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Hebrews - Part 1 - The Book of Better Things to Come

Study of Hebrews  •  Sermon  •  Submitted   •  Presented   •  35:12
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Today we start a new series on the book of Hebrews. Let’s see when this letter was written, who was the author, why it was written, its overall theme and its relevance to us today.

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Good morning, everyone! Today we begin a new series of sermons on the book of Hebrews. Before we get into chapter 1 let’s ask the question: Why study the book? After all we are going to prepare and/or listen to several messages on this book. The theme of this book is the absolute supremacy and sufficiency of Jesus Christ as the revealer and mediator of God’s grace. Why did the author emphasize the supremacy and sufficiency of Jesus Christ you may ask? In order to answer that question, we have to consider the historical context for the letter. The recipients of this letter were tempted to abandon their faith. Could the same happen to us? We live in a society that is increasingly secular and opposed to Christian values and beliefs. We need a rock-solid understanding and belief in who Jesus is and what he has accomplished. That will stand us in good stead, if and when, we face persecution like the recipients of this letter. S.P.S. This morning I will introduce the book to you and comment on the first chapter of the book. Overview of the book What exactly is Hebrews? Well, you may say, the answer to that question is easy. It is the 19th book of the New Testament. That is correct but the author described his writing as a letter: “… for I have written you only a short letter “(Heb. 13:22). However, it does not start like a letter. Instead the author jumps into his message. In fact, the opening is so abrupt I can’t help but wonder if part of the manuscript is missing. Some scholars describe this book as more like a sermon because it contains the components that are commonly found in a sermon. Let me share a few trade secrets of those of us who speak regularly. If you listen closely to the weekly message you will usually find three key components in the message. One is an explanation of the text. Second is one or more illustrations to help elaborate on the meaning of the text. Third, is the application of the text to our daily life. Hebrews contains all three components of a well constructed sermon. That is why many biblical scholars consider Hebrews a sermon prepared for some of the earliest Christians. Author Who wrote this letter? For several centuries the authorship of this letter was ascribed to the apostle Paul; however, since the Reformation there has been general agreement that Paul could not have written the letter. Why not? In his epistles Paul clearly identifies himself as the author of each epistle. In Hebrews the author does not identify himself. Although there is no disharmony between the material in Paul’s epistles and the letter to Hebrews, the style and emphases are markedly different from Paul’s writings. If Paul did not write this letter, then who might have written it? A leading candidate for authorship is Apollos. He was first suggested by Martin Luther and is still favored by some biblical scholars. He was an Alexandrian by birth and a Jewish Christian with notable intellectual and oratorical abilities. Luke in the book of Acts describes him as “…a learned man, with a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures” (Acts 18:24). We also know that Apollos associated with Paul in the early years of the church in Corinth1. Regardless who the author was we know that he was knowledgeable of the Greek language of his day and was thoroughly acquainted with pre-Christian Greek translation of the Old Testament called the Septuagint which he regularly quotes. So, if someone asks you who wrote the letter to the Hebrews, the simple answer is that we don’t know for sure. Not likely the apostle Paul but a good candidate is Apollos. Recipients of this letter The title “Hebrews” or “To the Hebrews” does not appear on the earliest copies of this letter. Nevertheless, the title is appropriate considering the content, which is narrowly focused on the Old Testament Scriptures and Jewish religious practices. The writer thoroughly discussed worship in the tabernacle, the priests and the sacrifices, the old covenant, and Jewish heroes including Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, and others. References to “Abraham’s descendants” (2:16), the argument that Jesus is superior to Moses (3:1–19), and the emphasis on “Sabbath-rest” (4:1–11) would have appealed to Jews and would have had very little effect on Gentiles. From the text, it would seem that the original readers of Hebrews were: • a specific group of believers—They had received the gospel from eyewitnesses, had seen signs and wonders, knew basic Christian principles, were fruitful, and had ministered to people who had been mistreated. The writer wrote of their earlier days and of previous persecutions. The writer also knew of their present state of mind. • a group known by the writer—also it is clear from the text that the writer had visited them and was hoping to return to them: (13:19, 23). • a group that was part of a larger community—The writer explained that by that time the readers should have been “teachers”. This could imply that the main recipients were a small group of believers within the church. Some scholars believe that they comprised a house-church and were a small enclave of conservative Jewish Christians. Destination A probable destination is