Hebrews: Another Reading (Pt.6)

Part Five

No Continuing City: The Eschatology of Hebrews

          The opening verses of the book of Hebrews include the line ἐπ᾽ ἐσχάτων τῶν ἡμερῶν τούτων which literally translated is “at the end of these days” (Heb. 1:2).  The phrase is translated by Lane and by Attridge as “in these final days.”[1]  Lane has a note claiming it is “a common Septuagintal idiom.”[2]  The phrase likely refers to the times after the ascension of Christ to the second advent.[3]  I say “likely” because if Jesus detains His coming for another two thousand years or so it would seem that the phrase will lose its coherence.  It could be that the idea is of a more proleptic order.  However it is understood, the phrase is a verbal springboard which focusses attention on the future.  

          Hebrews 1:2 also mentions that the Son is “appointed heir of all things” by God.  We are not told precisely what “all things” is, but one is reminded of Jesus’ own words to His disciples in Matthew 28:18: “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth.”[4]  But even this saying does not tell us concretely what Christ’s use of power will look like.  He has an inheritance (Heb. 1:4), and the citation of Psalm 45:6 (Heb. 1:8) speaks of a throne and a scepter (cf. Gen. 49:10; Num. 24:17).  There is an intimation then that the New covenant Kingdom is in view. 

          This inkling receives solid confirmation in Hebrews 2:5 and the author’s declaration that he is speaking of “the world to come.”  The word rendered “world” is oikoumene which means “the inhabited earth.”  So the reference is to the next age when the earth will be inhabited by those who qualify through their faith in Jesus.  Attridge observes,

Hebrews mentions that world not only because an eschatological dimension is present in the texts cited and interpreted in the first two chapters but also in order to emphasize the reality of that new age.[5]

          The future age is in the author’s sights as he composes his letter.  The Son’s “house” (oikos) is to be equated with “the world to come” (Heb. 2:5) and with the “inheritance” (Heb. 1:4).  This is why the reader is urged to “hold fast the confidence and the rejoicing of the hope firm to the end.”  Something similar is stated in Hebrews 6:11 (“we desire that each one of you show the same diligence to the full assurance of hope until the end”).  The word “end” (telos) refers then to the onset of the “world to come” which the addressees are to strive for that they may “inherit the promises” (Heb. 6:12).  Hence, there is a case for seeing Christ’s “house” in Hebrews 3:6 as His inheritance; an inheritance that His saints may enter (Heb. 1:14).[6]

          The reference to Hebrews 1:14 brings up the author’s use of the term “salvation,” which in Hebrews speaks of completed salvation (Heb. 2:3, 10; 5:9; 6:9; 9:28).  Hence, “He is also able to save to the uttermost those who come to God through Him” (Heb. 7:25).   

          Hebrews 4 is where the author explores the concept of “rest,” although notice its introduction in Hebrews 3:11 sandwiched between Hebrews 3:6 and 14 and their warnings about the end.  Certainly, in Hebrews 4:1 the “promise… entering His rest” is eschatological.  This “rest” is connected with the seventh day sabbath in Hebrews 4:4, quoting Genesis 2:2.[7]  Again the eschatological focus is found in Hebrews 4:3: “For we who have believed do enter that rest.”  Is this rest the individual soul’s journey to heaven after death?  That is how many take it, but a good argument can be made for it being the coming aeon.  The rest that Joshua led Israel to in Canaan had physical dimensions and topography, yet that was not permanent (Heb. 4:8).  Therefore, we are told, “There remains therefore a rest for the people of God” (Heb. 4:9), and diligence is needed to enter into it (Heb. 4:11). 

          Eschatology resurfaces in chapter 9 where the theme of inheritance of again brought up (Heb. 9:15).  Christ will be returning, and when He does, He will bring salvation with Him (Heb. 9:28).  Because this will be Christ’s second coming in glory the salvation here is the completed redemption of both body and soul. Until that time, Christ is depicted as “waiting till His enemies are made His footstool” (Heb. 10:13 cf. Psa. 110:1).  The saints are therefore to urge holiness and obedience upon one another in light of the approaching Day (Heb. 10:25 cf. 10:37).  Endurance is required, that “you may receive the promise” (Heb. 10:36, 39). 

          As I commented above, the whole of Hebrews 11 with its great “cloud of witnesses” (Heb. 12:1), contains a noticeable forward thrust.  So that at the end of a chapter which includes the record of Abraham looking for a city “whose Builder and Maker is God” (Heb. 11:10 cf. Heb. 11:16), we are told,

For all these, having obtained a good testimony through faith, did not receive the promise, God having provided something better for us, that they should not be made perfect apart from us. – Hebrews 11:39-40.

          The reader is thus thrown into the narrative.  “We” along with “them” will one day be “made perfect.”  In Hebrews the word “perfect” (teleioun) means the bringing of someone or something to completion in God’s eyes.  Hence, in Hebrews 2:10 Jesus becomes our High Priest[8] and I think “the captain of [our] salvation” (cf. Heb. 12:2) by being made perfect through suffering.  In Hebrews 12:23 we read about,

the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven, to God the Judge of all, to the spirits of just men made perfect.

          Through the work of Christ these saints have been perfected (cf. Heb. 10:14), and those in the assembly of the firstborn are those who have gone before and who now reside in a blissful state in heavenly Jerusalem (Heb. 12:22).  Although many differ from me on this, I do not believe the “church of the firstborn” means the Church from Christ’s ascension to his return.  I may be wrong, but I believe this ekklesia is “the people of God” of Hebrews 4:9 who are Israelites.  If it is the New Testament Church[9] the picture above remains unchanged, although I question whether the translation “church” is warranted in the context.[10]    

          Hebrews 12 closes with a reference to “Him who speaks from heaven” (Heb. 12:25), and a quotation from Haggai 2:6 about the shaking of the created order (Heb. 12:26); no doubt meaning the second coming (cf. Matt. 24:29).[11]  After this “shaking” of creation Hebrews 12:28 declares, “we are receiving a kingdom which cannot be shaken.”  This is only the second time the word “kingdom” has been used in the book.  The other time was in Hebrews 1:1:8 in a quotation from Psalm 45:8. 

          Finally, in the middle of chapter 13 the author writes,

          For here we have no continuing city, but we seek the one to come.

          The “one to come” will be in “the world to come” (Heb. 3:5).  Whether he has in mind New Jerusalem (Rev. 3:12; 21:2) or not I cannot say.  If he does, then he is looking beyond the millennial Kingdom into the New heaven and new earth of 2 Peter 2:13 and Revelation 21:1.


In conclusion, the book of Hebrews is a very prophetic book.  The book is an extraordinary piece of prophetic literature which, when the historical realities of Jesus’ death and resurrection are acknowledged, would fit quite nicely within the Olivet Discourse of Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21. Yes, this is an “outrageous idea”, and most will dismiss it. But IF pretribulationism has anything to it (which I believe it does), then precisely which NT books address Tribulation saints? None? With the Church gone does any book directly speak to God’s people in the very worst period in earth’s history? It is worth pondering.            

[1] William L. Lane, Hebrews 1 – 8, 4-5, 10.  Harold W. Attridge, Hebrews, 35.

[2] Ibid, 5.

[3] See also 2 Tim. 1:3; 1 Pet. 1:20; 2 Pet. 3:3; Jude 18.

[4] See also Romans 14:9.

[5] Harold W. Attridge, Hebrews, 70. 

[6] “For we have become partakers of Christ if we hold the beginning of our confidence steadfast to the end.” – Hebrews 3:14.  Notice the conditionality attached to the promises in Hebrews.  Cf. Hebrews 6:4 (“partakers of the Holy Spirit”).  

[7] See also Hebrews 4:10.

[8] See Hebrews 2:17.

[9] Homer A. Kent, The Epistle to the Hebrews, 272-273.

[10] Lane believes it is all the saints from both Testaments.  William L. Lane, Hebrews 9 – 13, 469, although he includes an interesting note: “Lecuyer has shown that the entire formulation in v. 23a is rooted in the description of Israel in the Pentateuch.  The Israelites are designated the ἐκκλησία, “’congregation,’ in Deut. 4:10; 9:10; 18:16 LXX (cf. Acts 7:38), while the occasion when God addressed the people at Sinai is called ἡμέρα [τῆς] ἐκκλησίας, ‘the day of the gathering’.” – Ibid, 468.  

[11] On this subject see e.g., George N. H. Peters, The Theocratic Kingdom, Volume 2, 494-498.

