Throughout GFI Sundays last year, we had the privilege of exploring the book of Hebrews over 16 sunday sermons! Hebrews is a very rich and elaborate letter in the New Testament that emphasises its message on Christ’s supremacy and significance as the Son and High priest, prompting us Christians to respond and conduct our lives in light of this truth that we so often overlook and take for granted. It packages numerous Old Testament ideas and links them with Jesus as the ultimate fulfilment.
Here are some reflection jottings that I would like to share as I pondered through the whole book. I can assure you though that this will not suffice to present the whole richness of this book, as there are many other aspects that this book touches on that I will not be able to mention here! :)
Who and under what context was this letter written?
As the name suggests, Hebrews was originally addressed for Jewish Christians i.e. Jewish people who once observed the law but have become Christians. Considering that the Jewish identity, law and traditions were very deeply ingrained within them, it is no surprise that they had to wrestle with numerous issues as they transitioned into this new identity as Christians, where the law is rendered obsolete because Christ has fulfilled it all. And this is where the context of the letter fits in.
Hence it would make complete sense why the author begins the first 4 chapters by highlighting the supremacy of Christ as the son in comparison to notable Old Testament figures linked closely to the law that they were familiar with.
The Supremacy of Christ as God’s son
One might ask, how is it that Christ being God’s son makes him so or even most supreme? How is he any different or more significant than other important figures of the Old Testament?
The first 3 verses conveys it very clearly:
“Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power.”
These verses reveal a turning point in history, whereby the means by which God speaks to his people in the last days (i.e. from Jesus’ death and resurrection up to now) is no longer through prophets and prophetic writings as it had always been, but through HIS SON. What does it mean to be God’s son? Well the son is described as:
1. The heir of all things
2. The radiance of God’s glory
3. The exact imprint of His nature
4. the one who upholds the universe by the word of his power
This is a mind-blowing truth – that his son is the final word of God, the pinnacle who made the change! He is not just a figure or prophet, but the message itself, he is God’s SON – Jesus Christ.
The superiority of Jesus as the son is further underlined as the author compares Him with angels, Moses, Joshua, and human beings. None of these figures were titled God’s son. Angels were indeed special with the tasks entrusted to them to deliver the law, but still they were mere ephemeral subjects. They were not given the sovereign authority to be heir and king, let alone match the exact imprint of God. Moses and Joshua likewise were both faithful figures with great roles but again, they were mere servants and what they accomplished through the law and Canaan was not the final reality of the promise.
Jesus too is superior to all humans. Why? Because as God’s son who came to the world, he became our representative in living the perfect human life under God’s rule and our substitute in taking on humanity and undeservingly tasting the death all us sinful humans deserved. He is THE MAN because he was in every respect human, but was different in that he was without sin. Being in every respect human, He can therefore understand and sympathise with us in our struggles in living the Christian life. But being God’s son who reveals the final word of God much more superior to the law delivered by angels through Moses and other figures, it means that the consequences of rejecting Him is unquestionably greater! In the past, the Jews had rebelled and rejected God’s word in the law despite having seen His mighty works to them. The consequences of this was not entering God’s rest.
8Do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion,
on the day of testing in the wilderness,
9where your fathers put me to the test
and saw my works 10for forty years.
Therefore I was provoked with that generation,
and said, ‘They always go astray in their heart;
they have not known my ways.’
11As I swore in my wrath,
‘They shall not enter my rest.’
If rejecting the inferior had great consequences, and if Jesus is much more superior than the OT figures and the law, how much more shall the consequence of not entering God’s rest be if we reject Him! This message is real and more than that, what we as Christians should not fail to realise is the fact that we have now obtained access to the very final word of God in Jesus Christ! This message is unlike the Law which was addressed only for Jews. This is available for all people, all nations, for us! It is the way God speaks to us in the last days – NOW. We no longer need to subscribe to the law or prophets, because God now speaks to us through Jesus.
So as we claim ourselves to be Christians, it is important that we do not solely hear the word… but believe, fear and obey the word, striving to enter God’s rest. What is God’s rest? God’s ultimate rest is not the physical land Canaan, but heaven itself. This final word of God spoken through Jesus that has been reiterated by the author from the start of chapter is Jesus himself, or in other words – the gospel.
It is a great reminder indeed that we as Christians have this great privilege of knowing Jesus, the word of God who is final and enough. It is a reality that we need to constantly reflect on and live out, to care not to fall into the trap of things other than the gospel and end up becoming dull of hearing and not entering God’s rest.
The Supremacy of Christ as High priest
From chapter 4 to 13, the book of Hebrews progresses from Jesus’ significance as the son to Jesus’ role as High Priest. This is a unique role that is not extensively explored in other parts of the bible. What is a high priest? How can Jesus be a high priest for us?Jesus as high priest is actually very closely connected to his identity as the son. Earlier in chapter 1, Jesus is also revealed to be the one sitting next to God in heaven, and the one who has made purification for our sins.
