The Enigmatic Book of Hebrews (Pt. 2)

Part One

A Premillennial Reading of Hebrews (1)

          The present writer has already stated his general agreement with what is now called Revised Dispensationalism – the Dispensationalism of Charles Ryrie and J. Dwight Pentecost.  I go further and say that I find the work of Larry Pettegrew  and Michael Vlach always to be excellent, even where we disagree.  That we disagree is mainly down to me.[1]  I prioritize the divine biblical covenants above the “dispensations.”  I have grave doubts about the viability of the “dispensations” to account for themselves and to hold up a biblical theology. That said, I find the Dispensational approach to Hebrews to be the best overall approach I have read.  Therefore, I want to flesh out a reading of the book from a basically Dispensational point of view.[2]    

          The first chapter basically expounds the greatness of the Son.  He is not referred to as “Jesus” until Hebrews 2:9, and the title “Christ” is not introduced until Hebrews 3:1.  I believe this is because of a strategy of allowing the gradual realization of who the Son is to dawn on the reader.  Not in the sense of revealing that the Son is Jesus who is the Christ, but, somewhat reminiscent of Mark’s Gospel, bringing one truth into association with another truth as the picture is filled out.  This is aided by the collection of OT passages (Psa. 2:7; 2 Sam. 2:14; Psa. 97:7 (and Deut. 32:43 LXX); Psa. 104:4; 45:6-7; 102:25-27; capping it off with the Davidic reference in Psalm 110:1. 

          Hebrews 2:1-4 issues the first of the warnings in the book.  If we are not careful to realize the voice of the Lord and the teaching of His apostles (Heb. 2:3 – “those who heard Him”), and begin to “drift” (Heb. 2:1), how shall we escape? (Heb. 2:3).[3] 

          The great work of our salvation was done so that the Church is brought into union with the Savior (Heb. 2:10-11).  Since saved Gentiles[4] are the spiritual “seed of Abraham” (Heb. 2:16 cf. Gal. 3:29), we receive aid from Him who has assumed a High Priestly role for us (Heb. 2:17-18; 4:14-16).  We have been brought by Jesus into His house, the Church, and are not under the Mosaic code (Heb. 3:1-6). 

          Then the author quotes Psalm 95:7-11 as the basis for a second warning that will culminate in a more expansive caution in Hebrews 4:1-11.[5]  Hebrews 3:7-19 act then as a spur to Christians to stay faithful to Christ.

          Hebrews 5 returns to the status of Christ as our High Priest and begins to develop it (Heb. 5:1-10), although more in preparation for the detailed complex of ideas associated with this theme later (Heb. 6:19-10:25).  Christ is called by God to be our High Priest, but He is the High Priest from another order; the order of the non-Israelite king Melchizedek (Heb. 5:5-6).  But Jesus suffered, and His sufferings made Him “the author of eternal salvation to all who obey Him” (Heb. 5:7-9), and this suffering is linked by the author with His call to be High Priest after the order of Melchizedek (Heb. 5:10).  As he will go on to say, the power of this new priesthood resides in two things: the permanence of the High Priest (Heb. 7:23-24), and His institution of a “better covenant” (Heb. 7:22).

The ”better covenant” is of course, the New covenant (Heb. 8:8, 13; 9:15; 12:24).  Jesus our High Priest offered up Himself (Heb. 7:27b), and His resurrection, more taken for granted than actually stated by the author (e.g., Heb. 9:11-12, 24-28),[6] provides the grounds for both His continuing office (Heb. 7:24).

If we go back a little to chapter 6 we come across a very stern parenesis or warning in Hebrews 6:4-8.  This of course is paralleled by the equally stern passage in Hebrews 10:26-31, but I shall come to that passage presently. 

The warning in Hebrews 6 is interpreted in various ways of course.  Kent gives a summary of the views:

1. Saved persons who are subsequently lost.[7]

2. Professed believers who have never really been saved.[8]  

3. Saved persons who backslide (but who nevertheless stay saved).[9]

4. A hypothetical case to illustrate the folly of apostasy.[10]

          To be honest, and in light of the author’s precision in Hebrews, I do not find any of these explanations entirely satisfactory.  This feeling only intensifies when all the warning passages of Hebrews are brought together and read over.  Here Attridge, though liberal, cuts to the chase:

In the preceding verses [i.e., vv. 4-5] the description of the initial experience of conversion and life in the eschatological community had been elaborate, solemn, and somewhat ponderous.  The next participle appears with dramatic abruptness.  For those who have enjoyed the experience of Christian renewal and have “fallen away” … the outlook is dire.[11]

And Stuhlmacher comments,

Hebrews considers it unpardonable when anyone rejects the forgiveness of sins effected for him or her once for all by Christ.  Inasmuch as this refers to final salvation, people do indeed lose their salvation by falling away from their baptismal confession.[12]

