Of all the New Testament letters, Hebrews seems to be one many Christians find strange and alien. Here we enter the world of Melchizedek and Aaron, angels and Moses, sacrifices and priests. It all seems so Old Testament, so intricate, and even confusing.
If so, it is time to (re)discover Hebrews. But how?
Seeing the Big Picture
One of the first things to do when studying a book of the Bible is to try to get “the big picture.” The second easiest (but usually the best) way to do this is to skim through the book, note the natural divisions, isolate the main themes, and write out a brief outline of the argument or plotline.
The easiest (but actually second best!) way for readers of Tabletalk is (of course) simply to consult their Reformation Study Bible. There we find an effort-free outline.
But a compromise method may be a good place to begin: attempt our own outline, consult our study Bible, and then compare notes.
In fact, the big picture in Hebrews is fairly straightforward. Put simply, it is “Jesus is the greatest.”
Jesus is: greater than angels (chaps. 1–2); greater than Moses (3:1–4:12); greater than the priests and high priests (4:13–7:28); a nd greater than the Old Testament sacrifices (chaps. 8–10).
Since this is so, like those heroes of the faith who looked forward to the Messiah’s coming, we need to: keep our eyes glued to Him as we persevere in faith (chaps. 11–12) and live together as the new covenant community (chap. 13).
If we get lost in the details, Hebrews will appear to be a long, maze-like book. But if we grasp the big picture, we will see why the author thought he had “written . . . only a short letter” (13:22, NIV).
Within this framework there are priceless treasures to be found. Here are five of the jewels:
First, Hebrews is a Jesus-filled letter and shows us His glory. The more we read the letter, the more we realize that it is not about angels, Moses, Melchizedek, Aaron, or old covenant worship. The truth is that God has so ordered the course of redemptive history that they are all about Jesus.
Second, Hebrews helps us to see how the relationship between the old and the new covenants is one of unity and diversity. The author tells us this right at the beginning: “Long ago,” at many times and in many ways, God spoke to the fathers, but He did so by the prophets. “In these last days,” God spoke to us, and did so by His Son. In these two statements, the whole of the Bible’s message is summed up: The Old Testament revelation is fragmentary and multiplex; Jesus is full and final. He reveals God perfectly, because He is “the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature” (1:3).
The Old Testament is full of copies and shadows (9:23; 10:1). Jesus is the original and the reality.
Third, Hebrews movingly describes the reality of Jesus’ humanity. At first — if we get bogged down in the unfamiliarity of the Levitical system — we may not notice this. But read again, and it will become clear.
The Son of God became like us, shared our human origin, was tempted, experienced suffering, and tasted death (2:10, 11, 14, 18). He became a brother to us (v. 17). That is why He is able to help the tempted (v. 18).
The Son of God shared our weakness and has taken into heaven the very humanity in which He tasted it. Through Him we can come with confidence to God’s throne, knowing that there is mercy to be found there for our weakness and grace for our sinfulness (4:14–15).
The Son of God became a man of prayers and tears. His obedience was exercised in suffering. We can trust Him as the source of our salvation (5:7–9).
Fourth, Hebrews wonderfully expounds Jesus’ glory. Every chapter points to this. It is worth taking the time simply to read the big texts. These include Hebrews 1:3; 2:9; 3:3; 4:14; 5:9; 6:20; 7:22; 8:1; 9:15; 10:12; 11:40–12:2; and 13:8. Jesus is “the same yesterday, today, and forever,” that is, He is the One who was fragmentarily and preliminarily revealed in the old covenant, has been fully revealed in the new, and will finally be revealed in the eschaton (at the end of days).
Fifth, Hebrews speaks to us with great pastoral sensitivity. It is, after all, a “word of exhortation” or encouragement. It is realistic about suffering, the fear of persecution, the danger of discouragement, the struggles we have against sin, the possibility of backsliding, the spiritual paralysis produced by the condemning voice of conscience, and the possibility that we may lack assurance. Its remedy for every spiritual disease is stated in a theology marked by great simplicity married to rich complexity: Fix your eyes on Jesus, the Apostle and High Priest of our calling, the Founder and Perfecter of our Faith (3:1; 12:2). See everything in the light of who Jesus is, what He has done, and what He continues to do today. You cannot go wrong there.