Hebrews: Another Reading (Pt.5)

Part Four

The New High Priest

          Jesus then is the High Priest who replaces the Aaronic-Levitical High Priest.  This high-profile replacement of a cultic officiant was absolutely necessary, otherwise Christ’s mediatorial work could not have gone forward.  It would not be in the character of God nor patterned after the divine economy with men for Christ to bullishly take up the Davidic throne in Jerusalem and by simple irresistible fiat make Himself the High Priest.  But also, as Hebrews shows, He would have to already be functioning in His High Priestly role before taking over world dominion.  If we compare Hebrews with the Gospel of John we can see this:

But into the second part the high priest went alone once a year, not without blood, which he offered for himself and for the people’s sins committed in ignorance. – Hebrews 9:7.

Jesus said to her, “Do not cling to Me, for I have not yet ascended to My Father; but go to My brethren and say to them, ‘I am ascending to My Father and your Father, and to My God and your God.’ – John 20:17.

But Christ came as High Priest of the good things to come, with the greater and more perfect tabernacle not made with hands, that is, not of this creation.  Not with the blood of goats and calves, but with His own blood He entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption… how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?  And for this reason He is the Mediator of the new covenant, by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions under the first covenant, that those who are called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance. – Hebrews 9:11-12, 14-15.

          If the Levite High Priest had to enter the Holy of Holies in the earthly temple with a blood offering on the Day of Atonement any cultic performance by the new Melchizedekian High Priest would require Him to also have a blood offering. But He could not offer the blood (which was His own blood) at any altar unless He was already invested as a functioning High Priest at the time He entered the heavenly temple (cf. Heb. 8:1-6), ergo, Jesus had to be functioning as our High Priest before not long after John 20.  This means two things: Firstly, that Jesus Christ has been the High Priest since His ascension in the first part of the first century.  Secondly, it means that He is now our High Priest mediating on our behalf under the terms of the New covenant.  Therefore, it is an inescapable conclusion that Christians from A.D. 30 to the present day and until the Church is removed are full members of the New covenant!  There is no way around it.

          Hebrews 8:7-13 contains the longest OT quotation in the NT.  That quotation concerns the New covenant and is taken from Jeremiah 31:31-34.  This quotation is connected with Christ’s New covenant High Priestly role.  The New covenant has arrived, but not [yet] for Israel. 

          Hebrews 8:1 reports that Jesus “is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens.”  He is clearly not seated upon David’s throne; David’s throne meaning the Davidide dynasty.

          What we also find in Hebrews 9, after the description of the ordinances of the old earthly sanctuary (Heb. 9:1-10), is a fascinating section about the heavenly sanctuary (which I believe exists, since one cannot pattern an earthly tabernacle after something which cannot be reduced to a pattern – Heb. 8:1, 5; 9:23-24).  The section begins in Hebrews 9:11 with the remark that Christ (i.e., Messiah) as the Melchizedekian High Priest mediates “the good things to come,” by which I understand the author to mean “the world to come” of Hebrews 2:5 and “the eternal inheritance” of Hebrews 9:15.  Christ offered His own blood as “the Lamb of God” (cf. Heb. 9:14, 24-26).  He did this “through the eternal Spirit” (Heb. 9:14).  By this I take him to mean the Spirit of life who brings the New covenant aeon to pass with the renewal of the earth (cf. Heb. 9:28). 

The Waiting Messiah

          Similar to what Peter said in Acts 3:19-21 the writer characterizes Jesus as in heaven “waiting.”  What is he waiting for?  According to Hebrews 10:13, Christ is “waiting till His enemies are made His footstool.”  This, of course, is in fulfillment of Psalm 110:1: “The LORD said to my Lord, “Sit at My right hand, till I make Your enemies Your footstool.”  It appears then that God the Father will one day do this, without doubt through the orchestration of events immediately prior to the second coming.  Once this is done what might be called “the Kingdom of the New Covenant” will be set up.  This explains the anticipatory language of  “what is becoming obsolete and growing old [and] is ready to vanish away” (Heb. 8:13).  Hence, “He takes away the first {Mosaic covenant] that He may establish the second [New covenant].” (Heb. 10:9).  All indications are that this establishment will be accomplished[1] after Christ returns.  Thus,

To those who eagerly wait[2] for Him He will appear a second time, apart from sin, for salvation. – Hebrews 9:28.

          This text locates “salvation” after Jesus comes “a second time.”  This salvation is the Sabbath “rest” in the kingdom of God.  Right now, Jesus acts as the High Priest whose self-offering abrogates the sacrifices under the old covenant (Heb. 10:10-18).  This is why Christ is our High Priest now – which necessarily means that we are New covenant saints now.[3]  If such were not true Christ could not be our High Priest!

          Hebrews 9:28 depicts believers as eagerly waiting for the second coming.  Coupled with the anticipatory tones of the coming sabbath rest (Heb. 4:1-4, 9-10), and the stated intention of the author to write about “the world to come” (Heb. 2:5), we ought to carefully consider the rest of the book in this light.  I believe this is the “something better” of which we are told in Hebrews 11:40. 

          In addition to those texts we need to look at the last few verses in Hebrews 12:

See that you do not refuse Him who speaks. For if they did not escape who refused Him who spoke on earth, much more shall we not escape if we turn away from Him who speaks from heaven, whose voice then shook the earth; but now He has promised, saying, “Yet once more I shake not only the earth, but also heaven.”  Now this, “Yet once more,” indicates the removal of those things that are being shaken, as of things that are made, that the things which cannot be shaken may remain.  Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us have grace, by which we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear.  For our God is a consuming fire. – Hebrews 12:25-29. 

          The passage refers to the readers/hearers “receiving a kingdom which cannot be shaken” (Heb. 12:28).  This is “the world to come”, the millennial inheritance.  The allusion in verse 25 is to the Voice of Yahweh thundering from Mount Sinai in Exodus 19:18 (cf. Psa. 68:7-8).  But a question comes up: does the author mean to tell us that God will speak once more in such a way?  It appears so.  The quotation from Haggai 2:6 needs to be studied in its context.  Here are the surrounding verses:

According to the word that I covenanted with you when you came out of Egypt, so My Spirit remains among you; do not fear!’  For thus says the LORD of hosts: ‘Once more (it is a little while) I will shake heaven and earth, the sea and dry land; and I will shake all nations, and they shall come to the Desire of All Nations, and I will fill this temple with glory,’ says the LORD of hosts…The glory of this latter temple shall be greater than the former,’ says the LORD of hosts. ‘And in this place I will give peace,’ says the LORD of hosts.” – Haggai 2:5-9.

          Through the prophet Yahweh  cites the Mosaic covenant at Sinai, which, because of His grace and its connection to the Abrahamic covenant, He continued to remember regarding His oath.[4]  But, true to form, the emphasis shifts to the coming kingdom restoration when “the Desire of all nations” (Hag. 2:7) is present.  Who or what is this “Desire”?  Hengstenberg bluntly states that the messianic interpretation cannot be correct.  He asserts, “The only admissible rendering…is ‘the beauty of all the heathen.”[5]  In his opinion this refers to the Gentiles coming with their possessions.[6]   See also Peters[7], Merrill, and Rydelnik. 

Another equally valid understanding (perhaps more so) construed the “desire” as the kingdom temple.[8]  My slight resistance to this interpretation is that the “house of Yahweh” does not become a magnet to the nations until the kingdom is in full swing.  Whichever position is taken on Haggai 2:7 the context admits to a strongly premillennial outlook when the later temple is built after Yahweh has shaken creation and He is in a position to give final shalom (Hag. 2:9).  Hence, the writer of Hebrews has the second coming of Christ and the Kingdom of God in his sights in Hebrews 12:25-29.  And the intriguing verses just before it support this conclusion.  

[1] Although the New covenant was instigated at the first advent, and we enjoy its benefits, it is clear from both Scripture and experience that the New covenant age has not yet dawned.  Christians have the Holy Spirit only as a pledge or “earnest” and not in His fullest expression in us.  We are yet in our “earthen vessels” and not our glorified bodies.  The voice of sin still calls within, and Satan and the world-system still exert their baleful influences every day.   

[2] The Greek word is apekdechomai meaning “to wait expectantly.”  This matches the language of striving to enter rest in Hebrews 4:11.

[3] With due respect, I don’t think this aspect of the New covenant has been fully considered by many Dispensationalists. 

[4] When the text says “My Spirit will yet remain among you [Israel]” we are to call to mind the end of the Babylonian exile and Yahweh’s providential presence in the throes of rebuilding.   

[5] E. W. Hengstenberg, Christology of the Old Testament, Volume 2, MacDill AFB, FL: MacDonald Publishing Company, n.d., 942-946.

