Understanding the Book of Hebrews

By Tim Sullivan


The book of Hebrews is a fascinating document of eternal truth and an invaluable aid to understanding the Old Testament. Selections from this epistle are sure to be found in any good dissertation on the Christian faith. However there are verses in Hebrews that are completely incompatible with the precepts of Christianity as set forth in the Pauline epistles. Unless a Christian knows to read these verses in their context, he is likely to interpret them as a challenge to his own salvation.

Some Necessary Background

The correct reading of Hebrews starts with identifying its primary audience. Although Christians can learn a tremendous amount from this book, it is not addressed to them. As the title clearly states, this epistle is addressed to the Hebrews: the descendents of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who belong to God by way of his covenants with Israel. This epistle does not argue that a Jew should forsake Judaism for Christianity; instead, it demonstrates that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Judaic faith.

To understand this epistle we must put to rest some misconceptions about the Old Testament. Some Christians think of the Old Testament (and particularly the law of Moses) as a guide to salvation by works. They think that in order to get and remain saved, a Jew had to walk perfectly in its steps. But such an arrangement would guarantee the damnation of all who lived under it. No mortal person has ever come close to keeping all the Law. James 2:10 says, “whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all.” Nevertheless, keeping the law of Moses was never a way to salvation.

When God Almighty introduced himself to Moses as “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (Exo. 3:6), he was calling to mind his everlasting covenants with Abraham and his seed. The surety of these covenants was the promise made by God himself. The Lord said to Isaac, “I will perform the oath which I sware unto Abraham thy father” (Gen. 26:3). All in all, God made four unconditional covenants with Israel promising an eternal seed, land, dynasty, and the full restoration of the houses of Judah and Israel.

In Mt. Sinai, God made a conditional covenant with Israel, the law of Moses. The Law did not show Israel how to become the people of God – they already were his people, his chosen people. The Law revealed God in his supreme holiness and showed Israel the requirements of righteous living.

Deuteronomy 10:12-13:
And now, Israel, what doth the LORD thy God require of thee, but to fear the LORD thy God, to walk in all his ways, and to love him, and to serve the LORD thy God withall thy heart and with all thy soul,
13 To keep the commandments of the LORD, and his statutes, which I command thee this day for thy good?

The Law established rules for personal conduct and for individual and corporate worship. It formed the “middle wall of partition” between the Jews and the Gentiles, keeping the Jews a distinct people. Most importantly, by giving man a standard by which to measure his thoughts and deeds, God revealed man’s sinful condition and proved that no man could attain the righteousness of God by his own works. All this was to one deliberate end: to bring the Jews to faith in the Messiah of God.

Galatians 3:24:
Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith.

You see, even though Israel was chosen by God, the sin nature inherent in mankind kept her from living the life of holiness that God requires of his people. Knowing what to do was not enough. She could not do it! She needed to be transformed. Finally, in the days of Jeremiah, God promised to give Israel a new heart by way of a covenant that was better than the Mosaic Law.

Jeremiah 31:31-33:
Behold, the days come, saith the LORD, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah:
32 Not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt; which my covenant they brake, although I was an husband unto them, saith the LORD:
33 But this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; After those days, saith the LORD, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people.

In the book of Hebrews, the “first” covenant is compared with the “better” covenant. But this is not a comparison between Judaism and Christianity, or salvation by works and salvation by grace. (Let me say it again: salvation by works was never possible!) The comparison in Hebrews is between the two covenants God made with Israel: the Mosaic covenant (the law of Moses) and the New Covenant.

Hebrews 8:6-7:
But now hath he obtained a more excellent ministry, by how much also he is the mediator of a better covenant, which was established upon better promises.
7 For if that first covenant had been faultless, then should no place have been sought for the second.

The purpose of the book of Hebrews is to show Israel that the “New Covenant” was God’s plan from the very beginning. All the splendid intricacies of the Mosaic Law were only types and shadows of something far better. This New Covenant, sealed in the blood of God’s only begotten Son, is the eternal truth behind every temporal symbol in the Old Testament.

The Structure of the Book

The epistle of Hebrews divides into three main sections (please see my chart at the end of this article). The first part (A) establishes the supremacy of Jesus over the prophets, the angels, and Moses. The second part (B) shows the supremacy of Christ as high priest over any descendant of Aaron. The third part (C) declares the supremacy of living by faith in Christ as witnessed by many revered people of the Old Testament.

Set among these three main sections are five warnings to God’s people in the hope that they will avoid making the same mistake as their ancestors.

Romans 9:32-33:
Wherefore? Because they sought it not by faith, but as it were by the works of the law. For they stumbled at that stumblingstone;
33 As it is written, Behold, I lay in Sion a stumblingstone and rock of offence: and whosoever believeth on him shall not be ashamed.

A. The Supremacy of Christ’s Person
(Hebrews 1:1 to 4:16)

The Old Testament Jew esteemed no witnesses greater than the prophets, the angels, and Moses. After all, it was by the word of the Lord given to the angels, the prophets, and especially Moses that Israel’s relationship with God was established. But in this first section of Hebrews, Christ is shown to be vastly superior to all three. Why? Because Jesus is the Son of God, perfectly human and infinitely divine. He has “by inheritance obtained a more excellent name than they” (Heb. 1:4). Consider the concluding argument to this section:

Hebrews 4:14-16:
Seeing then that we have a great high priest, that is passed into the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our profession.
15 For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin.
16 Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need.

