MORNING MESSAGE – John Cline
Years ago, our church financially and prayerfully supported Pierre Lebel, the Director of Youth With a Mission in Montreal, as he witnessed to angel-worshippers about Jesus. What happened was this: Pierre is a long-time, personal friend of ours and he phoned to ask for our church’s support as there was going to be a New Age Festival in Montreal at which he had rented a booth which he would be manning for the purpose of witnessing to any inquirers who came up to him. These were people who worshipped angels and Pierre wanted to tell them about the one whom angels worship: Jesus. He would be telling the people that while angels are real beings, majestic and heavenly beings whom we humans should appreciate and admire, that angels themselves would not approve of humans worshipping them because the only worship they are involved in is of God the Father and Jesus, God’s Son. Pierre planned to tell the lovely, searching people at that New Age Festival that angels’ worship and serve Jesus only. The writer of the letter to the Hebrews would have approved.
Concerning the letter to the Hebrews, here is the first thing to understand as we begin a new sermon series today, that being on this letter: its focus is on the supremacy of Jesus over everyone and everything else. We will see that beginning in chapter one when the author compares angels to Jesus. But, concerning that author, you should know that no one knows who wrote the letter to the Hebrews. First century Christians undoubtedly knew but that information was simply lost after the first century. The resolution of this mystery has been a hot topic of speculation in Christian circles over the centuries. I am not going to take time now to outline the reasons supporting Paul, Barnabas, Luke, Priscilla, Apollos, Silas as being the possible writer of this letter. Instead, you will need to come to the adult Sunday School classes on September 18th and 25th to find out about that, but I will let you know that by the end of the second century, Paul was thought to be the author (most likely). That is why Hebrews was placed in the New Testament order right after Paul’s 13 letters and just before the letters written by James, Peter, John, and Jude. The compilers of the New Testament didn’t want to say for sure that Hebrews was or wasn’t written by Paul, so they took the prudent route and placed the letter where they did, just after Paul’s letters. But the writing style of Hebrews is definitely not Paul’s style, starting with the fact that Hebrews does not begin with Paul identifying himself as being its author, a thing he does in his each of his 13 undisputed letters. As well, in Hebrews 2:3, the author states that he himself was a disciple of the apostles, a second-generation Christian. Paul would not have said that about himself for he, and others, called him a first-generation apostle to whom Jesus appeared. Of those other choices, Silas is my personal preference. Because Silas was involved in writing 1st Peter which we preached through this summer, that is why we have landed at Hebrews as our next book of the Bible to preach through. We are on #54 (I think) of the 66 books we have preached through. The style of writing as well as the themes between Peter’s first letter and Hebrews has similarities. And Silas was a second-generation Christian, not one of the apostles, though he was a leader and prophet in the early church. He helped Paul write 1st and 2nd Thessalonians and he, along with a man named Judas Barsabbas, took the letter written by the apostles after the famous and formative Council of Jerusalem found in Acts 15 and delivered it to the churches of northern Syria and south-eastern Turkey. He knew the power of the written word, of a written letter. In any case, the much-loved, oft quoted, letter the Hebrews has survived all these centuries with no one being able to state with 100% certainly who the author is, thus I have to conclude that the author’s identity doesn’t really matter. So, what does matter is not who wrote the letter to the Hebrews, but what its readers do with it. Now, the reason for the letter: False teachings had crept in, diminishing the uniqueness of Jesus. “Though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again.” (Hebrews 5:12)
We saw in our summer sermon series through 1st and 2nd Peter that Peter was concerned about his readers being led astray by false teachers. In Hebrews is the same concern. The author of Hebrews is straightforward and blunt, 30 times exhorting his readers to get serious about their faith and to grow up into spiritual maturity. If you like writers who don’t beat about the bush, this is your letter! And, just as we read in 1st and 2nd Peter, the persecution of Christians was rampant at the time. In circa 64 A.D., the Roman Emperor Nero persecuted Christians, particularly those situated in Rome. The author of Hebrews reveals that he was writing from Italy, so most likely it was from Rome, that centre of persecution, that the author wrote.
Persecution was happening: “Remember those earlier days after you had received the light, when you endured in a great conflict full 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 suffered along 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.” (Hebrews 10:32-36)
The writer was concerned that persecution was tempting the readers to lose their faith and so he called on them to remember Jesus.
