to refuse evil and choose good. For before the boy will know enough to refuse evil and choose good, the land whose two kings you dread will be forsaken. The LORD will bring on you, on your people, and on your father’s house such days as have never come since the day that Ephraim separated from Judah, the king of Assyria. In that day the LORD will whistle for the fly that is in the remotest part of the rivers of Egypt and for the bee that is in the land of Assyria. (Isaiah 7:14-18, NASB)

It might be good to read all of Isaiah 7. In context, Isaiah’s famous prophecy really outlines a timetable for the destruction of two troublesome foreign kings named Rezin and Pekah. Isaiah says to Judah’s king Ahaz, in effect, that by the time a particular maiden marries, has a son, and sees him through his “Bar Mitzvah”, two pesky kings will be gone. Some commentators try to say that Isaiah is not speaking to Ahaz, but to the whole “House of David.” They take this mental handle and try to stretch the meaning to make it fit the true virgin birth to come. But verse 16 ties the prophecy to the two kings and verse 18 calls upon Egypt and Assyria to be the instruments of their destruction. What have Egypt and Assyria to do with the conception and birth of Jesus?

Note how the New English Translation phrases Isaiah 7:14:

For this reason the sovereign master himself will give you a confirming sign. Look, the young lady over there is about to conceive and will give birth to a son. You, young lady, will name him Immanuel. (Isaiah 7:14, The Net Bible)

The NET Bible completely captures Isaiah’s original sense. So what was Matthew thinking when he so boldly proclaimed the fulfillment of Isaiah 7:14?  

More Examples from Hebrews

In order to pull you into to an important hermeneutical concept that I will present tomorrow, I want to compare a few more passages in Hebrews with their Old Testament counterparts:

A Sabbath Rest for the People of God. The writer to the Hebrews develops a concept of a future Sabbath rest for the people of God. He encourages us to do all we can to enter into that rest:

Therefore, let us fear if, while a promise remains of entering His rest, any one of you may seem to have come short of it. For indeed we have had good news preached to us, just as they also; but the word they heard did not profit them, because it was not united by faith in those who heard. For we who have believed enter that rest, just as He has said, “As I swore in My wrath, They shall not enter My rest,” although His works were finished from the foundation of the world. For He has said somewhere concerning the seventh day:And God rested on the seventh day from all His works”; and again in this passage, “They shall not enter My rest.” Therefore, since it remains for some to enter it, and those who formerly had good news preached to them failed to enter because of disobedience, He again fixes a certain day, “Today,” saying through David after so long a time just as has been said before, “Today if you hear His voice, Do not harden your hearts.” For if Joshua had given them rest, He would not have spoken of another day after that. So there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God. (Hebrews 4:1-9, NASB)

The writer to the Hebrews combines elements of the creation in Genesis 2 with a warning in Psalm 95:

By the seventh day God completed His work which He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done. (Genesis 2:2, NASB)

For He is our God, And we are the people of His pasture and the sheep of His hand. Today, if you would hear His voice, Do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah, As in the day of Massah in the wilderness, “When your fathers tested Me, They tried Me, though they had seen My work. “For forty years I loathed that generation, And said they are a people who err in their heart, And they do not know My ways. “Therefore I swore in My anger, Truly they shall not enter into My rest.” (Psalm 95:7-11, NASB)

Was the writer of Psalm 95  thinking of eternal rest when he wrote his Psalm? Is it not more likely that he was referring to the generation left to die in the wilderness leaving the second generation of exodus children to enter the land? Indeed, in Joshua, we read:

So the Lord gave Israel all the land which He had sworn to give to their fathers, and they possessed it and lived in it. And the Lord gave them rest on every side, according to all that He had sworn to their fathers, and no one of all their enemies stood before them; the Lord gave all their enemies into their hand. Not one of the good promises which the Lord had made to the house of Israel failed; all came to pass. (Joshua 21:43-45, NASB)

So we face the dilemma again. By what method do the New Testament authors bring forth the Old Testament to anchor their points?

Eternal Priest and King: Let me give you one more to chew on today. Tomorrow, I hope to show you the path the New Testament authors have walked. The writer to the Hebrews tells us that the story of Melchizedek has much to say about the nature of Jesus our High Priest and King:

For this Melchizedek, king of Salem, priest of the Most High God, who met Abraham as he was returning from the slaughter of the kings and blessed him, to whom also Abraham apportioned a tenth part of all the spoils, was first of all, by the translation of his name, king of righteousness, and then also king of Salem, which is king of peace. Without father, without mother, without genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but made like the Son of God, he remains a priest perpetually. (Hebrews 7:1-3, NASB)

These words reference a story from Genesis:

Then after his return from the defeat of Chedorlaomer and the kings who were with him, the king of Sodom went out to meet him at the valley of Shaveh (that is, the King’s Valley). And Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine; now he was a priest of God Most High. He blessed him and said, “Blessed be Abram of God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth; And blessed be God Most High, Who has delivered your enemies into your hand.” He gave him a tenth of all. (Genesis 14:17-20, NASB)

In the few short words above, you have the entire story of Melchizedek. He appears, he blesses, and he leaves. That he historically had a father and mother, a birth, and a death is beyond reasonable dispute. Yet the writer to the Hebrews uses their absence in the text to speak of Jesus' eternal nature. And why should we care that Melchizedek means King of Righteousness or that Salem means peace?

Leaving You with This

The use of the Old Testament by the New Testament violates standards taught in many good seminaries. Matthew, Paul, John, and Jesus did it. How are we to understand this usage?

There is a Jewish answer.

Friday: PaRaDiSe

<>< Test Everything. Cling to what is good. ><>


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