“After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, 4having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.”
This idea of purification for sins is linked closely with the role of a high priest. In the Old Testament era, God appointed Aaron and his descendants to be priests for the people of Israel. Priests were meant to act as mediators between Israel and God. The question is why would they need mediators?
If we trace back to Genesis, it is because of sin that mediator is necessary between God and man. In Genesis 3, the once perfect relationship between God and humans were severed as Adam and Eve disobeyed God in eating the fruit, causing them to be cursed and expelled out of the garden. God, being the creator and the sovereign is holy and set apart from sin, hence humans who had ever since become tainted with sin had to be separated from God’s dwelling. Humans could not ever since have direct access to God.
Why did this have to happen if God was a loving God? It is only because God is holy and a just God. The just punishment for sin is death, which is essentially separation from God. But in doing so, God does not cease to be the loving God who desires a relationship with his people. He still established a way to relate to his people by setting up the levitical priesthood system (that of Aaron’s descendants) to mediate between humans and God for sin through a specific God-given custom. Sin is the reason for the broken relationship and the chaotic world. Sin is not tolerable and cannot simply be disregarded; it needs to be paid for. Because the wages of sin is death, the required sacrificial offering needed to be given to God is the blood of animals. This is the task of the high priests. And even though the high priests were given such a privileged role, they too were not perfect themselves and needed to give offerings not only for the people but also for their own sins.
However, this whole law of sacrificial offerings that God set up to be done repeatedly was not meant to fix the problem of sins. It could not. Instead, the book of Hebrews stressed that the law serves only as a shadow of something greater. The Old Testament law was not purposed to take away sins but show that humans were sinners. In other words, it serves as a reminder of sins, pointing out further how grave this problem of sin is, that God abhors sin and sin needs fixing! But most importantly it indicates that the solution of sin will come. The blood of animals offered to God never actually took away the sins, since it did not fix the consciousness of sins of the people atoned for. If it did, wouldn’t the ritual offerings have ceased to be offered?
A shadow could never be the real thing and will always remain a shadow. What it can do is reveal the shape, and shed some lights on the features and characteristics of the real thing. What the law did as a shadow was expose the seriousness of sin and the need for atoning. The solution comes through the real thing which is no other than the man Jesus Christ, God’s son who took on flesh and became fully man, lived a sinless life in perfect obedience unto death on a cross, resurrected to be seated at the right hand of God, defeating the death deserved by sin, having everything subjected under his feet. Jesus Christ is the real thing the law as a shadow has been hinting for all this time. Jesus Christ is the perfect sacrifice that died once and for all, sanctifying and taking away sins, purifying not only the flesh but also the conscience of humanity.
This is why Jesus is our perfect high priest. Because he is the way for us to God, the way in which everyone can have forgiveness and a restored relationship with God once and for all, forever. He is the perfect high priest because unlike the priests in the past, he was without sin thus needed not atone for his own sins. He was not prevented by death but in fact defeated it! He is the ultimate way, the life. The law was a mere shadow, and Jesus Christ fulfills it all.
Jesus Christ as both son and high priest is the exact imprint of God and heir of all things, who took away sins and fixed our conscience. He died on the cross and conquered death once and for all, as our perfect representative, substitute and mediator.
We as Christians are mere receivers and not achievers of forgiveness. We merely receive what God gave in Christ; we fall short of His glory and could never have earned it. We are no better than a speck of dust headed for eternal destruction, but were made acceptable and forgiven people because of Jesus. We fail in our weaknesses, but in Jesus we receive forgiveness, and so let us constantly humble ourselves and remember the forgiveness and reconciliation that Jesus has achieved once and for all. We are now people who belong with Jesus and with God, heading to the final rest in heaven.
How therefore are we conducting our lives as Christians who have obtained forgiveness and reconciliation?
We as Christians profess faith in Jesus Christ, the final word of God, the gospel. We trust that Jesus Christ has saved us from sins, reconciled our relationship with God, and gained us access to enter God’s rest in heaven. Let us remember that this faith that we have is not a mere feeling but a certainty. Let the faith that we profess be reflected in all aspects of our life, in words, deeds and the decisions we make. In joys and sorrows, in the peaks and valleys of the Christian walk, let us fix our eyes not on the things of this world but on Jesus Christ the founder and perfecter of our faith. Friends, as a church, let us not be a community of believers who stagnantly conform to the values of this world, but let us all be people who walk the Christian life together, constantly stirring up one another into good works as the Day draws near, where we will all finally enter God’s rest!
Let me close with some verses from Hebrews…
“1…let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, 2looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”