Rome. That is where Hebrews was first known and quoted. In a letter written to the Corinthian church on behalf of the Roman church, Clement of Rome revealed his knowledge of this epistle. Certainly, the references to persecution fit Roman readers. Also, the phrase, “…Those from Italy send you their greetings” (13:24) points to a Roman connection. Quite possibly the author, writing from another location, knew Italian believers in that city and was sending their greetings back to Rome. Date The letter must have been written before the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in A.D. 70 for two reasons. First, had the author written this letter after the destruction of the temple and the end of the Jewish sacrificial system, he surely would have mentioned it. Secondly, the author consistently uses the present tense throughout the letter when referring to the temple and the priestly activities. An additional important factor in setting a date for Hebrews is the identification of the persecution referred to in chapter 10:32-34 32 Remember those earlier days after you had received the light, when you endured in a great conflict full of suffering. 33 Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution; at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated. 34 You suffered along with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions. Three Roman persecutions stand as possibilities: under Emperor Claudius in AD. 49, under Nero beginning in AD 64, and under Domitian in the eighties and nineties. Note that the passage refers to “earlier days” and says nothing about loss of life. Many believers died under Nero and Domitian, but the persecution suffered by the readers of Hebrews does not seem to have involved martyrdom: “In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood,” 12:4). In his persecution, Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome, including Jewish Christians. During this expulsion, they would have been publicly mocked, and they would have lost their property. That treatment seems to match the description in chapter 10. Considering all of the above, Hebrews was probably written in the early fifties or sixties, before the terrible persecution under Nero. This date also seems compatible with the statement that the readers had heard the gospel from those who had heard Jesus (2:3), and that Timothy was still alive (13:23). Jesus is superior to the prophets Hebrews 1:1-3 (NIV) 1 In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. 3 The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven. Note that the letter to the Hebrews begins with a contrast of God’s revelation to mankind. The author breaks human existence into the time before Christ and the time since Christ. He explains that in the past God spoke to his people through the prophets. All the OT writers are viewed as prophets in that their testimony was preparation for the coming of the Messiah. This took place on several occasions and in various ways, but their testimony was occasional and was lacking in finality. However, the writer quickly shifts to a vivid contrast with what has happened through the ministry of his Son, Jesus Christ. The original Jewish readers of the book would have remembered that God had used many approaches to send his messages at many times and in various ways to people during Old Testament times. God had spoken to Isaiah in visions, to Jacob in a dream and to Abraham and Moses personally. God had taught Jeremiah through object lessons and had taught the people through the prophet Hosea’s marriage. Elsewhere, God had revealed his direction to the people through a pillar of cloud and a pillar of fire and had guided them in decision making through the Urim and Thummim stones in Aaron’s breastplate. The Jews who lived during the time of Christ would not find it difficult to believe that God was still revealing his will; however, many could not believe that God would speak by his Son. The same God who spoke through their forefathers had now spoken through Christ. Thus, there is continuity between old and new times. In the Old Testament, the revelation of God’s nature was intermittent. It created an expectation that God was still going to reveal himself more fully. The prophets spoke of the coming Messiah and his kingdom; Jesus is that Messiah and he initiated God’s kingdom. The Jews accepted the Old Testament, but most rejected Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah. The recipients of this letter were Jewish Christians. They were well versed in Scripture and had professed faith in Christ. Through doubt, persecution, or false teaching, however, many were in danger of giving up their Christian faith and returning to Judaism. This letter to the Hebrews shows that going back to an inferior system would be foolish. Jesus Christ not only fulfills the promises and prophecies of the Old Testament, but he also is better than everything in the Jewish system. Jesus completed and fulfilled the message that was originally brought by the prophets and forefathers. When we know Christ, we have all we need to be saved from our sin and to have a perfect relationship with God. Jesus is not just another prophet; he is the perfect expression of God. God will never need to send another divine messenger because Jesus faithfully revealed everything about God that we need to know for salvation. God revealed himself by speaking through his Son. In our day, when tolerance is the cry from every corner, any claim for religious authority meets stubborn resistance. Hebrews claims that God spoke through his Son as the complete revelation of himself. Jesus Christ should be our highest authority for faith and daily living. We cannot allow any religious leader or teaching to diminish the words of Christ. Using only two verses the author of Hebrews lists seven great descriptive statements about Jesus. 