Hebrews: A Call to Hear God’s Voice in Christ (Heb. 1:1-2)
It is my intention over the next
weeks and months to deliver a series of expository messages on the book of
Hebrews. I’m excited about this, and I
hope you will join me in my excitement over this, because this is such a
wonderful and important epistle. Of
course it is, because it is in the Bible!
It is inspired and without error.
But why begin here with Hebrews?
Let me give you a couple of reasons.
First, Hebrews is important because
in some sense this epistle summarizes the message of both the Old and the New
Testament. It is the entire Bible in the
short compass of its thirteen chapters.
I think this is the reason R. C. Sproul said that if he were going to prison
and could only take one book, he would take the Bible; but if he could only
take one book from the Bible, he would choose Hebrews.
But second, I think the book of
Hebrews is especially relevant for our day, because it speaks to people who are
thinking about leaving the faith. Today
we are seeing a lot of vocal and visible people leave the Christian faith and
the Christian church. Deconversion
stories abound. We are clearly living in
a time when a lot of people who were raised in the church or who were once
members of the church are seriously questioning the feasibility of remaining a
Christian. To many people, it is seeming
less and less plausible. I would not be
surprised if there are some in this very congregation who are there. So I hope this epistle speaks to you and
encourages you to remain faithful to Christ.
But even if you are not there, discouragement can make being a Christian
and being a light in the world difficult, and this epistle speaks to that as
well. So I hope these messages will
Let’s start there – what kinds of
things would make someone want to leave the faith, and what does Hebrews say
about his? There are many things that
might make one want to give up on Christianity or the church or the faith. Of course, we know from the Bible that the
enemy of the church – Satan – is constantly at work to overthrow the faith of
the saints. He is roaming about, seeking
whom he may devour, wanting to sift the faith of the vulnerable. But he uses a multitude of means to
accomplish his nefarious ends, and I want to mention a few of these.
One of the main things the devil
likes to use is just plain old suffering.
It could be suffering through persecution. Or it could be suffering as it comes in a
number of other forms: cancer, family crises, betrayal, job loss, business
failure, and on and on. But the thing
that is most likely to put the greatest amount of stress upon our faith is not
just suffering, it is suffering with no earthly end in sight. When we look at the trial we are going
through and it doesn’t look like it will ever let up – that is often when our
faith becomes strained to the point of breaking. And the devil knows that. We ask, “If God is real, and if the Christian
faith is real, wouldn’t that mean that God will take these sufferings
away? And if they’re not taken away,
doesn’t that prove that Christianity doesn’t work, or at least that God doesn’t
care?” And so many folks have walked away from Jesus since because of their
suffering they don’t have confidence anymore that he is there or that he cares.
Another thing that really is a
subset of the former category, but which I want to highlight, is social
alienation. I’m not talking about
social awkwardness; I’m talking about people rejecting you or marginalizing you
because of your faith in Christ. At
times like this we are tempted to ask, “How can this be right when so many
people find it disgusting? How can
something be right that so many people think is foolishness? How could I live in a world created by God amidst
people created by God and see things so entirely different from everyone
else? Might not the answer be that I am
wrong?” And then add to the fact that if
we stopped being faithful to Christ it would make our live much easier on this
earth and you have a recipe for walking away from Jesus.
And add to that the doubts
that we all wrestle with from time to time.
Of course, doubts don’t come from nowhere. They are there many times when we are in
circumstances like those we have just mentioned. But the fact of the matter is that our
culture is constantly bombarding us with doubts about our faith. Everything is being questioned. There is no part of the Christian faith that
is not under attack. A few years ago,
here in the West we had the privilege of living in a society that shared many
of our basic convictions. But that is no
longer the case. We cannot even assume
that our culture accepts many of our basic convictions about ethical
issues. But here’s the point: when
doubts begin to pile up – doubt upon doubt, we get to the point where we don’t
think we can believe in the Christian faith anymore. And so people walk away.
So here’s the question: how do
you encourage someone (and that might be yourself!) to keep the faith when they
are weary and discouraged, perhaps to the point of wanting to give up? Here is where the book of Hebrews can be of
tremendous help and benefit. Because the
book of Hebrews was written to a small church of mainly Jewish believers, many
of whose members were apparently in precisely this predicament. What we have in front of us in the book of
Hebrews is a sermon – it is called a “word of exhortation” in Heb. 13:22 –
meant to encourage and strengthen and give hope to worn and weary believers who
were on the verge of abandoning the faith.
We know that they had become
weary through persecution for the faith from evidence given to us in the book
itself. In 10:32-39, we are told that
they had “endured a hard struggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly
exposed to reproach and affliction” (32-33, ESV). Some of them had gone to prison, and others
had lost property and possessions (34).
