HEBREWS: A STUDY IN COVENANTAL TRANSITION: PART 2
ENTERING GOD'S REST:
Hebrews 4:1: Therefore, since the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us be careful that none of you be found to have fallen short of it. Hebrews 4:3: Now we who have believed enter that rest.
The gospel preached to Israel in the wilderness was the good news of escape from Egyptian slavery into the rest of the Promised Land. The good news being preached to first century Jewish Christians was the coming out of spiritual slavery to sin and death and into the NC of rest in Christ. The Greek word for “enter” is in the present tense in Greek. This signifies that they were in the process of entering that rest. The New Jerusalem Bible translates Hebrews 4:3 as, “We, however, who have faith, are entering a place of rest.”
Some in the Christian community believe that the phrase, “There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God” in Hebrews 4:9, indicates that we, as Christians, should be keeping a seventh-day Sabbath.
The Greek Sabbatismos in Hebrews 4:9 occurs in this form only this once in the entire NT. It does not appear in other Greek literature of the time. Therefore, the Greek Lexicons have little to say about this word other than it signifies some kind of rest. It is almost as if the writer made up this word as an offshoot of Sabbaton which is the word commonly used in the NT to signify the seventh-day Sabbath. In all other places in Hebrews where we find the word rest used, it is the Greek word Katapausis, which means “a putting to rest or place of rest.” Katapausis is not used in conjunction with the seventh day Sabbath in the New Testament.
The rest that the Israelites failed to initially enter was the land of Canaan. This was a physical rest from their enemies and the slavery experienced in Egypt. This is contrasted with a new kind of rest now being offered to the Jewish Christians. This was a rest different from the rest Joshua gave to ancient Israel after the 40 years of wondering in the wilderness. This could not have been a seventh-day Sabbath rest. The seventh-day Sabbath rest was in operation since Mt. Sinai. It was an integral part of the Old Covenant system which was being kept by the very Jewish Christians being addressed in this letter. There would have been no reason for the writer to be trying to convince these Jewish Christians to keep the seventh-day Sabbath. They were already doing this and had been all their lives.
Even the Seventh-day Adventist’s understand this. In their Bible Commentary we find this explanation for Hebrews 4:9 on page 423: “Certainly, in writing to Jews, the author of Hebrews would not consider it necessary to prove to them that Sabbath keeping "remaineth." If the conclusion of the extended argument beginning with chapter 3:7 is that Sabbath keeping remains for the people of God, it would seem that the writer of Hebrews is guilty of a non sequitur, for the conclusion does not follow logically from the argument. There would have been no point in so labored an effort to persuade the Jews to do what they were already doing - observing the seventh- day Sabbath."
The very Israelites who left Egypt and were given the Sabbath at Mt. Sinai failed to enter God’s rest. Now in the first century there were Israelites who kept the Sabbath but who were also in danger of failing to enter God’s rest. The rest being considered here is not the weekly Sabbath but the rest being offered in Christ through the NC.
CHRIST IS SUPERIOR TO THE AARONIC PRIESTHOOD:
The writer, to this point, has been driving home the message of Jesus Christ being superior to the prophets, angels, Moses, and Joshua. Now, in chapter 5, the focus shifts to Christ being a High Priest who is superior to the Aaronic Priesthood. It was firmly established in the minds of the Israelites that the priesthood was associated with the tribe of Levi and the high priest could only be of that tribe. Now they are being told that Christ, who descended from Judah, has become their high priest. The writer then makes the point that Christ is of a different order, the order of Melchizedek.
The purpose of the writer is to show the Jews that Christ, who is of the Melchizedek priesthood, is greater than the Aaronic priesthood and even greater than their father Abraham, seeing that Abraham paid a tenth to Melchizedek. The Aaronic priest had to have a specific recorded genealogy in order to be a priest. Melchizedek does not. To be in the Aaronic priesthood, you had to be at least 25 years old and retire at age 50. Melchizedek is forever and, therefore, Christ is forever.
