A friend — his face wrinkled in a cheerful grin — described an incident that took place at the end of a conference address I had given recently. One hearer, apparently full of the blessings of the passage I had been trying to expound, turned to his neighbor — a stranger to him — and made some positive comments on the experience of the preceding hour: “Wasn’t that great?” — only to receive the somewhat chilling reply, “Didn’t do anything for me.”
I suspect that if one were to do a kind of New Testament Random Letter Association Test (to be known among evangelicals in the future as NTRLAT!), Philippians (“full of joy”), Romans (“full of the doctrines of grace”), and even James (“full of practical counsel”), would fare well. But the mention of The Letter to the Hebrews might evoke a substantial number of “Does nothing for me” responses.
Is it too different, too alien in thought, too “old testamentish”? Whatever the reason, Hebrews rarely stands high up the list of beloved parts of the New Testament — apart, of course, from the occasional memorized verse about temptation, or faith, or looking to Jesus.
Yet there is no letter in the New Testament that tells us more about Christ and his work; chapter after chapter unfolds — ten in all — before we come to the hinge that brings the unknown author from exposition of Christ (holy brothers . . . consider Jesus” (Heb. 3:1) to application (“Therefore, … let us.” Heb.10:19, 22).
So few things would do the evangelical church more good than a baptism into the Letter to the Hebrews! But why? Here are four reasons, selected almost randomly from a cursory reading of the Letter.
1. Hebrews reveals Christ as the key to understanding the Old Testament. Gentle reader, that is 75 percent of your Bible! Hebrews acts like a master interpreter taking you through the pages of the Old Testament and highlighting its central message, showing how different elements in it combine to lead to Jesus — history, liturgy, typology and prophecy woven together into an harmonious portrayal of the significance of his ministry. The whole book unfolds the statement with which it opens.
The Old Testament Message is: past times; multifaceted revelation; expressed through the prophets; given to the fathers.
The New Testament Message is: the new age; focused revelation; expressed in Christ the Son; given to us.
The two are related — as Hebrews will explain — as promise and fulfillment, type and antitype, shadow and reality — bound together by one promise, one plan of salvation, one way of grace, one Savior.
2. Hebrews displays the greatness of Jesus Christ. The New Testament never despises the Old. But sometimes its language seems to verge on demeaning its contents. The reason for this is simple: in the light of the full, magnificent revelation of God’s grace in Christ, everything that preceded it fades into virtual insignificance. Who strikes a match to see (asks John Calvin, shrewdly) when the noon-day sun is brightly blazing in the sky? So Hebrews is at pains to point out the superiority of Christ over everything and everyone revered for their role in the giving and effecting of the “old” Mosaic covenant.
3. Hebrews emphasizes the theological and practical importance of the humanity of Christ. This will emerge again and again in our studies of this Letter. For the moment, however, underline this thought: assurance, peace, access to God, knowledge that he is OUR Father, strength to overcome temptation — all depend on this: The Son of God took our flesh, bore our sins in such a way that further sacrifice for sin is both unnecessary and unintelligible, died our death, continues to wear our nature forever, and in it lives for us before the face of God.
4. Hebrews emphasizes the nature of true faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. The unnamed first recipients of this letter were under pressure to return to their old ways and their old religion. The author was, however, convinced that despite the temptations and failures, salvation was theirs because they had the kind of faith that would persevere to the end (Heb. 6:11). In this they were one with the great heroes of faith in the past from Abel onwards, all of whom, according to the extent of God’s revelation given to them, looked forward to the fulfillment of all his promises in Christ.
If studying Hebrews had that effect on us, it would be time well spent, don’t you think? How do you feel about Hebrews “doing” that for you?