1. Christ as heir of all things The phrase “whom he appointed heir of all things,” refers to Jesus as an heir who will take his position as ruler of the new kingdom. Referring to Christ as the heir gives him the highest honor and position. The author of Hebrews not only quotes the OT but also alludes to various passages. Here he alludes to the royal Son of Psalm 2:8. In Psalm 2, the Son asks God for the nations to be given to him as an inheritance. Here Christ receives not only the nations, but all creation. 2. Christ as creator of the world Jesus worked with God to create the world: through the Son he made the universe and everything in it. Early Jewish Christians interpreted the role of Wisdom in Proverbs 8:22–31 as referring to Jesus’ work. Jesus was active at the beginning of time as the agent of creation, and he will act at the end of time as the heir. In the end, the world will be made perfect. Jesus will destroy all the works of evil and will reign over the world that he created. 3. Christ as the radiance of God’s glory  The writer describes Jesus (the Son) as the radiance of God’s glory. In Greek, the word “radiance” can describe a reflection of what is external or of what is internal. With Jesus, both are true, for his radiance perfectly reveals God’s glory. Underneath Jesus’ human appearance as a Jewish carpenter-turned-rabbi was the glory of God. Jesus had said to one of his disciples, “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you are not just my own. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work” (John 14:9–10). Jesus does more than merely reflect God, he is God. Therefore, he makes God’s essence and nature clear to us (John 1:18). Furthermore, Christ radiates divine glory He is not a copy, but the very embodiment of God’s nature. 4. Christ as the exact representation of his being Not only is Jesus the radiance of God’s glory, but he is also the exact representation of his being. Jesus is God himself—the very God who spoke in Old Testament times. The Greek word for “being” (hypostasis) means the very substance of God; the Greek word for “exact representation” (character) was used in ancient times to express an imprint, an image. Thus, Jesus is the visible expression of God’s invisible being. We get a perfect picture of God when we look at Christ. In other words, Jesus explains God; he came to the world and portrayed God to people by his words and actions. No one can know God apart from Christ because God reveals himself through Jesus. The prophets could only tell God’s people what they saw and heard. Jesus was God himself—his message was firsthand. 5. Christ as the sustainer of the world Christ not only created the universe; he also sustains it. He does this by preserving and delivering the universe until he will inherit it. Christ spoke the world into existence (Genesis 1–2), and he supports the world with his omnipotent word (see 11:3). Christ does not physically hold up the world, as was said of the mythical Atlas, but he guides the world toward its appointed future—the time when he will receive it as his inheritance. Because Christ sustains everything, nothing in creation is independent from him. All things are held together in a coherent or logical way, sustained and upheld, prevented from dissolving into chaos. In him alone and by his word, we find the unifying principle of all life. He is transcendent over all other powers. 6. Christ as the purifier of people’s sins This phrase distills the author’s two main themes about Christ—his sacrifice and his exaltation. Jesus cleansed his people from the ugly stain of sin. Sin destroys our ability to know or approach God, but when God purifies us from our sins, he cleanses our record. He regards us as though we had never sinned and clothes us in the righteousness of Christ himself. Jesus provided purification for sins. This statement reveals the central theme of the letter: Christ’s superior sacrifice for sins. No sacrifice for sin could be greater than the sacrifice offered by the Creator—his death on a cross. Jesus cleansed the world from the domination of sin and took the penalty for our individual sins by dying in our place. No other penalty needs to be paid. We can be completely clean because of what Jesus has done. 7. Christ as King over all After paying that penalty with his death on the cross, Christ sat down. This signifies that the work was complete and portrays his exalted position. Earthly priests would stand and keep offering sacrifices. Their work was never finished. Christ’s sacrifice was final and complete. Psalm 110:1 (NIV) 1 The Lord says to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.” Quoting from this Psalm, the writer combined two Old Testament thoughts expressing God’s greatness (the Majesty in heaven) and Christ’s position (at the right hand). To be seated at the “right hand” of a monarch was to be “second in command”—the literal “right-hand man.” This gives a picture of Christ’s power and authority over heaven and earth. Psalm 110:1 is a crucial text and provides a guiding force in this book. This is the only place in the Bible where anyone else besides God is described as enthroned in power. This verse became a main text for the early church to be used as an argument for the deity of Christ. To Jews, the description of Christ at God’s right hand would be more persuasive as a symbol of Christ’s authority and power than even the Resurrection. This is why Jesus spoke these words to Caiaphas, the high priest, just prior to his death and resurrection: “…You will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven” (Matthew 26:64). 