Their enduring the contradiction of unbelievers had had its toll: and
later these believers will be exhorted to look to Christ “lest ye be wearied
and faint in your minds” (12:3).
Apparently, some were already there.
Then, we have this exhortation: “Wherefore lift of the hands which hang
down, and the feeble knees” (12:12), a picture of utter discouragement, because
that’s where they were. Finally, in
13:13, the author encourages them to “go forth therefore unto him without the
camp, bearing his reproach.” It seems
that they were just so worn down and disheartened that they just didn’t feel it
in them to endure anymore. If they were
going to remain Christian, they were going to do so in private. They had just had enough of this
persecution. They didn’t want to endure
any more, even if that meant they had to give up the faith.
We can’t know for sure, but it
seems – and there seems to be somewhat of a general consensus on this – that
this epistle was written to a house church in Rome about the middle of the
first century. It is thought to have
been addressed to a church in Rome for two main reasons. First, because the very first time this
epistle is quoted is by Clement of Rome at the end of the first century. The fact that it first shows up in the
writings of an elder of the Roman church makes it likely that the epistle
originated near there. Second, we have
these words in 13:24 – “They of Italy salute you.” This is not the only way to interpret this sentence,
but certainly one way is that the author is with folks from Italy who want to
send their greetings back to their fellow countrymen.
It was probably written in the
middle of the first century. Assuming a
Roman provenance, an earliest date would be A.D. 49, for this was when the Jews
were evicted from Rome by the Emperor Claudius (an event noted in Acts 18:2 and
by the Roman historian Suetonius). It
was this event which probably explains the loss of property and imprisonment referred
to in chapter 10. So it had to be after
that. An upper bound for the date of
this epistle is A.D. 95 because that’s when Clement of Rome quotes parts of
Hebrews 1 in his epistle to the Corinthians.
However, the fact that Hebrews seems to assume the Temple service is
still ongoing (cf. Heb. 10:11) would mean that it had to be before A.D.
70. But there is another
consideration. It is this: though they
had endured persecution, they had not yet experienced martyrdom, for they had
“not yet resisted unto blood, striving against sin” (12:4). However, we know that the Emperor Nero
persecuted Christians in Rome between A.D. 64 and 68, when he died. It seems likely, then, that it was written
perhaps in the early 60’s in the first century.
Now I said that this was written
to a congregation of mainly Jewish believers, because, it seems to me, the
argument of the epistle demands that.
They were weary and thinking about walking away from the faith. But what were they walking to? It seems that they were thinking about
returning to a Christless Judaism. That
is, they just wanted to set back the clock and go back to the way things were
before Jesus showed up. That would
certainly relieve them from a lot of the persecution they were
experiencing. Judaism was a legally
recognized religion in the Roman empire, but Christianity was not. By going back to their old Judaism, they
would no longer have to endure persecution for their faith. The argument of the epistle is that the must
not, they should not, do this. It is insanity
to abandon their faith in Christ, no matter what sufferings they will have to
endure. That’s the argument.
Before I proceed, let me address
the million-dollar question: who wrote Hebrews?
Well, if you have a KJV, you might think I’m being stupid here, because
it says, in all caps at the very beginning of the epistle: “THE EPISTLE OF PAUL
THE APOSTLE TO THE HEBREWS.” However,
you need to understand that this heading did not originate with any of the Greek
manuscripts from which Hebrews is translated.
It originated, I believe, with Jerome’s version of the Bible in Latin,
called the Vulgate. The reality is that
there has been a lot of debate from the very beginning over the authorship of this
epistle, and that Paul’s name was never universally recognized as the author,
although due to the influence of Augustine and Jerome in the fourth century,
Paul’s name became for many years the one associated with this letter.
I can’t say that I know who wrote
it. However, I can say that I’m pretty
sure that the apostle Paul did not in fact write it. I say that for two reasons. First, in every other epistle of his, Paul
always identifies himself (and it seems pretty important to him that he does
this). The fact that the author doesn’t
do so here indicates this is not the apostle Paul writing it. Second, and what I consider to be the decisive
argument, is what is said in 2:3-4: “How shall we escape, if we neglect so
great salvation; which at the first began to be spoken by the Lord, and was
confirmed unto us by them that heard him; God also bearing them witness, both
with signs and wonders, and with divers miracles, and gifts of the Holy Ghost,
according to his own will?” Whoever
wrote Hebrews does not put himself with those who personally heard Jesus, nor
with those who performed miracles in his name.
This would certainly rule Paul out.
But who did write it? I think it was Origin who famously said of
the author of Hebrews, “Only God knows,” and I agree. Tertullian thought Barnabas wrote it. Others suggested Luke (author of the gospel
of Luke and Acts) and Clement of Rome.
Martin Luther thought Apollos wrote it.