Consider Christ who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. (Hebrews 12:3).
“If Jesus could endure such persecution, so can you”, is what he was trying to tell them. But, in fairness to those readers, can you imagine how difficult it would be to stay strong when your life, or your loved one’s life, or your parent’s lives, or your children’s lives are threatened simply because of being a believer? When your property is stolen, your job is taken away, public ridicule is abounding, and you are imprisoned, I can imagine that some people’s faith might waver. The author of Hebrews fully expected more persecutions to come against his readers, and so he was deeply concerned for them and for their determination to remain as believers. At the same time, he felt that there was something they could do to stay strong in the faith and in that way emerge intact from the persecution, and that was by going deep, being sure that they knew who Jesus was and is and rejecting all false teachings. The Hebrew Christians were still babes in the faith, but the writer was unsympathetic to that fact. He didn’t feel they needed to be. It was time for them to get mature, to grow up, to dig down. After all, the giants of the faith – and he lists them in his famous “Hall of Faith” found in chapter 11 – all underwent persecution, but they stayed strong as they stayed true to the faith. The letter was written to the Hebrews, i.e., Jewish believers, who still were either practicing the Temple sacrificial system or unsure about the relationship of Jesus to it.
The author calls Old Testament Israelites “our forefathers”, so he himself was undoubtedly a Hebrew, a Jewish man by birth, and a follower of Jesus. He had that shared ancestry with his readers and so, to prove his points, he went to what the Hebrews would know: the Jewish scripture, the Old Testament. From there, 31 times directly and more than that indirectly, he quoted. His readers were Hebrew Christians who had somehow been misled into believing that they still needed to go to the Temple in Jerusalem and keep the sacrificial system practices. The author of Hebrews said, “uh-uh, all of that is null and void because Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God, sacrificed his body once for all on the cross. As the mediator of a new covenant”, the author writes, “Jesus’ new covenant which had been made from his sacrifice superseded the old, Temple sacrificial covenant.” Going on: the date of writing was before 70 A.D. as the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem is not mentioned and thus was an event which would happen in the future (the future at the timing of the letter). The author used the present tense to describe the sacrificial duties of the high priest in the Temple, so they had to have been happening as he wrote. Historically, we know that the high priest’s activities, and the Temple sacrificial system which guided them, came to an end in A.D. 70 when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and its temple. Thus, Hebrews was written before the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D. for that had to have been a future event at the time. Also, he wrote,
I want you to know that our brother Timothy has been released. If he arrives soon, I will come with him to see you (Hebrews 13:23).
As Timothy’s imprisonment is not mentioned in the Book of Acts or in any of Paul’s writings, which takes us up to Paul’s death in c. 65 A.D., his imprisonment must have occurred after Paul’s death. Thus, the letter to the Hebrews was written between Paul’s death and the destruction of the temple, thus sometime between 66-69 A.D. One more thing to consider before we get to chapter one. In that day, Jewish synagogues rejected the followers of Jewish Christ and encouraged local authorities to mistreat them. In fact, it was common to blame the Hebrew/Jewish believers when something bad happened in Israel/Palestine. I can well those struggling, persecuted believers to imagine if their persecutors and opposers might be right, after all. The more prolonged the sufferings and persecution of their community were, the more tempted those first century Jewish/Hebrew believers may have been to adhere to what was being taught to them by their Jewish opponents. They may have wondered if Jesus wasn’t all that he had been cracked up to be by the apostles and that their sufferings were because God truly was not pleased with them. If that was the case, their faith may have wavered. The writer of Hebrews seems to have decided the time had come for him to step in and to challenge his fellow to open up their eyes and to go deep with Jesus. He writes,
Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings. It is good for our hearts to be strengthened by grace, not by ceremonial foods, which are of no value to those who eat them (Hebrews 13:9).
