Faithlife Sermons

Book of Mystery

Hebrews  •  Sermon  •  Submitted
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Good morning, please take your copy of God’s word and turn with me to the Book of Hebrews.
My goal this morning is to not only provide an introduction to the Book of Hebrews but to whet your appetite for the feast that this book offers.
Our text will be verses 1 and 2 of chapter 1, but again, consider this an introduction to the book so we will jump around to a few different places in the book as we discuss the general characteristics of the book itself.
Verses 1 & 2 will serve as our text next week as well because we really won’t be diving into them as much on this intro sermon.
I believe that it is important to know something about the book that we are about to read. Sometimes people think, who cares about all this background stuff…let’s just dive into Scripture.
We do want to dive into Scripture but knowing the background of a book helps us in our understanding of the book. God did not give the Bible to man in a vacuum but in real situations of life and those situations help us in not only understanding what we are reading but applying these truths to our own situations and contexts.
The other thing is that we are a couple of thousand years away from when this book was written. That means that we bring a different set of preconceived ideas and modern, western eyes to all that we read.
An introduction helps us step back and get a bird’s eye view of the book and gain our footing before we begin our journey.
It’s like looking at a topography map before starting a hike. Let me tell you, this book is 13 chapters long…it is not a day hike. We will be here for a while.
So I pray that you will find this introduction edifying if only to get you excited about the beautiful scenery that awaits before we strap that backpack on and grab our trekking poles.
So, let’s look at these opening verses. Hebrews chapter 1 verses 1 & 2.
Hebrews 1:1–2 (NASB95)
1 God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways,
2 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.
Those verses open what I’m calling this morning a book of mystery. Now let me explain that.
The word mystery is very different in English than in Greek.
When we hear the word mystery, as English speakers, we think of something that is beyond our understanding or something enigmatic in some way.
Something we just don’t know.
And there are elements about the Book of Hebrews that are like that…that would fit that definition…things that we just don’t know.
Not about its content but about the book itself.
And we will speak about those things this morning and so that would be the usage of the word mystery in its modern English sense.
But then there is the Greek use of the word mystery that we find in the NT. Actually, the Gk word is musterion and it is a word that is used 27 times in the NT, and interestingly enough, not once in the Book of Hebrews.
But how the word was used in the NT has to do with something that was previously hidden or obscure and then made clear.
And so while the Greek word was not used in the Book of Hebrews, the concept behind the word musterion is largely the purpose of the book.
Jesus tells us in Mark 13 that the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven has been granted to us.
Paul in Romans 16 tells us that the Gospel itself is a mystery in that it was hidden but revealed in Christ, which he also does in Colossians 4.
In Colossians 1 it is the presence of the resurrected Christ in the believer’s life that is the mystery.
But one common theme seems to connect these usages and that is that a mystery in the NT is something that was foretold or predicted by the prophets and yet remained hidden until the revelation of Jesus Christ.
John Calvin explains it like this:
“Although the prophets had formerly taught all that Christ and the apostles have explained, yet they taught with so much obscurity, when compared with the shining clarity of the light of the Gospel, that we need not be surprised if those things which are now revealed are said to have been hidden.”
And that’s one of the things that the Book of Hebrews does so well. It shows us the shadows of the OT fulfilled in Christ and it makes plain what was once obscure.
The reason that Christ is so vividly painted in this book is that the author is writing to encourage Christians who are suffering and who instead of being strengthened in the faith, as mature believers, they had become discouraged and were considering turning away from the faith to avoid additional suffering.
And you can see what a temptation that would be for believers when, to protect themselves, or their spouse, or their children would be tempted to abandon the faith and their identifying with the church so as to remove themselves from the persecuted followers of Christ.
And they were being tempted to go back to the shadows of Jewish theology, back to the shadows of obscurity when Christ had brought the light of the Gospel.
So, let’s look at the background and then the purpose of the book.
Notice how this book begins:
1 God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways,
2 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.
The first thing that is apparent when reading these opening verses is that unlike most of the other epistles of the NT, the author does not identify himself.
For instance, in all of Paul’s letters, the first thing Paul does is identify himself.
There is not a single exception to Paul doing this.
And yet, throughout history, many have attempted to identify this epistle with the Apostle Paul but I believe that both the internal and external evidence of authorship would remove Paul from any consideration.
And most modern scholars would agree that Paul is not the author. If you are reading a King James Bible, the title of the book is given as The Epistle of Paul The Apostle to the Hebrews.
