January 21, 2023 - Hebrews Chapters 7-13

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Today we continue in our 2-part study of the epistle to the Hebrews. In 7:3, our writer observes that the Melchizedek of Genesis 14 appears to be “made like the Son of God.” He appears with no mention of ancestors or descendants. Melchizedek’s chief qualifications are that he has “neither a beginning of days nor end of life,” and that he “remains a priest forever.” Some have suggested that this mysterious character is actually a pre-incarnational appearance of Christ himself. While that’s an attractive idea, such a person would have to be able to bring bread and wine to Abraham, and receive tithes from him, both of which would require a body, which Christ does not receive until his conception almost 2000 years later. Hebrews 9:27 (“it is appointed for a person once to die”) also rules out the idea that Jesus is a re-incarnation of Melchizedek.

It appears that Melchizedek was simply a local Canaanite priest, one of the extremely few souls in Abraham’s day who knew the one true God. When the original Melchizedek died, he was no doubt replaced by a priest who did not know God. So there was no line of “Melchizedek priests” before or after him. Melchizedek was a one and only!

Melchizedek is presented in Hebrews as a Lone Ranger, with no established priesthood to which he belongs. Jesus is the same kind of priest. Jesus gets his priesthood, not by DNA or by human decree or laying on of hands; he gets it from “the power of an indestructible life” (7:15). Jesus’ priesthood continues “forever.” We are told that Jesus guarantees a better covenant than the other kind of priests, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office (priesthood ends when you die), whereas because Christ continues forever, he has an “un-transferable” priesthood – it cannot and need not be passed on to anyone else (7:22-24). Because he always lives, Jesus is always able to plead the case of sinners who draw near to God (7:25).

So the entire argument in the book of Hebrews is that Jesus’ priesthood puts him in a class by himself. No one else is qualified to permanently take away sins. The other kind of priest couldn’t do it. Priesthood is all about atonement for sin, not the authority to act for God in any other way. And because of Jesus’ once for all sacrifice for sin, there is no longer any need for priesthood of any kind, except for the one priest who always lives to plead our case with God.

Hebrews 7:24 refutes the idea of a Melchizedek Priesthood held by millions of priests. When it says that Jesus has an “unchangeable priesthood,” the word “unchangeable” is actually the Greek a-parabaton, which means literally “non-transferable.” Jesus is the unique holder of that office. His office can’t be passed to anyone else. He is the one and only Melchizedek priest.

There is no book that helps us put Old and New Testaments together better than the book of Hebrews. What would we do without it? In Hebrews 8-10, our writer compares the Old and New Covenants and asks, “If the first one worked, why would we need a second one?” If Levi could do the job, why bring in a priest from the tribe of Judah? Then our writer quotes Jeremiah 31, where God declares that he’s making a new covenant to do what the old one could never do: take away sin and guilt. It would be a better covenant based on better promises.

The writer of Hebrews also explains that the holy place on earth is only a copy of the Temple in heaven (notice: there’s only one Temple in heaven). What the Aaronic priests did on earth only purified the earthly copies of what only Christ could purify: the holy place in heaven.

The writer of Hebrews explains that Christ came to perform the role of God’s high priest on the Day of Atonement. That is what his mission was! Christ came to perform the one act of atonement that the entire Day of Atonement ceremony was designed to point to. The ancient Yom Kippur sacrifice pointed in prophetic symbol to the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Our author proclaims that Jesus entered the sanctuary of God in heaven (where sinful humans were not allowed to enter) and took, not the blood of bulls and goats, but his own blood! Notice also that when Jesus goes before God on that Good Friday afternoon, he doesn’t bring a sacrifice for himself. He doesn’t need one. Jesus has no sin. He is already worthy to enter the presence of God. And Jesus offers on that day a sacrifice that never needs to be repeated.

What glorious Good News! By his one sacrifice, Christ has come to put away sin once and for all. In Hebrews 10:14, our writer says it again: “For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified.” By his death on the cross on the ultimate Day of Atonement that we call Good Friday, Jesus Christ tore away the veil to the Holy Place in heaven, threw down the “No access” sign, and opened the way for us to enter God’s presence.

Because the blood of Christ has cleansed us completely from the contamination of sin, we are not only free to enter this Most Holy Place, but to enter with confidence. In Hebrews 10:19-22, our writer says that therefore, “Since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus…let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience.” Our writer also urges his audience in verses 23-25 to “hold fast our confession without wavering” (because they are being pressured to go back to Moses),. He tells them to (literally) “provoke one another to love and good deeds,” and to “forsake not the assembling of ourselves together,” as some are doing, which is understandable if your faith is under fire; you may be afraid to meet together.