4 So he became as much superior to the angels as the name he ha In the first three verses of Hebrews the author has declared that Jesus is superior to the prophets that spoke at various times and in various ways to the forefathers of the Jewish Christians who received this letter. He backs up his assertion with seven strong statements that show the superiority of Jesus to the prophets. This is really the first salvo from the author to prove that Jesus is greater than all the things associated with the Jewish religion and way of life. As we proceed through this book, we will see that he addresses at least 11 ways that Jesus is “greater than”. What are they you may ask? We’ll address them over the coming weeks. The Son is Superior to Angels Hebrews 1:4-14 New International Version (NIV) 4 So he became as much superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is superior to theirs. 5 For to which of the angels did God ever say, “You are my Son; today I have become your Father”? Or again, “I will be his Father, and he will be my Son” 6 And again, when God brings his firstborn into the world, he says, ‘Let all God’s angels worship him.” In speaking of the angels he says, “He makes his angels spirits, and his servants flames of fire.” 8 But about the Son he says, “Your throne, O God, will last for ever and ever; a scepter of justice will be the scepter of your kingdom. 9 You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness; therefore God, your God, has set you above your companions by anointing you with the oil of joy.” 10 He also says, “In the beginning, Lord, you laid the foundations of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands. 11 They will perish, but you remain; they will all wear out like a garment. 12 You will roll them up like a robe; like a garment they will be changed. But you remain the same, and your years will never end.” 13 To which of the angels did God ever say, “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet”? 14 Are not all angels ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation? In the final 11 verses of the first chapter of Hebrews the author quotes seven times from the Septuagint or Greek translation of the Old Testament to support his thesis that Jesus, the Son of God, is superior to angels. As Christians living in the 21st century we may find this unusual to make such a strong argument for the superiority of Jesus to angels, but we have to remember that the author was addressing first-century Christians who had come out of Judaism. For some of them angels were very highly esteemed and even worshipped. Consider this passage from Paul’s epistle to the Colossians: Colossians 2:18 (NIV) 18 Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you. Such a person also goes into great detail about what they have seen; they are puffed up with idle notions by their unspiritual mind. Perhaps some of the recipients of this letter had a flawed perspective on angels. Maybe they or their families or friends were swayed by others to even worship angels. The author strongly addresses any such thinking by quoting several times from what we now call the Old Testament. In effect he is saying, “Examine the scriptures that you know. Carefully study and think about these Messianic scriptures. What do they say? Could any of them ever be applied to angels? Clearly, and emphatically NO!” This is what this passage is attacking. It is not denying angels, for they do exist. It is not denying the glory and magnificence of angels, for they are glorious and magnificent beings. It is not denying the ministry and service of angels to God, for they are His ministering spirits. What this passage is attacking is this: the emphasis of some people who exalt angels by seeking experiences with them and by focusing thoughts, attention, and prayers upon them. Angels are not God’s mediators between Himself and us. The Lord Jesus is the Mediator between God and us. Christ can approach God for us. Jesus, not angels, can hear and answer our prayers and look after and care for us. This does not mean that He may not use an angel to help us. He does use angels in our lives to guide, protect, and encourage us. But angels serve Christ; angels are not to be the focus of our attention and thoughts nor praise and honor. Angels are servants; they are not superior Jesus nor are they the Lord of our lives. Christ alone is the Lord—both of the angels and us. Therefore, He and He alone is to be the focus of our attention, thoughts, honor, and worship. This is the thrust of this passage: Christ is superior—far, far superior to the angels. 1. Christ has a superior name, the name of God’s only Son; angels have an inferior name (v. 4–6). 2. Christ is God’s heir; angels are only created subjects of God (v. 7–9). 3. Christ is the Creator and Sovereign Lord; angels are created subjects and ministering spirits (v. 10–14). Conclusion Hebrews is an intriguing book with a mystery author but there is no mystery about the message. We call ourselves Christians because we follow, honor and worship Jesus the Christ who is the Son of God and our personal saviour. He is transcendentally superior to any prophet or angel. His life, death, resurrection and ascension to the throne of God address all our spiritual needs. All praise and honour to Him! *** finish in prayer *** Word count: 4030 Estimated time: 32 minutes Source credit: THE PREACHER’S OUTLINE AND SERMON BIBLE COMMENTARY
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