Author. His identity remains unknown. But he was a Hellenistic Jewish Christian of exceptional literary ability; his Greek is the most scholarly of all the NT documents. The writer had previously been among the readers (13:19), knows them well, is acquainted with their history, including past and current leaders, has the liberty to speak his mind (5:13), and displays a pastor’s heart (6:1, 9) for them. The style and vocabulary differ so significantly from Paul’s that it is highly unlikely he was the author. Other guesses include Luke, Barnabas, Apollos, or other associates of Paul, and even Priscilla (perhaps with Aquila) or Mary, though the masculine singular participle "tell" in 11:32 is fatal for this understanding. No one today knows who wrote Hebrews, but the first recipients did.
Date. That the epistle was probably written prior to AD 70 is inferred from two hints. First, Jerusalem’s temple was destroyed in AD 70. From the letter’s recurring use of the present tense, the Levitical ritual, which was suddenly stopped by the temple’s demise, seems to be in operation at the time of writing. For instance, Israel’s high priest still is being appointed (5:1). And on earth priests are offering "the gifts according to the Law" (8:4). The high priest continually enters the Holy Place (9:7, 25). Consequently, "they offer continually year by year … the same sacrifices" (10:1), as they serve in the tabernacle (13:10). Second, since the author seeks to demonstrate the superiority of the Jewish Messiah over the Jewish religion, it is most unlikely that if writing after AD 70 he would have been indifferent to the catastrophe of that year and failed to have mentioned it. From his knowledge of the OT, the writer is convinced that the first covenant, with its Levitical ritual, "is becoming obsolete and growing old" and "ready to disappear" (8:13). The temple’s destruction could have well served as conclusive proof to his maintaining that the old covenant and Levitical sacrifices were about to end, as demonstrated in God’s allowing them to cease.
In 13:24 the author says to his recipients, "those from Italy greet you." This is frustratingly ambiguous. The author could have been in Italy and sent this greeting on behalf of his Italian acquaintances (in which case the author was in Italy but the destination of the letter is not specified), or he could have been in another region with Italian expatriates (in which case the author’s location is not known but the letter was sent to Italy). It is impossible to be certain, but because there is so much emphasis on Jewish religious practices it seems feasible that the writer was in Italy and was writing to those in Judea.
Recipients. Regarding their ethnic identity, that they were Jewish is based on the following clues. (1) The expressions "the fathers" (1:1) and "the descendant of Abraham" (2:16) imply a Jewish descent, as do (2) Jewish antecedents in 6:1–2 and 9:15’s remark that "a death has taken place for the redemption of the transgressions that were committed under the first covenant." (3) The letter’s argument rests upon the OT as the incontestable authority, viewed as the Word of the Holy Spirit (3:7). (4) The minutest knowledge of the Jewish Scriptures on the part of the recipients is presupposed. And (5) the epistle’s arguing for the superiority of the new covenant to the old is better explained if designed for Jews tempted to leave their faith in Jesus and return to Judaism without Him.
Regarding their past spiritual condition, fine progress had been made. They had been believers for some years (5:12), commendably weathered severe persecution (10:32–34), had been well taught by exceptional leadership (13:7), and had displayed loving service to other believers (6:10). But they eventually came under Jewish persecution for their faith and were doubting whether Jesus was indeed the Messiah. They also sensed another and worse wave of persecution on the horizon and had "become dull of hearing" [slow to understand] (5:11). They were discouraged (12:12–13), and regressing, and contemplating abandoning their faith in Jesus as the Jewish Messiah for Judaism. Regarding their location, this missive was not penned for all Jewish believers everywhere. They were a particular community. For they had a unique history (6:10; 10:32–34) not experienced by all Christians. Their congregation appeared to be homogenous and was well known by the writer, who was planning to visit them again (13:19). Possibly, they lived in Italy and their previous address was Rome. In AD 49 Jews in Rome underwent a bloodless persecution and were exiled from the city. The readers had "not yet resisted to the point of shedding [their] blood" (12:4), but did suffer "the seizure of [their] property" (10:34), and seemed to have been forced to leave their home city (13:14). On the other hand, their familiarity with the temple and its liturgy seems to indicate that they lived in Judea or even Jerusalem. Thus, the author might have written from Italy to Jewish believers in Israel.
Purpose. The immediate danger threatening the readers was neither apathy, nor mere backsliding, nor paganism, nor Gnosticism. Rather, the imminent peril was apostasy (3:12). Apostasy is the deliberate (10:26) and permanent rejection of Messiah Jesus (6:6) and, in the readers’ case, a return to, or a remaining within, the Jewish faith without Jesus. The author’s purpose was to exhort his readers to hold fast to their faith in Jesus as the Messiah (4:14) because the Jewish Messiah is superior even to the biblically revealed Jewish religion. It is clear that he was not disparaging the Jewish religion but rather demonstrating that it was designed to point to the coming Messiah. He was exhorting them not to return to the shadow of the good things to come (10:1) once they had experienced the reality to which it pointed.
The five warning passages in the book (2:1–4; 3:7–4:16; 5:11–6:20; 10:26–31; 12:18–29; see the outline below) warn those among the readers who considered abandoning Messiah Jesus to fully embrace Him as the One who brings covenantal perfection and completion, or to use Paul’s term, salvation. As the interpretation of those passages will show, some among the audience of this epistle were still fixated upon angels as servants of God (1:5–7, 13–14), the OT priesthood (5:1–4), the law of Moses, which was the old covenant (7:11, 19; 8:13; 9:9), and the earthly tabernacle (9:24). It was necessary for them to embrace Jesus as their Messiah since He is the Son of God (4:14) and King of Israel, the quintessential high priest (5:10; 7:14) who makes one covenantally and salvationally perfect (10:12–14), who established the new covenant (8:6), and who entered into and serves in the heavenly tabernacle (9:11–15). The warning passages indicate that some had not yet gone all the way to the covenantal perfection found only in Jesus, and if they failed to do so, they would be excluded from the covenant He founded (i.e., they would not be saved).
The letter’s intent is twofold: (1) Theologically, to demonstrate that the Messiahship of Jesus is the final and climactic word from God, superior to the Old Testament faith that merely pointed to Him. Jesus has "a more excellent ministry" inaugurated by "a better covenant" (8:6) than the old one of Moses (8:13). (2) Practically, not only to prevent the readers from turning away from their Messiah and returning to temple worship alone, but also to encourage them to "hold fast" to their "confession" (4:14) and thus persevere in the Christian faith and to "press on to maturity" (6:1). The heart of the letter is 5:1–10:18, which concerns the high priestly ministry of Jesus. He is in "heaven itself … in the presence of God (9:24) to make intercession for" us (7:25). According to 13:22, the writer calls his letter a "word of exhortation." Accordingly, the Greek hortatory subjunctive ("let us …") occurs 11 times, by which he urges his readers to join him in various endeavors.
Theme. A key word, "better," occurs 13 times. Messiah Jesus is better, for example, than "the angels" (1:4) and than all the leading figures of the Hebrew Bible. As priest he has offered up a better sacrifice (9:23) than those offered by Israel’s other priests; consequently, his blood speaks of better things (12:24), such as our better eternal possession (10:34). Jesus is mediator of a better covenant (7:22) based on "better promises" (8:6) and offers us "a better hope" (7:19), because God has "provided something better for us" (11:40), which, in part, is "a better resurrection" (11:35). The writer’s aim in using this word is that the Jewish Messiah Jesus is even better than the Jewish religion that pointed to Him.
I. A Superior Person (1:1–7:28)
A. Jesus Is Better Than the Prophets (1:1–4)
B. Jesus Is Better Than the Angels (1:5–2:18)
1. Better Than Angels in His Deity (1:5–14)
• First Parenthetical Warning: The Danger of Drifting from the Gospel (2:1–4)
2. Better Than Angels in His Humanity (2:5–18)
C. Jesus Is Better Than Moses (3:1–6)
• Second Parenthetical Warning: The Danger of Disbelieving the Gospel (3:7–4:16)
D. Jesus Is Better Than Aaron (5:1–7:28)
1. He Is a Fully Qualified High Priest (5:1–10)
• Third Parenthetical Warning: The Danger of Defecting from the Gospel (5:11–6:20)
2. He Is an Eternal High Priest (7:1–28)
II. A Superior Ministry (8:1–10:18)
A. A Better Covenant (8:1–13)
B. A Better Sanctuary (9:1–12)
C. A Better Sacrifice (9:13–10:18)
III. A Superior Life (10:19–13:25)
A. Exhortation to Fellowship (10:19–25)
• Fourth Parenthetical Warning: The Danger of Disparaging the Gospel (10:26–31)
B. Exhortation to Perseverance (10:32–12:13)
C. Exhortation to Sanctification (12:14–17)
• Fifth Parenthetical Warning: The Danger of Declining the Gospel (12:18–29)
D. Exhortation to Service (13:1–21)
E. Final Greetings (13:22–25)
COMMENTARY ON HEBREWS
I. A Superior Person (1:1–7:28)
A. Jesus Is Better Than the Prophets (1:1–4)
1:1–4. On the premise that a superior messenger brings a weightier message, this section indirectly shows Jesus’ preeminence over the OT prophets. This comparison points to the superiority of His revelation to theirs. Long ago God disclosed truth to the Jewish fathers. This disclosure was given piecemeal in many portions ("at different times," HCSB) and was conveyed in a variety of different ways (1:1). More recently God has again spoken. However, this time His revelation was given to us; and this time it was not delivered through mere human seers, but by a divine spokesman, His Son (1:2a). His superiority over the Jewish prophets is seen in seven ways. (1) He, not they, was divinely appointed heir of all things. (2) It was through the Son that God made the world, whereas the OT seers are but a part of creation. (3) Jesus radiates the divine glory and possesses the exact same nature as does God. Moreover, (4) the Son upholds and preserves the material universe, (5) has made purification for humanity’s sins (including the prophets’ transgressions), and then (6) He did what no prophet could or would dare to do—He sat down at the right hand of God, in heaven (1:3). Finally (7), the Son is greater than the angels, just as His name is more excellent than theirs (1:4). None of these statements could ever be attributed to prophets. The Son is greater than they, and His message weightier than theirs.
B. Jesus Is Better Than the Angels (1:5–2:18)
This section proves Jesus’ superiority over the angels, since He is both God and human. The author’s argument is separated by a warning against the danger of spiritual drifting.
1. Better Than Angels in His Deity (1:5–14)
1:5–14. This paragraph justifies the claim in 1:4 of Jesus’ preeminence over the angels. Justification comes by citing seven OT texts; two deal with His name (who He is) and five with His person (what He has done). Verse 5 quotes two messianic texts identifying the (1) superior name, Ps 2:7 and 2Sm 7:14. In both God calls Jesus—and none of the angels—My Son. An intimate, filial relationship exists between the first two members of the Trinity. (2) When (better translated "whenever"), for the second time, the Father brings this Son into the world (v. 6), Dt 32:43 directs all the angels of God to worship Him. Again is not a mere connective (i.e., not "Once again—here is another OT citation to support my argument"; cf. KJV; RSV). When it is used in this connective way (see Heb 1:5; 2:13 twice; 4:5; 10:30), it is followed immediately by the OT citation. But here it appears to be closely connected to the verb brings and is followed by other material before the citation, and when again is followed closely by a verb in Hebrews, it modifies the verb (see 4:7; 5:12; 6:1, 6). These points, along with the subjunctive mood of brings ("whenever He brings"), which the author used to project and consider the entrance of the Son, suggests that the author was not looking at Messiah’s first coming, but toward His second coming. When that happens, God will command (let all the angels … worship Him) the angelic hosts to erupt in praise for Messiah. The point is that He who is worshiped by angels is greater than those angels who will render the homage. (3) According to Ps 104:4, the Father makes His angels like winds, and His ministers as a flame of fire. The angels may change their appearance according to God’s wishes for them (winds; fire), in contrast to the Son who "is the same yesterday and today and forever" (Heb 13:8), and they are ministers ("those who engage in special administrative service"). But the Son is no servant. He is the King (v. 8). They who serve have an inferior status to the One who is over all. (4) While the angels are mere servants, Ps 45:6 (quoted in 1:8) addresses the Son as O God and presents Him as a ruler, whose throne is forever and ever. Unlike so many unjust human rulers, His reign (scepter) is righteous. Quoted in 1:9; Ps 45:7 guarantees that the Son’s rule will be just, by stating that He has loved righteousness and hated lawlessness. With this high esteem of morality, such a One could treat His subjects only in perfect fairness. This is why (Therefore) God … anointed (the verb from which the Hb. title "Messiah" and the Gk. "Christos" is derived) Jesus to rule, above His angelic companions. (5) According to Ps 102:25, the earth and the heavens are the works of the Son’s hands (Heb 1:10). That is, He created everything, angels included. Admittedly, angels do incredible deeds. But He who creates the universe and angels does greater works. (6) Angelic beings have only an eternal future; they exist forever into the future only from the time of their creation. But the Son is absolutely eternal. His existence stretches out of eternity past and into and beyond eternity to come. Ps 102:26–27 says to the Son, You remain (v. 11) … You are the same, and Your years will not come to an end (Heb 1:12). Finally, (7) according to Ps 110:1, the honor of sitting at God’s right hand (Heb 1:13) was extended to no angel, but only to the Son. According to Leupold, God designated this position for His Son, "making Him coequal in rank and authority with Himself, and so virtually declaring His divine character" (H. C. Leupold, Exposition of the Psalms [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1969], 771). Verse 14 concludes by describing the dignity of angels to be that of mere servants, sent out to render service, but the dignity of the Son is the dignity of God Himself.
