"Consider the Apostle and High Priest of our confession, Christ Jesus, who . . . has been counted worthy of more glory than Moses, inasmuch as He who built the house has more honor than the house" (Hebrews 3:1-3).
With this chapter we begin addressing passages in five New Testament letters that are regularly misunderstood and seriously misinterpreted. Four of these—Galatians, Romans, Ephesians and Colossians—explicitly declare the writer to be the apostle Paul. The other, Hebrews, is traditionally attributed to him, which is likely. Though every section of the Bible is often misinterpreted, passages from Paul's letters in particular are consistently distorted (see 2 Peter 3:15-16), especially where the New Covenant and the law of God are concerned.
We begin in Hebrews, which contrasts the role of Jesus Christ as the mediator of the New Covenant with the role of Moses as mediator of the Old or Sinai Covenant.
Moses was the historical giant of first-century Judaism. When early Christians accepted Jesus Christ, the mediator of the New Covenant, as the Messiah and as a Prophet greater than Moses, most Jews—especially the religious leaders—were highly offended. They refused to accept Jesus as their High Priest or as a prophet greater than Moses.
The implications of this problem are addressed in the book of Hebrews. It was written to explain the superiority of Christ's priesthood over that of the Levitical high priest appointed under the Sinai Covenant and to verify from the Scriptures that Jesus Christ is a greater prophet than Moses.
In this context, Hebrews covers the distinctions between the Sinai Covenant and the New Covenant—and the role of God's law in each.
Christ's superior priesthood
Because Moses was such a dominant figure in first-century Judaism, most Jews rejected any possibility that Jesus was the "Prophet" that Moses foretold in Deuteronomy 18:15. The Jews of the first century eagerly hoped that prophet would appear in their lifetime (compare Mark 6:14-16; John 1:21-25; John 7:40). But they expected him to come as a great military leader who would organize a Jewish army to liberate them from Roman occupation.
Their common view of themselves was that they were God's righteous victims deserving freedom, not sinners needing His forgiveness. They anticipated a conquering King—not a Savior who would solve the problem of sin by dying for them. As a result, a Messiah who would die for their sins rather than lead a rebellion against the Roman army for the purpose of reestablishing the throne of David was to them a "stumbling block" (1 Corinthians 1:23).
The book of Hebrews was written to counter this blinded reasoning and systematically prove from Scripture what the Messiah was really prophesied to be and to do at His first coming.
The author of Hebrews, again probably Paul, uses the Old Testament Scriptures to prove that Jesus Christ is the prophesied Messiah who was explicitly foretold to be a prophet superior to both Moses and Aaron. Those Scriptures also stated that He would be declared the new and much superior High Priest.
Therefore, a clear understanding of the reasoning and content of the book of Hebrews is essential to appreciating just how thoroughly God planned in advance the mission and work of Jesus Christ, our great High Priest, especially that of His first coming.
Son of David and Son of God
In Hebrews 1, the author cites specific scriptures to prove that the prophesied Messiah would come not only as the son of David but also as the Son of God (Hebrews 1:2), even being the "exact representation" of God (Hebrews 1:3, NIV). Also, He has "by inheritance obtained a more excellent name" than even the angels (Hebrews 1:4). The theme of the superior priesthood of Jesus Christ, as the Messiah, continues through the rest of Hebrews.
Because the reign of the Messiah over the kingdom of Israel was so anticipated by the Jews, the author of Hebrews now goes to the Psalms to prove that God intends to keep His promise to once again seat a son of David on the throne of Israel. But the One to take that throne is to be not only a son of David but also the Son of God. Hebrews 1:8 quotes a passage from the Psalms to show that God will establish the "throne" of His "Son" over the " Kingdom" promised to Him.
That quoted passage promises: "Your throne, O God, will last for ever and ever; a scepter of justice will be the scepter of your kingdom. You love righteousness and hate wickedness; therefore God, your God, has set you above your companions [the previous prophets] by anointing you with the oil of joy" (Psalm 45:6-7, NIV).
The words "by anointing you" suggest a reference to the Hebrew word for Messiah—the Anointed One. The Greek equivalent is Christos, altered to "Christ" in English.
In Hebrews 2:5 the author continues to show that the Messiah is to be made the divine Ruler over "the world to come" rather than over kingdoms of this present age. Jesus, of course, has already been made the Head of His true Church, the Body of Christ (Ephesians 1:22-23).
In regard to the scope of Christ's rule, the author of Hebrews makes this point: "In putting everything under him, God left nothing that is not subject to him. Yet at present we do not see everything subject to him. But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone" (Hebrews 2:8-9, NIV).