Well, that is an added title and reference to Paul because he was widely accepted as the author in the middle ages.
There are many reasons why Paul is not accepted as the author. Let me just give you a few.
As we’ve already mentioned Paul always identified himself and this author does not and there would have been no reason for Paul not to identify himself especially as this is a later writing and Paul had been battling for his authority as an apostle against false teachers in the church (those who are joining us in our study in the book of Galatians know how much Paul belabors his apostleship and authority in that book)
And then besides, Paul had even spoken of forged letters that had been sent, which he mentioned in 2 Thess chapter 2 and so he had a habit that even when using a scribe or what they called an amanuensis, that he would write something in his own hand to confirm authenticity.
But also, both the theological themes, as well as the Greek itself, does not match Paul’s other books.
The author of Hebrews labors over certain points here that Paul never even touches on in his letters.
Examples of those are the extensive dealing that we find in the book of Hebrews of the person of Melchizedek. Another would be the Tabernacle, another would be the priesthood of Christ.
Those are not themes that Paul had written of elsewhere, nor did Paul consider himself to be an apostle to the Hebrews but the Gentiles.
Another thing that experts in Greek have pointed out is that the writing style is not Pauline.
There is no book in the NT that uses as polished a form of Greek as the book of Hebrews. Even the Greek of the acclaimed Luke the physician that we find in the gospel that bears his name as well as in the book of Acts is not as polished as what we find here.
Furthermore, in Hebrews chapter 2, the author identifies himself along with his audience as a second-generation Christian.
Listen to Hebrews 2:3
Hebrews 2:3 (NASB95)
3 how will we escape if we neglect so great a salvation? After it was at the first spoken through the Lord, it was confirmed to us by those who heard,
Notice that the author says that it was confirmed to us by those who heard.
That means that both the author as well as his audience were not among the original hearers of the Gospel.
It is inconceivable that Paul would ever identify himself in this way when he so often argues that he did not receive his teaching from anyone but Christ Himself.
He makes this argument a few times in the book of Galatians as well as in 1 Cor chapter 11, when in speaking about the Lord’s Supper he says that he received from the Lord that which he delivered to the church.
And then the author of Hebrews refers to Timothy as “our brother Timothy”, and Paul referred to Timothy as his son in the faith and not merely his brother.
And many other arguments could be made against Pauline authorship but those I think are enough to support my conclusion.
Which is that Paul should be rejected as the author of this book.
There have been many other authors suggested throughout church history.
Martin Luther suggested Apollos. Others have suggested Barnabas, Luke, Clement of Rome, and others.
But the simple answer is…that we just do not know who wrote this book.
But we do know things about the author that we glean from the book. So here is what we do know.
We know that he was a Hellenistic Jew meaning a Jew who had adopted many Greek influences including language.
He was highly skilled, not only in the OT but also in Greek linguistic skills in not only writing but also rhetoric.
We know he was a scholar. He makes complex theological arguments throughout the book.
Craig Keener writes concerning the author:
he was brilliant. He knew the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, backward and forward. He knew how to link texts in ways that were very persuasive to traditional Jewish audiences. Probably he was a Hellenistic Jewish author, probably writing to a Hellenistic Jewish audience.”
Yet, he was also pastoral. He cares deeply about the people that he was writing to and knew how to make sophisticated theological arguments clear to his audience.
But ultimately, we must say that God alone knows who the author is and has not revealed him to us. And we need to be satisfied with that. Anything else that is drawn from the evidence that we have is mere conjecture. Knowing the audience of an epistle is always helpful in gaining background into the circumstances behind the letter.
Whereas most epistles start with the author identifying both himself and his audience, such as “Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, to the saints which are at Ephesus”, there is nothing like that here in the first verse of Hebrews…the author just jumps right in.
So like the author, the audience is also cloaked in mystery.
There is no place mentioned at all. No region, like Galatia – no city, like Corinth, nothing like that.
But the author was very familiar with those he was writing to.
Here is what we do know.
His audience was also very familiar with the OT and were also Hebrews.
Since the time of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, some have thought that it was a community like that of Qumran that was the original audience.
Because many of the themes in this book were active discussions in communities like that. For instance, the eating of Ceremonial Foods, Angels, Melchizedek, and so forth.
Notice that the book begins:
God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers and if you were reading the ESV, it would say our fathers.