[6] Ibid, 944-945.

[7] George N. H. Peters, The Theocratic Kingdom, Vol. 3, 418.

[8] See e.g., Walter Kaiser, The Promise-Plan of God, 219. 

Hebrews: Another Reading (Pt.4)

Part Three

God’s Oath is an Anchor for the Soul 

          In the middle of Hebrews 6 there is an important section where God’s covenant with Abraham is brought to the fore and the concept of covenant, and in particular the covenant oath, is brought out. 

For when God made a promise to Abraham, because He could swear by no one greater, He swore by Himself… For men indeed swear by the greater, and an oath for confirmation is for them an end of all dispute.  Thus God, determining to show more abundantly to the heirs of promise the immutability of His counsel, confirmed it by an oath, that by two immutable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we might have strong consolation, who have fled for refuge to lay hold of the hope set before us. – Hebrews 6:13, 16-18.

          This passage uses the Abrahamic covenant as an example, but it is about the inalterability of God’s oaths.  The centerpiece of the passage is the declaration that “an oath for confirmation is…an end of all dispute.” (Heb. 6:16).  Without that, nothing else that is stated in the passage would be worth saying.  This is precisely the point which I have been trying to make concerning the oath within the divine covenants in The Words of the Covenant.  God’s oaths are adamant.  They cannot be changed in any way.  To attempt to do so one must use an undermining mechanism such as typology or generalization to redirect the precise surface meaning of the oaths.  

          The passage shows us God as He is – the covenant God.  Taking as an analogy a human oath, where it was for “confirmation… for them an end of all dispute,” (Heb. 6:16).  That is why our gracious God made covenants!  Let this statement settle down into your mind and heart.  God’s oaths are in Scripture to end all dispute!  Of what could there be dispute?  How about God’s Creation Project?  Here it is in brief:

  1. This earth was preserved through the Flood and its predictability was secured by the Noahic covenant (Gen. 9:11).
  2. From one man (Abraham) God raised a promised son (Isaac) from whom would come the nation of Israel, who will be given a land with specified dimensions (Gen. 15). 
  3. God through Moses gave Israel the Ten Commandments (Exod. 20:1-17; Deut. 5:1-22), nine of which are universal covenantal moral truths.
  4. The valiant deed of Phinehas in his zeal for Yahweh’s name (Num. 25:6-13) caused Him to make an everlasting “Priestly” covenant for his descendants (the Zadokites).
  5. The kingdom of Israel had its king and dynasty chosen by God (2 Sam. 7:1-29; Psa. 89), and his throne (i.e., the reign of David’s dynasty) would be everlasting (1 Chron. 17:12-14; Psa. 89:36; Isa. 9:6-7).
  6. The remnant of Israel will be redeemed through the coming King who will be “a covenant for the people”; a “New covenant,” both for Jew and Gentile, ruling from Jerusalem over a regenerated earth (Isa. 11:1-10; 49:1-8; Dan. 7:13-14).

I have tried to show that the New Testament story fully complies with this covenant structure, especially once the New covenant is understood as being made with the “new man” (Eph. 2:15), the Church beginning at the first advent, but this same New covenant awaits its predicted OT fulfillments at Jesus’ second coming.  How can all this be known and known for certain?  The answer is here: God has made covenant oaths which ought to drive away misunderstanding and “end all dispute.”  The “two immutable things” (Heb. 6:18) are the Word of God and the covenant oaths of God which confirm it.[1]  Since God’s covenants are made to end all dispute it behooves the people of God to make them so.  That is Biblical Covenantalism.  Biblical Covenantalism, defined as the Bible’s real covenantal teaching[2], is “an anchor for the soul.” (Heb. 6:19), which is secured by Jesus Christ Himself as our High Priest (Heb. 6:20).

Jesus Christ the High Priest and the New Covenant  

          Hebrews 7 prepares the reader for the New covenant work of Christ that is explained in Hebrews 8 – 10.  Verses 1 to 10 describe how the line of Melchizedek, the shadowy figure mentioned in relation to Abraham in Genesis 14, is a superior priesthood than the later one stemming from Aaron and the Levites.  This might seem surprising to anyone who has traced the “Priestly” covenant from its inception in Numbers 25, because of the everlasting covenant of peace that promised Phinehas an enduring line in the service of Yahweh.  But it must be remembered that according to the detailed descriptions of the Zadokite/Levite ministrations in the coming temple in Ezekiel 44 – 46 there is no High Priest present – at least not from the tribe of Levi.  This leaves the role of High Priest open, so to speak, for a High Priest from “the order of Melchizedek” (Psa. 110:4).  And just as Melchizedek was the Priest-King of Salem (Heb. 7:2), so Jesus will be the Priest-King of Jeru-salem in His coming kingdom (Psa. 110:1-4; cf. 2:6-9;  50:1-2; Zech. 6:12-13).

          The writer of Hebrews of course acknowledges this, and so he informs us that,

For the priesthood being changed, of necessity there is also a change of the law. – Hebrews 7:12.

          The specific change in the Law the writer is talking about is that concerning the High Priest coming from the tribe of Judah.  But one wonders whether this quite radical alteration in respect to the office of High Priest will entail other changes in the Law so that although there will be continuity between “Moses” and “Jesus” there will also be differences: what we might call “Old covenant law” and “New covenant law.”?  This “New covenant law” would then be what is envisaged in Isaiah 2:3 (Mic. 4:2); Isaiah.51:4; and Jeremiah 31:33. 

          It is interesting that Hebrews refers to “the word of the oath” (Heb. 7:28), which references the words of Psalm 110:4 quoted already in Hebrews 5:6 and 10.  Is this “oath” an instance where no covenant is directly involved – there is no “Mechizedekian covenant”?  We know that the Davidic covenant is alluded to in Psalm 110:1, but what about the oath?  Psalm 110:4 is quoted in Hebrews 7:21 to which is added these words:

by so much more Jesus has become a surety of a better covenant. – Hebrews 7:22.

          So, the author does link the oath in Psalm 110:4 to the “better covenant.”  This “better covenant” is the New covenant which Christ mediates (Heb. 8:6; 9:15; 12:24). 

 The specific change in the Law the writer is talking about is that concerning the High Priest coming from the tribe of Judah.  But one wonders whether this quite radical alteration in respect to the office of High Priest will entail other changes in the Law so that although there will be continuity between “Moses” and “Jesus” there will also be differences: what we might call “Old covenant law” and “New covenant law.”?  This “New covenant law” would then be what is envisaged in Isaiah 2:3 (Mic. 4:2); Isaiah.51:4; and Jeremiah 31:33. 

          It is interesting that Hebrews refers to “the word of the oath” (Heb. 7:28), which references the words of Psalm 110:4 quoted already in Hebrews 5:6 and 10.  This “oath” is an instance where no covenant is directly involved – there is no “Mechizedekian covenant”!  However, the Davidic covenant is alluded to in Psalm 110:1.                          

[1] Harold W. Attridge, The Epistle to the Hebrews, Hermeneia, Philadelphia: Fortress, 1989, 181.

[2] My attempt at following the Bible’s covenantal teaching is not to be confused with the infallible doctrine of the Bible itself.  I am simply trying my best to provide an accurate account.  Hence, one should distinguish between the noun (Biblical Covenantalism – my name for my approach), and the adjective (Scripture’s revelation of the covenants).  Hopefully, there is a close correspondence!  

Hebrews: Another Reading (Pt.3)

Part Two

The Next Warnings

          This is where the author begins to introduce the High Priesthood of Christ.  Since this takes us into closer proximity to the New covenant, I shall look at it separately.  Our concern just now is the theme of “the world to come” (Heb. 2:5).  This phrase pops up again in the middle of the famous warning in Hebrews 6 (i.e., Heb. 6:5), although the noun is different.  Hebrews 5:12 – 6:8 is the next warning, and this one ramps up the ante.  It begins with a rebuke of the people for their dilatory approach to God’s Word (Heb. 5:12-14).  Then comes this:

For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, if they fall away, to renew them again to repentance, since they crucify again for themselves the Son of God, and put Him to an open shame. – Hebrews 6:4-6.