God's first priority for the Messiah was to provide all of humanity with a Savior—to open the door to justification and salvation for all who would repent. Jesus, the prophesied Messiah, had to first fulfill the mission of that Savior—to preach repentance and then to take on Himself the death penalty for sin that we all deserve. Therefore, His Kingdom was not prophesied to be established at His first coming. But it will be established when He returns.
In chapter 3, the author goes directly to his main point: Moses and Jesus were both faithful to God, but Christ is greater than Moses (Hebrews 3:1-3). In God's house, Moses was a faithful servant (Hebrews 3:4-5). "But Christ is faithful as a son over God's house. And we are his house, if we hold on to our courage and the hope of which we boast" (Hebrews 3:6, NIV). In other words, Christ's position in God's family is superior to Moses and all the other children of God who will enter His eternal family.
To the Jews, the temple was God's house. Before its destruction in A.D. 70, Judaism was a temple-based religion. Almost everything in their worship of God revolved around the temple. But after A.D. 70—following the temple's destruction—Judaism was transformed, of necessity, into a decentralized, synagogue-based religion. Their priests no longer had any viable duties.
Christians, on the other hand, still had "a great High Priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God" (Hebrews 4:14). But the lofty position of this High Priest does not mean that He is out of touch or does not understand what we go through as human beings. Having been human Himself, He is not "a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin" (Hebrews 4:15).
A crucial reason for Christ's appointment as High Priest was to secure a solution to the problem of sin—and have a High Priest capable of giving assistance to every person who would kneel in prayer before the throne of God to ask for help. And in Christ we have One who is both eternal and omnipotent as well as One who has experienced life as a human being.
In Hebrews 5 the point is emphasized that the change in the priesthood was instituted through appointment by God the Father. "So Christ also did not take upon himself the glory of becoming a high priest. But God said to him, 'You are my Son; today I have become your Father [quoted from Psalm 2:7].' And he says in another place, 'You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek [quoted from Psalm 110:4]'" (Hebrews 5:5-6, NIV).
The perfect High Priest
Next, the book of Hebrews compares Jesus Christ's example of perfect obedience to the same type of obedience He expects from His followers. Chapter 5 continues: "Though He was a Son, yet He learned obedience by the things which He suffered. And having been perfected, He became the author of eternal salvation to all who obey Him" (Hebrews 5:8-9).
Jesus obeyed the Old Testament scriptures. He commands His disciples to follow His example and to teach that same obedience to others (Matthew 28:19-20).
The author of Hebrews then chides those Christians who had neglected developing real skill in rightly applying the Scriptures to their lives: "In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God's word [the Hebrew Scriptures] all over again. You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness" (Hebrews 5:12-13, NIV).
Then Hebrews 6:1 continues with this appeal: "Therefore let us go on toward perfection" (NRSV). The following verses cover the principles on which that enlightened pursuit of spiritual perfection must be founded and the diligent perseverance we need to continue that pursuit.
Then in chapter 7 the author returns again to Christ's priesthood. He explains that there is a precedent, a former model, for Jesus Christ receiving the office of High Priest. Scripture foretold explicitly that He would become the High Priest "according to the order of Melchizedek" instead of "according to the order of Aaron" (Hebrews 7:11).
Melchizedek was a priest of God hundreds of years before the Levitical priesthood was established (see Genesis 14:18-19). After receiving the tithe (a tenth) of Abraham's recovered spoils following a battle, Melchizedek blessed Abraham. This act of blessing Abraham confirmed that Melchizedek was greater than Abraham.
One may be "blessed" in that manner only by someone greater than oneself. This, therefore, confirms that Jesus, having the same rank as Melchizedek, is superior to Abraham and therefore superior to the Levitical priests who descended from Abraham. This verifies that Jesus Christ, whose birth was not of the priestly tribe of Levi, is nevertheless scripturally legitimate as our new High Priest.
A new Priest necessitates changes in the law
This brings us to the most crucial point covered in this letter to the Hebrews. "For the priesthood being changed, of necessity there is also a change of the law" (Hebrews 7:12). In chapters 8-10 the author explains that the transfer of the priesthood to Jesus Christ is the central reason that certain modifications in the law were necessary to accommodate this transition.
At this juncture, it is vital that we understand that amending items in an established body of law does not abolish the entire body of law—it only modifies certain portions of it. Grasping this is essential if we are to correctly understand how, why and in what manner the law that began to be written in a book at Mt. Sinai could be modified.
