In this episode we begin our study on The Book of Hebrews. As we set up a foundation for understanding what Hebrews has to say, we establish some important context. Who is the author and audience of Hebrews? Surprisingly, we turn to The Book of Acts for some potential clues. Throughout this fascinating book, we will parse through the context, themes, and events to discover one of the great treasures in Scripture – The Book of Hebrews.
Introduction to Hebrews
Well at long last, I am going to start the Hebrews series this morning. And as we get started, I want to just review some things.
I’m going to take an approach to Hebrews I’m going to call “Zoom In Zoom Out.” So we’ll go through the whole book, but my intent is as we go through the whole book, not to just go verse by verse but also to look at the themes and the threads so that we don’t lose the context of the book.
It’s really easy to get lost in context because there are so many details in this book.
Let’s just start in Hebrews 1:1. “God, who at various times and in various ways, spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, has in these last days spoken to us by his Son whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he made the worlds.”
That’s how Hebrews starts.
It’s interesting. There are several things about this introduction that are different than most of the other epistles in the New Testament. What do you notice that’s materially different?
The author doesn’t identify himself. I think that’s really important.
What else? What else do you notice?
He doesn’t actually identify his audience specifically. Most of the time it says, “To the saints in Galatia,” or “To the saints in Corinth,” or something about who you are, “To the church in Rome.”
It doesn’t really look like a letter. He just starts talking.
But there is something in this verse that indicates something about who this is to. What do you notice?
He starts off with a historical narrative that is very familiar. Would you agree with that? It’s just like there’s a very familiar tone here of “Hey you know how God did this in the past.”
But he carries it forward then in a way. Look real closely. How does he carry it forward to the present?
Spoken to us! That’s really interesting, isn’t it?
So the author doesn’t identify himself, but he starts off with this historical narrative from the fathers to us. And the key question is, who’s us? So we’re going to deal with that question this morning.
Now, this book, the first time I ever went through Hebrews with a teacher, I concluded that the book of Hebrews was only for Ph.D. theologians. The average person couldn’t understand it.
I don’t think that was an unreasonable conclusion on my part because of the way it was presented. Because, essentially, we spent most of the time explaining why the plain reading of the book was exactly the opposite of what was intended.
Of course, what I’ve discovered since is the plain reading of the book is the plain reading of the book.
But if you start off with this basic idea that I think is prevalent, the book of Hebrews has to be turned on its head. And the premise that’s normal is this: Everybody knows that when Jesus came, died on the cross, rose from the dead, he left the Jewish religion, repudiated Judaism, became a Baptist, started Billy Graham Crusades, and started inviting people to the front to accept “Jaesus” in their heart, and leave Judaism. And that’s what Jesus did.
And so the book of Hebrews was written to a group of Jews who had similarly left Judaism, gone down to the front in a Billy Graham Crusade, and gotten Jesus in their heart, and now were considering going back into Judaism again, and forever losing the salvation they had gotten at the Billy Graham Crusade.
Now that’s the normal way this thing’s presented, in my experience. And if you look at it that way, it’s really hard to make sense of a lot of it. And you do have to turn it on its head.
Fortunately for us, nothing could be further from the truth.
I’ve gone through this before, but I just want to review it as we start here. I want to review the first big point of today’s lesson, which is: Jews did not stop being Jews.
The Case for Paul
I’m going to make my case as to why Paul wrote this book. Whether he did or didn’t, as Grady said, it becomes totally obvious that this is a Jewish writer to a Jewish audience as you go through this book.
But let’s just look at Paul, the Hebrew of Hebrews, he calls himself. And the Hebrew of Hebrews, who was the apostle to the Gentiles, followed the Jewish laws all of his life.
Let’s look at Acts 28:17.
“And it came to pass, after these days that Paul called the leaders of the Jews together. So when they had come together—” He’s in Rome here, at this point in time. This is toward the end of his ministry. He’s going to never leave Rome. He’s going to be in prison and die there.
So he called the leaders of who?
The Jews. The leaders of the Jews together. “And when they had come together, he said to them, men and brethren—” Now why would he call them brethren?
All Abraham’s children are brethren. They’re Jews. That’s what they called each other. That ported over into the Gentile church, and the brethren were those who also became children of Abraham because the children of Abraham, Paul argues, are the children that believe in the promise.
So, “…brethren, though I have done nothing against our people or the customs of our fathers.”
What are the customs of our fathers?
Keeping the Sabbath is a custom of the fathers.
What’s another custom of the fathers?
Observing the holy days.
What do we call all that, the customs of the fathers?
The law. “I’ve done nothing against the law!” And Paul told us, didn’t he? He’s a Hebrew of Hebrews. “As to the law, blameless.”
This is at the end of his ministry, not the beginning.