          We have to ask some questions of this passage if we are going to understand it, but these questions have to be considered along with the other warning passages (Heb. 2:1-4; 4:12-13; 10:26-31; 12:25-29) and the overall thrust of the “sermon” that is Hebrews.  This warning describes those who were “enlightened,” who had “tasted the heavenly gift,” had “become partakers of the Holy Spirit,” and had “tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come.” (Heb. 6:4-5).  Those who have experienced these four impressive things are warned of the impossibility of them being renewed if they “fall away.”  This puts the exhortations in Hebrews 2:1, 3; 3:14, and 4:1 in sharper relief.  The warning is not that some among them will cease to believe, but that some among them will cease to believe and will not be granted the opportunity to repent of that unbelief.[1]  Which Christian denomination teaches such a thing?  Does this mean we are on the wrong track, and that we better adopt one of the alternative interpretations of the passage such as the “means of salvation” position of Thomas Schreiner and Ardel Caneday?[2]  I sincerely wish I could agree with this, but my persuasion that God really means what He says and does not engage in saber-rattling prevents it.  Lane is certainly right when he says, “The writer recalls for his audience what they possess and what they have experienced as the result of God’s redemptive activity through Christ.”[3]  The warnings are too frequent, too pointed, and too severe to be mistaken for barks with no real bite.  That is the real challenge of reading Hebrews. 

          If we jump forward to chapter 10 there is another severe warning:

For if we sin willfully after we have received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins… – Hebrews 10:26.

          This paraenesis begins with a qualifier: the willful sin, which presupposes a clear knowledge of what the truth is.  Just as the transgressor of Moses’ law should understand and abide by it (Heb. 10:28 – since he was supposed to meditate upon it – cf. Josh. 1:8), so the good news about Jesus Christ is known by the transgressor and rejected.  This rejection amounts to the following:

Of how much worse punishment, do you suppose, will he be thought worthy who has trampled the Son of God underfoot, counted the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified a common thing, and insulted the Spirit of grace?  – Hebrews 10:29.

          Three indictments are brought against the transgressor: 1. Trampling the Son of God underfoot; 2. reckoning the blood of Christ in the New covenant common and therefore worthless; and 3. insulting the Holy Spirit who graciously applies the merits of Jesus’ work to the needy sinner.  And this censure does not appear to be aimed at an unbeliever, but at someone who was “sanctified” by the blood of the New covenant.  Now unless one is persuaded by the arguments for the inclusion of unregenerate infants in the theological “covenant of grace” there appears to be no escape from the conclusion that this person was saved but is in plain danger of suffering God’s vengeance by falling “into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10:30-31).  He has drawn back into perdition (Heb. 10:39).

          I admit that it is uncomfortable to state this, but it is what the passage says!  In the Church age a person who is within the New covenant is secure in Christ according to the apostle Paul.  So, again, what is one to do with these passages in Hebrews?     

If this alternative reading of Hebrews has anything to it, then the warning passages are concerned with entering the kingdom that is coming, not with the gospel one finds in Romans and Galatians.

          Please do not misunderstand me.  I am no ultra-dispensationalist (the last thing we need is more dispensations!).  I am trying to read the book of Hebrews “line upon line” without importing the apostle Paul into the argument.  Standing apart from Paul, these carefully crafted words point to the problem: Jesus is put to an open shame.  How is this done?  The commentaries offer little help.  But if the subject  is “the world to come” then things might look different.  Verses 11 and 12 encourage this perspective:

And we desire that each one of you show the same diligence to the full assurance of hope until the end, hat you do not become sluggish, but imitate those who through faith and patience inherit the promises. – Hebrews 6:11-12 (cf. 3:6; 3:14; 9:26).

          What is this talk about “the end” (telos)?  Does it refer to the end of one’s life; the end of their “race”? (Acts 20:24; Heb. 12:1).  Does it refer to the Parousia “when hope will be realized”?[4]  I think in view of the way it is used it must be the latter.  Notice here that the writer goes on to speak of a time when they will “inherit the promises.” (Heb. 6:12).  This conclusion is not as assured in Hebrews 3:6 (because of the textual variant) or Hebrews 3:14 (although the context includes entering into rest – Heb. 3:11).  But when we leap forward to the other occasion of its use in Hebrews 9, I don’t think there is much doubt:

but now, once at the end of the ages, He has appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself. – Hebrews 9:26b.

          Here it is plain to see that “the end” does not mean the end of an individual’s faith sojourn in “this present evil age” (Gal. 1:4).  The writer appears to be saying that the first coming of Christ and its atonement victory ushered in “the end of the ages.”[5]  This is linked to the second coming in Hebrews 9:28, thus showing that in continuity with the OT predictions and the Lord’s Supper, the first and second advents are actually one work in two phases.  But back to the main point: it appears that in at least some cases the author has in mind the end of the ages, or, what we call the end times, in mind as he wrote, and this falls in line with what I have already brought out regarding the theme of “the world to come” (Heb. 2:5) and entering into “rest.”  On this reading of Hebrews, we are seeing a deliberately prophetic work come into view; a work addressed to Hebrews/Jews who are being exhorted to keep faith in Jesus as the Christ or Messiah, in anticipation of His return and His kingdom.  It’s teaching about holding out “until the end” in light of the inheritance to come (Heb. 6:11-12) begins to remind me of Jesus’ words in the Olivet Discourse: “And because lawlessness will abound, the love of many will grow cold. But he who endures to the end shall be saved.” (Matt. 24:12-13).[6]  

          I realize how outlandish this might sound, but I have been led to explore this position by paying close attention to God’s covenants and adhering to the belief that God means what He says.  And the fact of the matter is that Christians have constantly read this great book as if it were the fourteenth epistle of the apostle Paul, whereas it surely deserves to be interpreted on its own merits without the voice of Paul coming through on the loudspeaker. 

          It is not that Paul’s letters are refused admission to the reading of Hebrews, but that Hebrews demands to be read with the same respect as Paul.  And how do we read Paul?  We generally let him say what he wants to say and then try to expound upon it.  This is how we must begin to read Hebrews; and when we do, we come away with the kind of reading that I am relating here. 

[1] Which matches those who fell in the wilderness at the time of the Exodus (Heb. 3:13-19). 

[2] Thomas R. Schreiner and Ardel B. Caneday, The Race Set Before Us: A Theology of Perseverance & Assurance, Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2001. 

[3] William L. Lane, Hebrews 1 – 8, 145.

[4] Lane, 144. 

[5] What he calls “this final age” in Hebrews 1:2. 

[6] The interpretation of “the end” in Matthew 24:13 is ascertained by reading the next verse: “And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world as a witness to all the nations, and then the end will come.” (Matt. 24:14). 

Hebrews: Another Reading (Pt. 2)

Part One

“The World to Come”

It is crucial to read Hebrews 2:5 very carefully.  In it the writer states,

“For He has not put the world to come, of which we speak, in subjection to angels.”

The angels right now minister to the heirs of salvation” (Heb. 1:14 cf. 1:7).  In “the world to come” (Heb. 2:5); of which the Son is the heir (Heb. 1:2), in seems as though the Son will be much more prominent, the coming age being subject to Him (“we do not yet see all things put under him.” – Heb. 2:8c). 

Does this mean that a major theme of the book of Hebrews is “the world to come”?  Has he been speaking about it already and we missed it?  And what does the author mean by the designation?  To answer the second question first I do not think there can be much objection to the view that it refers to the coming kingdom after the return of Christ to earth.  It may be viewed by some as speaking of the millennial kingdom and by others as the new heavens and earth.  My own view is that it has both in mind as it savors of leaving this present aeon behind forever.  This possible theme is alluded to in Hebrews 1:8, 13, and we should be willing to count Jesus being called “the heir of all things” in Hebrews 1:2, and the mention of inheriting salvation in verse 14 as possible references to the new aeon.  Hebrews 1:4 where it says “He has by inheritance obtained a more excellent name” than the angels also suggest it since the “inheritance” may be seen as this-worldly and still to come.  Hebrews 1:5 quotes from Psalm 2:7, which in David certainly refers to the messianic kingdom (“Yet I have set My King on My holy hill of Zion.” – Psa. 2:6). 

Then there is Hebrews 1:6 and its possible second coming reference: “when He again [pallin]brings the firstborn into the world” as in NKJV, NASB, NET, Westcott.[1]  If these verses point to the coming kingdom – and there is more than a suggestion that they do – then the chances of it being a subject matter of Hebrews looks promising.  And this reintroduces the divine covenants.    

