Doing what we do, I (Michael) am surrounded by people who basically say that the book they are currently studying to teach is their favorite book of the Bible. As much as we often laugh at that statement, it is a good thing. I would hope that as you get the chance to study a book of the Bible with the purpose of teaching it to others, it would impact you in such a way that it would be very prominent in your mind. In early December I taught the book of Hebrews. What is different for me about this book is that before I even started studying to teach it, it was one of my favorite books. The truths I discovered in its pages when I was a student have continued to impact me, especially as I have had the opportunity to teach books from the Pentateuch, such as Leviticus and Deuteronomy. I have been patiently waiting in the last three years for the time when I could be entrusted with teaching Hebrews so that I could revisit those truths and take my turn in passing them on. In God’s grace, the more I teach, I find that the Lord is never content to let me just review what I already know. There is always something new, and this time through Hebrews was no different.
One interesting thing about Hebrews is that we don’t know who wrote it. Actually, if it weren’t for a final greeting in the last verses of the letter, it would be easy to see it more as a sermon than an epistle. By looking at what is addressed in the homily portion of the letter, and how it is approached, we can begin to get a picture of who might have written it, and what was going on with those who read it. To keep this brief , I’ll jump to the chase and tell you I believe the author is a Jewish Christian who has a strong understanding of the ritual traditions of Judaism, and has an advanced grasp of Greek rhetoric. He has some sense of the situation that the readers find themselves in, and is writing to hopefully prevent them from making, what he fears, would be a bad spiritual decision. Who are these readers? They were most likely Jewish and under some level of persecution. It seems that the persecution is leading them to consider a return to Judaism and a discrediting of the salvation they have experienced in Christ. Because the author fears his audience will turn away from Christ, he writes to argue for the superiority of the New Covenant mediated by Jesus as the true High Priest, over the Old Covenant mediated by the Levitical priesthood.
Most believers today are not in danger of falling back into Judaism, however much of the truths in the author’s arguments still have great relevance in what they reveal that we might often take for granted. I take for granted what I have under the New Covenant, because I have never experienced anything else. I have never lived with the presence of God residing in a tent right in the middle of my nation, but at the same time, unable to even draw near it without layers of religious ritual. I have always lived under a Covenant that reminds me constantly that I have been forgiven of my sins, instead of a covenant that reminds me of how stained in my sin I am. The great gift of studying Hebrews continues to be the reminder to appreciate what has been done for me in Christ:
“Since then 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 is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:14-16).
We can draw near to the very place that the high priest could only go once a year – into the presence of God. Additionally we can go there with boldness. This is why we should stand when singing praises to Jesus – not because the worship leader says we should, but because the Bible says we can. We don’t need to prostrate ourselves before God, fearing His wrath, but we can stand before him and both praise Him for His mercy and ask Him for the grace to live a live worthy of Jesus’ sacrifice. This truth still humbles me every time I meditate on it.
I need the truth of what Jesus has done to be stirred up in me more regularly by books like Hebrews. This time through the book, I realized that this is exactly what the author is doing – he is exhorting the readers to see exactly how great the New Covenant is in contrast to the Old. As a result of studying this book, I saw that my role in loving my students, fellow staff and other believers in my life is to exhort them as well. The great danger that the author of Hebrews sees for the readers is that in hardening their hearts towards the truths found in Jesus, they might fall away from God and never seek to be restored. This is a call not only for those around me, but for myself. I need to gather around me those who would stir up my faith. I want to be surrounded by a cloud of witnesses of what faith in Jesus really looks like. I need to be part of that cloud too.
I hope this little post might stir up faith for someone today; I hope that what I have shared in brief might cause you to be encouraged by the message of Hebrews. I pray it might “lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed” (Hebrews 12:12-13).