The “our fathers” suggest that this was written to those of Jewish descent.
And the early church recognized this and early in the Second Century, the title of the book has been “for the Hebrews”.
The audience too was Hellenistic.
We know this because some of the author’s focus was to examine teaching that was being taught in the Hellenistic world and not among Jews who were living in Palestine and had been brought up more traditionally.
We know that they should have been further along and more mature than they were.
The author says in chapter 5:
Hebrews 5:12 (NASB95)
12 For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you have need again for someone to teach you the elementary principles of the oracles of God, and you have come to need milk and not solid food.
How is it that this audience could be so steeped in the OT Scripture and yet so immature in their walk?
Well God had given the church pastors to shepherd over them and they likely were not living in submission to them.
The author tells them in Hebrews 13:17
Hebrews 13:17 (NASB95)
17 Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you.
Apparently, this flock was making it difficult for their pastors and bringing their pastor's grief instead of joy.
And I think that is because they had their own ideas that were not in line with the Scriptures but refused to respect their pastors and thus learn from them. So, the teaching they had was unprofitable to them because of that.
We know that the original recipients had suffered. Turn with me to Hebrews chapter 10.
Raymond Brown comments:
Many of them had been exposed to fierce persecution. They had been physically assaulted, their homes had been plundered; some had been cast into prison on account of their faith, others had been ridiculed in public because of their resolute trust in Jesus (10:32–34).[1]
Brown is referring to what is found In Hebrews chapter 10 where we read:
32 But remember the former days, when, after being enlightened, you endured a great conflict of sufferings,
33 partly by being made a public spectacle through reproaches and tribulations, and partly by becoming sharers with those who were so treated.
34 For you showed sympathy to the prisoners and accepted joyfully the seizure of your property, knowing that you have for yourselves a better possession and a lasting one.
And some were still being persecuted, as we will learn in Chapter 3.
But the goal of the author is to encourage them. Look at verse 35 and 36:
35 Therefore, do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward.
36 For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God, you may receive what was promised.
This word of encouragement was sorely needed as some were close to abandoning the church and making a shipwreck of their faith.
Drop back a few verses to verse 26 and following:
Christ or Judgment
26 For if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins,
27 but a terrifying expectation of judgment and the fury of a fire which will consume the adversaries.
And oftentimes it is persecution and difficulty that separates the sheep from the goats.
The sheep are those who persevere in the truth. This doesn’t mean that true believers are lost but false followers turn away.
Remember in the parable of the soils it is only one soil that brings forth a harvest though others seem to for a while abide.
Turn with me to 1 John chapter 2.
This is probably one of the clearest passages dealing with those who are presumed to be followers of Christ who leave the church and abandon her Lord.
John tells us in 1 John chapter 2 verse 18 and following:
1 John 2:18–24 (NASB95)
18 Children, it is the last hour; and just as you heard that antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have appeared; from this we know that it is the last hour.
19 They went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out, so that it would be shown that they all are not of us.
20 But you have an anointing from the Holy One, and you all know.
21 I have not written to you because you do not know the truth, but because you do know it, and because no lie is of the truth.
22 Who is the liar but the one who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, the one who denies the Father and the Son.
23 Whoever denies the Son does not have the Father; the one who confesses the Son has the Father also.
24 As for you, let that abide in you which you heard from the beginning. If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, you also will abide in the Son and in the Father.
And so just as this passage is saying that those who end up denying the Lord were never saved in the first place, in that same vein is the warning in Hebrews offered that those who are believers may be warned and renew their commitment to Christ and those who are unbelievers may be duly warned.
The date of the letter is also unknown although I believe we can get it pretty close.
In Hebrews 13:23 we are told that Timothy had been released from prison.
We know that Paul never wrote of Timothy being imprisoned and Paul’s last letter was his second letter to Timothy which he wrote just before he was martyred.
So if we take Paul’s death to be the earliest possible time the book was written, we can conclude that it was written sometime after AD 65.
We also know the latest that the book was written. The temple was destroyed in AD 70 and the book was written before the temple was destroyed.
Turn with me to Hebrews chapter 5.
Look at the first three verses and notice the tense that the author uses:
Hebrews 5:1–3 (NASB95)
The Perfect High Priest
1 For every high priest taken from among men is appointed on behalf of men in things pertaining to God, in order to offer both gifts and sacrifices for sins;
2 he can deal gently with the ignorant and misguided, since he himself also is beset with weakness;
3 and because of it he is obligated to offer sacrifices for sins, as for the people, so also for himself.