“I’ve done nothing against our people or the custom of our fathers, yet I was delivered as a prisoner from Jerusalem.”
At the end of his ministry, “I’ve done nothing against the custom of the fathers.”
Let’s look at Acts 21:17. This is Paul now. “And when we—“ That would include Paul and Luke. “When we had come to Jerusalem, the brethren received us gladly.”
In this particular case, I think we’re talking about fellow believers in the Messiah.
“On the following day, Paul went in with us to James and all the elders were present.” James, half-brother of Jesus, best we know, and the lead elder. He’s the head of the elders. All Jewish. This is the Jerusalem church.
Verse 19 of Chapter 21: “When he had greeted them, he told in detail those things which God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry. And when they heard it, they glorified the Lord and said to him, you see, brother, how many myriads of Jews there are who have believed.”
Believed what? That Abraham was their father? No. Every Jew believed that.
What did they believe?
Jesus is the Christ. They had believed Jesus is the Christ.
“How many myriads there are who have believed, and they are—“ as a result of this belief “zealous for the law!” The customs of our fathers.
If you’re zealous for something, what do you do?
You die for it!
If you’re zealous for the law, what are you going to do?
Strenuously keep it, right? You’re going to make it a priority in your life. “I want to keep all these laws!”
Verse 21, Chapter 21 of Acts. “But they have been informed about you that you teach all the Jews who are among the Gentiles—” Where are the Jews among the Gentiles?
Everywhere that’s not Israel, right? The dispersion.
So you’re out teaching the Jews out among the Gentiles, what? What have they heard? To forsake Moses! What does it mean to forsake Moses?
Forsake the law!
“They’ve heard that you, Paul, are out teaching Jews that are not in Israel to forsake the law. Saying that they ought not to circumcise their children, nor walk according to the customs.”
The Jewish customs! The customs of our fathers. The thing that Paul said I’ve never broken these things.
They’ve heard that you’re out teaching the Jews not to have their children circumcised and not to raise their children up to be Jews. That’s what they’ve heard you’re teaching.
Now if you read Galatians, you could infer that that is what Paul is teaching. Why? Why could you infer that? What does he say in Galatians?
Grace verses the law! What does he tell them not to do?
Don’t get circumcised. If you get circumcised, then you don’t need Christ. If you’re going to look to law for your sanctification, you won’t need Christ! And that’s really for everybody.
So it’s not an unreasonable conclusion for them to say that.
Acts 21:22. “What then? The assembly must certainly meet.”
The assembly. What is that? Does anybody know what the word assembly is translated here?
Ecclesia, which is also translated church. Church just means assembly. So we’re the church when we come together.
“So the people are going to come together for they will hear you have come to Jerusalem. Therefore do what we tell you. We four men have taken a vow. Take them.” That’s one of the customs to take a vow. “Take them and be purified with them and pay their expenses so they may shave their heads. And that they all may know that those things of which they were informed concerning you are nothing but that you yourself also walk orderly and keep the law.”
So here’s what the Jewish elders or leaders are telling Paul: You’ve come and everything you’ve said is great. Here’s what the people have heard about you. The people, these Jewish people who believe that Jesus is the Messiah, they’re in the Jewish church at Jerusalem, have all heard you’re out in the diaspora teaching the Jews that are among the Gentiles not to raise their children as Jews. Not to be circumcised, and not to follow the law. And we know that’s not true of you, Paul. You would never do anything like that because you’re a good Jew. So come and take this vow along with these other guys and pay their expenses and then everybody will know that these rumors about you are false and that you do follow the law.
Now if Paul wanted to make a break with Judaism and tell these guys, no, actually, I do preach that Moses shouldn’t be taught and you shouldn’t circumcise your children. If he wanted to teach that, what would he do when they say, “Come over here and take this vow and show everybody that you also obey the law.” What would he do?
He would refuse! And he would say, no, you misunderstand me completely. We aren’t under the law anymore. So, therefore, we shouldn’t follow the law. That’s what he would say, right?
But here’s what he does. He doesn’t do that at all.
Verse 26. “Then Paul took them in, and the next day, having been purified with them, entered the temple to announce the expiration of the days of purification.”
So he did it.
Because, as we saw in his testimony to the Jewish people in the church at Rome, he said, I have never broken the Jewish law.
Now this is completely and totally consistent with the agreement of Acts 15. We won’t turn there because I want to get into Hebrews. But you can review on your own if you don’t remember.
The Jews versus the Gentiles
In Acts 15, there’s a continental divide of history. It’s one of the most poignant events of all human history. And just to go over it with you from memory: There was a church at Antioch, which is kind of up in Lebanon, and this church had some Jews come up and say, hey, it’s great that you believe Jesus is Messiah, you Gentiles; but if you really want to be perfected in righteousness, which is what salvation includes, you have to get circumcised and obey the law too.