Our writer then warns that “if we sin willfully” after we’ve come to know the truth, there remains “no more sacrifice for sins.” To scorn the Law of Moses is bad enough; how much worse for anyone who “has trodden underfoot the Son of God and profaned the blood of the covenant” and “outraged the Spirit of grace”! Hebrews 10:31: “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” Don’t go back to Moses!

But you’re not like those who shrink back under fire, he says! Remember all the abuse you’ve endured: all the insults and torment, public humiliation, standing in solidarity with others who were suffering this way, comforting prisoners who are in prison for their faith, even joyfully accepting the plundering of your property, “knowing that you yourselves had a better and lasting possession.” Don’t throw all that away. You have a great reward in store. All you need is endurance.

Look at the examples of our ancestors in God’s Hall of Fame. What does it take to enter God’s Hall of Fame? Hebrews 11:6 says that it takes faith: “Without faith it is impossible to please God. For whoever would draw near to God must believe that God exists, and that God is a rewarder of those who seek God.” We need more than faith in a God who just wound up the world like a clock and has left it to run by itself, a God who does not get involved in what’s going on down here. A God who’s just a cosmic computer programmer can’t be a God who cares about what we do. In order to have any chance at God’s Hall of Fame, we’ve got to believe that God is a rewarder of those who seek God, a God who cares intensely about what we do down here.

Hebrews 11:1 defines faith as “the assurance of what is hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Faith is the ability to see and count on what is invisible, to believe without absolute proof. God’s Hall of Fame contains a whole long list of some folks who exercised this kind of faith, people who plunged ahead to do what they had to do with nothing but the promises of God to go on. Many of these folks had embarrassing sins on their records (it’s not a list of goody two-shoeses), but what makes these heroes special is that each of them had the capacity to believe God, to take God at God’s word, to take tremendous (even terrifying) risks for God because of their faith. As the writer says about Abel in verse 4, all of these folks may be dead and gone, and yet by their faith, they are still speaking to us today.

What is ironic (as our writer points out) is that most of these folks in God’s Hall of Fame never actually received what God promised while they were on this earth. Verse 13 says, “These all died in faith, not having received what was promised, but they saw and greeted it from afar. They confessed they were strangers and exiles on this earth.” The Bible says that most of God’s Hall of Famers were nomads, aliens, strangers, exiles, outcasts, misfits, rejected by the world, never settling down, never finding a place they could call home. This world was not their home. They were like soldiers without a country. But the Bible says they never wished to go back.

Real faith is refusing to trade away God for the momentary pleasure of this world. In 165 BC, a group of Jewish freedom fighters known as the Maccabees were tortured in prison for refusing to worship the Greek gods of their torturers. “Forget your God!” they were told. “Worship our gods, and we will let you go free.” But the Bible says they refused to accept release. They refused to trade away an eternity with God for momentary relief from torture.

Hebrews 12 is the only scripture we have that can help answer questions like, “What about loved ones who have died? Will they ever know what happened after they died? Will they ever know who came to their funeral, or what was said?” The writer of Hebrews tells us here that we are all in the middle of a crowded stadium on the racetrack, surrounded by a humongous invisible cloud of fans, saints of old who have already finished the race of faith and have won the victory, who are all watching to see how we will run. The word he uses to describe this race is a word from which we get our word “agony”, a contest or struggle. In order for us to win the victory, we need endurance and encouragement from the grandstands. We are being watched by a great cloud of witnesses, by loved ones and saints of old who are cheering us on.

If only we could see from where they are sitting in the grandstands! As part of the Church Triumphant, our loved ones are in a position to see how the race really stands at this time. They are in a position to see how close we are to winning. only they could shout advice to us, they could tell us where to quit wasting our time and energy, what grudges to let go of, when not to give up when the going gets tough. The best way we can honor those who have gone before us is to go on with our lives and run with endurance the race that lies before us. Our loved ones will take joy in every victory we win.

But before we can run that race, our writer says we need to “lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely.” When my wife and I were climbing Mount Timpanogos just after our daughter was born, we were wearing heavy clothes and carrying 18 pounds of baby, 12 pounds of video camera, food, and an entire gallon of water. Meanwhile, other hikers were wearing only shorts and a small canteen. Guess who had less trouble climbing to the top!