And while you can use the present tense differently in Greek, the author consistently uses it throughout the letter in the way that we would use it…for something currently taking place.
He also speaks in Heb 8 of the sacrifices currently taking place encouraging his readers not to return to that which was obsolete with the finished work of Christ.
What does that mean? It means that this letter must have been written before the temple was destroyed in AD70…which gives us a five-year window.
Which would have been during the end of the reign of Nero and so this was a very intense time for the church…a church in need of encouragement.
And that’s the purpose of this letter.
In fact, again from chapter 13, we find insight into why this letter is so different in structure from other letters in the NT.
Chapter 13:22 we find these words:
Hebrews 13:22 (NASB95)
22 But I urge you, brethren, bear with this word of exhortation, for I have written to you briefly.
What’s interesting here is how the author describes this letter. He describes it as a “word of exhortation” and that was a phrase that had come to mean an oral message.
The polished rhetoric and the structure of what has been said starts to come into focus.
Yes, this has certain elements of a letter, especially toward the end here in chapter 13; however, what we have here is something that was meant to be read aloud.
Something that was meant to be examined, explained, and taught.
Something that was meant to be preached.
What we have here is likely, the first full sermon manuscript of the church.
How long would this sermon be if read?
45 min.
(So, I’m doing just fine)
Why would a pastor send a sermon manuscript in letter form?
Well, I believe the idea is that pastors of local congregations would not only read this book aloud but just as we will be doing in the next few months, unpack this book as the very word of God to bring encouragement and strengthen the faith of Christians who are going through difficulty.
God is so concerned with His people that this book is full of exhortation. In fact, it’s called a Hortatory work, which is a word that means strong exhortation.
Listen to the kinds of exhortations that we will have the opportunity to meditate upon in the upcoming weeks and months.
Hebrews 3:12–13 (NASB95)
12 Take care, brethren, that there not be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart that falls away from the living God.
13 But encourage one another day after day, as long as it is still called “Today,” so that none of you will be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.
Hebrews 4:1 (NASB95)
1 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.
Hebrews 4:11 (NASB95)
11 Therefore let us be diligent to enter that rest, so that no one will fall, through following the same example of disobedience.
Hebrews 4:14 (NASB95)
14 Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession.
Hebrews 4:16 (NASB95)
16 Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
Hebrews 6:1 (NASB95)
1 Therefore leaving the elementary teaching about the Christ, let us press on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God,
Hebrews 10:19–23 (NASB95)
19 Therefore, brethren, since we have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus,
20 by a new and living way which He inaugurated for us through the veil, that is, His flesh,
21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God,
22 let us draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.
23 Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful;
Hebrews 10:24–25 (NASB95)
24 and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds,
25 not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near.
Hebrews 12:1 (NASB95)
1 Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us,
Over and over again, more than 30 exhortations are given in this letter. Imagine hearing this as a sermon, being exhorted this many times, often by imperative.
Some have argued that Barnabas had written the book since he was called the Son of Encouragement, which again is just conjecture – but his name had been suggested because of how often we are encouraged in this letter.
Not only is this a great book to read but to listen to.
I read quite a few sermons. I love reading the sermons of John Calvin, and Charles Spurgeon, and Jonathan Edwards.
Sometimes I’ll be reading a Spurgeon sermon and be so swept along with the picture that he is painting with words. My heart is so moved by God’s word that is brought home to my soul by his illustrations and I sometimes forget that what I’m reading was first preached.
And I think…wouldn’t it have been great to hear Spurgeon’s powerful preaching echoing off the walls of the Metropolitan Tabernacle.
What makes a good preacher?
The answer is the word of God. It doesn’t matter if you are a great speaker – if you are a terrible exegete – you can’t be a good preacher. Spurgeon was the prince of preachers because he could teach God’s word to the common man.
And while Spurgeon spoke with energy and was quite dynamic, a simple presentation that faithfully communicated God’s word – God honors and uses.
Jonathan Edwards was a quiet, non-dynamic speaker who preached right from his manuscript and whose eyes went from his notes to the back wall of the church.
But he preached the word of God and God used him mightily.
But then there are those preachers who are gifted orators as well as theologians.
I never get tired of listening to the John MacArthurs or the John Pipers, the Voddie Bauchams because they are gifted communicators who have mastered oratory skills.