• First Parenthetical Warning: The Danger of Drifting from the Gospel (2:1–4)
2:1–4. These verses comprise the first of five warning passages (in 2:1–4; 3:7–4:16; 5:11–6:20; 10:26–31; 12:18–29; and see the outline in the introduction). As the writer argues his case, he periodically takes temporary leave of the argument proper to strongly urge his audience to pay attention to what is being said, lest they suffer dire consequences for noncompliance. For an explanation of those for whom the warning passages are intended and their spiritual condition, also see the comments on 5:11–6:8. Apparently a significant number of the recipients had been exposed to and impressed by all that Jesus offered, but they had not as yet embraced the blessings found only in Him and the new covenant He inaugurated. If they failed to do this (if they neglected "so great a salvation," v. 3), they would not escape God’s judgment. Rather than describing people who had trusted Christ but who might lose their salvation, this warning passage, and all the warning passages, address unbelievers who faced judgment if they did not come all the way to Jesus.
Looking back to the Son’s superiority to the OT prophets and angels as demonstrated in chapter one, For this reason draws a conclusion expressed in the form of a duty: we must pay much closer attention to truth spoken by Jesus, which we have heard. The purpose for such attentiveness is so that we do not drift away (2:1). To drift from divine truth is to drift from God. The word for that begins v. 2 furnishes a reason for greater attentiveness to Jesus’ message.
The divine word delivered in the OT era through angels proved unalterable. Every intentional transgression and unintentional disobedience of that revelation was justly and thoroughly punished. That being the case, we will definitely not escape divine judgment if we neglect so great a salvation. Jesus’ greater message brings greater blessings if accepted, but greater punishment if rejected (2:3). If judgment came upon those who disregarded the word as brought by angels, the consequences for rejecting the gospel brought by the Son are even more serious.
Several factors indicate just how great this salvation is: it was initially spoken through the Lord Jesus; then its authenticity was confirmed to us; and lastly, God also jointly testified to the gospel’s veracity by signs and wonders and by various miracles, and by gifts of the Holy Spirit (2:4). Most likely this refers to the miracles that confirmed the apostolic message in the apostolic age (cf. 2Co 12:12; Ac 2:43; 5:12), not that God would consistently provide signs and wonders to confirm the gospel throughout this age. The essence of this initial warning text is the necessity of our giving constant, greater attention to Jesus’ message.
2. Better Than Angels in His Humanity (2:5–18)
This paragraph finishes the discussion of Jesus’ supremacy over the angels. In 1:5–14 the writer presented Him as superior to the angels in His deity. In 2:5–18 he presents Jesus even in His humanity as greater than these celestial beings, in four roles: as world ruler (2:5–9), as savior (2:10), as our brother (2:11–13), and as high priest (2:14–18).
2:5–9. For (2:5) justifies 1:8–9 depicting Jesus as a ruler (Your throne, the scepter of His kingdom, God anointed You). Part of the justification is that God did not subject to angels the world to come. Verses 6–8 quote Ps 8, which identifies the divinely appointed ruler of the world. That ruler is man (2:6) whom God made … for a little while lower than the angels, yet crowned him (2:7), and put all things in subjection under his feet (2:8a). God appointed Adam and subsequent mankind to rule earth. But because of man’s sin, creation revolted against its ruler. Currently we do not yet see all things subjected to him (2:8b). But … Jesus … by the grace of God did taste death for everyone (2:9). By doing so He regained for man what man had lost by sin and death, namely the dominion of the world. As a result, Jesus is divinely crowned, so that man may once again rule.
2:10–13. By His atoning death, Jesus assumed another role; He became the author of humanity’s salvation (2:10). Those saved by His death are God’s many sons. Jesus was perfected through sufferings, which were the appointed means for His qualifying and functioning as the perfect high priest. To perfect is used in 5:9 and 7:28 not for moral development in Christ but for His becoming the perfect mediator through His sufferings and death (see the comments on Mt 26:36–46). Because they and Jesus are all from one Father and have the same heavenly Father … He is not ashamed to call them His brethren (Heb 2:11). He who enjoys the intimacy of an older brother with God’s children is greater in dignity than the angels (2:12–13), whose relation to believers is that of servants (see 1:14).
2:14–18. In His humanity Jesus occupies still one more role in relation to men. Since heaven’s children share in flesh and blood, Jesus partook of the same elements. He did this so that through death He might render powerless the grip that the devil has on people (2:14). In doing so Jesus set free those who through fear of death were subject to various kinds of moral slavery (2:15). Those to whom He now gives help are not angels, but … descendant[s] of Abraham (2:16), a reference to the Jewish believers to whom this epistle was written. By being like His brothers in all things, Jesus became their high priest … to make propitiation for the sins of the people (2:17). Now He is able to come to the aid of those who are tempted (2:18). Inasmuch as angels could never assist humans in these ways, only He who can is greater than they.
C. Jesus Is Better Than Moses (3:1–6)
3:1–4. The Lord’s superiority to the great lawgiver is presented here. The two are compared for four reasons. (1) Moses was viewed by Jewish people as the greatest man in the OT and most superior teacher of God’s truth. (2) He was an effective spokesman for God, the Pentateuch coming from his pen. (3) Though not an official priest, on several occasions he was one of Israel’s most effective intercessors (e.g., Ex 32:10–14). And (4) the failure of his followers in the wilderness prepares for the discussion of Jesus’ followers. The readers are summoned to consider Jesus, the Apostle (i.e., messenger, like Moses) and High Priest (again, like Moses the great intercessor) of their confession (Heb 3:1). What they are to consider about Jesus is that He was faithful to God in all duties assigned Him (3:2a). Analogous to the Lord’s fidelity was that of Moses, who also was faithful in all His house (people) (3:2b). Though both were faithful to heaven, Jesus is counted worthy of more glory than Moses. The former’s greater esteem is similar to a builder having more honor than the house he erects. People admire a beautiful house, but the real admiration goes to its constructor (3:3).
Verse 4 adduces the first reason for Jesus’ greater honor. No house grows out of the ground, but is built by someone. In like manner, the builder of all things is God. Christ is the divine agent of creation (1:2, 10), of which Moses is but a part. The Creator enjoys more glory than His creature.
3:5–6. The second reason for Jesus’ preeminence is that Moses served as a faithful servant in all His house (3:5), but Christ is a Son over His house (3:6a). In a family a son is prized more highly than a servant. And the author claims he and his readers are members of God’s family, if we hold fast our confidence and hope (3:6b). Their current membership in the divine household will be demonstrated by their continuing in the faith. The "if" clause in v. 6 (if we hold fast our confidence and the boast of our hope firm until the end) provides the evidence for and the result of the "then" part of the verse (then [understood from the conditional statement] we are His house). This is called an "evidence-to-inference" condition. The "if" part of the verse provides the evidence and includes the result of the "then" clause, which chronologically comes before the "if" part. For this conditional construction see also, e.g., Jn 5:31; 8:31; 15:14; Rm 2:25; 1Co 13:1; Jms 2:17; Heb 12:8; and 1Jn 2:15. In Heb 3:6, their perseverance provides the evidence indicating that they are part of "His house." Failure to cling to Messiah Jesus indicates they are not. They are "His house," a fact that both precedes and ensures their holding fast their confidence to the end. For a thorough discussion of this construction and its relevance for 3:6, 14, see Fanning, "A Classical Reformed View," 209–18, in Herbert W. Bateman, ed., Four Views on the Warning Passages in Hebrews (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2007). The same observations apply to the conditional statement in 3:14 ("For we have become partakers of Christ, if we hold fast the beginning of our assurance firm until the end").
• Second Parenthetical Warning: The Danger of Disbelieving the Gospel (3:7–4:16)
3:7–19. This paragraph is half—and the negative part—of the next warning passage. This warning passage has the same overall theme as the others: Hold fast to and have faith in (cf. 3:12, 19) Jesus as the Messiah and the covenantal perfection He brings. For an explanation of the nature of these warnings and the spiritual condition of those for whom they are intended, see the comments on 2:1–4; 5:11–6:8. The warning proper, given here, is followed by an exhortation in the other half (4:1–16). Together both sections urge the recipients to hold fast to the gospel until the end. And their heavenly high priest stands ready to dispense grace to them (4:14–16), enabling them to endure.
The warning begins with therefore in 3:7. Looking back to 3:6b, which affirms membership in God’s family by perseverance, this conjunction introduces the warning by quoting Ps 95 in Heb 3:7b–11. This psalm reviews the failure of Moses’ generation in the wilderness. The epistle’s readers are instructed, if they hear His voice (3:7b) in the gospel, not to Harden their Hearts … as in the day of trial in the wilderness (3:8). To "harden the heart" is to continually resist the divine will so that eventually neither the Word nor Spirit of God any longer exerts any influence upon that person. It was in the wilderness, where Moses’ generation tried God (3:9). To try God is to intentionally act contrary to His will, and see how far one can go in disobedience before being punished as He warned. As a result, the Lord was angry with that generation (3:10), and swore that they would not enter the promised land of Canaan (v. 11). In 3:12 the writer applies Ps 95 to his audience. They are to learn from Israel’s failure, that there not be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart that falls away from … God.
As noted in the introduction and in the comments on Heb 2:1–4 and 5:11–6:8, this warning passage, as well as the others, was intended for those who were impressed with the teachings about Jesus as the Messiah and the new covenant He established, but were considering abandoning Him in favor of the old covenant alone. If they continued to have an unbelieving heart in relation to faith in Jesus for forgiveness, they placed themselves in peril of being excluded from God’s eternal rest. Instead they are to encourage one another day after day, as long as they still have spiritual opportunity, and thus avoid being hardened by the deceitfulness of sin (3:13). Verse 14 justifies this summons to perseverance. For one’s decision to follow Christ in times past will be proven to have been genuine by one’s perseverance in years to come (see the comments on the similar conditional statement in 3:6). Failure to persevere proves that a person never truly believed. The words evil, unbelieving heart would never be used of a genuine follower of Christ.
In 3:16–18, the author confirms the need to hear God’s voice and not harden one’s heart. This confirmation comes as the author asks five questions in which he reviews Israel’s desert failure. (1) Who heard the promise of a wonderful life in an incredible land flowing with milk and honey, and yet still provoked Him? The answer, those least expected to have rebelled, is given in 3:16’s next question. (2) Was it not all those who came out of Egypt under Moses’ capable leadership? (3) With whom was God angry? The question in verse 17 gives the answer: (4) Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the wilderness? The final question (5) is raised and answered in 3:18: To whom did He swear that they would not enter Canaan, but to those who were disobedient? The conclusion drawn is that Israel’s failure to enter Canaan was because of unbelief (3:19). This section of the second warning passage calls into question the possession of saving faith of some of the recipients of the letter.
4:1–16. This is the other half—the positive part—of the letter’s second warning passage. This section turns from Israel’s failure to enter Canaan’s rest (3:11–19) to the readers’ possible, similar failure. Moses redeemed Israelites out of physical Egyptian bondage and led them across the wilderness toward Canaan; but because of unbelief, they forfeited that delightful promised land. In like manner, the epistle’s recipients claim to have been redeemed by Christ from moral bondage; they are now passing through their own wilderness of this sinful world, headed toward heavenly Canaan rest. Will they fail to enter it? In summary the paragraph maintains that since the promise of entering divine rest is still valid, they were (and we are) urged to seize it. The key word is "rest," occurring eight times (vv. 1, 3 [twice], 4, 5, 8, 10, 11). It carries two diverse meanings, one literal, and the other figurative. The former concerns physical life in the actual land of Canaan: entrance into it brings a cessation or resting from wilderness wanderings. The latter is spiritual, concerning new life in Christ: entrance into it brings cessation of sin’s dominion and one’s own efforts to secure divine favor. Emphasis can fall on the commencement of this rest of a new life upon turning to Christ, on experiencing it throughout one’s earthly spiritual life, or on its climaxing in heaven’s eternal rest.
Therefore, which introduces 4:1, applies Israel’s desert failure to the readers. The divine promise is still valid for entering His rest. This being the case, the writer summons his readers to join him in a healthy fear. The purpose for this apprehension is so that none of them may come short of this salvation rest. This is no paralyzing fear, but a call from presumptuous complacency that heaven shall automatically be theirs. For (4:2) provides a reason for the desired fear. The author and readers have had good news preached to them, just as Moses’ generation heard wonderful reports of a land flowing with milk and honey. But this optimistic word … did not profit them, since they had no faith in it. Many of the recipients also, on the basis of the parallel with the wilderness generation, did not have saving faith. In v. 3, for establishes, in a positive and negative manner, the principle that for a divine promise to benefit, it must be believed. Positively, we who have believed upon following Jesus now begin to enter this rest associated with the spiritual life. Negatively, for those who refused to believe, God swore … they would not enter Canaan’s rest. Belief gains entrance into rest, unbelief bars access. Israel’s failure to enter was not due to rest being unavailable; it had been available from the foundation of the world (4:3).