In Hebrews 5:10-14, the writer chides his readers for being dull of hearing and slow to learn regarding the matter of Melchizedek. The writer tells them that they need someone to teach them the elementary truths of God's word all over again. The word elementary is from the Greek word, stoicheion, which means the basic parts or components of something. Then the writer tells them to “leave the elementary teachings about Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again the foundation of repentance from acts that lead to death, and of faith in God, instruction about baptisms, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment” (Hebrews 6:1-2)
Most who read Hebrews 6:1-2 assume the writer is speaking about leaving the fundamental teachings about Christ as found in NT teaching, and going on to maturity. The question that must be asked, however, is what would that maturity be? Would not an understanding and practice of repentance, faith in God, baptisms, laying on of hands, resurrection, and judgement be maturity in Christ? Since the writer of this letter is focusing on having his readers embrace Christ and not return to the sacrifices and other Mosaic regulations, it is felt, by some Biblical scholars, that what the writer is admonishing the Jewish Christians to do is to abandon the Old Covenant teachings, which pointed to Christ, and embrace the New Covenant teachings which fulfill and reach the goal of the Old Covenant teachings. The Greek for “maturity” is teleios, which means to complete by reaching the intended goal.
It is interesting to note that where the writer says, “let us leave the elementary teachings,” the Greek word for “leave” means to “separate, abandon and forsake.” The Greek word translated “elementary” in this passage is arche, which means “old, ancient, starting point, first,” etc. This would indicate that it is the Old Covenant teaching about Christ that is alluded to. One internal piece of evidence for this is in Hebrews 9:10, where the writer uses the Greek word baptismos for Old Covenant ceremonial washing, which is the same word he used for baptisms in verse 2 of chapter 6. The os ending of baptismos indicates the process of washing as opposed to the Greek baptizo used for baptism in the usual NT sense.
Elementary teachings (first teachings) are considered to be those teachings about Christ in the Old Covenant. They are the symbolism's of the Old Covenant regulations such as sacrifices, holy days, washings, etc. which all pointed to and were fulfilled in Christ. The writer is not telling his readers to abandon or forsake New Covenant teaching about Christ but to separate themselves from Old Covenant theology and fully embrace and be carried into the NC system. The whole focus of the writer is to convince these Jewish Christians not to go back to the old system but embrace the new. In chapter five the writer chides them about needing to be fed milk as opposed to solid food. The milk would be a correct understanding of the Old Covenant teachings about Christ and the solid food would be embracing the fulfillment of those teachings in Christ. What the writer says further along in his letter substantiates this.
Hebrews 7:11: If perfection (Gr. teleios) could have been attained through the Levitical priesthood (for on the basis of it the law was given to the people), why was there still need for another priest to come--one in the order of Melchizedek, not in the order of Aaron?
Hebrews 7:19: (for the law made nothing perfect [teleios]), and a better hope is introduced, by which we draw near to God.
The writer is saying that the OC system could not make anything complete. A new priest after the order of Melchizedek was needed to bring about perfection/maturity. The once and for all sacrifice of Christ brings completeness. Therefore, follow Christ. Abandon the old and embrace the new.
In chapter 6, the writer gives dire warning of what will happen to his readers if they turn their backs on Christ. He gives the analogy of “Land that drinks in the rain often falling on it and that produces a crop useful to those for whom it is farmed receives the blessing of God. But land that produces thorns and thistles is worthless and is in danger of being cursed. In the end it will be burned.” The writer is warning his readers about their fate if they reject the truth about the Christ event. Both John and Christ spoke of being destroyed by fire. Christ spoke of the chaff being burned in the fire. The soon to come judgement upon Israel is in view here.
THE POINT OF THIS LETTER:
In chapter 8, the writer says: “The point of what we are saying is this: (Greek: “the chief point,” “Now this is the main point” NKJV, “the chief point is this” ASV). He goes on to show that the point of everything written so far is to demonstrate that Christ is superior to the Levitical priesthood and the Old Covenant is being replaced by a better NC. Under the old system, only the priests had communication with God on behalf of the people. Under the new system, all Israelites would have access to God through the indwelling of God’s spirit. Under the sacrificial system their sins were brought to remembrance every year at the feast of Atonement. Under the grace system being established, sins are forgiven and forgotten. The writer concludes this segment of his letter by stating, “By calling this covenant new, he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and aging will soon disappear.”