God gave the law for that purpose so you could be completely enveloped in God’s community; and without that, it’s not possible to do so. So you need to do that as well because only through the Jews does salvation come.
Salvation, not just from Hell to Heaven. You can hardly even find that concept in the Old Testament, although it’s there. Salvation is mainly to do with having a life that matters to God and a life that is fulfilling your purpose. That’s the Jewish concept of salvation in its entirety.
So, in order to do that, these people from Judea come up to Antioch, tell the Gentiles you have to become a Jew.
Now Paul and Barnabas are there, and they stand up and say, no you don’t! They had an argument.
So the church said, well this is really important. If we all gotta get circumcised and start becoming Jews, that’s going to change our church service a bunch. We’re going to have to modify our small groups. We may even have to change our worship pastor. So this matters a lot. Let’s go find out what the answer is.
So they send a delegation down to Jerusalem, and they meet with the two governing bodies of the church: the elders at the church at Jerusalem, James presiding as the chief elder, and the twelve apostles of Jesus, Peter presiding as head guy. Because this is a big, important question.
Historically, all the big, important questions of the Christian faith have been decided in church councils.
So, they present this question. And a huge dispute arises. And some of the Pharisees who believe Jesus is the Messiah, the passage said, stood up and said, these guys are right. You can’t become complete and righteous before God without the law! It’s impossible! They’ve got to be circumcised and obey the law.
And there’s a big dispute. It’s not clear to the group what the answer is.
And then Peter stands up. And Peter says, you know, it was by my mouth that the Gentiles first heard the good news about Jesus. And they received the Holy Spirit, just like we did. Without becoming a Jew. And God showed me in a dream that God can make things clean. Why do we want to put on these Gentiles, who’ve received the same grace we’ve received, a burden that we’ve not been able to bear? We haven’t kept the law! But we know we’re saved through the grace of Jesus just like they are!
And then James gets up and he says, you know, Peter’s right. It’s the grace of God that makes us righteous. So here’s what we’ll do. We’ll remain Jews, and we’ll just ask them, look, just do these things because there’s Jews in your midst, and we don’t want a schism to be created because of the Jews in your midst. Don’t eat things sacrificed to idols, don’t eat things strangled in their blood, and abstain from sexual immorality.
He could have just put all that together and said, don’t do pagan worship things, because that’s what you’re doing: pagan worship. You sacrifice animals so you get what you want. And you do live pornography so you get what you desire.
Because we’ve got Jews out there, and we want the Jews and the Gentiles to be one in faith. So we don’t want a schism between them. But those people don’t need to become cultural Jews! But we’re going to remain cultural Jews.
Remarkable. Amazing that these guys gave up that power over the gentiles because they’re serving the living God.
A hundred and fifty years later or so, there was a schism between Jews and Gentiles, and the Gentiles went off without the Jews. And our theology’s gotten terrible ever since because we left our foundation. In fact, the medieval church persecuted the Jews, and official church theology, Calvin, Luther, the Catholic church, the official church theology that comes from Augustine was that the church had replaced the Jews, so God had decided, nah, I made all those promises, but I’m not going to keep them. I’m just going to scuttle those guys, and I’m going to keep them to this church.
And the church became anti-Semitic. Really a sad part of Christian history.
Jews are Jews, Gentiles are Gentiles
So, this is the environment that we come to our book of Hebrews. We come to our book of Hebrews in an environment where Jews are Jews, Gentiles are Gentiles.
The Gentiles have been asked, hey don’t do pagan worship stuff because the Jews can’t have anything to do with you if you do that. But if you’ll just do these things, they call it the Noahic covenant—if you’ll just do the things that proselytes to Judaism have to do, then that lowers the cultural barriers for you to have fellowship with the Jews; and you can keep being Gentiles, and Jews can keep being Jews. And we’re all united under the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. And we’re all going to walk by faith. What we do culturally is just not all that important.
Now that’s kind of amazing given my background because I grew up in a very legalistic church where what you did was everything. How you dressed. You had to be 20 years out of date in styles in order to be righteous and holy. You had to speak a certain way. We called everybody in the church brother and sister. And if you didn’t do those things you weren’t holy. It was very exterior or external.
So the spirit of this is still going on. But that’s not what our foundation is. Our foundation is, it’s a matter of the heart.
So let’s go back to Hebrews. So if we have a Hebrew writer writing to Hebrew Christians, what we’re not going to find is somebody trying to get them to stop being Hebrew. We’re not going to find that. That’s definitively not going to be the case. So every time that they criticize something about Judaism, we know contextually they are not trying to get them to stop being Jewish. That’s really important.