Divine rest, then, is more than life in Canaan; that literal rest is but a type of its spiritual counterpart. God’s rest is therefore an issue not just for the past, but for the present and future as well. The citation of Gn 2:2 indicates divine rest was offered to mankind in the garden of Eden on the seventh day of creation (Heb 4:4). Similarly the quotation of Ps 95:11 shows this rest was available centuries later to the original readers of that Psalm (Heb 4:5). Verse 6 summarizes the chapter’s initial five verses: earlier generations who heard the good news of enjoying divine rest failed to enter because of disobedience. But that same promise now remains on the table for some to enter it (see 4:9). This being so, God again fixes a certain day; i.e., He renews the promise and offers another opportunity. And that chance is Today—now, at the present time. So people are admonished not to harden their hearts (4:7).
Moses’ generation failed to enter Canaan, but Joshua led his generation into it. However, that rest did not exhaust the promise; otherwise God would not have spoken later about another day of opportunity for subsequent generations (4:8). From the previous three verses, so in 4:9 concludes that there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God—i.e., a final, complete, and heavenly rest. Verse 10 elaborates on this Sabbath rest. The one who has entered this eternal and heavenly rest has himself also rested from his earthly works, as God ceased from His creating activity on day seven. The word therefore in 4:11 draws an inference from 4:9–10 expressed as an exhortation: let us be diligent to enter that rest. This is a call for the readers to do several things: first, examine themselves to see if they are genuine followers of the Messiah Jesus; second, put forth the effort to experience divine rest (God’s peace, joy, power, fruitfulness, contentment) now; and third, lay hold of heaven’s grace, which will enable them to persevere. Complying with this exhortation will avert a fall into the same example of Israel’s disobedience. The for in v. 12 reinforces the call for diligence in 4:11. This confirmation comes by the word of God which, contextually, refers specifically to Ps 95, cited in 4:3, 5, 7. This divine word, pledging rest but warning of a hardened heart, is likened to a double-edged sword in that it will either bring a person into rest or bar him from it; it will either usher a person into salvation or into condemnation.
The word of God could have one of two referents. It could refer either to Scripture or to Jesus Christ as God’s Word. The latter understanding fits the context of judgment in v. 11, as Jesus, the [W]ord, is living, active, sharp, piercing, and thus will judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart (v. 12). No creature is hidden from His [the Word’s] sight, but He knows all that resides in the heart of each person, and each person is accountable to Him (with whom we have to do, v. 13). On the other hand, if word refers to Scripture, it is described in four ways. (1) It is living—i.e., valid; the promise of rest is still good, and the warning of failure is still in effect. (2) It is active. Scripture accomplishes its objectives of either conferring divine blessing or punishment. (3) It is sharper than any two-edged sword. A literal sword can penetrate the material makeup of a human being, his joints and marrow. But Scripture can penetrate both the material and immaterial (soul and spirit) of a person. Consequently (4) God’s word is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. Nothing is more inaccessible to others than the thoughts and motives concealed in a person’s heart. But the divine word penetrates to these inner ideas, assesses them all, and reveals a man’s heart to himself. As never before, now in the light of the word of God, a sinner sees himself as he actually is.
In light of the theme of judgment in vv. 11, 12d, and 13, and in light of the likelihood of His (v. 13) having [W]ord as its antecedent, it may be best to understand the [W]ord of God as a reference to Jesus, though v. 12 is applicable to Scripture as well. No creature is hidden from His [the Word’s—Jesus’] sight. We all stand open and laid bare—completely transparent—to His eyes. And it is this omniscient judge to whom we are accountable (with whom we have to do) to exercise diligence to enter into God’s offered rest. A professing believer may be able to deceive others about his sincerity over this issue, but he cannot deceive God.
This second warning passage is a call to endure in their faith in Jesus. As 4:14–16 draws the warning to a close, it reiterates this summons to stay the course, that is, to hold fast our confession (v. 14, a synonym in Hebrews for having and persevering in faith). But it cannot be done solely by one’s own efforts. Followers of Jesus need divine grace, and their heavenly high priest eagerly offers it to them. Looking back to the promise of entering rest as still valid but with failure possible, therefore in 4:14 issues the challenge, let us hold fast our confession of the Christian faith. Perseverance is possible because our great high priest intercedes for us from heaven and because He can sympathize with our weaknesses (4:15). Believers must then draw near … to the throne of grace in prayer, so that we may receive … grace to help in time of need (4:16). Believers can persevere, awaiting the promised land—and His gracious help, faithfully dispensed when needed, makes it possible.
D. Jesus Is Better Than Aaron (5:1–7:28)
In this section, Jesus is presented as a better high priest than Israel’s first to hold this office, Aaron, as well as all his successors. This argument falls in two parts: first, Jesus is a better-qualified high priest, 5:1–10; and second, Jesus, like Melchizedek, is an eternal high priest, 7:1–28. Thrice previously Jesus has been called a "high priest" (2:17; 3:1; 4:15).
1. He Is a Fully Qualified High Priest (5:1–10)
5:1–4. The for commencing 5:1 expounds on His priesthood. Two qualifications are set forth that a man must satisfy to hold the high priestly office. He must (1) be a sympathetic human being, 5:1–3, and (2) he must be divinely appointed to this position, 5:4. Regarding the former, every high priest is taken from among men. Angels do not qualify for the post, and this is one reason for the Lord’s incarnation. But being human is inadequate; the high priest must be humane, as well. He has to be able to deal gently with sinners (5:2), mindful that he himself is plagued with moral weakness. Owing to his own moral frailty, he is obligated to offer sacrifices for sins, first for himself and then for the people (5:3). Regarding the latter prerequisite, no man can appoint himself to the priesthood, but receives it when he is called by God, even as Aaron was (5:4).
5:5–10. Now that two qualifications for the priesthood have been identified, 5:5–8 demonstrates, in reverse order, that Jesus not merely measures up to them, but exceeds Aaron’s ability in satisfying these requirements. Concerning divine appointment, Christ did not make Himself … a high priest (5:5). The identity of the One who appointed Jesus comes by the citation of two OT texts: The first is Ps 2:7, a messianic psalm that describes God’s future enthronement of God’s Son as king (Heb 5:5). This Psalm emphasizes that the sovereignty of God will be established over the nations when the divine and royal Son takes His throne. It identifies the Messiah with two different titles: the Anointed one (Ps 2:2) and the Son (2:12). The second text, Ps 110:4, is from a messianic psalm in which God announced the royal Messiah was also a priest forever (Heb 5:6), uniting both the royal and priestly offices. The Hebrew of Ps 110:3 is virtually unintelligible, leading many to prefer the LXX reading: "from the womb of the dawn, I have begotten you." (See Michael Rydelnik, The Messianic Hope [Nashville: B&H, 2010], 174–75.) This reading would certainly explain the linkage of these psalms in Heb 5—Ps 2 emphasizing the begotten Son and then Ps 110, using similar terminology in v. 3, and then calling Him the eternal priest in v. 4. Admittedly Aaron was a legitimate high priest, but only a high priest. Jesus was both high priest and king.
Concerning the second requirement, Jesus undoubtedly possessed a compassionate human disposition. What follows is a lesson from one specific incident during the Lord’s earthly life (lit., in the days of His flesh), when His prayers were offered … with loud crying and tears to God, who could have saved Him from death, but refused to do so (Heb 5:7). This refers to Jesus’ weeping in the garden of Gethsemane before His arrest and crucifixion (Mt 26:36–46; Mk 14:32–42; Lk 22:39–46). At that time, His divine Sonship did not exempt Him from adversity. Rather, He learned to be even more compassionate as He obeyed the Father’s will and suffered (Heb 5:8). This does not mean that He did not know what obedience was before the cross, nor does it mean that He disobeyed before He suffered. Through His incarnation, in His human nature, which included suffering and death, Jesus learned experientially the meaning of obedience as a human being in a fallen world (see the comments on Mt 26:36–46). Such extreme suffering cultivated intense sympathy in His soul for others that surely exceeded that of Aaron’s compassion. Through this adversity Jesus was made perfect—i.e., divinely prepared and made vocationally competent for His earthly work. A large part of that earthly task was to become the source of eternal salvation for mankind (Heb 5:9) and to be designated by God as a high priest (5:10; see also the comments on 2:10).
• Third Parenthetical Warning: The Danger of Defecting from the Gospel (5:11–6:20)
5:11. The third parenthetical warning begins with a rebuke. At this point the writer has just broached the letter’s major theological theme, namely Jesus’ high priestly ministry. But he surprisingly takes temporary leave of this argument to enter the third warning, running from 5:11–6:20, and its gist is, "Let us press on to the perfection Jesus the Messiah offers." In 5:11, the author informs the readers that he has much to say about Jesus as high priest. But he concedes that the topic is hard to explain. The problem is that they had become dull of hearing.
5:12. The for introducing v. 12 provides a ground for this accusation that they have spiritually regressed: by this time you ought to be teachers of others; yet they desired a refresher course in the elementary principles [lit., "the elementary principles of the beginning"] of the oracles of God ("of the beginning" is repeated in 6:1). These elementary principles do not refer to the basic facts of their faith in Christ or the author would not urge them to leave them behind (6:1). Rather they refer to the teachings of the OT, which as Jews, they should have already known. Further evidence of seeing these as OT foundations is in their description in 6:1–2. The various elements there could possibly refer either to OT foundations or NT foundations, but are more likely to refer to OT phenomena (see the discussion on 6:1–6 below). Thus, the writer is proposing that the Hebrews needed to move from an OT faith to a NT one, not from elementary Christian truths to a more mature spirituality. The milk, in connection with the beginning elementary principles of the oracles of God and babes, describes the previous obsolete covenant and those who continued to partake of it. It is inconceivable that one would return to the elementary principles (the milk) when the teachings and reality of the perfect new covenant and the Messiah were available.
5:13–14. Apparently these babes felt they needed more milk, but the author knows that rehashing old truths about the old covenant was not what they needed. If it were, he surely would have provided it. Instead, he proceeds to give them what they really needed (solid food), the truth about the superiority of Jesus the Messiah. Not accustomed means "to lack the capacity or knowledge to do something," in this case probably to grasp the word of righteousness, which in this context probably refers to the message about the perfections found in Messiah Jesus.
The author used infant (5:13) as a figurative expression in reference to the possibility that some of the readers were not genuine believers but merely trusting in the OT foundations of faith rather than fully trusting in Jesus as their Messiah. They are contrasted with the mature (that is, "an adult"; v. 14), a figurative expression for those who had received all the blessings of the new covenant in Christ. The word mature (teleion) occurs only in Hebrews here and in 9:11, where it cannot mean "spiritual maturity." Other related words (teleiotes, 6:1; teleioo, 2:10; 5:9; 7:19, 28; 9:9; 10:1, 14; 11:40; 12:23; teleiotes, 12:2; teleiosis, 7:11) in Hebrews refer explicitly to the final, perfect, and superior spiritual benefits of the new covenant, including the people and elements associated with it, and the perfect One who instituted it. The "perfection" words provide an implicit contrast with the incomplete nature of the old covenant, those who operated within it (e.g., the priests), and those still rooted in it (some of the readers of Hebrews).
The author’s concern is not to encourage believers to become spiritually mature, but to encourage those who were still "incomplete in their faith" as adherents of the Mosaic covenant to embrace the perfect and complete "covenantal contents" of the new covenant, including salvation, through the perfect high priest, Christ. Those who possess the new covenant blessings found in the Messiah can digest solid food. That is, they comprehend the validity of the superiority of the new covenant over the Old (because of practice they have their senses trained to discern good and evil teaching) as specified in the contents of the book of Hebrews.
Since "milk," "infants," and "solid food" also occur in 1Co 3:1–4, it might appear that Heb 5:11–14 is speaking of the need for believers to go from carnality to greater spiritual maturity. But sometimes Paul uses "babes" (nepios) in reference to unbelievers (Rm 2:20; Gl 4:3), which is the most likely sense here, and those in Corinth were acting like unbelievers (1Co 3:1, 3, 4). Paul nevertheless called them "babes in Christ" (1Co 3:1) indicating that he recognized they were in fact believers. But such a label is neither found nor warranted in Heb 5. (Credit for some of the above interpretation on 5:11–14 goes to Craig A. Hill’s unpublished paper, "The Use of Perfection Language in Hebrews 5:14 and 6:1 and the Contextual Interpretation of 5:11–6:3.")