Other names have been put forward as well. Nevertheless, the most we can say is that
whoever wrote it was a Jewish Christian man (the grammar of Heb. 11:32 demands
that the author is male) in the first century.
Does it make a difference not knowing?
No; there are several books in the Bible whose authors we do not know
(think the books of Kings and Chronicles, for example), but that does not negatively
affect their canonicity. The reality is
that the early church accepted Hebrews as canonical because it recognized that
in this book we have a word inspired by the Holy Spirit for the good of God’s
church and for the glory of his name.
One writer has put it this way: “Hebrews was preserved and transmitted
because Christian leaders kept picking it up and positive results followed.”
The Roots of their Discouragement
The author, whoever he was, was
clearly concerned for the spiritual welfare of these Jewish Christians in
Rome. He knew that they were on the
verge, at least some of them, of spiritual collapse. And so he is writing them to encourage them
to persevere, to continue in the faith.
Now, I think it is very
instructive how he does not do it. He
does not do it by promising them that if they remain faithful, things will look
up and they will escape persecution. In
some ways, the author is steeling their minds and hearts for faithfulness in
Rather, what he does in this book
is to look at the roots of their discouragement and to address those. He considers how the alienation and loss they
had and were experiencing had undermined their faith. There were at least three things that were
happening and which book of Hebrews was written to address.
First, they had failed to embrace
a pilgrim mindset, which will make suffering for Christ much more
difficult. Hence we have the call to
such a mindset in Hebrews 11 and 13. If
you view this world as your home, you will be discouraged when it becomes
inhospitable. But when you consider
yourself a pilgrim, a sojourner, you are going to be more likely to put up with
certain losses and crosses. So there is
this tremendous emphasis on seeing themselves as aliens in a foreign land, on
their way to their true homeland.
Second, they had failed to
believe that the Christian hope is superior to its alternatives. Other things had grabbed their hearts. And this will inevitably cause a person to
abandon the faith in Christ for something else that is perceived to be
superior. And so this epistle aims at
convincing its audience that the Christian hope is superior to its
You see this concern embedded in
the very structure of the book.
Comparisons are made and the hope of Christ is argued to be
“better.” Thus, “For the law made
nothing perfect, but the bringing in of a better hope did; by the which we draw
night unto God” (7:19). “By so much was
Jesus made a surety of a better testament” (7:22). “But now hath he obtained a more excellent
ministry, by how much also he is the mediator of a better covenant, which was
established upon better promises” (8:6).
Then you have this magnificent running comparison between Mount Sinai
[which represents the law] and Mount Zion [which represents the Christian hope]
In fact, the whole argument of
this epistle is that Christ is better.
He is better than the angels through which the law was given (chapters
1-2). He is better than Moses to whom
the law was given (chapter 3). He is
better is Joshua, who led law-blessed Israel into the Promised Land (chapter
4). He is better than Aaron and the Levitical
Priesthood established by the law of Moses, which is where the author camps out
and spends a lot of times developing the superiority of Christ to all that
(chapters 5-10). What remains of the
book (beginning about 10:19) is to apply the richness of the excellence of the
gospel to their lives. If they really grasp these things, they will, they must,
hold the confidence of their hope firm to the end.
Of course, that doesn’t mean application
isn’t ongoing throughout the epistle.
The whole letter is one sustained exhortation, and the author doesn’t
wait until the end to make application; he does so throughout. Thus you have repeated instances of
exhortation and rebuke throughout the letter.
In fact, I would argue that the doctrine of Hebrews is meant to support
the entreaties and warnings made throughout the letter. It is an urgent call to see the superiority
of the hope we have in Christ so that we don’t abandon him for second-rate and
So they had failed to embrace a
pilgrim mindset, they had failed to see the superiority of the Christian hope,
and they had failed to see the excellency and sufficiency of Christ as our
Savior, which guarantees our hope and grounds it. Such a failure to see these things will
surely lead to spiritual attrition and apostacy. This book deals with each one of these
failures head on and diagnoses them and gives the Biblical solution to them.
The Need to Hear the Word of
However, underneath all this, all
these failures, lies a more fundamental error.
Although, at the same time they also perhaps contributed toward this
error. That is, these Christians had
stopped listening to the voice of God in his Scripture and in his Son. They had stopped believing that God was
speaking to them in the preaching of the gospel. This is, as I understand it, the overarching
theme of the book of Hebrews: this epistle fundamentally addresses the need to
listen to, to take heed to, to hear afresh the voice of God in the word of God.
You can see this in the way the
author bookends this letter. He begins
with the statement that God has spoken – first in the prophets and climatically
and finally in his Son (1:1-2), and then towards the end, exhorts them to “see
that ye refuse not him that speaketh” (12:25).
God has spoken: hear him! that’s
the message. The problem when we become
discouraged is that we stop listening to God.
