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by Hamilton Smith
The Epistle to the Hebrews.
The Epistle to the Hebrews is addressed to believers in the Lord Jesus from amongst the Jews. The contents of the Epistle clearly show that it was written to establish these believers in the truth of Christianity with all its privileges and blessings, and thus to deliver them from the Jewish system with which they had been connected by natural birth.
To understand the significance of the teaching in the Epistle, we must remember the character of this religious system with which the Jewish remnant had been connected. It was a national religion given to those who, by natural birth, were descended from Abraham. It raised no question of new birth. It was entirely for earth; it was silent as to heaven. It regulated man's conduct in relation to God and his neighbour, and promised earthly life, with earthly blessings, to those who walked according to its precepts.
This religion had for its rallying centre a visible temple - the most sumptuous building ever erected by man - with material altars, on which material sacrifices were offered by a special class of officiating priests who conducted an outward worship of God, accompanied by elaborate ceremonies, according to a prescribed ritual.
It was purposely designed to appeal to the natural man to prove whether there is anything in man in the flesh that can answer to the goodness of God when a religion is given which regulates every detail of man's life, from birth to old age, in order to secure his earthly prosperity, ease and happiness.
In result, this appeal to the natural man only served to show that there is nothing in unregenerate man to answer to God. Thus it came to pass that this Jewish system, which in its inception was established by God, in its history became corrupted by man. The culmination of wickedness, under this system, was the rejection and murder of the Messiah.
The Jews having thus filled up the cup of their iniquity became ripe for judgment. For the holy God to bear longer with a system that, in the hands of men, had been degraded to murder the Son of God would be to tarnish His righteousness and condone man's sin. Hence judgment is allowed to take its course and in due time the city is destroyed and the nation scattered.
There was, however, another purpose in the law. It not only regulated man's life by showing him his duty to God and his neighbour, but the whole system was the shadow of good things to come. Its tabernacle was a pattern of things in the heavens; its priesthood spoke of the priestly work of Christ; its sacrifices looked on to the great Sacrifice of Christ.
Christ being come - the glorious substance of all the shadows - the Jewish system has fulfilled its purpose as the pattern of things to come. It is therefore set aside, firstly, because man has corrupted it and, secondly, because Christ is its fulfilment.
We have further to remember that, while this system appealed to man in the flesh and left the great mass only in an outward and formal relationship with God, yet there were those in this system who clearly were in true relationship with God by faith, and when Christ came they acknowledged Him as the Messiah. They form but a remnant of the nation, and in this Epistle are recognised and addressed as already in relationship with God before Christianity was established.
To this godly remnant the Epistle is addressed in order to bring them into the new and heavenly relationships of Christianity by detaching them from the earthly religion of Judaism.
If, then, through the wickedness of men, and the coming of Christ the Jewish system is set aside, the way is opened for the introduction of Christianity. As ever, if God sets aside the old it is in order to bring in something better. While setting aside the old system God secures a believing remnant from the Jews, bringing them into the Christian circle. This Jewish remnant would naturally have strong links with the religion of their fathers. The ties of nature, the love of country, the prospects of earth, and the prejudices of training, would all tend to bind them to the system that God has set aside. It would therefore be especially difficult for them to enter into the heavenly character of Christianity. Moreover, while the temple was yet standing, and the Aaronic priests were still offering up visible sacrifices, there was the constant danger of those who had made the profession of Christianity turning back to Judaism.
To counteract this tendency, and in order to establish our souls in Christianity, the Spirit of God in this Epistle passes before us:
Firstly, the glories of the Person of Christ and His place in heaven ( Hebrews 1, 2 );
Secondly, the priesthood of Christ maintaining His people on earth, on their way to heaven (Hebrews 3-8);
Thirdly, the sacrifice of Christ, opening heaven to the believer, and fitting the believer for heaven ( Hebrews 9, 10 );
Fourthly, the present access to heaven where Christ is ( Hebrews 10 );
Fifthly, the path of faith that leads to Christ in heaven ( Hebrews 11 );
Sixthly, the different ways God takes to keep our feet in the path that leads to Christ in heaven ( Hebrews 12 );
Seventhly, The blessedness, on earth, of the outside place of reproach with Christ ( Hebrews 13 ).
It thus becomes clear how constantly and blessedly heaven is kept before us in this Epistle. It is indeed the Epistle of the opened heavens. This presentation of the heavenly character of Christianity makes the Epistle of special value in a day when Christendom has lost the true character of it by reducing it to a worldly system for the improvement of man.
Moreover, as the Spirit of God passes these great and heavenly truths before our souls, we are given to see how they exceed, and set aside, all that went before. The glories of Christ eclipse every created being, whether prophets or angels; the priesthood of Christ sets aside the Aaronic priesthood; the sacrifice of Christ sets aside the many sacrifices under the law; the immediate access to God sets aside the temple and its veil; the path of faith sets aside the whole system of seen things; the outside place sets aside “the camp” with its earthly religion.
It will be further noticed that in this Epistle the Church, as such, is not presented. It is only once mentioned, and then as one amongst other things to which we have come. (The mention in Heb_2:12 is a quotation from Psalm 22 .) It is the greatness of Christ and Christianity, in contrast with Judaism, that is passed before our souls. We are made to see how everything in Christianity lies in the region of faith, outside things of sight and sense. Christ in the glory, His priesthood, His sacrifice, approach to God, the path of faith, the heavenly race, and the things to which we have come, can only be seen and known by faith. The effects of Christianity may indeed be manifest in life and character, and may even produce results in the lives of unconverted men; but all that properly pertains to Christianity, that produces the effect in lives, is unseen, in contrast with Judaism with its appeal to sight and sense. Moreover, in coming to heavenly things and the things of faith, we have come to things which are before God, and things which are stable. We are surrounded by things which are passing, things which are changing, things which are shaking. In Christianity we are brought to that which never passes, never changes, and never will be shaken. Christ remains, Christ is the Same, and all that is founded upon Christ, and His eternal redemption, is stable and will never be moved.
The practical effect of the teaching of the Epistle must be to detach us from every form of earthly religion, whether it be Judaism, or corrupt Christendom formed after the pattern of Judaism. Moreover, if the truth puts us in the outside place on earth, it gives us a place inside the veil in heaven itself, and makes us strangers and pilgrims in the world through which we are passing.
2 The Glories of the Person of Christ
( Hebrews 1 and Hebrews 2 )
The writer's name not being mentioned, we may conclude it is not of importance for us to know who wrote the Epistle. The reference by the apostle Peter to an epistle written by Paul to the Jews, which he classes among “other Scriptures”, would seem to indicate that the apostle Paul is the writer ( 2Pe_3:15 ; 2Pe_3:16 ).
The special character of the Epistle may well account for the omission of the writer's name, for, amongst other purposes, the Epistle was written to show that God is no longer speaking through men, but, in wonderful grace, has put Himself into direct contact with men in the Person of the Son. Moreover, in the Epistle, Christ Himself is presented as the Apostle by whom God has spoken to man, and therefore eclipsing all others who may, in a subordinate sense, be apostles.
The great end of the Epistle is to establish believers in the heavenly character of Christianity and deliver them from an earthly religion of external forms. Everything in Christianity - the glory it brings to God and the blessing it secures for believers - depends upon the Person and work of Christ. Very fittingly, then, the Epistle opens by presenting the glories of His Person. The divine glory of Christ as the Son is unfolded in Hebrews 1 ; the authority of His word in Heb_2:1-4 ; and the glory of His humanity in Heb_2:5-18 .
the Week of Proper 25 / Ordinary 30