          Unless one is coming to Hebrews with a dyed-in-the-wool Pauline dogmatism it must be admitted that one often comes away from the warning passages, especially Hebrews 6:4-6 and 10:26-29, with a certain feeling that the text has been conformed to one’s theology rather than listened to on its own terms.  It ought to be noted also that for the writer of Hebrews salvation is yet ahead of them, especially if the reference to “rest” is equated with it (esp. Heb. 4:1-11).[13] 

          Hebrews 7 takes us back to Melchizedek and gives us some tantalizing information about him.  He was contemporary with Abraham (ca. 1850 B.C.) and was both king and priest of Salem (Heb. 7:1-2), the city that would become Jerusalem.  This stirs the interest as the OT had designated Messiah as both king and high priest, and in no clearer passage than Psalm 110:1 and 4.  Hebrews 3:4 says he was “made like the Son of God.”  “In what way?” we might ask.  Certainly in that Jesus as the Son has already been introduced as both king and high priest in the book (see Heb. 1:8; 2:17).  The author then shows that the order of Melchizedek is actually superior to the order of Levi (Heb. 7:17).  The Levitical priesthood, together with the office of high priest, was connected with the old covenant; the covenant made at Sinai and its reiteration in Deuteronomy.[14]  Thus, we are introduced to the topic of covenant. 

for the law made nothing perfect; on the other hand, there is the bringing in of a better hope, through which we draw near to God.  And inasmuch as He was not made priest without an oath (for they have become priests without an oath, but He with an oath by Him who said to Him: “The LORD has sworn And will not relent, `You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek’”), by so much more Jesus has become a surety of a better covenant. – Hebrews 7:19-22. 

          Christ has become the High Priest of “a better” covenant through the Melchizedekian order.  This is quite something to say, for the Mosaic covenant established Israel as God’s covenant people (Exod. 24:7-8; Josh. 3:14-17).  Any move away from that covenant would constitute a grave threat to the identity of Israel as a nation.  That is, unless Israel’s covenant moorings were secured in the Abrahamic and Davidic covenants by another greater way of righteousness and another superior intercessor.  This is the very argument the writer of Hebrews is going to pursue.  It begins with the oath of God (Psa. 110:1) to Messiah Jesus with which He “becomes a surety (engyos)” for this superior covenant.

          After the establishing oath the second thing that is mentioned is Christ’s eternal life; He “He continues forever,” which statement takes the resurrection for granted[15], and so now “has an unchangeable priesthood.” (Heb. 7:24).[16] 

[1] My reasons are set out in the first two chapters of Volume One.    

[2] There is no one Dispensational understanding of the warnings of Hebrews, so I will do a bit of picking and choosing.  Like Vlach I also believe that some of the work by Progressive Dispensationalists is of real value, even if I cannot embrace that approach. 

[3] We should understand that this warning was led up to by the buildup in Hebrews 1 and its exaltation of the Son.        

[4] Some writers would say that Hebrews is aimed mainly at Jewish Christians, who would thereby be motivated by the examples of their ancestors.  See, e.g., Homer A. Kent, Jr., The Epistle to the Hebrews, Grand Rapids, Baker, 1972, 68.  

[5] Zane C. Hodges, “Hebrews,” in BKCNT, 785.

[6] Though see Hebrews 13:20.

[7] He notes that Arminians generally take this view, naming Lenski.  Homer A. Kent, Jr., The Epistle to the Hebrews, 111.

[8] He cites Gleason Archer (Ibid, 112), although this has been the popular position of men like John Owen, William Gouge, and A. W. Pink.  See also N. T. Wright and Michael F. Bird, The New Testament in Its World, 719.  

[9] Ibid, 112, giving Ryrie as an example.   

[10] Ibid, 113.  This is Kent’s choice (Ibid, 113-114).  The approach advocated by Thomas R. Schreiner and Ardel B. Caneday in The Race Set Before Us: A Biblical Theology of Perseverance Assurance, Downers Grove, InterVarsity, 2001, basically rehashes this view. 

[11] Harold W. Attridge, The Epistle to the Hebrews, 170-171.  He identifies the sin involved as “extreme apostasy” (the continued denial of Christ).  

[12] Peter Stuhlmacher, Biblical Theology of the New Testament, 540. 

[13] E.g., G. K. Beale. A New Testament Biblical Theology, 784-787.

[14] As I showed in the first volume, the connection of the Levites to the Mosaic covenant will be transcended because of the Priestly covenant through Levi (Num 25), and the representation of two layers of priests in Ezekiel’s temple; Zadokites who trace their lineage to Phinehas, and “Levites” who are non-Zadokites who nonetheless serve in a lesser capacity in the temple service.  See The Words of the Covenant, Volume One, 167-168, 295, 351.  However, the office of Levitical high priest is not renewed in Ezekiel 40-48.  It seems that Christ will fill the high Priestly function by dint of His own greater sacrifice.    

[15] For the importance of the fact of the resurrection to the theology of Hebrews see N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, 457-461.

[16] The word of the oath concerns the risen Jesus (Heb. 7:28). 


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