          Right after the phrase “the world to come” appears the writer appeals to Psalm 8, a psalm which speaks of the reason God made man.  Man may have been made “a little lower than the angels” (Psa. 8:5; Heb. 2:7), but to obtain “glory and honor.”  As a race we have not obtained anything approaching glory and honor, but Jesus has (Heb. 1:4, 8, 13; 2:9).  In citing Psalm 8:5-6 Hebrews is explaining how Jesus has paved the way for those He has saved to inherit the dominion and glory planned for them.  Hence, we read the contrast, “we do not yet see all things put under him.  But we see Jesus…” (Heb. 2:8-9).  Jesus brings “many sons to glory” according to Hebrews 2:10.  He gives “salvation” to man (Heb. 1:14; 2:3, 10. Cf. 9:28[2]) but all things are rightfully His (Heb. 2:10 – “for whom are all things and by whom are all things”).               

The reference to “the seed of Abraham” in Hebrews 2:16 appears to fit Israel more than the church[3]; an impression which is strengthened in Hebrews 2:17 when it says that Jesus as “a faithful and merciful high priest” makes “propitiation for the sins of the people”; which would be a most peculiar way of talking about the Jew/Gentile church. 

Please do not misunderstand me here.  I am not saying that Jesus is not the High Priest of the Church.  God forbid.  That would undo my entire teaching about the New covenant being for the Church as well as for Israel.  I am simply trying to point out the somewhat uncomfortable fact that Hebrews is written to, well, Hebrews!  We need to take that seriously. 

Getting back to the first question I posed above, namely, is “the world to come” a major theme in the book? – I think the Psalm 8 reference in Hebrews 2 reinforces this.  The data looks like this:

  1. Christ is “Appointed heir of all things” (Heb. 1:2)
  2. He has “obtained an inheritance” (Heb. 1:4)
  3. Psalm 2:7 in its context refers to the reign of Messiah (Heb. 1:5).
  4. If “again” connects to the verb “to bring in” the reference is to the second advent (Heb. 1:6).
  5. A throne, a scepter, and a kingdom are mentioned in relation to His incarnation (Heb. 1:8)
  6. Psalm 110:1 referring to the Davidic covenant is cited (Heb. 1:13)
  7. The author expressly says that he is speaking about “the world to come.” (Heb. 2:5)
  8. He then goes to Psalm 8, which is about man’s dominion over creation. (Heb. 2:6-8).

And we have not yet looked into the repeated use of the verb “rest” in Hebrews 3 and 4. 

The “Rest” of God and the World to Come in Hebrews

          Hebrews 3 speaks of God’s “rest” twice in verses 11 and 18 and in both cases, it refers to the rest for Israel in the promised land after their wilderness wanderings (Heb. 3:8-19).[4]  This is the illustration (I did not say “type”) that will be employed in chapter 4 for the “rest” (katapausis – a beautiful word denoting a ceasing from toil; repose).  So, in the first verse of Hebrews 4 we read,

Therefore, since a promise remains of entering His rest, let us fear lest any of you seem to have come short of it. – Hebrews 4:1. 

          The main commentaries all associate this “rest” with going to heaven but let us allow the author to say what he wants to say.  The first thing I want to call your attention to is the strong tone of the warning that is penned.  Not to get technical, but the word is an aorist passive conditional (subjunctive) of phobeo and is rightly translated “let us fear lest” in the NKJV.  There is a chance that some of those addressed will not make it into “rest.”  What was said above about the influence of the theme of “the world to come” in Hebrews should be applied here as it flows out from that argument.  It is the “therefore” of what was said in Hebrews 1-3.  Notice next in Hebrews 4:2 that the word “gospel” is used to describe the message of hope that was preached to “us” as well as to “them.”  That is, the Israelites in the wilderness wanderings heard a gospel, but what was it?  It was that God was taking them to and land flowing with milk and honey (Exod. 3:17; Lev. 20:22-24; Num. 14:7-8; Deut. 26:9; Jer. 11:5).  Apart from a presumption (understandable as it may be) that this is applied to the church in Pauline terms why would we think that the “gospel” in Hebrews 4:2 is equivalent Paul’s gospel? 

          The next few verses take some effort to get one’s head around.  The basic message is that although those unbelievers in the wilderness did not enter into rest (Heb. 4:2, 3, 5, 6, 8), there yet is a rest that some will indeed enter (Heb. 4:3, 6, 9).  This rest is likened to the Sabbath day (“the seventh day” – Heb. 4:4), and Yahweh’s own cessation from His work of creation (Heb. 4:10). 

          I grant that my resistance to applying all of this to the Christian church and accommodating it within Paul’s doctrine is risks disorienting the reader, but please stick with me.  You see, as well as being a day of rest (not necessarily of worship), what is special about the Jewish sabbath?  The answer is found in Ezekiel:

Moreover I also gave them My Sabbaths, to be a sign between them and Me, that they might know that I am the LORD who sanctifies them. – Ezekiel 20:12.

am the LORD your God: Walk in My statutes, keep My judgments, and do them; ‘hallow My Sabbaths, and they will be a sign between Me and you, that you may know that I am the LORD your God.’ – Ezekiel 20:19-20.

          The sabbath was a God-given sign for Israel.  Of what was it a sign?  The author of Hebrews links God’s “sabbath” rest with the future “rest for the people of God” in Hebrews 4:9.  Very interestingly, it just so happens that Ezekiel 20 goes over the exact same ground that the author of Hebrews is covering!  And Ezekiel 20 is extremely covenantal.  Seven times in the chapter Yahweh mentions an “oath” that He took about the promised land.  After rehearsing the history of the people’s rebellion and excoriating them for their heathen practices and abominations the prophet expresses a word of hope for the future of Israel in Ezekiel 20:33-44.[5] 

Then you shall know that I am the LORD, when I bring you into the land of Israel, into the country for which I raised My hand in an oath to give to your fathers. – Ezekiel 20:42.

          Just like the book of Hebrews the prophet Ezekiel brings together the land promise and the sabbath sign (Heb. 4:8-10). 

Let us therefore be diligent to enter that rest, lest anyone fall according to the same example of disobedience. – Hebrews 4:11

          Notice how the author is pressing his readers toward something.  They have not achieved it.  Moreover, there is the threat that they may not achieve it.  It is hard to place this doctrine next to Paul’s doctrine of justification without feeling the disparity.  Again, what is this “rest” of which the author speaks?  He says they must exert themselves – spoudazo (“hasten, labor diligently”) to be certain of entering it.  This is a rather heavy-handed way of promoting progressive sanctification if it is aimed at saints in the church hoping for heaven.  But heaven has not come into view.  Everything points to the fact that “the world to come” is what this coming “rest” is about; that is, the Kingdom of God.  The important passages are Hebrews 1:2, 6, 8, 12, 14; 2:3, 5, 8; 6:5, 12; 9:28; 10:13, 35-37; 11:10, 13-16, 39; 12:22, 28; 13:14.[6]  But perhaps the impression will disappear?

[1] Coincidently, Psalm 2:8 refers to Yahweh giving His Son “the nations for Your inheritance.”

[2] If we relate “salvation” to the “rest” of which the writer often speaks there are hints that it refers in Hebrews as much to the kingdom as it does to the saving of the soul. 

[3] There is no argument for how believing Gentiles are Abraham’s seed such as one finds in Galatians 3. 

[4] In Hebrews 3:2-6 the writer speaks of Moses and his “house”, which is Israel, and Jesus and His own “house.”  Lane observes, “Moses stands among the covenant people and the whole retinue of God as ‘honored servant’.” – William L. Lane, Hebrews 1 – 8, Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1991, 78.  Moses occupies an exalted station in Judaism (Ibid, 74), but he is still only a “servant.”  Jesus, on the other hand is the “Son” and the people of God that He is over are His own house.  Although in Jesus’ case the “house” could be the church, it must be conceded that in this context it could just as well be redeemed Israel. 

[5] See also The Words of the Covenant: Old Testament Expectation, 284-285.

[6] These passages are seen as important Kingdom texts by Hutson Smelley, Better with Jesus: A Mission 119 Guide Through Hebrews, self-published, 2015, 5.

Hebrews: Another Reading (Pt. 1)

This alternative reading of the Book of Hebrews comes about largely through a determined attempt (easier said than done) to read the work independently of the voice of Paul.  Just as say Romans or Ephesians requires us to read it for what it is without drawing in assumptions from the Gospels, so Hebrews demands that we temporarily set the great apostle to one side as we take it up.  Hebrews deserves to be read apart from Paul just as much as Paul deserves to be read apart from Hebrews.  They can and should be brought into conversation, but only after each author has been allowed to say what they want to say. 

I am fully aware that the following reading will be a little uncomfortable for some readers who, like me, wanted Hebrews and the author of Romans and the Corinthian letters to agree on everything.  But the plain fact is that there are times when they don’t.  I am thinking especially about the issue of eternal security and the fact that Hebrews’ warning passages when isolated from presumption do not teach it.  What then does one do?  All of the proffered attempts to make these strategic warnings witness against themselves and conform to Pauline doctrine fail once the plain fact of the author’s skill and purpose are seen.  This book is perhaps the most carefully constructed text in the New Testament, and the writer is at pains to say what he means – especially in the paraeneses, which are deliberately led up to. 