6:1–3. Hebrews 6:1–8 is notoriously difficult. There are three major interpretations. First, some suggest that those described here are true believers who would lose their salvation if they apostatized. Against this understanding, however, is the impossibility of them being saved again, something that the proponents of this view would not concede. Moreover, Jesus promised that of all that the Father gave Him, He would not lose one of them (Jn 6:37–40). Second, others propose that the warning in Heb 6:1–8 is purely hypothetical. However, if the writer and readers knew that the passage was merely hypothetical, then much of the power of this warning would be eliminated. Moreover, if the writer knew that the warning was hypothetical but his readers believed it to be real, then the writer’s integrity would be questionable. A third and preferred view is that the people described in vv. 1–8 are those who have been exposed in significant ways to the truth of Jesus as Messiah, but who are being tempted to turn away from Him perhaps because of persecution (cf. 10:32–36), and return to the community and practices connected to the old covenant. In other words, 6:1–8 describes unbelievers who were well taught, perhaps having even made some sort of profession of faith, but who were on the cusp of abandoning their association with this community of Jewish believers and returning to Judaism without Jesus. See both the arguments above under 5:11–14 and below.
Therefore (6:1) suggests that there were among the Hebrews those who were too long in the state of incomplete faith, close to believing in Jesus but not fully decided. Thus, they were considering leaving their superficial faith, now that they were experiencing persecution. What follows is the teaching they needed to motivate them to full faith in Jesus as the Messiah. They are directed to leave the elementary teaching about the Christ, better translated as "the beginning doctrines about the Messiah," as found in the Old Testament. They were to press on to maturity (better "perfection" or "completeness"); see the comments on 5:14. Press on is a true passive verb ("let us be borne along" to spiritual wholeness or completion by God’s influence). This exhortation is directed to readers who were considering abandoning the messianic community and returning to temple worship. They are called to move from the OT foundations of faith to the complete or perfect faith in the Messiah Jesus.
The writer describes six foundational elements his readers were to leave behind. A case can be made that these describe foundations of Christian faith, not the incomplete OT faith. However, this is not true for all of them. Although it is possible that five of the six could refer either to OT foundations or NT teachings, in 6:2 the phrase "instruction about washings" as it is used in Hebrews can only refer to the ritual washings of the OT (cf. 9:10) and not Christian baptism. Moreover, if these were NT teachings, the writer would not have encouraged them to leave them behind (6:1). Therefore, the entire list should be understood as referring to OT practices and beliefs. Thus, the writer is challenging these Jewish people to move from an OT faith to a NT one, not from foundations of NT faith to spiritual maturity. Their understanding of the OT laid a foundation for faith, but they needed to build on it and believe fully in the One who was perfect and who brought completion.
The first of the six elements they were to leave is repentance from dead works. Judging from the occurrence of "dead works" in 9:14, this is probably a reference to disobedience to the Torah (with the idea that these are "works that bring death" [cf. Dt 30:15–20] and thereby defile the conscience). These Hebrews had already learned from the OT to turn away (the sense of repentance) from dead works (cf. Ezk 14:6; Hs 14:1–2). They understood repentance as turning away from sin but had not yet decided to put their faith fully in Messiah Jesus. The second foundation, faith toward God, is not "faith in Christ" for salvation in a NT sense. This is a reference to "faithfulness" or "steadfastness" in awaiting God’s fulfillment of His promises, enjoined so often in the OT (cf. Hab 2:4 and the meaning of "faith" there). But God had already sent Jesus the Messiah. There was no longer any need to wait faithfully for God’s promised deliverer to come.
The third foundation is instruction about washings (see 9:10 for the same word washings, where, as here, it refers to various Levitical ritual washings, not NT baptism). The fourth is laying on of hands, referring to the placing of one’s hands upon an animal that is sacrificed as a symbolic act of identifying with that animal as prescribed in the law (e.g., Lv 4:1; 16:21). The fifth foundational element is belief in the resurrection of the dead, a promise taught in the OT (cf. Dn 12:2; Is 26:19). The sixth and final foundation of OT faith is eternal judgment, a common teaching rooted in the OT (cf. Gn 18:25; Ex 34:6–7; Is 33:22; Dn 7:9–14).
There are some circumstances under which God would not permit some of these readers to "be borne along to perfection" (Heb 6:1). Those circumstances are specified in 6:4–6.
6:4–6. For introduces an explanation of the circumstances under which God would not permit one to come to all the perfections found in Jesus the Messiah. Verses 4–6 are frequently interpreted as a reference to the experience of those who are truly saved. Although possible it is not a necessary understanding, and in light of the meaning of the tel- words in Hebrews ("perfect" or "complete"; see the explanation under 5:14 above), it is preferable to see these verses as describing blessings which nevertheless come short of actual salvation.
If a person is characterized by the five participles in vv. 4–6 (enlightened, tasted the heavenly gift, been made partakers, tasted the word, and have fallen away), and still chooses to turn away, then God will not permit this person to be borne toward the spiritual completeness found only in the Messiah. All five of these participles are governed by the same article in v. 4, denoting individuals for whom all five characteristics are true and not conditional or hypothetical. Enlightened is the same word used in Jn 1:9 for the spiritual enlightenment brought to every person through the incarnate Word, though clearly not every person responds correctly to it. Neither there nor here does it require a full salvific sense. Nor does tasted of the heavenly gift require that those who are described by this phrase are saved. Tasted (geuomai) is used in Heb 2:9 for Jesus "tasting" death, but the word probably has the more superficial sense of its use in Mt 24:34 for Jesus "tasting" the wine laced with gall but not drinking it. Some of the readers of Hebrews had a good taste of the messianic faith, and yet were considering abandoning it.
To be made partakers of the Holy Spirit sounds as if everyone in this community was indwelt by the Spirit and saved. But partaker (metochos) was also used in Lk 5:7 for those fishermen who associated with each other while they worked, and in Heb 1:9 where angels are called the "companions" of the Son (for this point, see John MacArthur, Jr., Hebrews: An Expository Commentary. MacArthur New Testament Commentary [Chicago: Moody, 1983], 144). It does not denote one who is "indwelt" by or who "has" the Spirit, any more than the Son being indwelt by angels. But it suggests that the recipients targeted by this warning section had been present when the Holy Spirit manifested Himself in this messianic community. These also tasted the good word of God (6:5; for "tasted," see the comments on 6:4), a reference to their experiencing the ministry of the Word in this community of faith. They also experienced the powers of the age to come (a reference to various miracles present in the community [see 2:4] which will become commonplace during the millennial kingdom, the meaning of age to come). None of the six blessings indicate that those described are actually saved—only that they had come very close.
Another characteristic is true of the ones whom "God will not permit to be borne along to spiritual completion" (6:1, 3): those who have fallen away. This participle describes those who "fail to follow through on a commitment, fall away, commit apostasy" (BDAG, 770). In this context, it refers to unbelievers who forsake this group of believers in favor of a return to Judaism without Messiah Jesus. The writer says of them, it is impossible to renew them again to repentance. Those who were considering apostasy by returning to OT faith without Messiah had previously (at least superficially) turned to Jesus. If they were to turn away now it would be impossible to bring them back to that point of repentance once again (here the word repentance refers to turning to Jesus the Messiah with full faith and is used differently from the phrase repentance from dead works in 6:1; see the comments there). They could not be renewed later because they again crucify [better, "because they crucify"] to themselves the Son of God and put Him to open shame (i.e., they align themselves with those who participated in crucifying and shaming Jesus). Crucify is an adverbial participle, almost universally interpreted causally ("because they crucify"). It could, however, be a temporal participle ("while they crucify" they cannot be renewed to repentance), but the word impossible, combined with the depth of exposure to the Messiah and the repudiation of Him in spite of that full light, seems to support the causal sense. If they apostatize, they will never again be brought back to the point of repentance.
Nevertheless, God alone knows the point of no return, and believers should never consider anyone beyond His reach. They should continue to call upon all people to turn to the Messiah Jesus, even those who seemed to have apostatized. But at this point in the text, the writer is exhorting those on the point of turning away to put their trust in Messiah Jesus, the perfect high priest who makes all those who come to Him perfect. Hebrews 6:4–6 also seems to find a parallel in the experience of Esau in 12:16–17. For the contrast between Heb 6 and the unpardonable sin, see the comments on Mt 12:31–32.
6:7–8. Having warned his readers, the author now gives an explanation, introduced by for, and an illustration from agriculture. The ground represents a person. The rain symbolizes the opportunities he has to hear the gospel. The vegetation represents the proper response to the gospel and the blessings from God that result from it. But the ground that yields thorns and thistles stands for one who hears the gospel but does not respond properly. Like infested ground that was often burned to clear it for greater productivity, so the unbeliever exposed to the truth will eventually be judged.
6:9–12. Despite the rebuke, exhortation, warning, and fearful illustration, the writer now gives a word of encouragement. This section marks a vast contrast to the apostates of 6:4–8. Even though the writer is speaking in this ominous way, in the readers’ case he is convinced of better things concerning them (6:9) than being "cursed" and "burned" like the thorns and thistles of 6:8. The better things that he is certain to see in his readers are the virtues that accompany salvation. He is hopeful of most of them being genuinely saved and optimistic about those who were dull (5:11) or sluggish (6:12) coming to Christ by faith. The for beginning 6:10 furnishes the basis for this optimism. God will not forget the readers’ work and the love shown when they ministered … to the saints (true believers) and were still ministering to them (6:10). Brotherly love is an unquestioned token of possessing spiritual life (1Jn 3:14). He clearly sees this in most of them. Saved though they are, the writer is not satisfied with their spiritual growth. He wants each one of them to show the same diligence that they have already shown in loving service to others, so as to obtain a full assurance of their hope (Heb 6:11). They are to exert necessary moral effort so as to increase in the certainty of someday possessing all that is divinely pledged to them. The design of this growth in assurance of salvation is so that they will not be sluggish in discharging their spiritual duties. Rather he wants them to become imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises (6:12). But some of the readers of Hebrews did not have faith and were in danger of not resting in Christ.
6:13–20. The basis of the writer’s above encouragement is his assurance that God is faithful to His promises. This paragraph confirms the claim of 6:12 that only a persevering faith eventually secures divinely promised blessings. This confirmation comes through the example of Abraham, the father of Jewish people. He is the classic biblical example of a person who believed God’s promises. For when God made the promise to Abraham (v. 13) in Gn 12:2 that someday he would father numerous offspring, He guaranteed this promise by adding an oath to it. The oath was sworn by God in Gn 22:17, assuring Abraham that the Lord would surely multiply his children (Heb 6:14). The effect of this divine oath on the patriarch was that it encouraged him to patiently wait, and eventually he obtained the promised progeny (6:15).
For (6:16) explains the significance in antiquity that an oath had on its recipient. A person customarily swore in the presence of an authority, such as a ruler, king, etc. Such an authority could use his power to punish him, should he fail to live up to his sworn oath. Consequently a sworn oath verified by appropriate authority would end every dispute and remove all doubt from the recipient. Because God wanted to show … the unchangeableness of His purpose to bless Abraham even more than His promise could, He interposed the promise with an oath (6:17). God’s objective in all this was that by the two unchangeable things, guarantees of the divine promise and oath, Abraham and his heirs would have strong encouragement to persist in the hope set before them (6:18). This hope is sure—a joyful certainty of someday possessing all benefits divinely pledged them. Such a hope is also an anchor of the soul. An anchor is thrown overboard, and though a sailor does not see it, it plunges to, and takes hold in, the sea’s bottom, securing the ship and holding it in place during a storm. Similarly, a believer’s hope enters within the heavenly sanctuary behind the veil (6:19) and rests on God; here Jesus has entered … for us (6:20). Inasmuch as divine promises rest on God’s character and are confirmed by His oath, they are absolutely certain of fulfillment. Jesus has entered heaven, preceding us as a forerunner. The gospel has pledged that we, too, will someday enter there. It is absolutely certain to happen. This hope, this certainty, the believer can confidently maintain.
2. He Is an Eternal High Priest (7:1–28)
A discussion of Jesus’ high priestly ministry began in 5:1–10. But the third warning passage of 5:11–6:20 temporarily delayed its continuance. The concluding words of 5:10 about "a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek" are repeated in the closing words of 6:20, indicating that warning three is finished. In 7:1, the writer resumes discussion of this priestly theme. Chapter 7 presents Jesus as an eternal priest, as is Melchizedek. This text falls into three subsections.
7:1–10. The first section elaborates on the person of Jesus. The opening for explains how Jesus has become "a high priest [forever] according to the order of Melchizedek" (5:10; 6:20). The first three verses (7:1–3) form but one sentence in Greek. Its grammatical subject is Melchizedek (7:1), and its main predicate is remains a priest perpetually (7:3). As such, Melchizedek is presented as one made like the Son of God (7:3)—both are eternal priests. To show this resemblance, the writer turns to the OT. From Gn 14, he presents five historical facts about Melchizedek in Heb 7:1–2a; then he interprets most of these in 7:2b–10. These five historical details are: (1) Melchizedek was the king of Salem (ancient Jerusalem) (7:1, 2) and (2) priest of the Most High God (7:1). He occupied both royal and priestly positions. (3) He met Abraham (7:1) following the patriarch’s victory over Mesopotamian kings (Gn 14:17–24). (4) And Melchizedek blessed him (Heb 7:1). Lastly, (5) Abraham gave Melchizedek a tenth of the spoils of war (7:2a). Now the initial two details are interpreted. (1) First of all, by the translation of his name, king of righteousness, Melchizedek was identified as a morally and politically just king ruling over the city of Salem. Jesus, too, has been divinely appointed king (1:8–9; 2:7). (2) Then also Melchizedek’s name means king of Salem ("peace"). In the capacity of priest, both he and Jesus can reconcile sinners to God, thus helping them obtain peace with heaven.