While the death of Christ made the sacrificial system obsolete, it continued to function and be adhered to by Israel. The aim of the writer to the Hebrews was to show that Christ’s sacrifice had brought an end to this system and that the very means to facilitate it would shortly be brought to an end as well. That is why he writes of this system aging and soon to disappear. The 40 years between the ascension of Christ and the destruction of the temple was a transition period during which time the NC system advanced and the Old Covenant system faded. Paul alludes to this as well.
2 Corinthians 3:7-11: Now if the ministry that brought death, which was engraved in letters on stone, came with glory, so that the Israelites could not look steadily at the face of Moses because of its glory, fading though it was, will not the ministry of the Spirit be even more glorious? If the ministry that condemns men is glorious, how much more glorious is the ministry that brings righteousness! For what was glorious has no glory now in comparison with the surpassing glory. And if what was (the word was is in the present passive participle Greek tense and therefore should be translated is) fading away came with glory, how much greater is the glory of that which lasts! (For if what is passing away was glorious, what remains is much more glorious (NKJV). (For since that which is passing away was with glory... (Wuest: translation).
CHRIST IS ABOUT TO APPEAR:
In chapter 9 the writer goes into some detail as to the makeup of the tabernacle and the priestly function of offering blood sacrifices under the OC. The writer then shows how these sacrifices could not cleanse us from sin but that the sacrifice of Christ does. This chapter concludes with two profound statements:
Number one: “But now he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages (Greek: aion) to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Hebrews 9:26). The end of the ages is identified as the time when Christ appeared to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself. This appearing took place two thousand years ago. Unless one is willing to stretch the “end of the ages” into a period of two thousand years and counting, it should be apparent this period was a specific time frame that occurred two thousand years ago.
Number two: “So Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him” (Hebrews 9:28)
Here, and also in the writings of Paul and Peter, we see a looking forward to salvation being brought at the second appearing of Christ. Most Christians assume Christ brought salvation at His first coming. Here the writer is saying that Christ will bring salvation with him at his second appearing. What is the writer talking about? Let’s look at what Paul wrote:
Romans 13:11: The hour has come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed.
Paul tells the Romans to wake up because their (these first century Christian Romans), salvation is closer than when they first believed. Is Paul suggesting that they will be dying soon and at that point receive their salvation or is he talking about some other event that was soon to take place that would reveal salvation. Let’s look at what Peter wrote:
1 Peter 1:5: who through faith are shielded by God's power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time.
The Greek word used in 1 Peter 1:5 which is translated “is ready” is hetoimos. This word is used 17 times in the NT and by context it is seen over and over again to mean something ready to happen. (For several examples, see Matthew 22:8, Mark 14:15, 1 Peter 3:15). Thayer’s Greek Lexicon defines 1Peter 1:5 as, “on the point of being revealed.” The Greek word translated “last time” is eschatos which means “a point of termination, something absolutely final.” As we move into chapter 10, this issue will be clarified.
Hebrews 10:1: The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming --not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship.
Why did the writer say “are coming”? Hadn’t the “good things” already come with the sacrifice of Christ and the bringing of the New Covenant of life to replace the Old Covenant of death? What is the writer talking about? He continues to stress the supremacy of Christ over the sacrificial system and encourages the Hebrew Christians to hold fast because Christ is faithful and will deliver what He promised. What is it that Christ promised?
In Hebrews 10:25, the writer says, “Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another--and all the more as you see the Day approaching." Remember: this was written 2000 years ago to first century Christians who are being told not to abandon meeting together, especially as they see the day approaching. What did this mean to them? What day was approaching?
Hebrews 10:26-31: If we deliberately keep on sinning (Gr. hamartano, to miss the mark) after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will (Gr. mello, “is about to”) consume the enemies of God. Anyone who rejected the Law of Moses died without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much more severely do you think a man deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God under foot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified him, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace? For we know him who said, "It is mine to avenge; I will repay," and again, "The Lord will judge his people." It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.