First, we must understand the reason for its modifications. That reason is clearly explained. "Now this is the main point of the things we are saying: We have such a High Priest, who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens, a Minister of the sanctuary and of the true tabernacle which the Lord erected, and not man" (Hebrews 8:1-2).
Changes in the law became necessary to accommodate a new and permanent High Priest and a new and more accurate concept of the temple in which God would be actively present through the gift of the Holy Spirit.
With Jesus Christ replacing the Levitical high priest, the Church He built would now take precedence over a physical temple.
As Paul explains: "So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God" (Ephesians 2:19-22, NRSV).
New relationship, new emphasis
With these changes, God raised His expectations for His people. The Sinai Covenant did not produce lasting righteousness. Its priests could fulfill only symbolically the role that Jesus Christ fulfills completely under the New Covenant.
So some changes in the law were essential to support this new and better relationship. The new emphasis would be on changing people's hearts and minds rather than on perpetuating an array of symbolic rituals and ceremonies (Hebrews 8:10).
The physical tabernacle with its ceremonial and figurative system of worship was only a temporary measure. Its value was symbolic—figuratively indicating what God had in mind, on a much greater scale, for the future. Its services were also merely "symbolic for the present time in which both gifts and sacrifices are offered which cannot make him who performed the service perfect in regard to the conscience" (Hebrews 9:9).
None of the ceremonial aspects of the Sinai Covenant could define righteousness in respect to the people's hearts, minds and actions. Those ritualistic services could only remind people of guilt incurred by breaking the spiritual laws that define sin. They were "concerned only with foods and drinks, various washings, and fleshly ordinances imposed until the time of reformation" (Hebrews 9:10).
That "time of reformation" began with Jesus Christ's first appearance as the Messiah. As the book of Hebrews explains, the temple's ritualistic worship system then in existence represented "only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship" (Hebrews 10:1, NIV).
The use of the word shadow to describe this system of rituals is helpful in understanding what the book of Hebrews tells us about this ceremonial sacrificial system. Just as an approaching shadow reveals the form and outline of what is coming, so did the Sinai Covenant ritual system reveal only a partial representation of Jesus Christ's role as the one great sacrificial offering for the sins of mankind and His subsequent role as our High Priest.
The sacrifices at the tabernacle and temple that foreshadowed Christ's role were the central focus of the Old Covenant's worship system. But, according to the author of Hebrews, the value of those sacrifices was clearly only symbolic. "Otherwise, would they not have ceased being offered, since the worshipers, cleansed once for all, would no longer have any consciousness of sin?" So he explains: "But in these sacrifices there is [only] a reminder of sin year after year. For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins" (Hebrews 10:2-4, NRSV).
It is vitally important to notice that the author of Hebrews, again traditionally and most likely Paul, intentionally limits his discussion of changes in the law to its temporary and ceremonial aspects. He never suggests that any law of God that defines righteousness or sin has ceased. To the contrary, Paul writes in Romans 3:20 that it is "through the law we become conscious of sin" (NIV). Sin is defined by God's law (1 John 3:4)—as it always has been and always will be.
The book of Hebrews explains, "If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God" (Hebrews 10:26-27, NIV). Anyone desiring to claim Jesus Christ's sacrifice for forgiveness cannot "deliberately keep on sinning" and be accepted by God.
Regulations mentioned in Hebrews as changed do not include laws that define sin. Rather, the author insists, a day of reckoning and judgment is still very much a part of God's plan for those who refuse to quit sinning. He even classifies those who knowingly and deliberately or willfully choose to continue sinning as enemies of God.
Faith to be obedient
Beginning with Hebrews 10:35-36, the author seeks to strengthen his readers' confidence in doing "the will of God." In chapter 11 he then gives Old Testament examples of people who had the faith to do what God told them to do under difficult circumstances. He presents them as persons whose example we should follow. They obeyed God under great duress. We should do no less.
"Therefore," says the author, "since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses [the obedient servants of God mentioned in the Old Testament], let us throw off . . .the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us" (Hebrews 12:1, NIV).
The book of Hebrews plainly admonishes faithful Christians to follow the example of God's servants in the Old Testament who, because of their faith, refused to sin at the risk of losing their lives. This faith is having the courage to do what God commands regardless of personal risk and hardship. It is living and active faith to obey God, not a dead or dormant faith without the conviction or courage to do His will.
James explains this very clearly: "But someone will say, 'You have faith; I have deeds.' Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do.
"You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder. You foolish man, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did" (James 2:18-22, NIV).
Only by having constant access to a living, permanent High Priest is it possible for us to obey God in a manner that pleases Him. Hebrews 4:14-16 recaps this in the following words: "Seeing then that we have a great High Priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need."