Briefly suspending the interpretation of the remaining historical facts, 7:3 touches on the significance of what is not said about Melchizedek. In the pages of Genesis, he appears without father, without mother, without genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life (7:3). The writer sees as much significance in what Genesis does not reveal about Melchizedek as in what it does disclose about him. Genesis is a book of genealogies. It records the father and birth and death of its leading characters. The omission of this information about Melchizedek is seen to be a providentially intended type. A type is a divinely purposed historical illustration, which prefigures its corresponding reality that is yet future. What is true in type of Melchizedek is true in reality of the Son of God. In His humanity, Jesus had a mother (Mary) and a genealogy, but in His deity, He had neither father, mother, nor genealogy. What is true of Melchizedek in figure is true of Jesus in fact from His divine nature, namely He has neither beginning of days nor end of life. Since Melchizedek’s death was never mentioned in Genesis, then, so to speak, he remains a priest perpetually. But in actuality this is the case with Jesus.
Picking up with the fifth historical note about Melchizedek with the word now (7:4), the author resumes interpreting the information about him. Regarding (5) above, his dignity is seen in that Abraham apportioned a tenth part of all the spoils to him (7:2). It was custom in antiquity to tithe to political and religious superiors. In giving a tithe to Melchizedek, Abraham recognized his preeminence. Accordingly, the author calls on the readers to observe how great Melchizedek was (7:4), extending his supremacy from the Jewish patriarch Abraham to those who descended from him, and specifically to the priestly tribe of Levi. Levitical priests too receive tithes, so are they on a par with Melchizedek? No. They have legal authorization to collect a tenth from their Jewish brethren. But needing no such legal authorization, Melchizedek’s dignity is such that he collected a tenth from Abraham himself, the source of Levitical priests (7:6).
Verse 7 now interprets the fourth historical fact gleaned from Genesis about Melchizedek: The lesser is blessed by the greater. That Melchizedek is greater than Abraham is the point the writer has been constructing all along. His superiority extends also to all Levitical priests who derive from the patriarch. True, they, like Melchizedek, receive tithes; but they, unlike him, are mere mortal men (7:8). By its silence on Melchizedek’s death, it is witnessed by Scripture that he typically or figuratively lives on (7:8). And their inferiority is seen again from another angle of the fifth historical fact. So to speak, through Abraham even Levi the grandson paid tithes to Melchizedek (7:9). For, in 7:10, argues from solidarity (the close relation here, between progenitor and offspring). He was still in the loins of his father when Abraham gave a tithe to Melchizedek. Levi did not literally participate with Abraham in this act (note the so to speak, which indicates the writer did not mean this literally but figuratively). But if Abraham is the fountainhead of the Jewish people, then there is a sense in which all are inferior to him, including Levi, and Melchizedek is the superior of all of them.
Melchizedek is sometimes seen as a Christophany, a preincarnate appearance of Christ. But this is highly unlikely, for several reasons. First, Melchizedek is made like the Son of God (v. 3), which is a peculiar statement if he was the Son of God before the incarnation. Second, Melchizedek is called a man in 7:4, an unlikely label if this were a reference to Jesus. Third, Melchizedek had a genealogy (7:6, though it is not presented anywhere in Scripture). Fourth, Melchizedek was a long-time resident of Salem, and king over it (7:1–2), while most Christophanies were brief. Fifth, Ps 110 compares Christ with Melchizedek, indicating that they were not the same people (for these arguments, see Kent, Hebrews, 126–127).
7:11–25. Having discussed His person, the writer, with the word now (7:11), turns to the priesthood of Jesus. In 7:4, the author summoned the readers to "observe how great this" king-priest Melchizedek "was." Part of Melchizedek’s greatness was seen in his superiority over the Levitical priests (7:5–10). This preeminence will now be seen in Jesus, who is in the order of Melchizedek (5:10; 6:20; 7:11) but even greater. With His priesthood, Jesus can bring perfection, the bringing of a sinner into an ideal relationship with God. This did not come through the Levitical priesthood. The Law, which perfected nothing (7:19), authorized this inadequate priesthood. Both its authorizing warrant and its constituted priesthood failed to properly reconcile people with God. So there was need … for another priest to arise, one like Melchizedek and not like Aaron (Levi). For of 7:12 extends this need further. When the priesthood is changed, there must be also a change of law that gives warrant to the new priesthood. The word for in 7:13 verifies the need for a fresh warrant. The new priest belongs to another tribe, from which no one has officiated at the altar as priest. Jesus was descended from Judah (7:14), and the Mosaic law never authorized any from that tribe to function as priest. The need for a new authority, which establishes the priesthood, is clearer still (7:15), since another priest … according to the likeness of Melchizedek has already taken office. At this point the author begins unpacking how the new priest Jesus is like Melchizedek; in doing so, the author shows the superiority of the Lord’s priesthood over Levi’s in four ways. First, Jesus’ priesthood rests on a firmer basis. He did not become a priest on the basis of a law of physical requirement (7:16). This probably refers both to someone with a physical defect being prohibited from serving as a priest, and the need for one’s father to be from the tribe of Levi. Rather, the warrant for Jesus’ priesthood is the power of an indestructible life (7:16). Second, the Lord’s priesthood is more effective than its Levitical counterpart. The latter’s legal warrant is set aside … because of its weakness and uselessness (7:18). But Jesus’ priestly ministry is a better hope, enabling sinners to actually draw near to God (7:19). Third, the Levites became priests without an oath (7:21), but Jesus became a priest with an oath through the One who said to Him, … "You are a priest forever" (Ps 110:4). A divine oath puts it in cement, and God will not change His mind (Heb 7:21). And fourth, Christ’s priesthood is without successor. Levitical priests are prevented by death from continuing in office (7:23). But Jesus holds His priesthood permanently (7:24), since He always lives (7:25).
7:26–28. This concluding section reveals the preeminence of Jesus, presenting Him as the exemplary priest—He is precisely what sinful mankind needs. Such a high priest is holy—i.e., in relation to God, reverent and pleasing to Him; innocent—i.e., in relation with people, He never injured any nor was a bad influence to them; undefiled—i.e., in relation to Himself, morally untainted from contact with mankind; separated from sinners—i.e., different from them in that He was removed from sin in heart and life; and exalted above the heavens—i.e., regarding His position, intimate with God and sharing His authority, there being nothing between them. He does not need daily … to offer up sacrifices, first for His own sins (7:27; cf. Lv 9:7). The reason no sacrifice is necessary for Him lies in His being One made the perfect high priest forever (Heb 7:28) on the basis of His self-sacrifice. Verse 28 summarizes vv. 26–27. Every high priest was a sinful man and thus needed to offer sacrifices for himself and for all the people. But this new high priest is sinless, holy, blameless, set apart, and also has the power of an endless life, not a temporary appointment. Since He is exalted above the heavens (v. 26), His intercession comes from the highest realm, all of which makes Him the perfect high priest forever.
II. A Superior Ministry (8:1–10:18)
What follows is the next main section of Hebrews. With the word now (8:1) the writer turns from the presentation of Jesus’ superiority over the OT’s leading personalities (chaps. 1–7) to the presentation of His having obtained a more excellent ministry (8:6). The premise is a better worker can produce a better product.
A. A Better Covenant (8:1–13)
8:1–6. These verses form the preamble to the second major section of Hebrews. This preamble introduces the three priestly themes of sacrifices (8:3), sanctuary (8:4–5), and covenant (8:6), around which a priest’s ministry revolves. These will then be discussed in detail, but in inverted order of their introduction: covenant (8:7–13), sanctuary (9:1–12), and sacrifices (9:13–10:18). Before proceeding, the writer sums up and gives the main point of the first seven chapters: we have such an incredibly great high priest just depicted in those chapters. His greatness is such that He has taken His seat at God’s right hand … in the heavens. Although Jesus is seated, He is certainly not idle (8:2). He serves as a minister interceding for believers in Him. One of the major responsibilities of a priest was to offer sacrifices (8:3). In fulfillment of His high priestly duties, Jesus did have something to offer. He offered Himself as a sacrifice once when He died on the cross.
Next the writer turns from sacrifices to the place of priestly service, the sanctuary (8:4). This verse concedes to Jesus not being on earth. In that case, He would not be a priest, since there are Levitical priests functioning in the earthly sanctuary. But that sanctuary is a mere copy or pattern (8:5) of the heavenly one, where Jesus serves as priest. Finally, the writer mentions the third major element of priestly service, covenant (8:6). Christ’s ministry is more excellent since He is the mediator of a better covenant.
8:7–13. For justifies the claim in 8:6 of Jesus functioning on the basis of "a better covenant." This justification comes by comparing the old and new covenants. That first Mosaic covenant was not faultless. Had it been, there would have been no need for a second one to replace it. In contrast to the idea of the earlier covenant being faultless, for in 8:8 argues otherwise. The problem with the Mosaic covenant was not in itself, since it was "holy and righteous and good" (Rm 7:12). Rather, God found fault with His people who failed to keep it. A subtle shift is made from blaming the covenant to blaming the people with whom it was made, the reason for this shift appearing in Heb 8:9. Commencing in 8:8 and continuing through 8:12, Jr 31:31–34 is quoted. By that prophet God announced that He would establish a new and better covenant with the Jewish people. Hebrews 8:9 declares that this new one will not be like the covenant … made with their fathers following the exodus. The reason for its dissimilar nature lies in the people’s failure to obey that first covenant. Verse 10 now tells what this new covenant will be like. It will largely rest upon divine undertaking to achieve certain objectives. The determination to accomplish these objectives is expressed in God’s resolve: I will do such and such; this expression I will occurs seven times in 8:8–12. By listing some of its promises, this divine responsibility, along with the nature of the new covenant, is spelled out. (1) Putting His laws into their minds, and writing them on their hearts, God will give His people both an understanding and resolve to obey them (8:10). (2) The Lord will be their God, and they shall be My people. This will be no one-sided relationship, but a mutually committed and an affectionate one, from both parties. (3) All the followers of Messiah will be enabled to know the Lord, from the least to the greatest of them (8:11). The cause of this greater intimacy lies in God’s being merciful to their iniquities and in the fact that He will remember their sins no more (8:12). The significance of Jeremiah’s prediction of a new covenant means that the first is obsolete. It served its purpose but is now obsolete and is ready to disappear (8:13).
On the basis of the mention of the house of israel and the house of judah in 8:8, 10, some interpreters claim that the terms "house of Israel and Judah" refer to the Church, indicating that the Church has replaced Israel in God’s thought. Yet, the passage nowhere affirms this replacement theology. More likely these verses refer to God’s inauguration of the new covenant with the faithful remnant of Israel, of which the Jewish recipients of this letter are a part. Only the spiritual promises of the new covenant are available now. The national promises are yet to be fulfilled in the future millennial kingdom. Nevertheless, as a result of the Lord inaugurating this covenant, Gentile believers today receive the spiritual benefits of the new covenant by their being grafted into the spiritual benefits of the Abrahamic promises (Rm 11:17–24; 2Co 3:6).
B. A Better Sanctuary (9:1–12)
9:1–12. This section’s initial word now turns from a comparison of covenants to a comparison of sanctuaries. The reason for the shift is that the sanctuary was the place where priests carried out their work. This comparison further reveals the inferiority of the Levitical priesthood. These priests served in an earthly sanctuary (9:1–10), but Jesus in the heavenly one (9:11). In 9:1, the author concedes that, inferior though it was, the first covenant provided for a priestly ministry and a place where it would be carried out, in the earthly sanctuary.
Although the sanctuary as a whole is mentioned in 9:1, in 9:2 the writer begins to describe some of its parts. The sanctuary proper is the tabernacle, which was divided in half. The initial half is the outer room; this is called the holy place. The phrase behind the second veil (9:3) describes the tabernacle’s other half, called the Holy of Holies, while the next verse (9:4) lists its furniture. Israel’s priests have daily access to enter the outer tabernacle repeatedly, carrying out their work (9:6). The word but (9:7) marks a sharp contrast with the second room. Into it the high priest alone enters, and only once a year. This annual entrance is for offering up a sacrifice for himself and for the sins of the people. This physical sanctuary, with its priestly service, was a teaching device. The lesson that the Holy Spirit was signifying through it was clear: the way into God’s presence was limited (9:8). Israelites could enter the sanctuary’s courtyard, but could not enter the holy place. Priests enjoyed daily access into the holy place, but could go no further. While the high priest was authorized to enter the holy of holies, that privilege was restricted to just once yearly.