Our Experiment

So let us conduct an experiment.  Let us see what the book yields when read exclusively and then see where it best fits.  I believe that the result is enlightening, even if all the questions cannot be answered.

The basic premise is that the book of Hebrews (and, as we shall see, the book of James also) does double-duty; it speaks to the Church in the present dispensation and particularly to the Jews in the Tribulation.  I shall make some concluding observations at the close of our investigation.

Getting Controversial: Hebrews as a Tribulation Letter (Pt. 1) [1]

Obviously, the old covenant/new covenant motif in Hebrews stands out.  But to get there the author mounts a series of discussions which presents the relief against which the New covenant in Christ is better seen. 

          The first thing the reader is presented with is the greatness of Jesus Himself.  Jesus is given a dazzling array of attributes in the opening section.  First, Jesus is the revelation of God above what came before (Heb. 1:2a).  This is not to say that the author teaches that what Jesus says in the Gospels is more authoritative and inspired than what God said in the OT.  Not at all.  His point is more specific.  The incarnate Jesus is the greatest revelation of God.  This understanding of Jesus as God’s “speaking” par excellence elevates Him and His words as God’s representative or sent one.  And since the hearing of the word of God is such a crucial component of the book[2] this will play into Jesus’ role as the Mediator of the New covenant later on in the argument. 

          Then there is the expression that God the Father has appointed (tithemi) Jesus the “heir of all things” (Heb. 1:2b) which statement sets up a specific eschatological anticipation; and that anticipation is covenant-guided as will be seen.  The author also says Jesus upholds “all things by the word of His power,” which recalls what Paul said in Colossians 1:16 about everything being made “through Him and for Him.[3]”   Not only is this echoed in Hebrews 1:2, but it is expanded upon in the verses that follow.  The crucified and risen Christ must surely reign upon this earth, and His word, His torah will go out to the ends of the earth and will be the final word in His kingdom.  The writer continues,

who being the brightness of His glory and the express image of His person, and upholding all things by the word of His power, when He had by Himself purged our sins, sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high. – Hebrews 1:3.

          Jesus is the exact image (charakter) of God and shares His glory.  Jesus had said “ He who has seen Me has seen the Father” (Jn. 14:6).  Now risen and glorified, His word upholds His creation from the right hand of God’s throne.  But not before “He had by Himself purged our sins.” (Heb. 1:3).  Thus, we are only three verses in and already the main lineaments of the Creation Project has been set out.  This world has been created through and for the Son and is presently upheld by His word.  He Himself is the Word[4], who has sacrificed Himself in our stead and He will one day return to reign over what is rightly His. 

          Hebrews 1:5-14 demonstrate the superiority of the Son to the angels, but verse 6 catches our attention because of its covenantal associations:

But to the Son He says:

“Your throne, O God, is forever and ever;
A scepter of righteousness is the scepter of Your kingdom…”

The OT source is Psalm 45:6 and the writer continues it into the next verse.  But clearly the mention of the “throne,” “the scepter,” and “Your kingdom” in connection with “righteousness” is covenantally loaded.  Genesis 49:10 is the root of the Psalmist’s thinking here.  Therefore, the covenant with Abraham, which was in the mind of Jacob in Genesis 49 is behind the “scepter” imagery.  But the inclusion of these three elements; throne, scepter, and kingdom point us to the Davidic covenant, and the sphere of righteousness which surrounds them points to the New covenant.  This again shows that the New covenant is the means of fulfilment for the other unilateral covenants of God. 

          This introduction then gives way to the first of the warning passages in Hebrews.  While Hebrews 2:1-4 is not the most perturbing of the warnings it serves to highlight the author’s concern for faithful diligence.  I will reproduce only verses 1 through 3:

Therefore we must give the more earnest heed to the things we have heard, lest we drift away.  For if the word spoken through angels proved steadfast, and every transgression and disobedience received a just reward, how shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation, which at the first began to be spoken by the Lord, and was confirmed to us by those who heard Him…  – Hebrews 2:1-3.

          The author exhorts his hearers/readers to take special heed of “the things we have heard” – an enigmatic turn of phrase as it appears in the book.  These “things” (cf. Heb. 5:12-6:2) must pertain to salvation (“so great a salvation”) and the apostolic witness (Heb. 2:3).  If, as seems reasonable, this is written to an assembly, then the exhortation is understandable, just as Paul’s warning in Ephesians 5:5 for example.  The peraenesis is quite stern: “How shall we escape…?”  Every preacher worth his salt has preached this passage, but the warning is clear enough.  Moreover, the build-up in Hebrews 1 is leading to this exhortation.  This is to say that the thesis prepares us for the warning.  The author is not taking for granted that his readers are all safely within the fold. This is a common thread in Hebrews. 

          Hebrews 2:5-10 relates Christ to Psalm 8.  Psalm 8 itself refers to mankind in general as made in the image of God and handed dominion over the earth by the Creator.  Since Jesus is presented as a representative man in Hebrews 1:3; 2:9-11, 14-15, the palm is applied to Him, and this leads naturally into Christ’s role as the High Priest (Heb. 2:17), which he will expand on later.

[1] Those of you who get nervous about such “novelties” as the title speaks about are reminded that I offer it as a suggested reading of Hebrews after much consideration.  It is though, I admit, hard to get one’s mind around initially.  Please feel free to skip these posts if you think I have temporarily lost the plot.    

[2] See, for example P. T. O’Brien, “God as the Speaking God,” in Understanding the Times: New Testament Studies in the 21st Century, edited by Andreas J. Kostenberger and Robert W. Yarbrough, Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011, 197.

[3] Hebrews also includes a reference to Jesus as “the Firstborn” (Heb. 1:6. Cf. Col. 1:15).    

[4] Some writers have tried to show a “Logos” theology in Hebrews.  For example, Ronald Nash, The Gospel and the Greeks.

The Enigmatic Book of Hebrews (Pt. 4)

Part Three

A Premillennial Reading of Hebrews (3)

Christ’s Body a Covenant Sacrifice

          The author of Hebrews chose as his go-to text the “Old Greek” of the OT, but not exactly what scholars mean when they say “LXX.”[1]   His singular use of Psalm 40:6-8, especially its translation of Psalm 40:6 as “a body you have prepared for me.”  As Thomas Constable notes,

Psalm 40:6 reads: “You have opened [i.e., cleaned out] my ears,” whereas Hebrews 10:5 says: “You have prepared a body me.” The idea is the same, the former expression being a figurative allusion (Exod. 21:6; cf. Isa. 50:4-5), and the latter a literal description. God had prepared His servant to hear His Word so that he would obey it.[2]

          After speaking of Christ’s self-sacrifice, the author now turns to the physical body which God preordained for the Son of God to be incarnated in.  I think that if we bring this passage into conversation with Genesis 1:26-27 we may say that the image of God, which I hold to be mainly spiritual, might include our physicality if we can say that the body of Jesus is the prototypical body after which Adam’s body was fashioned.   Be that as it may, in Hebrews 10 the source of our sanctification is by means of that body (Heb. 10:10).  But this opens up a consideration when reading the words of institution of the Lord’s Supper in Luke 22:19-20 and 1 Corinthians 11:23-26.  It appears that not only the blood of Jesus is a New covenant offering but the body of Jesus was too.  Therefore, when Christians partake of the elements of the Lord’s Table both symbols, the bread and the juice, signify our New covenant credentials, which is why Paul warns unworthy persons against taking both the elements (1 Cor. 11:27-29).


He is now described as “waiting.”  But what is He waiting for?  Once more the eschatological bent of the book kicks in.  He is,

          waiting till His enemies are made His footstool. – Hebrews 10:13.

          We recognize this as a reference to Psalm 110:1c.  Those interpreters opposed to premillennialism want to assign this passage to the present reign of Jesus from heaven, but that is not what the writer of Hebrews is doing here.  The inspired author is telling us that the fulfillment of Psalm 110:1-2 (Christ’s enemies becoming His footstool and Him ruling from Zion) lies in the future.  This statement may create some confusion in some readers, for, they might ask, how can Jesus be serving as High Priest of the New covenant if He is not yet reining in the New covenant Kingdom? 

