COMMENTARY ON THE EPISTLE TO THE HEBREWS
A Word of Warning and of Comfort
by Rev. Bassam M. Madany
When we study of the New Testament epistles, we notice that the Apostle Paul wrote most of these letters. Others contributed to the list of the letters such as James, Peter, and John. But we have one letter whose author we do not know, this is: The Epistle to the Hebrews.
We confess that the Holy Spirit inspired all the books of the Bible. If we do not know the author of one of the books, such as is the case with Hebrews, it does not follow that it becomes unimportant. The Christian Church in the East, regarded Paul as the author of this letter. It is claimed that he wrote it in Hebrew, and that it was Luke who translated it into Greek. But this was not the official teaching of the Church but of some of its teachers, especially within the famous school of Alexandria. Others taught that it was Barnabas who was the author of the epistle. Others said that it was Apollos, Paul's companion in his missionary travels, who wrote. It is better not to be dogmatic about the author. It is sufficient to accept the book as part and parcel of the Bible.
While the letter is known as The Epistle to the Hebrews, we do not know exactly where these Jewish people lived. Some say that they were Palestinian Jews, others say that they lived in Syrian Antioch or Ephesus in Asia Minor or Alexandria or Rome. While we cannot be sure about the exact date of the writing of this letter, it is probable that it was written in the sixties of the first century A.D. before the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem which took place in 70 A.D.
The author was aware of the tremendous persecution which befell the believers in Christ who were of Jewish origin. Some of them began to think about going back to Judaism where they could enjoy some peace. The Holy Spirit inspired the author to write the letter which dealt with the New Testament or New Regime which was inaugurated by Jesus the Messiah and its comparison with the Old Testament or Old Regime which was in the process of vanishing.
The author showed the similarities and the contrasts between the two Testaments or Regimes. Before the days of the Messiah, God used to speak to his people through the prophets. He gave them instructions for their life and future. But at the dawn of the New Testament Age, God spoke by his only begotten Son, Jesus the Messiah. This revelation which took place in the days of the Messiah was final and complete. Thus, it is not right for the believers in the Messiah to go backwards, i.e., to Judaism and be satisfied with God's partial and preparatory revelation.
Another matter should remain at the very center of the believers' reflections: redemption. The OT religion was one of ceremonies and symbols all pointing to a perfect work of salvation which was to take place in the future. The NT age does not use symbols; rather it points to what has actually happened in the very center of the world, i.e., in Palestine and in the fullness of time, i.e., in the age which has been designed by God. The NT points in a special way to the redemption accomplished by Jesus the Messiah on the cross which was symbolized by the ritual worship during the OT times.
Now if the believers are wondering why the kingdom of the Messiah in all its glory has not been established in the present age, they must remember that the Messiah was in a state of humiliation during his first coming. His kingdom is not gloriously visible now, but it will be fully realized at his second coming. And just as the Messiah suffered during his life on earth, it is the duty of believers not to flee from the sufferings which accompany their Christian witness. They must remember that those who pleased God during the OT times were man and women of faith, i.e., faith in God and in his promises. "Faith is the substance of things hoped for, and the evidence of things not seen." (Hebrews 11:1)
The author of the letter warns us of the dire consequences of going back on the Messiah or of attempting to live without a living faith in God and in his holy word. While all the people of Israel witnessed the Lord's salvation when he rescued them from the hand of Pharaoh, yet the vast majority died in the wilderness of Sinai. They did not enter the Holy Land because they did not believe in God and in his liberating Word. God punished the unbelievers during the days of the Old Regime, i.e., those who did not believe his partial revelation; would he not punish those who do not believe in his complete, total and final revelation in Jesus the Messiah?
Text: Hebrews 1
This letter shows the relationship between God's revelation in the days of the Old Regime, i.e, the days which preceded the coming of the Messiah, and God's final revelation which took place in Jesus the Messiah and in his redemptive work which he accomplished on the cross.
1. God's final revelation is in Jesus the Messiah. The recipient of this letter were of Hebrew or Jewish background. They were acquainted with the contents of God's revelations which were written in the books of the OT. The author of the letter did not minimize the importance of these revelations: 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. The inspired author indicated that God did reveal himself through his servants the prophets from the days of Moses to the days of Malachi who lived around 400 B.C. This was true revelation, and it has been preserved completely in the OT. However, it was partial and preparatory. It was partial, since the entire revelation of God did not take place in the days of the OT, and preparatory since it was preparing the way for the completion of God's revelation in Jesus the Messiah, the incarnate Son of God. The Messiah came at the exact time as appointed by God the Father, he lived among us and manifested through his teachings and actions that which we had known only in a very partial way during the days of the Old Regime (Old Testament). By coming into the world, the Messiah revealed through his work of redemption and atonement on the cross, the supreme love of God for the human race which had fallen into the mire of evil.
There is a link between the Old Testament days and the New Testament days. God is the speaker in both periods, first, through the prophets, and finally in his Son Jesus, the Messiah. Thus, God's final revelation is clearer and more important than that which was revealed in the past. The proper understanding of God's revelation in the OT does not take place unless and until we consider the teachings of the NT (i.e., the Holy Injeel).
2. The Son (i.e., Jesus the Messiah) is more important than the prophets of the OT times and the angels who played an important role in God's revelations. God's revelation took place during the OT times through prophets and angels, but God's final and complete revelation is unique since it took place in the Messiah, the incarnate Word of God. As the author of the letter put it: Who being the brightness of His glory and the express image of His person, and upholding all things by the word of His power. We learn the same teaching from the Letter of Paul to the believers in Colosse: He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible... All things were created through Him and for Him.