In 9:9, the author cites the typical significance of this earthly structure: it was a symbol illustrating restricted access to God for that era. Additionally, all the gifts and sacrifices … offered in it were also illustrations of the real sacrifice to be subsequently offered at Calvary. Consequently, they could not make the worshiper perfect in conscience. The reason that gifts and sacrifices could not cleanse a sinner is that they related to regulations for the body, concerned with items of diet and external washings. All these were imposed until a time of reformation (9:10), i.e., the time when the Messiah would come and set things morally right by bringing a sinner into an ideal relationship with a holy God. Israel’s earthly sanctuary and priesthood foreshadowed good things to come. But when Christ appeared as a high priest, He brought these predicted good things to His followers. Moreover, in appearing as high priest, He too entered a sanctuary, but not the earthly one made with hands; instead, Jesus went into the greater and more perfect tabernacle … that is to say, not of this creation, into the heavenly sanctuary (9:11). The Pentateuch states that Moses was shown the pattern of the true tabernacle in heaven, God’s throne room, as a pattern for the building of the earthly tabernacle (Ex 25:9, 40). The basis of Messiah’s entrance into the heavenly tabernacle was not animal blood, but rather His own blood. As a result, He has obtained eternal redemption (Heb 9:12).
C. A Better Sacrifice (9:13–10:18)
9:13–28. The climax of the doctrinal portion of Hebrews occurs here. It compares the innumerable Levitical sacrifices with the single sacrifice of Christ. The former failed to expunge sin, but the latter did. In 9:12, the last word was "redemption." Jewish people were familiar with this concept. But the redemption they knew was annual. So the word for (9:13) introduces a substantiation of the claim in the previous verse that Jesus has indeed obtained eternal—not annual or yearly—redemption. Verses 13–28 list five accomplishments of Jesus’ sole sacrifice, any one of which points to the reality of eternal redemption. But add all five together, and it is certain that such everlasting moral deliverance has been secured for humanity.
Admittedly Levitical sacrifices, consisting in animal blood with their ashes, when sprinkled on those ceremonially defiled, did remove this ritual defilement from the flesh (one’s body) (9:13). Specifically, being cleansed by water mixed with the ashes of the red heifer would ceremonially cleanse one’s physical body if he had contacted a corpse (see Nm 19:13, 20). Otherwise the physical filth remained, one was excluded from the company of his fellow Jews, and its corrupting effect continued. But this was an external, physical cleansing only. In contrast, the blood of Christ was, first, much more effective than the involuntary sacrifice of a heifer. Jesus’ sacrifice cleanses the conscience from dead works (Heb 9:14) in contrast to the external decontamination of the red heifer sacrifice. Second, His atoning death put into effect the new covenant (9:15). This was essential for the redemption of the transgressions that were committed under the first covenant. As a person’s death makes valid his last will and testament (i.e., his "covenant") (9:16–17), similarly the divine first covenant and the subsequent new one were both inaugurated with blood (9:18). This shedding of blood was necessary, for without it, according to the principle established by God, there is no forgiveness (9:22). Third, while animal sacrifices were sufficient to purify the earthly sanctuary, Jesus’ better sacrifice brought about the purification of the heavenly sanctuary (so 9:23, the heavenly things likely referring to the priestly office of the Messiah and the need for a sacrifice that would remove sin). Fourth, the Lord’s death effected a more potent sacrifice, enabling Him to enter not just the holy place made with hands (9:24), but into heaven itself. Animal blood was sufficient only to admit Israel’s high priest into the earthly holy of holies. With His sacrifice offered on the cross, He appeared in the presence of God for us. Fifth, His sacrifice, in contrast to OT sacrifices, accomplished the removal of sin (9:26). When, therefore, Jesus appears a second time on earth, it will not be to bear the sins of many, but to bring salvation to us (9:28). In bringing chap. 9 to an end, the transitional expression once, occurring three times in 9:26–28, leads to similar expressions in chap. 10, "having once been cleansed" (10:2), "sanctified … once for all "(10:10), "one sacrifice" (10:12), and "by one offering He has perfected for all time" (10:14). All these expressions prepare for 10:1–18, arguing that Jesus’ one sacrifice for sin is eternally effective, never needing repetition.
10:1–18. This section contrasts Christ’s sacrifice with the numerous Levitical sacrifices, which were ineffective for internal cleansing from sin (10:1–4). The Mosaic Law only predicted good things to come (10:1), but it could not provide these blessings. Owing to this, it could never bring worshipers (10:2) into an ideal relation with God by the same sacrifices which they offer continually (10:1). The repetition itself is proof of their ineffectiveness. Confirming this, the author argues that had these sacrifices been able to effect that desired relationship (10:2), they would have ceased to be offered. This is because the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have had consciousness of sins. Instead these yearly offerings reminded people of their sins (10:3). The reason for their limited effectiveness lies in the impossibility of the blood of bulls and goats to remove the guilt of sins (10:4). The red heifer sacrifice in Nm 19, mentioned in Heb 9:13–14 above (see the comments), did provide an external sanitization, but here the author’s concern is internal cleansing from the spiritual corruption caused by sinful acts.
There is no real link between animal blood and humanity’s moral failures. Animals are not of the same nature as the offender (human), nor of the offended (divine). OT sacrifices served a typological role, but not a salvific role. Offering animals also did not save the individual, no matter how sincere, since the ceremonial aspects of the law saved no one (see Rm 3:20). But when one trusted in the God of Israel as Abraham did, that believer was counted righteous. Offering sacrifices flowed from the life of one rightly related to God by faith, but was not the means of the right relationship. God said that He would cleanse the believing offerer from his sin when he brought the required sacrifices, and without the heart attitude of trust and repentance (see "humbling one’s soul"—or better "afflicting one’s soul"—in Lv 16:29, 31), the sacrifices meant nothing at best, and at worst were repugnant to God (see Ps 40:6–10; 51:10–18; Is 1:11–15; Mc 6:6–8). The one who offered the sacrifice did not thereby earn God’s favor. But the OT believer needed cleansing from sin, just as a NT believer does, and God determined in the OT that the means for this cleansing was through the believer making animal sacrifices. Those offered by one who believed resulted in forgiveness by God (see Lv 1:4; 4:26–31; 16:20–22; 17:11; Ps 25; 32; 51; 103; 130; Is 1:18; Ezk 18:22; Heb 9:13).
The offering of sacrifices by one who was righteous by faith was an important part of a believer’s response to God’s moral will, and these sacrifices functioned in somewhat the same way a credit card functions in the purchase of an item. As far as the store management is concerned, when a purchase is made with a credit card, the item is sold and the deal is done. For the OT believer in God, animal sacrifices sufficed to pay for sin. The trusting person who offered the sacrifice had assurance that God forgave him and restored the relationship with him. But since the blood of bulls and goats cannot atone for a human’s moral failures, God knew that the price of paying for sin would ultimately be paid by the death of His Son (for this approach, see John S. Feinberg, "Salvation in the Old Testament," in Tradition and Testament: Essays in Honor of Charles Lee Feinberg, edited by John S. Feinberg and Paul D. Feinberg [Chicago: Moody, 1981], 70–72).
Being therefore ineffective for bringing about salvation, the Levitical sacrifices were superseded by the offering of Jesus. At His first advent, Jesus acknowledged that the Father did not derive complete pleasure in these Levitical offerings (10:6). Since animal blood has limited effectiveness, Christ also realized that God did not indefinitely want these sacrifices, but had a body … prepared for Him (10:5). Perceiving His divine mission, the Messiah made a commitment, I have come … to do Your will, O God (10:7, 9). And what God willed for Jesus was to take away the first covenant and to establish the second (10:9).
These last few verses (10:5–9) constitute a commentary on Ps 40:6–8. In that Psalm, David remembers what was written about the future messianic Redeemer in the scroll of the book. Writing in the first person, in the voice of the Redeemer, he refers to the book of the law (Torah). The message of the Torah was not to emphasize its many sacrifices but that God actually desired Israel’s service, as seen in the slave who had his own ear pierced to demonstrate his willing service to his master (Ex 21:6). Thus, the Hebrew text says, "ears you have dug out for me." In the commentary in Hebrews, the author cites this verse but substitutes a synecdoche (whole for the part), the ear representing the whole body of the Messianic Servant of the Lord, who hears and obeys His Master.
The outcome of Jesus’ carrying out His Father’s will is given in Heb 10:10: By this will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. These last three words are expanded in 10:11–18, which argues for the eternal effectiveness of Jesus’ one sacrifice. The Jewish priest stands daily ministering and offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, though they can never remove sins (10:11). Unlike the standing priest, but (10:12) points to Jesus’ different posture of sitting down at God’s right hand, following the offering of His one sacrifice. For (10:14) tells why Jesus sat down. By one offering He has brought believers forever into a right relationship with God. The Levitical priest stands remaining on duty, offering over and over what can never remove sins. Jesus sits, because His task as an offering priest is over. Now He can give attention to intercessory prayer. But is God satisfied with the sacrifice of Christ? The Spirit’s testimony about this (10:15) answers the query by quoting God in Jr 31:34, And their sins … I will remember no more (Heb 10:17). From this divine pledge of eternal forgiveness, 10:18 concludes there is no longer any offering for sin. Animal sacrifices, which never could remove sin, need not be offered anymore in this age, nor does Jesus need ever to make another sacrifice. It does appear that sacrifices will be restored in the millennial temple, where they will be offered as a memorial for the death of Christ (cf. comments at Ezk 40:38–43).
III. A Superior Life (10:19–13:25)
Since Jesus possesses a superior ministry (8:1–10:18), He can offer Christians a better life. This is the letter’s final section. It revolves around four major exhortations related to fellowship (10:19–25), to perseverance (10:32–12:13), to sanctification (12:14–17), and to service (13:1–25). These four build on, and lead to, one another. By faithfully fellowshipping with God and their spiritual family, believers are empowered to persevere, which cultivates holiness, and this in turn enriches service to others. Interspersed among these four exhortations are the last two parenthetical warning passages.
A. Exhortation to Fellowship (10:19–25)
10:19–25. Relating back to God’s pledge never to recall believers’ sins (10:17), therefore (10:19) draws an inference expressed as three subordinate exhortations: let us draw near (10:22), let us hold fast (10:23), and let us consider (10:24). This threefold exhortation is reinforced by two reasons—our having both access to God (10:19) and a high priest over the family of God (10:21). In prayer believers possess confidence to enter the heavenly holy place (10:19). This access is secured not by the believer’s performance in the spiritual life, but by something much more sure, the atonement, obtained by the sacrifice (blood) of Jesus. Further described in 10:20, this access is a new (i.e., previously unavailable) and living (i.e., effective—it really works) way (i.e., a method of doing something, specifically here, of appearing before God). This access Jesus inaugurated for us through … His flesh (i.e., the offering of His body in sacrifice). As such He is now our great priest over the community of God’s people (10:21).
All this being so, in 10:22 the writer urges his readers to join him in drawing near heaven’s throne in prayer. The twofold manner in which prayer is to occur is (1) with a sincere heart, i.e., in sincerity, and (2) in full assurance of faith, i.e., certain of having the divine ear. Their periodically approaching God may be done after becoming followers of Christ when their hearts were sprinkled clean and their bodies were washed with pure water. This last phrase most likely does not refer to baptism, which is only symbolic of cleansing. Rather, it is a figurative expression that refers to the spiritual cleansing that Messiah’s sacrifice made possible (cf. 1Jn 1:9). A similar figurative expression is used in Ezk 36:25 to refer to the cleansing brought by the new covenant. Fidelity in prayer enables one to comply with the next summons, let us hold fast … our hope (Heb 10:23). The wavering Jewish believers are being exhorted to embrace faith in the divine promises as true. Hope patiently waits until one possesses the blessings vouchsafed in those promises. The believer’s waiting will not be in vain, for He who promised is faithful to deliver all pledged benefits. A follower of Christ is not to live in isolation, but is part of a new community. So 10:24 speaks to the social obligation of being concerned about one another. The intent is to stimulate … love and good deeds in this community. Mutual consideration cannot be expressed by forsaking their assembling together, but it can happen only by encouraging each other (10:25).
• Fourth Parenthetical Warning: The Danger of Disparaging the Gospel (10:26–31)
10:26–31. In assigning a reason not to abandon congregational meetings, for (10:26) introduces the epistle’s fourth warning passage. Some who had once been associated with the recipients of this letter were in the habit of avoiding their spiritual community. This can lead one to deliberately sin after receiving the knowledge of the gospel (10:26). The intentional moral failure in view here is neither wrongdoing in general nor a particular serious sin such as murder, adultery, or stealing. Instead it is contextually described as departing from association with those who make up the community of the Messiah. This abandonment is motivated by the refusal to have faith in Jesus as Messiah by someone who had never genuinely come to know Him. (For an explanation of the spiritual condition of those who are the addressees of the warning passages, see the comments on 2:1–4, and especially 5:11–6:8.) For one who persists in spurning the Messiah’s sacrifice, there no longer remains a sacrifice for his sins because of his refusal to avail himself of the benefits of Jesus’ sacrifice. The Levitical priesthood cannot, and the heavenly high priest will not, make an offering to atone for this willful sin. But instead what awaits those who turn away from Christ is awful divine judgment and … fire that will consume them (10:27). An infraction of the Mosaic law often resulted in the execution of the guilty (10:28). But much severer punishment remains for the spiritual turncoat. His apostasy is described as trampling under foot the Son of God, no longer regarding the blood of the covenant as efficacious but now as ordinary, and insulting the Spirit of grace. Only eternal death is worse than physical death. The writer verifies this punishment to be worse and shows how certain it is (10:30). For the church knows the identity and the resolve of Him who warned, Vengeance is Mine, I will repay, and the Lord will judge His people (Dt 32:35–36). This divine avenger means what He says and will carry out His threats. God will repay those who mistreat His genuine followers, and He will punish the abusive professing believers among His people. The author concludes this warning by giving his own evaluation on this worse punishment (Heb 10:31). It is terrifying, coming as it does from the hands of the living God. On the identity of these deniers of the faith, see the comments on 6:6.