          The answer is that the day of Christ’s power (Psa. 110:3) has not yet arrived, but having risen and ascended, nothing is stopping Him from exercising His priestly office.  The two roles, High Priest and King, are not said to be coterminous.  If this simple explanation is not sufficient for some then I respectfully leave them to face Hebrews 10:13 in their quandary.  The “Day” however, is approaching (Heb. 10:25).

A Stern Warning Against Turning Away

          Having clarified the divine intent in sending the incarnate Son into the world to remit sin through the New covenant (Heb. 10:5-18), there follows a verbal blast that unsettles all who read it.[3]  The reader is warned that to go back on their profession is to tread on Christ (who has just been described as making His enemies His footstool), and treating as common “the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified.” (Heb. 10:29).  The blood of the New covenant has set this person apart, so it must have been applied.  Yet the person is told “ It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10:31).  Here, as in Hebrews 6:5-6, there is no chance of repentance.  (See also the example of Esau who “found no place for repentance, though he sought it diligently with tears” – Heb. 12:16-17).   

          To whom is this aimed?  The two quotations from Deuteronomy 32:35 and 36 in Hebrews 10:30 aim it squarely at Jews.  The quotation from Habakkuk 2:3 calls to mind the second advent (Heb. 10:37), whereas the Habakkuk 2:4 quotation (Heb. 10:38) exhorts the reader to keep going and not turn back into perdition.

          I will not tarry now to speak of Hebrews 11; only to say that the impression left on the reader is of the ongoing sojourn of the faithful and it’s carrying forward the story of Israel into the future.[4]  The insertion of a short exposition of the faith of Abraham in Hebrews 11:17-19 is particularly poignant as the writer highlights the hermeneutical aspects of true faith.[5] 

          The eschatological note is struck again in Hebrews 12:25-28, where the reader is reminded that they are “receiving a kingdom” (Heb. 12:28).  Indeed, in the final chapter we are encouraged to “go outside the camp” (Heb. 13:13) and view ourselves as having here “no continuing city,” but seeking “the one to come” (Heb. 13:14).  This world is not our home, but it will be.   

[1] William L. Lane, Hebrews 1 – 8, cxviii.

[2]  Thomas L. Constable, Notes on Hebrews (2023 edition), ad loc: https://www.planobiblechapel.org/tcon/notes/html/nt/hebrews/hebrews.htm. 

[3] See below.

[4] Richard B. Hays, Reading with the Grain of Scripture, 314-315.

[5] See “The Hermeneutical Importance of Abraham’s Faith” below.

The Enigmatic Book of Hebrews (Pt. 3)

Part Two

A Premillennial Reading of Hebrews (2)

A New Covenant

          After quoting Jeremiah 31 the author is careful to refer to “a new covenant” (Heb. 8:13), but nobody doubts that the definite article is required in its other mentions in the book (Heb. 9:15; 12:23).  Those interpreters who insist that the New covenant is not made with the Church, or that the Church is only tangentially related to the New covenant are, to my mind, once more in a hole of their own digging.  To a man these writers believe that Hebrews is addressed to Christians (it matters not if they claim Hebrew Christians are the recipients).[1]  Therefore, they believe it is written to the Church or a segment of it (whatever that means).  If that is so then Christians are under the New covenant according to Hebrews, and Christ is our New covenant High Priest[2] (Heb. 2:17; 3:1; 4:14-15; 8:1, 6)![3]  This tallies with the natural reading of 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 and 2 Corinthians 3:1-18.  In the Bible, you can’t be represented by a priest unless the priest is related to a covenant.  Moreover, you can’t call Christ’s death on the cross a sacrifice unless you connect that sacrifice to a covenant. 

          After giving a brief description of the earthly tabernacle and the limitations connected with its service (Heb. 9:1-10), the author strikes a contrast with “the greater and more perfect tabernacle not made with hands, that is, not of this creation” (Heb. 9:11), we then read this:

For if the blood of bulls and goats and the ashes of a heifer, sprinkling the unclean, sanctifies for the purifying of the flesh,  how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God? – Hebrews 9:13-14.

          This verse needs some exploration because there is a great deal within it.  It begins by referring to three OT sacrifices, all of which were designed to provide cleansing in order to serve Yahweh.  But that cleansing itself was only skin deep, it did not penetrate to the conscience (cf. Heb. 9:9).  But the “blood of Christ” is different.  It was offered in heaven (Heb. 9:11) “through the eternal Spirit” (Heb. 9:14).  What does this strange phrase mean?  The “eternal Spirit” is plainly the Holy Spirit, through whom Jesus was divinely enabled and upon whom He relied[4] (see esp. Jn. 1:33; Lk. 4:1, 14, 18, and implied in e.g., Matt. 3:1; 12:31-32; Jn. 20:22).  But here the emphasis is not upon Jesus’ ministry but upon His sacrificial death.  The Spirit of God both upheld Jesus and raised Him from the dead (Rom. 1:4; 8:11).  The onus in this context is upon the presentation of Jesus as the sacrificial animal offering Himself “without spot to God” (Heb. 9:14).  His offering was Himself (Heb. 9:25-26); He too was the offeror – the High Priest (Heb. 9:25).  Then also, of course, He is the Mediator of the New covenant (Heb. 9:15; 12:24) so that Jesus is the main participant in all three aspects of the covenant rite; offeror, sacrifice, and mediator/intercessor of the covenant (Heb. 7:25); the one who has authority to dispense its blessings.[5]    

          As indicated above, Jesus’ death as an offering (the “Lamb of God” – Jn. 1:29) was a sacrifice to God (Heb. 9:26; 10:12); a New covenant sacrifice (cf. Heb. 10:26 with 10:29).  Therefore, if the Church is to be connected to Christ’s sacrificial death (Rom. 6:5-6), it is ipso facto connected to the New covenant (1 Cor. 11:25).[6] 

          The last part of the passage also calls for our attention, because it says that our service to God springs from this New covenant sacrifice.  Hence, we have an overlap with Paul’s understanding of his teaching ministry as being a New covenant ministry (2 Cor. 3:3-6).

          Chapter 9 ends with a reference to the second coming: “To those who eagerly wait for Him He will appear a second time, apart from sin, for salvation.” (Heb. 9:28).  This reminds us of the strong prophetic burden of the book.  The “salvation” which the returning Jesus brings is a completed salvation, rather like the way Peter employs the term in 1 Peter 1:5, 9-10.  But Hebrews must be understood to equate “salvation” with the coming “rest” of Hebrews 4:1, 3, 9, and 11; “the world to come” of Hebrews 2:5.  This can be accurately spoken of as the New covenant Kingdom.

[1] See Christopher Cone, “The New Covenant in Hebrews,” in An Introduction to the New Covenant, Christopher Cone, editor, 237.  Cone advocates well for the view that only Israel is given the New covenant and that “no new teaching about the content of the NC” is found in Hebrews (Ibid, e.g., 255, 264, 268).  He writes, “It would not be improper to say that the covenant has been validated, as long as there is no already not yet element read into the covenant.” (Ibid, 254).  Unfortunately, I am not convinced by the arguments.  See, e.g., below on the link between the High Priesthood of Jesus and the “better promises” with the New covenant itself.  Also, the “you” of Hebrews 12:4, 7, 8, 17 clearly refers back to the “us” of 12:1 who are to “run with endurance the race that is set before us,” and forward to the “you” who have come to Mt. Zion (Heb. 12:22), to “the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven” (Heb. 12:23), and therefore “to Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant” (Heb.12:24).  The relationship of the Church to the New covenant is made by the author himself.  The style of argumentation has to kept in mind when looking for answers.  See e.g., Lane, Hebrews 1 – 8, lxxvii-lxxxiv. 

[2] It is perilous to break the connection between Christ’s High Priesthood for us and the [New] covenant He mediates.      

[3] Compare especially Hebrews 8:1 with 8:6: “We have such a High Priest, who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens” and “But now He [Jesus as High Priest] has obtained a more excellent ministry, inasmuch as He is also Mediator of a better covenant, which was established on better promises.”  In Hebrews 8:1-6 it is Jesus’ function as High Priest that is in view, right after which the New covenant quotation from Jeremiah 31 is given.  

[4] On this subject see Gerald F. Hawthorne, The Presence and The Power: The Significance of the Holy Spirit in the Life and Ministry of Jesus, Eugene, OR, Wipf & Stock, 2003, and J. Douglas MacMillan, Jesus, Power Without Measure: The Work of the Holy Spirit in the Life of Our Lord, Darlington, Evangelical Press, 2015.

[5] This being the case, I believe the view that translates diatheke as “covenant” instead of “testament” in Heb. 9:16-17 is correct. 