So, in this letter, various off-kilter Jewish teachings are countered, including the one just mentioned, that of legalistically eating ceremonial foods and then believing that God’s grace was found in doing that rather than in trusting in Jesus alone. But, today, we will read through chapter 1 of the letter. The author starts in this way:
In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven. So, he became as much superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is superior to theirs. (Hebrews 1:1-4)
That sevenfold description of all the things Jesus did and of who he is finds no equal in the New Testament. For the author, establishing that Jesus is superior to everyone and everything else is the key to the Hebrew Christians growing deep in their faith. When the Dead Sea scrolls were discovered in caves near Qumran, Israel in 1947, archaeologists and historians were fascinated to read the books excavated from those caves, books which had been read and kept by a first century B.C. esoteric religious community known as the Essenes. They lived in those caves. The books they read showed that the Essenes were very convinced that they were living in the “last days”. Their books showed that they venerated angels, exalting them as powerful, glorious creatures who brought divine revelations to inferior human beings. Historians and researchers speculate that such thinking had infiltrated mainstream Judaism, and thus was being taught to Hebrew/Jewish Christians, as well, particularly to those who were still involved in Jewish religious practices such as the Temple sacrificial system. This venerating and worship of angels presented a serious challenge to followers of Jesus for it taught that Jesus was not near as great as what was taught by the apostles and the first Christians. It seems that the question was, why would anyone follow Jesus when they could worship angels, instead? The author of Hebrews responded to this false teaching by quoting from the one authoritative writing that Jews should pay heed to, the Old Testament.
For to which of the angels did God ever say, “You are my Son;
today I have become your Father”? (Hebrews 1:5a; Psalm 2:7)
That name for Jesus, the “Son of God” was and is not just a title but a description of Jesus’ nature and character and was found in the O.T,
Or again, “I will be his Father and he will be my Son”? (Hebrews 1:5b; 2 Samuel 7:14; 1 Chronicles. 17:13)
We often understand things when they are set in contrast to other things, with the writer of Hebrews doing so with Jesus to the angels. Using a term commonly reserved by Jewish teachers for the Messiah, that term being “firstborn”, the author of Hebrews insists,
And again, when God brings his firstborn into the world, he says, “Let all God’s angels worship him.” (Hebrews 1:6; Deut. 32:43 (see Dead Sea Scrolls and Septuagint)
Angels worship Jesus, not the other way round. In fact, God says it.
In speaking of the angels, he says, “He makes his angels spirits,
and his servants flames of fire.” (Hebrews 1:7; Psalm 104:4)
So, angels, scripture teaches, have various tasks, their roles determined by God. They are all good and valuable. However,
But about the Son he says, “Your throne, O God, will last for ever and ever; a scepter of justice will be the scepter of your kingdom. You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness;
therefore God, your God, has set you above your companions
by anointing you with the oil of joy.” (Heb. 1:8,9; Psalm 45:6,7)
No one compares to Jesus. About him, God spoke often in the O.T.:
He also says, “In the beginning, Lord, you laid the foundations of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands. They will perish, but you remain; they will all wear out like a garment. You will roll them up like a robe; like a garment they will be changed.
But you remain the same, and your years will never end.” (Hebrews 1:10-12; Psalm 1012:25-27)
And, then the author of Hebrews poses a straightforward question:
To which of the angels did God ever say, “Sit at my right hand
until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet”? (Hebrews 1:13; Psalm 110:1)
The truth about Jesus may seem mysterious but really it is simple: there is no one and no thing like him. After all, as the author asks,
Are not all angels ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation? (Hebrews 1:14)
Angels are created beings meant to serve humans and to usher us to the place where we choose salvation. But angels do not save us. Only Jesus can do that. As the sevenfold statement from Hebrews 1:1-4 listed, Jesus is far superior to angels due to the fact that he is the one through whom God speaks in these “last days”, as well as the heir of all things, the creator of the universe, the radiance of God’s glory and His exact representation, the sustainer of all things and people, the only one who has supplied purification for sins, and the one who now rules in heaven. No angel is like that. In concluding this first set of teachings, that about angels, the author warns,
We must pay the most careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away. (Hebrews 2:1)
And, so, our friend Pierre Lebel fearlessly went to that New Age Festival and there told any attendees who visited his booth to honour and be thankful for God’s majestic, amazing angels, yes! But, even better, to worship the One that angels worship: Jesus! To state the obvious, Pierre caused quite a stir, that wild, bold, Christian who had infiltrated their festival. As a church, we supported Pierre in renting his booth and in speaking biblical truth. He planted many seeds for Jesus at that festival. But knowing Jesus caused him to do what he did. And, so, like Pierre, and like the author of the letter to the Hebrews writes, here is the closing message for all of us as we live in this day and age of false teachings and even persecutions for believing in the One who is seated at God’s right hand in heaven.
And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. (Hebrews 12:1b,2a)