B. Exhortation to Perseverance (10:32–12:13)
The readers were urged again to endure adversity as they had done successfully, earlier in their walk with Christ. If they did it once, they can indeed do it again. For many OT believers weathered life’s ills and persisted in their relationship with God. And these believers before the coming of the Messiah had far fewer spiritual resources than those after He had come, because God has provided something better for Jesus’ followers (11:40). So believers are to run with endurance the race that lies before them (12:1), mindful of adversity being one of heaven’s tools to mold character and forge conduct into what God desires (12:3–11). So the discouraged must strengthen tired hands and weakened knees while they return to and remain on the spiritual path following their Messiah (12:12–13).
10:32–39. Beginning in this section, the recipients are summoned to recall the former days following their decision to follow Jesus as their Messiah, when they endured a great conflict of sufferings (10:32). During this difficult time, they often were verbally taunted and suffered physical afflictions (tribulations, 10:33). Moreover, they ministered to prisoners and joyfully accepted … the seizure of their property (10:34). In view of their track record of persevering and their knowledge of how to persevere, 10:35 prohibits throwing away their confidence—i.e., that frame of mind enabling them to bear suffering with determination. The reason it must be retained is its yielding a great reward, which consists of their being peacefully sustained and subsequently being divinely recompensed.
For the current time they need endurance. The reason for this need is so that when they have done the will of God, they will receive all that God has promised (10:36). God’s intention for them is to remain loyal to Christ and stay the course. How long must they persevere? Only for a very little while, and then Jesus will come (10:37), and all such need for enduring is over. How does one persevere? The righteous one shall live by faith (10:38)—i.e., by constantly relying on the Son of God to enable him in all Christian duties, like perseverance. A failure to stay the course means the professing believer shrinks back in apostasy. Vastly understated, God then has no pleasure in him. The author is confident that he and his readership belong to that group who have genuine faith and will at Jesus’ return obtain eternal life (the sense of preserving … the soul) (10:39).
11:1–40. The recipients were informed of their need to persevere (10:36) and of faith as the means of doing so (10:38). But what is faith? To ensure that both writer and readers are on the same page, 11:1 defines it. To prove this definition is not mere theory, the writer illustrated faith by telling stories of OT believers. They did what the readers need to do, namely persevered by faith. The common denominator for the OT characters in Heb 11 was that all of them had good reasons for not persevering and for returning to the life they had before their encounter with God, but none of them did (see 11:15). The key phrase, then, is by faith, occurring 19 times.
11:1–2. Prologue. Faith is not formally defined here, but what is given is a description of what faith does. There are two parts to the description. First, faith gives an assurance of things hoped for; i.e., the certainty of things future, such as the second coming of Christ, resurrection and glorification of the dead, being taken to heaven, etc. Second, faith provides the conviction of things not seen; i.e., the persuasion of things invisible, such as the forgiveness of sins, the Holy Spirit living within believers, Christ as intercessor, and our access to God in prayer. These characteristics are not impractical. For by the possession and exercise of faith in daily life, our ancestors received divine approval on their lives.
11:3–12. First "By Faith" Series. To show that the characteristics of faith in 11:1 are not alien to any of his readership, in 11:3 the writer starts with Gn 1: By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God. There were no human eyewitnesses to the making of the material universe. Scripture attributes it to divine activity, and we believe it. From Heb 11:3 onward, individuals who displayed faith are mentioned. From Gn 4, by faith in the divine revelation that heaven requires bloody sacrifices, Abel offered to God a better sacrifice than Cain (Heb 11:4), and Cain became enraged at God’s acceptance of his brother’s sacrifice (see the comments on Gn 4:5–7). From Gn 5, by faith Enoch … was pleasing to God (Heb 11:5). This expression by faith means that he believed the disclosure of all the divine truth revealed to him was factual, that he conformed his character and conduct to it, and that he lived in dependency on God. With such faith, it is possible for anyone to thus please God (11:6). From Gn 6–9, Noah took to heart the warning about a flood that was not yet seen (Heb 11:7). But his faith was seen in building an ark that delivered his household. From Gn 12, convinced by faith about a place he would someday receive, Abraham left home before knowing the location of that place (Heb 11:8). After arriving in it, by faith he lived for decades in the land of promise, waiting for the Lord to give the land to him (11:9). From Gn 21, by faith in divine fidelity, his wife Sarah, though barren, received ability to conceive (Heb 11:11). Consequently, from this elderly, impotent couple came offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven (11:12).
11:13–16. Editorial Commentary. In this brief aside, the author gives his own perspective on the OT people of faith mentioned thus far. They all died in faith, without receiving all blessings divinely promised (11:13). But they gradually saw these promises from a distance—i.e., they would be fulfilled on the other side of the grave. As their life drew to a close, these believers welcomed the promises or joyfully anticipated them in the next life, confessing to being temporary residents on the earth (11:13). True, they were seeking a homeland (11:14), but a heavenly (11:16) and not an earthly one (11:15). No doubt Abraham expected an ultimate literal fulfillment of the land promises of the Abrahamic covenant in the future millennial kingdom. Nevertheless, upon his death, he was looking for a heavenly homeland, beyond this life.
11:17–31. Second "By Faith" Series. Resumed here are accounts of other individuals selected from the OT, who demonstrated in life and action the faith defined in 11:1. It is not clear the extent to which Abraham believed in the doctrine of the resurrection, but his faith in God encompassed the possibility that God could restore life. God promised Abraham that Isaac, not some other son, would be the one through whom the promises of a great progeny would be fulfilled (Gn 21:12, cited in Heb 11:18). Yet Abraham set out to sacrifice Isaac at God’s command (Gn 22:2–4). His belief in God’s ability to raise one from the dead is reflected in his words in Gn 22:5, "We will worship and [we will] return to you." When he was dying (Heb 11:22), Joseph made mention of the still future exodus of Israel, and gave orders concerning his bones to be buried in Canaan (Gn 50). Joseph’s faith persuaded him that departure from Egypt would come and his people would possess the promised land. Owing to the conviction that he would be the deliverer of the Jewish people (Ex 2), Moses chose to endure ill-treatment with the Hebrew slaves rather than to enjoy the prestigious but temporary luxuries of the Egyptian royal court (Heb 11:25). His attention was on future reward, confident that suffering in the will of God would bring greater riches than could the treasures of Egypt outside of that will (11:26). As such, Moses chose to identify with the people through whom the future Messiah would come and the reproach that came with it, rather than the life of ease of an Egyptian prince. Israel’s 40 years in the wilderness were spent in unbelief, so no examples from that period are mentioned. The writer moves on to Jos 6, where the walls of Jericho fell down after they had been encircled. Nothing seems more pointless and unrelated to reality than walking around walls for seven days blowing horns. But those walls were leveled by faith in the power of God. Because of her faith, Rahab the harlot, though morally stained, was cleansed and did not perish along with her countrymen (Heb 11:31). God had power over her heart, as He did over the walls of her city.
11:32–38. Rapid "By Faith" Survey. At this point the author realizes that he cannot keep going in detail. So he announces his intention to abbreviate by referring to believers in groups rather than as isolated individuals. Accordingly, in 11:32 he cites examples of the judges (Gideon, Samson, etc.), the monarchy (David), and the prophets (Samuel). It was by their faith that God accomplished amazing things through them. They conquered kingdoms as Gideon with a handful of soldiers (Jdg 7); performed acts of righteousness as David and Solomon; obtained promises as did the Patriarchs (Gn 12; 15; 17); shut the mouths of lions (Heb 11:33) as Daniel (Dn 6); quenched the power of fire as Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego (Dn 3); escaped the edge of the sword as did Elijah from Jezebel (1Kg 19) and Elisha from Jehoram (2Kg 6:30–33); from weakness were made strong as Samson (Jdg 16:28–30); became mighty in war as David facing Goliath (1Sm 17); put foreign armies to flight (Heb 11:34) like Abraham routing Chedorlaomer (Gn 14); women received back their dead by resurrection as did the widow of Zarephath (1Kg 17:17–24) and the Shunammite woman (2Kg 4:14–17). All those belong to the victorious category.
While not victorious, but just as important, are the believers mentioned in Heb 11:35–38. Citing people mentioned both in Scripture and in the intertestamental literature, the writer refers to people of faith who did not always have great victories. In the story of Hannah and her sons (2Macc 7) they were tortured, refusing to renounce God to obtain release from captors, convinced they would obtain a better release, namely a resurrection wrought by God from the grave. And others in Heb 11:36 introduces the tragic but perhaps most noble category. These faithful believers experienced mockings and scourgings as did Jeremiah at the hands of Pashhur (Jr 20:2, 7). Jeremiah was also stoned in Egypt according to Jewish tradition. According to other traditions, Isaiah was sawn in two, Uriah the prophet was put to death with the sword (Jr 26:23), while others from the Maccabean period went about in sheepskins … destitute, afflicted, and ill-treated (Heb 11:37). All these accepted by faith these unfavorable vicissitudes to be the divine lot assigned them, and by faith maintained a hope in the brightest future.
11:39–40. Epilogue. All the OT believers mentioned above received divine commendation through their faith. Still, they did not receive everything promised to be given through the coming of Messiah (11:39). The reason for this is that God had provided something better for us—a better hope, better covenant, better promises, better high priest, better access to God, better sacrifice, better possession, and a better resurrection. Heaven planned that only in company with us would they enter into these incredible benefits. Eventually the Messiah, whom OT believers anticipated, did come. Now together, both followers of Jesus the Messiah, during their earthly sojourn, and OT believers, in their heavenly city, enjoy these blessings.
12:1–13. Begun at 10:32, the exhortation to persevere is finished here, by assigning seven reasons to endure. Looking back to the presentation in chap. 11 of the OT believers who endured, therefore indicates the writer is saying to his readers we also must similarly endure in faith. The main thought in 12:1 is let us … run with endurance the race that is set before us. The author likens living the Christian life to running a race, due to the similarities between them: in both endeavors there is a start and finish, both require effort and the runner’s path marked out by others, both require discipline, and each has a reward at the end. This moral race is to be run with endurance ("the capacity to continue to bear up under difficult circumstances"), under a summons to persevere. This phrase indicates the believer’s spiritual life is to be no short one-hundred-meter dash, but a marathon, and one encompassed with difficulties.
The first reason to persevere is that we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us. This refers not to angelic observers of earthly behavior but rather to the OT believers (chap. 11) whose lives of faith continue to witness or testify of its value. Believers today must follow their example of faith by keeping on keeping on. If only one believer from the past had endured, that would be sufficient to show that it can be done; but there are countless faithful people whose lives are witnesses in the sense that their lives demonstrate that perseverance is doable.
In persevering it is essential to lay aside every encumbrance, or moral hindrance, that makes endurance harder, and especially to be discarded is the sin of unbelief, which so easily entangles us. Believers run by fixing our eyes on Jesus (12:2), i.e. by relying on Him to enable them to persevere. Christ is the appropriate object of trust, since He is the author, from whom our faith derives, and the perfecter, who deepens and matures it. Moreover, He did what believers must now do, that is He endured, and He is currently at the right hand of the throne of God to assist His followers by intercession. A second reason to persevere is that Jesus, as well as many others, endured much greater hostility by sinners against Himself (12:3) than have the readers. This perspective ought to prevent the addressees from growing weary and losing heart. A third motive to stay the course is that the letter’s recipients can endure more than they have to date. They have not yet resisted the forces of evil to the point of shedding their blood (12:4). A fourth reason to endure is divine discipline, evidence that God is our Father, and we His sons (12:5–6). His discipline ("to punish for the purpose of improving behavior") is not to be taken lightly (12:5). Much of the modern church has neglected the truth that sometimes God, as a loving parent, must correct His children so they learn to obey Him more often and please Him more consistently. This punishment is always instructional and developmental and is never condemnatory as it relates to eternal destiny. God disciplines those He loves (12:6). Discipline is divine instruction, training, correction, chastisement, and guidance—all designed to produce proper character and conduct in God’s children.
Still another reason to remain loyal to Christ is the duty to endure trials and difficulties as divine discipline (12:7). Heaven uses all forms of adversity as effective tools to accomplish in the believer’s life what needs to be done. A sixth reason to persevere is that we accepted the discipline of our earthly fathers, flawed though it sometimes was. We should be subject even more to the perfect discipline of our heavenly Father (12:9), who implements it always for our good (12:10). A final motive to endure is that divine discipline accepted enables us to share His holiness (12:10) and to live in the fullest extent (12:9). Admittedly current discipline … seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful (12:11). Afterwards it eventually produces the desirable fruit or effect of righteous character and conduct. Sadly, however, divine discipline does not benefit all believers. Profiting are only those who have been trained by it—i.e., embraced it as from God and endured it, allowing heaven to do in them all that was necessary. Owing to the beneficial nature of trials used in God’s hand as discipline, therefore in 12:12 summons the weak and … feeble believers to strengthen themselves and to get back in the race, serving their Lord. In making straight paths for their feet, they are to live as the gospel prescribes (12:13). This is so those who are spiritually lame may not deteriorate further and become put out of joint or defect from their faith in the Messiah, but rather be spiritually healed.