We notice in the second part of Chapter 1 several Biblical quotations taken from the OT (especially from the Psalms) and which prove that the Messiah is so much better than the angels, as He has by inheritance obtained a more excellent name than they. Since the recipients of the Letter believed that God spoke during the Old Testament times, they had to submit to its teachings about the unique place of the Messiah and his infinite supremacy over all creatures, be they human or angelic.
The author of the Letter to the Hebrews showed us that Jesus the Messiah is God's eternal Son and that God spoke through him in a complete and final way. We also learned that the Messiah is the unique redeemer of mankind. Now since the Jews used to have a very high regard for God's angels, the author made several quotations from the OT. He showed that God did not speak about the angels in the same way he spoke about his only begotten Son who took our human nature and was called Jesus the Messiah, the savior of the world.
1. For to which of the angels did He ever say: "You are my son, today I have begotten you"? This is a quotation from the seventh verse of Psalm 2. While the majority of the Psalms were composed by David and referred to his life and work, yet they did not find their complete fulfillment in him. The lives of the kings of Israel and their prophets were not perfect. The inspired authors of the NT applied these psalms to the person and work of the Messiah. Psalm 2 was not applicable to any angel, it finds its full meaning in Jesus the Messiah, the eternal Son of God.
2. "I will be to Him a Father, and He shall be to Me a Son"? These words were said at a specific time concerning king David and they are quoted from 2 Samuel 7:14, but as the words of Psalm 2, they were fulfilled in Jesus the Messiah, who according to his human nature, was a descendent of David.
3. But when He again brings the firstborn into the world, He says: "Let all the angels of God worship Him". This is a quotation from the Septuagint translation of the OT and from the book of Deuteronomy. [The Septuagint translation was done at Alexandria around the 2nd century B.C. by a group of Jewish scholars who undertook the translation of the OT into Greek for the benefit of the Jews, living in the Dispersion, and who could no longer understand Hebrew] The Messiah is called the firstborn because he was the first to rise from the dead with the glorious resurrection body. This verse refers to the return of the Messiah at the end of time when the angels offer him their worship. Whom the angels worship must, therefore, be greater than them.
4. And of the angels He says: "Who makes His angels spirits and His ministers a flame of fire." This is a quotation from Psalm 104:4; But to the Son He says: "Your throne, O God, is forever and ever; a scepter of righteousness is the scepter of Your kingdom. You have loved righteousness and hated lawlessness; therefore God, Your God, has anointed You with the oil of gladness more than Your companions." These words are quoted from Psalm 45: 6,7; and even though originally they applied to a human king, yet they were not fulfilled in any of the kings of ancient Israel. They were all sinners, and even their greatest king, Solomon the Wise, fell in the sin of idol worship. Thus, this Psalm was accomplished in Jesus the Messiah who was born of the virgin Mary. He was of the seed of David, according to his human nature. But at the same time, he was the Son of God according to his divine nature. The prophecies of Psalm 45 were fulfilled in his person and work.
5. Finally, we refer to verses 10-12 of chapter 1 which are a quotation from Psalm 102:25-27 and verse 13 of the chapter is taken from Psalm 110 which was quoted also by the Lord Jesus when he had a disputation with the Jewish religious leaders who were opposing him. This verse: Sit at My right hand, Till I make Your enemies Your footstool, was certainly accomplished in the Messiah who is both the Son of God and the son of man and mankind's only savior.
This chapter gives a warning to every person who becomes aware of the contents of God's final revelation in Jesus the Messiah that he must believe in his saving mission. The world to come will be subjected to man as he has been freed from sin and united with the head of the new humanity, i.e., Jesus the Messiah. According to Psalm 8, the world to come will not be subjected to the angels but to man. The Messiah's mission was not to save angels but to save the descendants of Abraham, i.e., all those who believe in the Messiah as their savior.
1. The necessity of obeying God's final revelation and the terrible consequences of unbelief in the Messiah. Before the coming of the Messiah, God had revealed himself through the prophets. Quite often the prophets heard the divine word by means of angels. Now if transgressing against that revelation which was mediated through angels received a terrible punishment, what would be the end of those who refuse to receive God's last and final revelation in Jesus the Messiah? This revelation, in the NT age is much more important than that which was revealed during the OT times.
a. Because this was accomplished in the Son of God and not through the mediation of angels or prophets. It was a direct revelation of God and from God.
b. This revelation was concerned with the realization of the salvation which God had planned and had finally accomplished in Jesus the Messiah. God's faithful servants give their testimony about this revelation by going into the world to proclaim the word of reconciliation and peace. Therefore, every hearer of this word must watch out lest he neglects God's last word which is recorded in the Injeel (i.e. in the NT books). His punishment will be the greater if he neglects God's command to repent and believe in the Messiah.
2. We learn from the OT that the Messiah is greater than the angels since he is the Son of God and because of the unique work of salvation which he has accomplished on the cross. The recipients of the letter knew that the angels played a very important role in God's plan for the world. But the Holy Bible teaches us clearly that the Messiah is greater than the angels even though by his incarnation he assumed our human nature. He was in a state of humiliation which led to his sufferings and his death on the cross. Psalm 8 mentions that God made man lower than the angels for a short while. But this was not God's final plan for man. At first we may notice man's elevated status according to God's original plan. But due to man's fall into sin he was not able to fulfil that plan in his life.
We learn from the First Book of the Tawrat (Genesis) that God created man to rule over all nature including animals and vegetation. But what man failed to accomplish on account of his fall, Jesus the Messiah accomplished since he was the perfect man. After tasting death, he rose again and ascended to heaven and was crowned with glory and honor. All who believe in him will share with him the rule over all things. What man had lost due to the Fall, every believer will regain through the redemptive work of Jesus the Messiah. By his death on the cross the Messiah vanquished death and liberated all the believers who were living in a state of bondage due to their fear of death.
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