They may preach differently but they are highly skilled in oral communication.
Listen, the author of Hebrews was like that.
Whoever it is that wrote this book. Was the prince of preachers in the early church.
We know from his writing style that he was a master in oral communication.
How do we know that?
Because this book is the most rhetorical book in the NT canon. Meaning, that the author makes use of literary devices that corresponded with what was called persuasive oratory.
Commentator Mark Strauss writes:
Hebrews is probably the best example in the New Testament of an author who has strong literary and rhetorical skills, and those rhetorical skills really help to accomplish the author's purpose. He's trying to demonstrate the superiority of Christ and the new covenant over the old covenant, and he does so in part with a very convincing strong literary argument. And he uses lots of different structural features to accomplish that… So, beautifully structured, using rhetoric to draw his readers in, and then to convince them of the argument that he's making. [Dr. Mark L. Strauss]
He is a master communicator. A master at oral argument and debate. He uses numerous literary devices effectively and more often than any other writer including the Great Apostle Paul.
What is he trying to encourage them with and for?
His encouragement is based solely on the supremacy of Christ.
The book of Hebrews could be summed up with:
What God has said and What Christ has done.
And that will be our theme, by the way, next week as we unpack verses 1 and 2.
God is a speaking God.
He spoke through the prophets of old, through Moses and the law and we have the whole of the OT to read the words of God…thus saith the Lord.
But now something has changed. And the change can be summed up with the words: Christ is better.
What was once hidden and shadow is now Christ who is the light that has come into the world.
The mystery has been revealed because Christ has been revealed.
And, Christ is better.
1) He is better than the prophets.
2) He is better than the angels.
3) He is better than Moses and the law.
4) He is better than Joshua.
5) He is better than Aaron.
6) He is better than the Old Testament sacrifices.[2]
That’s what this book does. It examines the types and shadows and replaces them with Christ. Christ is so much the focus of the Book of Hebrews that some have affectionately and reverently referred to this book as the fifth gospel.
And this is where the Book of Hebrews is often overlooked for what it offers us, who are living in a very different culture and context to the original hearers of this message.
Because of our differences, we fail to see how apropos this book is, especially during our times.
Remember, this book is about what God has said and what Christ has done and the fact that Christ is the living word, the final and great prophet, the perfect and only High Priest, the mediator of a better covenant.
Christ is better.
But the book doesn’t end there. There is a purpose to understanding that Christ is better than anything else in life.
It’s because, like Peter, we are tempted in the stormy sea to take our eyes off Jesus and God allows us to get wet, not because He will not rescue us but to bring our attention back to His perfect salvation in Christ.
Maybe, we are not tempted to go back to Judaism like the first readers.
But many are tempted to embrace our first religion…to go back to Babylon.
Let’s agree that Jerusalem was better than Babylon.
And if Jerusalem was better than Babylon and the first readers were being encouraged not to return to Jerusalem because what it offered was obsolete and that Christ was better.
How much more, does this letter need to be preached and understood today when there are those in the church who are returning, not to Jerusalem but to Babylon?
Not because of persecution and imprisonment but because of social pressure and the siren’s call of the world, the flesh, and the devil.
We need this book just as much, perhaps more than the first readers for our digression is toward baser things and while all falls are terrible, can we not see that a greater fall brings with it greater damnation.
But there is another voice that is calling to us. A voice that rings louder in the souls of God’s people and that is the voice of the Holy Spirit who inwardly testifies of Christ and the truth of the word.
And it is God’s voice…God’s word that this book brings forth.
Jesus says in John 10, “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me.”
Do you hear Christ’s voice? Do you hear the word of God? Are you following after Christ?
If you are, Christ says He knows You.
Listen, again, from John 10:
John 10:27–30 (NASB95)
27 “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me;
28 and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand.
29 “My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.
30 “I and the Father are one.”
That’s what this book is about. It is about Christ being better and encouraging you to hold on to Him and listen to Him.
All the while know that He is holding on to you and has given you ears to hear.
It is my prayer that as we make our way through this book that we see with our mind’s eye, that we hear, that we taste and see the supremacy of Christ.
Let me leave you with this exhortation from Hebrews 13:15
Hebrews 13:15 (NASB95)
15 …let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that give thanks to His name.
[1] Brown, R. (1988). The message of Hebrews: Christ above all (p. 13). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
[2] Pentz, C. M. (1979). Expository Outlines on Hebrews (p. 4). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.
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