C. Exhortation to Sanctification (12:14–17)
12:14–17. The yield of moral "righteousness" (12:11) leads easily to the summons of the pursuit of holiness. But the writer begins urging his readership to pursue peace with the help of all men and women. The peace in view is less harmony and concord among believers, and more tranquility of heart, freeing one of anxiety caused by the trials and discipline in 12:3–13. But the addressees are especially to pursue … sanctification. This growing virtue is essential, for without it no one will see in heaven and throughout eternity the Lord.
In their corporate pursuit of peace and holiness, the readers are to see to it that three dangerous circumstances are avoided: First they must see to it that no one in their congregation comes short of the saving grace of God (12:15); it is inadequate to profess faith in Christ. They are to do everything possible to ensure that each actually possesses it. Second, they must prevent any root of bitterness from springing up. This is not an attitude of resentment; rather, this expression is an allusion to Dt 29:18, "that there will not be among you a root bearing poisonous fruit and wormwood"—an Israelite who spurns the Lord for false gods. Accordingly, in Heb 12:15 it figuratively refers to an apostate forsaking Christ. In the body of Christ such an individual can cause trouble and defile many. And third, the congregation must ensure none of their members become like Esau, who sold his own birthright for a single meal (12:16). He illustrates an apostate who forfeits his spiritual birthright bequeathed by the Messiah for something far less, namely mere outward ritual or the temporal safety that denying their faith might bring. As Esau later tried to regain his lost blessing but was rejected, finding no opportunity for repentance (12:17), so it will be for the defector from the faith.
• Fifth Parenthetical Warning: The Danger of Declining the Gospel (12:18–29)
12:18–24. Having urged his readers not to be like Esau, the writer turns to his fifth parenthetical warning. To solidify this warning to these Jewish believers, in 12:18–19 the writer depicts old covenant faith in a sevenfold portrayal in contrast to a sevenfold portrayal of new covenant faith in 12:22–24. The comparison shows that the glorious nature of the Sinai covenant was surpassed by the even more glorious new covenant. To spurn the superior for the lesser glory is to make an Esau-like barter. The comparison begins by the writer saying you have not come to … (12:18). This means that most of the Jewish readers had indeed moved on from a mere old covenant faith and were not on the brink of apostasy. In the midst of the comparison the opposite is affirmed: you have come to Mount Zion (12:22) meaning they were inducted recently into a new covenant faith in the promised Messiah.
The sevenfold portrayal of the two faiths is: (1) both are likened to mountains, which were often places of worship. The old covenant is represented by what can be touched (12:18). This refers to Mount Sinai, as in 12:20—if even a beast touches the mountain, it will be stoned. The depictions of the old covenant are derived from the terrifying but glorious giving of the law on Mount Sinai (cf. Ex 19:18–20; 20:18). New covenant faith, on the other hand, is called Mount Zion (Heb 12:22), which is further identified as the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. (2) The old covenant is likened to a blazing fire (12:18), a reference to the awe-inspiring Shechinah glory that descended on Mount Sinai (Ex 19:18). On the other hand, the second representation of the new covenant is myriads of angels (HCSB rightly provides the nuance, "in festive gathering"), rejoicing over the readers joining their celestial company. (3) The old covenant is called darkness (Heb 12:18), a reminder of the glorious but terrifying smoke that descended on Mt. Sinai with the giving of the old covenant (Ex 19:18). The new covenant faith is called the general assembly of elect people, enrolled as citizens in heaven (Heb 12:23). (4) Old covenant faith is linked to gloom (12:18), an image of the dread that filled Israel when the Sinai covenant was given (Ex 20:18). The effect of new covenant faith is just the opposite, bringing a relationship with God, the Judge of all (Heb 12:23), who is now our Father. (5) The first covenant is described by whirlwind (i.e., a storm, 12:18), an OT depiction of God’s glorious but fear-inducing nature (Ex 19:18–20; 20:18; Is 29:6; 30:30; Ezk 13:10–16; 38:22). Set over against this is the new covenant’s leading sinners to the spirits of the righteous made perfect (Heb 12:23)—i.e., to join deceased OT and NT believers now in ideal relationship with God. (6) The old covenant is compared to the blast of a trumpet (12:19; Ex 20:18) that signaled God’s approach from a distance. In contrast the messianic faith of the new covenant is associated with Jesus (Heb 12:24), who approached sinners so closely that He became human and willingly offered Himself as a sacrifice for their sins. Lastly (7), according to Dt 4:10–12, Moses and the people of Israel heard a terrifyingly loud trumpet (Ex 19:19) and the frightening sound of God’s voice (Dt 4:10–12, here called the sound of words, Heb 12:19). The author uses a "lesser to greater argument." If there was sheer panic at Mt. Sinai when God communicated with the Jewish people, even more frightful is the prospect of refusing Him who is speaking (v. 25) from the heavenly realities (seen in vv. 22–24) only reflected by the earthly events. But this new covenant faith is depicted in terms of the spirituality, glory, confidence, access, privileges, and of the eternal. Should the readers forsake the latter for the former, they, too, will forfeit the greater for the lesser. It was essential for these Jewish believers to maintain their faith in the promised Messiah who had established the greater and more glorious new covenant. As glorious as the Sinai covenant was, it paled in comparison with the greater glory of the messianic faith.
12:25–29. This section contains the epistle’s conclusion to the last warning text. The readers are admonished not to refuse Him who is speaking and who provides the better disclosure of truth and better blessings of the Messiah (12:25). Israel did not escape punishment when they refused him [Moses] who warned them at Mount Sinai. Much less will we avoid divine penalty should we turn away from Him who warns from heaven. The words much less (12:25) are justified by the prediction of the divine voice once more shaking not only the earth, as at Mount Sinai, but also the heaven (12:26). This future shaking is explained as a final judgment, which will be a removing of the temporal, so that the eternal may remain (12:27). In view of believers being in process of receiving citizenship in an eternal kingdom, they are to show gratitude by which they can offer to God an acceptable service. Such service is to be performed with reverence ["being cautious to revere and fear God fully"] and awe ("an emotion of profound respect for one who is divine," 12:28). That reverent attitude is well merited, for our God is a consuming fire (12:29), who will punish and consume the irreverent who reject Him.
D. Exhortation to Service (13:1–21)
At the close of chap. 12, the readers were reminded of their duty to serve God acceptably (12:28). The question, then, is what constitutes acceptable service? This section answers that query by offering concrete guidelines for performing approved ministry.
13:1–6. The first aspect of service relates to duties of love. Earlier in 6:10, the writer acknowledged that his readers "continue to serve" their fellow believers. In 13:1, he urges them to let love of the brethren continue. They are doing a commendable job of demonstrating godly affection toward one another, and they must not allow it to stop. In 13:2, the author turns to love of strangers. The letter’s recipients are not doing as well here; they must stop neglecting to show hospitality—i.e., love to strangers. The believer is to love not just those inside, but also those outside the community of faith—to show concern not only for those whom he knows, but also for those whom he does not know. The reason for doing this is that some have unknowingly entertained angels as guests. One such incident is Gn 19, where Lot extended hospitality to two angelic visitors, who later saved his life. The point is that greater blessings are often received by those giving hospitality than by those receiving it. In 13:3, the author focuses on suffering love. The readers are instructed to remember to minister to the prisoners … and those who are ill-treated. They are to carry out their ministry sympathetically by viewing themselves in the unfortunate situation of the victims. In 13:4, the writer deals with married love. Marriage is to be held in honor among all. One way to esteem this relationship is by keeping the sexual commitment between husband and wife undefiled, abstaining from sex before, and outside of, marriage. For God will judge the sexually immoral. In 13:5, the writer speaks about love of money. The believer’s lifestyle should be free from the love of money, and he must be content with what is materially divinely provided him. Such a standard is justified, because God has personally pledged to never desert … nor … forsake His people—i.e., to leave them in the lurch financially. This section ends in 13:6 with love of the Savior. Based on God’s commitment not to abandon us, each believer can say, The Lord is my helper, and What will man do to me? Our affection ought gladly be given such a faithful and helpful divine companion.
13:7–17. The second aspect of acceptable service pertains to certain congregational duties. The readers are to remember their past leaders and imitate their faith (13:7). This is reasonable, for the object of their leaders’ faith was Jesus Christ, who is the object of the readers’ faith. He is the same yesterday when their leaders leaned on Him, and He remains the same … today when the readers need to confide in Him (13:8). What Jesus did for their leaders He will do for them. A second duty of the faith community is not to be carried away by … strange teachings (13:9), such as those advocating certain dietary restrictions. For justifies this responsibility: the believer’s moral life is to be strengthened by grace, not by foods. This essential divine grace is obtained from our altar (13:10)—i.e., Jesus’ sacrifice. Those Jewish priests who are not believers in Jesus have no right to partake of this sacrifice. The reason they cannot is explained by analogy: taking the bodies of those animals sacrificed in the temple, priests discard them outside of Jerusalem’s wall (13:11); similarly, they also rejected Jesus, so that He suffered outside the city’s gate (13:12). The point is that those who reject Jesus as Messiah are unable to partake of His sacrifice and the divine grace coming through it. Jesus being crucified outside of Jerusalem leads to a third duty, and that is to go out to Him outside the camp of religious acceptance. The readers are exhorted to leave the Levitical system and make full, public identification with their Messiah, the fulfillment of the Hebrew Bible’s sacrificial system. Moreover, they needed to be willing to bear any ensuing reproach for doing so (13:13). Their determination to accept the same reproach given to Jesus might force them from home like refugees. Painful though it would be, it would be all right, for here we do not have a permanent city or place to live; we are headed toward the heavenly city which is to come (13:14; cf. also 11:13–16). A fourth duty is to offer to God the sacrifice of praise (13:15), especially when persecuted and disgraced, and the sacrifices of doing good and sharing some of our resources with the needy (13:16). A final responsibility concerns their current leaders, whom the readers must obey ("sincere cooperation in following those who lead a community") and to whom they are to submit ("to yield to and follow the authority of those who are in charge"; 13:17). This will enable the leaders to watch over their spiritual lives with joy and not with grief, the latter being to the readers’ disadvantage. Leading a congregation is enormously challenging, and it is the responsibility of the community to work in a productive and cheerful way with those who provide leadership. Failure to do so will result in strife and in impeding the progress of the church. Assuming that the leaders are not outright false teachers or moral miscreants, the congregational constituency must follow their lead.
13:18–21. The third aspect of acceptable service concerns prayer duties. The godly, scholarly author humbly requests his struggling audience to pray for him (13:18), that he may be providentially allowed to visit them (be restored to them) sooner (13:19). Turning from their praying for him, in 13:20–21 he prays for them, petitioning the God of peace to equip them in every good thing so they may do His will, especially by persevering to the end. God would provide for them as the great Shepherd of the sheep and through the blood of the Messiah, offered as an eternal covenant, a reference to Messiah’s death that established the new covenant (Jr 31:31–34; Mt 26:28).
E. Final Greetings (13:22–25)
13:22–25. The congregation is urged to take to heart the writer’s brief word of exhortation (13:22). They are informed of Timothy’s recent release from jail and possibly accompanying the author to visit them (13:23). Mutual greetings are exchanged in 13:24, and the letter ends with heaven requested to bestow grace on all of the readers (13:25).
Allen, David L. Hebrews. New American Commentary. Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2010.
Bateman, Herbert W., ed. Four Views on the Warning Passages in Hebrews. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2007. See the fine introductory article by Herbert W. Bateman IV ("Introducing the Warning Passages in Hebrews: A Contextual Orientation"), and the articles and responses by Grant R. Osborne ("A Classical Arminian View"), Buist M. Fanning ("A Classical Reformed View"), Gareth Lee Cockerill ("A Wesleyan Arminian View"), Randall C. Gleason ("A Moderate Reformed View"), and George H. Guthrie ("Conclusion").
Bruce, F. F. The Epistle to the Hebrews. New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1990.
Feinberg, John S. "Salvation in the Old Testament." In Tradition and Testament: Essays in Honor of Charles Lee Feinberg. Edited by John S. Feinberg and Paul D. Feinberg. Chicago: Moody, 1981, 39–77.
Guthrie, Donald. Hebrews. Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2009.
Guthrie, George H. Hebrews. NIV Application Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1998.
Hill, Craig A. "The Use of Perfection Language in Hebrews 5:14 and 6:1 and the Contextual Interpretation of 5:11–6:3." Unpublished paper.
Hughes, Philip Edgcumbe. A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1987.
Kent, Homer A. Jr. The Epistle to the Hebrews: A Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1972.
MacArthur, John, Jr. Hebrews: An Expository Commentary. MacArthur New Testament Commentary. Chicago: Moody, 1983.
Newell, William R. Hebrews: Verse-by-Verse: A Classic Evangelical Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2005.
O’Brien, P. T. The Letter to the Hebrews. Pillar. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010.
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