We start listening to other things, other messages, and we therefore
give in to other hopes and end up walking away from Christ. One of the goals of any Christian minister
and pastor is to facilitate the faithful hearing of the word of God to the
people of God. That is what this pastor
– the author of Hebrews – is doing.
And it’s amazing and fascinating
in the way he does it. We have to
remember that for him, Scripture was the Old Testament. And so he quotes it, and does so often,
expounding and explaining and applying God’s word to God’s people. In Hebrews, the OT is quoted and alluded to
so often that it’s actually difficult to nail down precisely just how much he
does it. According to one NT scholar,
“there are thirty-one explicit quotations [of OT Scripture] and four more
implicit quotations, a minimum of thirty-seven allusions, nineteen instances
where OT material is summarized, and thirteen more where a biblical name or
topic is cited without reference to a specific context.” That’s a lot for a small book.
But what I find compelling is
how he quotes the OT, and this is actually without parallel in the NT. He doesn’t quote the OT by the phrase, “It is
written,” but by something like, “he says,” or “it says.” For example, just to take one instance, look
at Heb. 3:7. When he quotes Psalm 95, he
does so by introducing it by the phrase, “as the Holy Ghost saith.” Two things are very important here. First, this is not just David speaking. David probably wrote Psalm 95, but that is
not how the author of Hebrews begins the quote.
He does so by saying that this is the word of God; specifically the word
of the Holy Spirit, the one who inspires all God’s word. But this is not all. He could have justly said, “The Holy Spirit said,”
past tense – but this isn’t what he did, is it?
No – instead he puts it in the present tense: “The Holy Spirit is
saying.” Do you see what he is
doing? The Bible is not some dead
letter. God is still speaking through
it. This is why “the word of God is
quick [living], and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing
even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and the
marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and the intents of the heart”
(4:12). Do we understand the Bible like
that? Do we understand that when we pick
of the Bible, God is speaking to us?
Someone could tell whether or not
I believe this by how often I pick up the Bible. It’s one thing to believe that the Bible is
God’s word, that he has spoken in the pages of Scripture. Yes, and Amen. But if that’s where I stop, I may never
really appreciate what the Bible is to me, and as a result I will not
incorporate it into my life like Psalm 1 and Deut. 6 commands us to do. And as a result, I am going to be a weak and
a defective Christian. How is a
Christian to become strong and mature?
It is by the word of God (2 Tim. 3:16-17; cf. 1 Thess. 2:13).
This is what had happened,
apparently, to these Christians. Instead
of listening to the word of God with enthusiasm, they had become “dull of
hearing” (5:11). Because of the
suffering they had endured, they had stopped being willing to listen to the
word of God. Persecution and loss can
indeed make it hard to believe that God is concerned about us and our
circumstances. And if that’s the case,
it’s hard to believe that his word has anything to say to us. But it does!
And Hebrews is meant to convince us of this reality. I hope it does this for you and for me. But God is concerned. And he does speak to us, and he speaks to us
in such as way that if we are willing to listen, it will fill us with hope and
joy and confidence and determination.
In closing, let me summarize for
you what kind of word God has to say to us in this book. First of all, it is a word of salvation
– he has given us the gospel of our “great salvation” (2:1-3; 4:2; 8:10-12;
10:15-17). This is not some cheap
salvation, like this world offers. This
is not some “live for the moment” kind of mumbo-jumbo. No, this is great salvation. It is described as rest – can the
world really give you this? But Christ
can (cf. Mt. 11:28-30), and we are encouraged to enter into that rest.
Second, it is a word of hope
– “strong consolation” (6:13-19). No
matter what is facing us, the hope that we have in Christ is sure and steadfast
and certain. Again, there is nothing on
this earth that can give you that. I
challenge you to present it, if you can.
Only Christ can give us this kind of hope, and this in fact is the very
word he has given.
Third, it is a word of wisdom
– like a father instructing his children (12:5, ff). God relates to his children as a good Father,
genuinely caring for their needs. And
this means that he will discipline us if that is what is needed. He knows what is best for us, and his word
comes to us with wisdom of a good and gracious father.
Finally, it is a word of
warning (2:1-4; 3:7-19; 5:11-6:12; 10:19-39; 12:14-27). There are five major warnings in this
epistle. Frankly, these warnings are the
reason for much consternation – as well as bad doctrinal conclusions – in the
church. We will consider them in due
time. But the point I want to make at
this juncture is that such warnings are good and necessary for us. A parent that never warns their children is a
bad parent. God is going to warn us of
what will happen if we walk away. And in
his sovereign grace and mercy these become the means by which he often brings
back his straying children. We should
heed the warnings. Don’t write them off. Take them seriously. Do not refuse the God who speaks!