Tuesday, April 15, 2003

Gleanings from Hebrews

Getting the Most out of Hebrews (4)

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

Hebrews: Something Old, Something New

Some circles seemingly consider the Old Testament obsolete, out-dated, and out of touch with the new world of the New Testament. I have heard teachers claim that unless the New Testament reaffirms an Old Testament doctrine, such doctrine is null and void. I have, then, heard others use this principle to argue against using musical instruments during worship. The New Testament references unaccompanied singing, and therefore the cymbals, pipes, harps, and other Old Testament testimony of making music is now forbidden in this new world of grace, but no law -- (Did that sound cynical?)

In light of this, understanding the book of Hebrews for many Christians will be difficult, because it assumes the reader knows the Law, and the Prophets, and the Writings of the old saints. Since my main goal of this extended series is to provide tools for making this book your own, I would like to cover four essential concepts that you need to know in order to make headway.

Moses and Other Messengers

Moses was the greatest prophet in the Old Testament. Among Jews today, he is still the greatest of all God's messengers to mankind. He must be count great among Christians, as well. This is his legacy:

Since that time no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face, for all the signs and wonders which the Lord sent him to perform in the land of Egypt against Pharaoh, all his servants, and all his land, and for all the mighty power and for all the great terror which Moses performed in the sight of all Israel. (Deuteronomy 34:10-12, NASB)

Moses gave us the Law of God spoken from Mount Sinai. Born after him were other messengers who spoke in other, less direct ways:

  • Isaiah communicated visions, gave his children interesting names like Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz, and spoke oracles from the Lord.
  • Hosea married a prostitute as part of his message to Israel. He also gave his children prophetic names like Lo-Ami (Not my people).
  • Amos could look at everyday objects, like a plumb line, and use them to communicate God's truths.
  • Ezekiel communicated in visions and play acting.

The more you know about the diversity of God's messages through his prophets, the more you can understand the unique opening of Hebrews:

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)

The writer to the Hebrews begins his work by showing Jesus to be a better messenger with a better message than all the other messengers. Thus he begins his great theme that Jesus is superior to Moses and the other prophets by virtue of His being "the exact representation of His nature."

The Kinsman Redeemer

There is an interesting Old Testament word that requires several different English words to carry its meaning. That word is goel. Here is how this word is translated:

  • Kinsman -- this is in Leviticus 25:25. A close relative has the responsibility of redeeming property sold to pay debts.
  • Redeemer -- this is in Leviticus 25:49. A close relative has the responsibility of redeeming another relative sold as a slave to pay debts.
  • Blood Avenger -- this is in Deuteronomy 19:12. A close relative has the responsibility to avenge the blood of a close relative killed by another.

So goel communicates both blood ties and the responsibilities that pertain to those ties. They are two sides of the same coin and cannot be separated. In the story of Ruth, Boaz is the kinsman of Naomi and, by extension, Ruth. And so Ruth is free to approach Boaz and say to him, “I am Ruth your maid. So spread your covering over your maid, for you are a close relative.” To transliterate, Ruth says, "You are a goel."

The writer of Hebrews uses this concept of the kinsman-redeemer to develop the essential reason why God had to take human form to provide salvation to mankind:

For it was fitting for Him, for whom are all things, and through whom are all things, in bringing many sons to glory, to perfect the author of their salvation through sufferings. For both He who sanctifies and those who are sanctified are all from one Father; for which reason He is not ashamed to call them brethren, saying, “I will proclaim Your name to My brethren, In the midst of the congregation I will sing Your praise.” And again, “I will put My trust in Him.” And again, “Behold, I and the children whom God has given Me.” Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and might free those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives. (Hebrews 2:10-15)

Note these words especially, "Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same." By sharing our nature, Jesus became a kinsman and took on the responsibilities of freeing us from slavery.

Melchizedek

This is one person who is central to the argument of Hebrews. You must understand what the Old Testament says about him in Genesis and Psalm 110, and then see how the author of Hebrews develops a picture of Jesus as Priest and King.

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)

The Lord says to my Lord: “Sit at My right hand Until I make Your enemies a footstool for Your feet.” The Lord will stretch forth Your strong scepter from Zion, saying,“ Rule in the midst of Your enemies.” Your people will volunteer freely in the day of Your power; In holy array, from the womb of the dawn, Your youth are to You as the dew. The Lord has sworn and will not change His mind, “You are a priest forever According to the order of Melchizedek.” The Lord is at Your right hand; He will shatter kings in the day of His wrath. He will judge among the nations, He will fill them with corpses, He will shatter the chief men over a broad country. He will drink from the brook by the wayside; Therefore He will lift up His head. (Psalm 110:1-7)

There you have the sum total of what the Old Testament has to say about Melchizedek, but Hebrews mentions him by name over eight times. What is important is that Psalm 110 tells us that Messiah will be both a king and a priest. It opens the door to a priesthood outside the bloodline of Aaron. The writer of Hebrews uses Psalm 110, Jesus' death, and references to the tabernacle to tell us how Jesus' death saved us.

The Tabernacle and Sacrifice

The author of Hebrews also connects with the Jewish sacrificial system, which he describes in the context of the wilderness tabernacle rather than the temple in Jerusalem. 

Now even the first covenant had regulations of divine worship and the earthly sanctuary. For there was a tabernacle prepared, the outer one, in which were the lampstand and the table and the sacred bread; this is called the holy place. Behind the second veil there was a tabernacle which is called the Holy of Holies, having a golden altar of incense and the ark of the covenant covered on all sides with gold, in which was a golden jar holding the manna, and Aaron’s rod which budded, and the tables of the covenant; and above it were the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat; but of these things we cannot now speak in detail. (Hebrews 9:1-5)

You may want to refer to this image.

  • The tabernacle consisted of a courtyard that contained the altar and washing basin. The priests entered this area freely each day to make the daily offerings. These included burnt offerings, sin offerings, guilt offerings, and fellowship offerings.
  • Within this courtyard was a tent, or tabernacle, that contained a front room and a back room.
  • The front room was the Holy Place wherein a priest kept a lamp burning, burned incense at prescribed times, and replaced the bread of presence each day. Access to the Holy Place was restricted to a single priest each day, but there was a cycle of families that rotated in this service. It was this service that Zechariah, John the Baptist's father, engaged in when he saw the angel Gabriel.
  • The back room was the Holiest of Holies. Here the High Priest only could enter once a year to make an atoning sacrifice for the sins of the nation.

This system separated the general population from the Levites who care for the tabernacle and its furnishings. The Levites, in turn, were separated from the population of priests, who all descended from Aaron. The priests were separated from the current family that offered the daily incense. Everybody was separated from the single High Priest who could make the offerings on the Day of Atonement. Once again, Hebrews says:

Now when these things have been so prepared, the priests are continually entering the outer tabernacle performing the divine worship, but into the second, only the high priest enters once a year, not without taking blood, which he offers for himself and for the sins of the people committed in ignorance. The Holy Spirit is signifying this, that the way into the holy place has not yet been disclosed while the outer tabernacle is still standing, which is a symbol for the present time. Accordingly both gifts and sacrifices are offered which cannot make the worshiper perfect in conscience, since they relate only to food and drink and various washings, regulations for the body imposed until a time of reformation. (Hebrews 9:6-10)

As you read Hebrews, you will come face to face with the realities after Jesus death and resurrection.

Wednesday: Jesus in the Book of Hebrews

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