The writer of Hebrews says we need to get rid of all excess baggage in our lives, whatever would entangle us or trip us into falling on our faces. You know why some Christians are falling behind in the race? It’s because they’re carrying too much weight, and they refuse to put it down. One of those heavy loads is guilt. Friends, Jesus paid the price to set us free from that heavy load. If we have truly accepted what Christ has done for us on the cross, we can run the race without lugging around that huge pile of guilt.

Another heavy load we carry in this life is the burden of our possessions. There’s nothing wrong with possessions. But truthfully, a lot of us (including myself) are like the runner out on the racetrack trying to pull a U-Haul, and the more we’ve got in that U-Haul, the more it’s gonna weigh us down. It’s hard to own stuff without being owned by it. The lighter we travel, the more we can concentrate on the race.

The writer also mentions sin as being like clothing that gets caught around our legs and trips us into falling on our faces. Sin is a problem for Christians, not because it jeopardizes our forgiveness, but because it’s self-destructive behavior. It gets in our way. It trips us up. It can even cause serious injury. No one wants to be sidelined with an injury. We need to get rid of anything that’s gonna slow us down or throw us off track as we run the race ahead of us.

Once we’ve done that, the writer urges us: “Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” Perseverance is a patience that is determined to keep going. It refuses to be stopped by difficulty or discouragement. To run with this kind of perseverance, the writer says we need to fix our eyes on Jesus, “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” Jesus is literally the trailblazer, the One who goes first, the pioneer of our faith. Back in the 1800’s, pioneers were the first ones to break up the sod, to put roads, houses, and fences in place, the ones who did most of the hard work. That’s what Jesus has done for us.

Jesus is also the perfecter or finisher of our faith. We see it in his suffering on the cross. If Jesus had come down from the cross, he would have left us no practical example to follow when we go through pain. None of us have the power to simply escape from our suffering like Jesus could have. What good would it have done for us if Jesus had been an escapist? For Jesus, that would have been cheating. No, Jesus stayed on the cross. He showed us faith made perfect.

To a struggling group of harassed Hebrew Christians, our writer says, “Take a good hard look at this man who endured such hostility from sinners. Remember what he went through, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted.” Jesus wasn’t even fazed by the hideous thought of the cross. In exchange for the joy that was set before him, Jesus endured even the shame of a Roman cross, in exchange for the joy of reconciling us to God forever.

What you’re going through, says our writer, is God’s discipline. Like a human parent, God uses suffering to make us stronger. If we never go through discipline, he says, we are not legitimate children of God; we may be illegitimate. Our parents disciplined us as they thought best, the best they knew how, but God always disciplines us for our good. Discipline seems painful at the time, but it pays off with “the peaceful fruit of righteousness.”

Our writer warns his audience not to let any “root of bitterness” creep into your lives and poison your attitudes because of your suffering. Don’t be like Esau, who traded away his lifelong blessing for a single meal – afterwards, he had no chance to repent. Hey, we’re not standing before Mt. Sinai, as scary as that was. We’re standing before the holy city, with myriads of angels, the Church that has gone before us full of spirits who have been made perfect, plus the Judge of all – that’s what we’re looking at! That’s even scarier! Now, if no one could escape when they disregarded the warning they heard at Sinai, how much worse to disregard the warning we’ve heard from heaven. Remember: “our God is a consuming fire.”

In our final chapter, our writer gives his audience a bunch of reminders. Keep doing philadelphia (brotherly love) and philoxenia (love of strangers, “hospitality”). Why? Because some who do this have “entertained angels unawares” (who was that mysterious stranger?). He says in verse 4, “Let marriage be held in honor by all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled, for God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous.” Let your lifestyle be (literally) “not loving money,” and be content with what you have. That’s tough to hear if your property has been plundered. But what does God say in Joshua 1? “I will never fail nor forsake you.”

In verse 8, we read, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” Christ did not always have a body of flesh, but Christ is the same second person of the Godhead that he has been for all eternity. Therefore, don’t be led astray by weird teachings, like about food. He says the heart is strengthened by God’s grace, not by food, and we’ve got an altar that no one else can eat from. And the kind of offering God wants on his altar now is praise, doing good, and sharing.

The author says to remember your past leaders (imitate their faith), and obey your present leaders who are keeping watch over your souls, and “let them do this joyfully and not sadly, for that would be unprofitable for you.” The writer says, “Pray for us,” so that “I may be restored to you sooner.” He reports that Timothy has been released. It sounds like he’s writing from Rome, because he says, “Those who are from Italy salute you.” His final line: “Grace be with you all!”

We’re coming down to our final few weeks of this broadcast. We’ll be taking a look at a few programs you may have missed. Join us, starting next time on Biblical Words and World!