[6] “For Hebrews the church lives under the sign of the new covenant.” – Peter Stuhlmacher, Biblical Theology of the New Testament, 533. 

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). 

The Enigmatic Book of Hebrews (Pt. 1)

This piece and its follow ups are taken from my upcoming book (DV) ‘The Words of the Covenant, Volume 2: New Testament Continuation.’

Although it contains many precious and ascertainable truths, the epistle to the Hebrews is the most elusive book in the NT.  For such a weighty NT book to be anonymous is surprising.  However, that aside, what I want to do in my treatment of this letter (or perhaps it is better to call it a sermon) is to first try to set out its basic emphases and its Christian teaching.  After that I want to look at how the author incorporates the covenants.  Finally, and somewhat controversially, I will ask about the distinctively Jewish flavor of Hebrews before facing the famous warning passages head-on and asking whether they can be reconciled with Pauline theology.[1]

Please do not misunderstand me.  I am certainly not saying that the NT contradicts itself.  What I am saying is that when one permits each NT author to say what he says sometimes it becomes necessary to ensure that one is not trying to fit square pegs into round holes.  This is apparent when the Gospels are compared to Paul’s epistles; say when Matthew 10 is compared with Galatians 3, or when John the Baptist’s and Jesus’ cross-less and resurrection-less “gospel of the kingdom” (Matt. 4:23. Cf. Matt. 3:2) is examined alongside of Paul’s gospel of 1 Corinthians 15:1-4.  The reader must understand the contextual differences if he is not to run into difficulty with one or both of these texts.  If he does not look well to what he is doing, he will find that he will be forced to add Pauline doctrine into the early chapters of the Gospels in order to fill out John the Baptist’s and Jesus’ messages.  But once that is done, he will have to stay quiet about the ignorance of the disciples in Mark 9:31-32; 16:14 and Luke 18:31-34 (cf. John 2:19-22),[2] or the fact that the Holy Spirit was not given to believers in Jesus until after His ascension (Jn. 7:37-39).  We even run into this phenomenon in the transitional book of Acts where in Acts 2 baptism seems necessary in order for the Spirit to be received (Acts 2:38).[3]  This doesn’t sit well with Paul’s distancing of baptism from the essence of the Gospel in 1 Corinthians 1:17. 

In a similar way we must face anomalies between Paul and the author of Hebrews.  The author of Hebrews writes in a fashion much more consistent with classical standards of the time.  His arguments are very carefully structured and precise, not like the occasional nature of Paul’s correspondence with their frequent digressions.  Hebrews is, in the words of Harold Attridge,

the most elegant and sophisticated, and perhaps the most enigmatic, text of first-century Christianity…Its argumentation is subtle; its language refined; its imagery rich and evocative.[4]  

Whoever wrote this work knew what they wanted to say and how to say it.  Another difference from Paul is to be seen, for example, when the apostle’s doctrine of eternal security is set alongside Hebrews’ warning passages.  I will have to do some explaining of the various approaches to these passages in the literature, but at the risk of sounding a little high-minded none of them in my opinion adequately deal with all the details found in the paraenesis (i.e., warning, exhortation) passages, especially the major ones in Hebrews 2:1-4; 3:7-19; 5:11-6:12; 10:19-39, and 12:14-29.  As we will see, these warnings go way beyond divine saber-rattling.

Hebrews is notable for its “constant alternation of instructional and hortatory passages”[5] and its negation of the cultic aspects of the Mosaic covenant.[6]  The warning passages play a major role in the exhortatory power of the message.  There is a “rest” to enter (Heb. 4); a future that is as yet open-ended in the sense that many of the promises are still ahead. 

Why “to the Hebrews”?

          Without entering into the text-critical questions surrounding the book, we should note its title (which is found in the Greek manuscripts).  What is one to make of this post-ascension (circa 64 A.D.) work being directed to “the Hebrews” and not to Christians generally?  I grant that the vast majority of scholars hold that “Hebrews” is not its title.  I do not believe that.  To think that an ancient document like this began life without a title is too much for me to swallow.  The book has always been known as “Hebrews” and not as anything else.  Besides, the contents of the work is plainly Jew-focused.  We are all aware of the contrasts in the epistle between the “old [Mosaic] covenant” and the “New covenant” (e.g., Heb. 9:15), and between the Levite High Priesthood and the Melchizedekian High Priesthood (Heb. 7).  But there is also a contrast between “Mount Sinai” and “Mount Zion” (Heb. 12:18-24), and there is mention of entering into rest and its comparison with the Canaanite conquest (Heb. 3:18, 4:1-11), and of the Sabbath (Heb. 4:4); the contrast between the two “houses”; those of Moses and Jesus (Heb. 3:1-6).  Then there are the two sanctuaries (Heb. 8:2, 5), and the two High Priestly sacrifices (Heb. 9:6-28).  When one sits back and really reflects on these things the Israelite flavor of the book comes into prominence and needs to be taken seriously.         

Stranger still, what about those continuous warning passages scattered throughout the book?  Although many attempts have been made to dampen the wording, none of them are successful.  Why such stark language about “an evil heart of unbelief” causing a fissure between them and God?  Is it possible for a true Christian to depart “from the living God” (Heb. 3:12)?  How is it that a person can find themselves in a position where there is “no place for repentance” (Heb 12:17)?  The nature of Hebrews 6:4-6 and 10:26-31 needs to be attended to with eyes that will see what the writer is really saying and not through the eyes of Paul.  The author of Hebrews has been shown to leave nothing to chance, but to be a very deliberate and skillful communicator.  Let the chips fall where they may, both authors are equally inspired, and neither ought to be read through the other.

          Mention of the author of Hebrews, whoever he may be, brings up another puzzle:  this writer has left us a complex and carefully crafted piece of work in good Greek and with a worked out structural dynamic.  He knows what he wants to say, and he says it.  The Catholic scholar Albert Vanhoye, who is one of the go-to scholars on the book, stated, “the author of the Epistle has structured his work with great care and has made use of fixed literary devices to indicate what he has done.”[7]  This intentionality of the author has to be kept in the mind of the reader of his book as it is read.  If we won’t face that fact, then we cannot say that we have done him justice; nor indeed the Holy Spirit who inspired the words.

Then there is the particular “flavor” of the book.  It is more “Jewish” than it is ecclesial, more homiletical than epistolary, more parenetic or hortatory than didactic.  Decker agrees with Vanhoye, Guthrie, and Lane that the main thrust of the book is hortatory (that is, it is an extended exhortation).  He writes:

“This means that the exhortations (warning passages) are the primary thrust of the book.  The expository sections serve as the doctrinal foundations for those warnings.”[8]

Thus, the difficulties with which the Christian interpreter is presented by the warning passages must be faced head-on, not folded awkwardly to fit onto a Pauline shelf. 

But also, Hebrews is prophetic.  As I hope to show, it would not be out of place (aside from the obvious teaching about Jesus) settling in with one of the Minor Prophets with its repeated rallying calls for perseverance and its eschatological bent.

For these reasons I have called the book an enigma.  There is a way into it that will not be found through Pauline assumptions, even if there are many affinities in the doctrine of the two authors.  Like in most things, the issue is not the similarities but in the differences.  As always, the devil is in the details.  Therefore, as uncomfortable as it may be to stare at the chapters without calling Paul in to help, I shall be looking at Hebrews on its own as I expound the main covenantal teaching of the letter.

[1] Let me state that I am aware of the work of Ben Witherington III  and his essay “The Influence of Galatians on Hebrews,” New Testament Studies, Vol. 37, 1 (Jan. 1991), 146-152.  Interesting as this paper is, it does not materially impact my discussion here. 

[2] In Matthew 16:20 Jesus “commanded His disciples that they should tell no one that He was Jesus the Christ.”  That would have made preaching Paul’s Gospel pretty hard to say the least. 

[3] I appreciate the efforts of those who wish to say that the Spirit is given upon repentance and baptism is included with repentance, but the verse does imply that “remission of sins” was not offered without baptism.    

[4] Harold W. Attridge, Hebrews: A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, Philadelphia, Hermeneia, Fortress, 1989, 1.

[5] Peter Stuhlmacher, Biblical Theology of the New Testament, 528.

[6] It does not negate the moral aspects. 

[7] Rodney J. Decker, “The Intentional Structure of Hebrews,” in Journal of Ministry and Theology, 04:2 (Fall, 2000), 98.  As a good introduction to these matters, I recommend Decker’s article.  As with all Decker’s work it maintains high standards of scholarship with faithful adherence to Scripture.  

[8] Ibid, 104.