Here the writer gets right into the face of these Hebrew Christians and tells them flat out what will happen to them if, after receiving the knowledge of the truth, they turn their back on Christ. The writer speaks of the about to occur judgement that will consume the enemies of God. The writer then goes on to reflect on the tremendous persecution suffered by his readers and exhorts them to hang on because what was promised is about to be delivered.
Hebrews 10:32-37: Remember those earlier days after you had received the light, when you stood your ground in a great contest in the face of suffering. Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution; at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated. You sympathized with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions. So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded. You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised. For in just a very little while, He who is coming will come and will not delay.
The Greek here is very emphatic. Bullinger, in the Companion Bible, shows the Greek phrase mikron hoson hoson to mean: “in a very, very little while.” “He who is coming,” undoubtedly refers to Christ. The writer is addressing first century Christians and telling them that in a very, very little while, Christ is coming, and He is not going to delay that coming. The writer had previously told his readers that Christ would appear a second time to bring salvation (Hebrews 9:28). The writer was constantly exhorting his readers to hang tough in the face of persecution and to not forsake meeting together as they saw the day approaching. I must remind you that this is a first century context.
The writer is addressing first century Christians and dealing with first century issues. The issue being addressed here is an imminent coming of Christ. By context, this cannot be referring to a coming thousands of years into the future from when this was written. The coming being addressed here is a first century coming in judgement against Israel for their refusal to accept Christ as the promised Messiah. Remember what Christ said shortly before His crucifixion:
Luke 19:36-44: As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, "If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace--but now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God's coming to you."
There are multiple dozens of warnings found throughout the NT narrative that speaks of a coming judgement upon Israel. That judgement came in the Great War between A.D. 66 and 73. In the midst of that war, the temple, along with the sacrificial system and priesthood, were destroyed. Over one million people died in that war and over a hundred thousand were taken into captivity by the Romans and their allies.
God brought judgement against Israel through the armies of men just as He had done in Old Testament times when He used nations such as Assyria and Babylon to judge Israel. A review of Old Testament history will clearly reveal God coming in judgement against a variety of nations. The prophets used a great deal of apocalyptic/hyperbolic language (rhetorical exaggeration) to describe these events. God is often seen as riding on the clouds, as He uses one nation against another to accomplish His purpose.
God intervened in the first century in a dramatic way to replace the Old Covenant system of death with the NC system of life. This is the salvation that the first century Christians were waiting for. This was the fulfillment of what had been promised. The first century church experienced the full transition from the Old Covenant to the New Covenant. It began with the birth, ministry, death, resurrection and ascension of Christ. It ended with Christ coming as God's agent, in judgement against Israel. This is the coming that the writer to the Hebrews is discussing in his letter. This is why the writer says, “For in just a very little while, He who is coming will come and not delay.” The coming they were anticipating was a coming in judgement upon Israel and, therefore, a deliverance from the tremendous persecution they were under from the Non-Christian Jews and also the increasing persecution from Rome. The writer was trying to comfort them and encourage them to remain loyal to Christ
In chapter 11, the writer goes into great detail about the need to exercise faith in their continuing struggle to stay faithful in the face of great persecution and the gathering storm with Rome. In chapter 12, the writer again focuses on Christ as the mediator of the New Covenant and compares what was now happening with what had happened under Moses..
Hebrews 12:22-29: But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. See to it that you do not refuse him who speaks. If they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, how much less will we, if we turn away from him who warns us from heaven? At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, "Once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens." The words "once more" indicate the removing of what can be shaken--that is, created things--so that what cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our "God is a consuming fire."
Once again the writer focuses on Christ as the facilitator of a New Covenant, a covenant based on His blood and not the blood of animal sacrifices. Once again the purpose for this letter is made manifest. The writer was determined to demonstrate the great transition that was taking place. The Old Covenant system was being replaced with the New Covenant system. The facilitation of the old system was about to be destroyed in the coming judgement upon Israel. The writer contrasts the physical events at Mt. Sinai with the spiritual event of entering the heavenly Jerusalem.
The implication is that the physical Jerusalem with its temple and priestly system should no longer be the focus. The focus now must be on the heavenly. Apostle Paul makes the same point to the Galatians. This church was made up of Gentiles who had become Christians, Gentile converts to Judaism who had become Christians, and probably Jewish converts to Christianity. There were those in their congregation who felt they should continue to follow the Old Covenant regulations in addition to believing in Christ. There also was the continuing pressure from the non-Christian Jews. Paul deals with this problem by giving the following analogy:
Galatians 4:22-31. For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the slave woman and the other by the free woman. His son by the slave woman was born in the ordinary way; but his son by the free woman was born as the result of a promise. These things may be taken figuratively, for the women represent two covenants. One covenant is from Mount Sinai and bears children who are to be slaves: This is Hagar. Now Hagar stands for Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present city of Jerusalem, because she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother. For it is written: "Be glad, O barren woman, who bears no children; break forth and cry aloud, you who have no labor pains; because more are the children of the desolate woman than of her who has a husband." Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise. At that time the son born in the ordinary way persecuted the son born by the power of the Spirit. It is the same now. But what does the Scripture say? "Get rid of the slave woman and her son, for the slave woman's son will never share in the inheritance with the free woman's son." Therefore, brothers, we are not children of the slave woman, but of the free woman.
Paul makes it very clear that the Old Covenant system is to be tossed out. Paul also shows that just as Ishmael, son of Hagar, persecuted Isaac, son of Sarah, so it was the same then. The Old Covenant advocates were persecuting the New Covenant advocates. The slave woman is representative of the Old Covenant system of death. The free woman is representative of the New Covenant system of life. This persecution was about to end with the destruction of the means to facilitate the Old Covenant system.
Hebrews 12:25-29: See to it that you do not refuse him who speaks. If they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, how much less will we, if we turn away from him who warns us from heaven? (Moses and the prophets warned them on earth, but now Christ, the promised Messiah, has warned them). At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, "Once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens." The words "once more" indicate the removing of what can be shaken--that is, created things--so that what cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our "God is a consuming fire."
The writer speaks of receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken. He contrasts this with what can be shaken, namely created things. Therefore, the writer identifies the kingdom as a spiritual entity. The writer again gives warning to his readers to be responsive to what Christ said was to happen, if they hope to escape the coming judgement. The writer concludes his letter in chapter 13 by encouraging his readers to love each other, practice good moral behavior and not be carried away with strange teachings. He reminds them that they do not have an enduring city but that they can continue to look forward to the heavenly city that is about to come.
Various Bible commentaries express the belief that the writer, in speaking about not having an enduring city, is speaking about the city of Jerusalem which was about to be destroyed. They were looking to the heavenly city, the spiritual Jerusalem that would be available to them through Christ.
It should be apparent from reading this letter to the Hebrew Christians that the writer fully expected Christ to return during their life time and bring them the salvation that was promised. This coming would also deliver them from the great persecution they were under from the non-Christian Jews, as well as, the increasing tribulation from the Roman government. When the writer says in Hebrews 10:34: “For in just a very very little while, He who is coming will come and will not delay,” this cannot be interpreted to mean a coming thousands of years into the future. Such interpretation is to completely ignore audience relevance and practice eisegesis rather than exegesis.
Exegesis is where great care is taken to consider the circumstances extant when a document was written and what the writing would have meant to those to whom it was originally written. Eisegesis, on the hand, is the process of interpreting a text or portion of text in such a way that it introduces one's own presuppositions, agendas, or biases into and onto the text. This is commonly referred to as "reading into the text." Exegesis tends to be objective while eisegesis is often highly subjective. Unfortunately a lot of Bible Study is based on eisegesis rather than exegesis.
If we consider the context surrounding the writing of Hebrews and give heed to audience relevance, it becomes very apparent that the return of Christ was considered imminent by first century Christians and their leadership. This coming would bring to a final end the Old Covenant System of death and fully establish the New Covenant system of life.
If the reader wishes to gain a fuller understanding of the dynamics surrounding a first century return of Christ, I recommend reading the series of essays on this website entitled. "When Does Christ Return." Also of interest may be the two part series entitled "What Is The Kingdom Of God."
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