The first of five warnings to Israel is found in Chapter Two. The logic is infallible. If we (that is, Israel) gave heed to the prophets, angels, and Moses, “How shall we escape, if we neglect so great salvation; which at the first began to be spoken by the Lord, and was confirmed unto us by them that heard him?” (Heb. 2:3).

The second warning is found in Chapter Three. Verse eight says, “Harden not your hearts, as in the provocation, in the day of temptation in the wilderness.” Spurred on by the evil testimony of the ten unbelieving spies, the children of Israel rose up to slay Moses, Joshua, and Caleb, and return to Egypt. An angry God intervened saying, “Surely they shall not see the land which I sware unto their fathers, neither shall any of them that provoked me see it” (Num. 14:23). This is the “provocation in the wilderness” that led to the forty years of wandering.

But know this: the children of Israel were still God’s people even as they wandered in the wilderness. God’s covenant with them was unconditional. However, this generation did not enter into the land of Promise. Why? “They could not enter in,” says Hebrews 3:19, “because of unbelief.”

Israel failed to walk with God because she tried to establish her own righteousness. She did not enter into the rest provided by Christ. God does not want to see any more of his people (whether they be of the Jews or Gentiles) lost in the wilderness of self-justification.

B. The Supremacy of Christ’s Work
(Hebrews 5:1 to 10:25)

In the second section of Hebrews, the ministry of Christ is proven superior to the priesthood, sacrifices, and ordinances of the Old Testament. Those things that went before – the Levitical priesthood, the Tabernacle, the yearly sacrifices and offerings – were only “a shadow of good things to come, and not the very image of the things” (Heb. 10:1).

Hebrews 8:1-2:
Now of the things which we have spoken this is the sum: We have such an high priest, who is set on the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens;
2 A minister of the sanctuary, and of the true tabernacle, which the Lord pitched, and not man.

Christ’s supremacy (and therefore the supremacy of the New Covenant) is established by two unassailable oaths.

Hebrews 6:18:
That by two immutable things, in which it was impossible for God to lie, we might have a strong consolation, who have fled for refuge to lay hold upon the hope set before us. . . .

What are these two oaths? The first declares, “Thou art my Son; this day have I begotten thee.” Voiced by David in Psalm 2:7, it is cited twice in the book of Hebrews, in 1:5 and 5:5. The second oath, “Thou art a priest for ever after the order of Melchisedec,” is found six times: in Hebrews 5:6, 5:10, 6:20, 7:11, 7:17, and 7:21. Again we see that Jesus is superior to all his predecessors by reason of his perfection. Furthermore, his priesthood is not of Aaron, but of Melchisedec; it is eternal and not temporal.

The third warning to the Hebrews appears in this second section, and confronts those who are “dull of hearing” (5:11).

Hebrews 5:12:
For when for the time ye ought to be teachers, ye have need that one teach you again which be the first principles of the oracles of God; and are become such as have need of milk, and not of strong meat.

The Holy Spirit chastises people who should already know such things to master “the principles of the doctrine of Christ” (6:1), the fundamental truths of the Word of God. How can they possibly digest the “meat” of this epistle when they have yet to acquaint themselves with the milk?

The second part of the book of Hebrews implores God’s chosen people to finally enter into that place of rest made possible by the ministry of his Son.

Hebrews 10:19-20:
Having therefore, brethren, boldness to enter into the holiest by the blood of Jesus,
20 By a new and living way, which he hath consecrated for us, through the veil, that is to say, his flesh. . . .

C. The Supremacy of Faith in Christ
(Hebrews 10:26 to 13:17)

The last section of Hebrews concerns the supremacy of a life lived in faith. The Jews are reminded of their forefathers who remained faithful to God despite the hardships they were forced to endure. This portion of Hebrews includes the chapter some people call “the believer’s hall of fame.” Here the secret of their success is revealed. The saints of old found rest in their faith in things unseen, that is to say, in the invisible Christ. When you read, “by faith Noah,” or “by faith Abraham,” understand it as it was meant to be understood – by faith in Christ!

What a surprise to those Jews who have dismissed Jesus as an illegitimately-born cult leader to realize that Moses himself was made able to endure by his faith in Christ!

Hebrews 11:26-27:
26 Esteeming the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures in Egypt: for he had respect unto the recompence of the reward.
27 By faith he forsook Egypt, not fearing the wrath of the king: for he endured, as seeing him who is invisible.

The final two warnings to the Jews are given in this section. First comes a word about drawing back.

Hebrews 10:38:
Now the just shall live by faith: but if any man draw back, my soul shall have no pleasure in him.

Does anyone need a reminder of God’s anger when his people wanted to return to Egypt? God forbid they should now seek to return to the law of Moses! The days of the annual sacrifices made by Levitical priests are over. The only sacrifice that can atone for man’s sins is that of Christ our Passover.

Hebrews 10:26-27:
For if we sin wilfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins,
27 But a certain fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation, which shall devour the adversaries.

The final warning is to any who refuse God’s admonition to believe on Christ.

Hebrews 12:25:
See that ye refuse not him that speaketh. For if they escaped not who refused him that spake on earth, much more shall not we escape, if we turn away from him that speaketh from heaven. . . .

Much of Israel will face a terrible time of testing known as the Great Tribulation. But those who have put their trust in Christ will be safely secured away in heaven.

Isaiah 26:20:
Come, my people, enter thou into thy chambers, and shut thy doors about thee: hide thyself as it were for a little moment, until the indignation be overpast.

Thankfully, one day, by the same grace that saved you and me, all Israel will come to the acknowledgement of the truth.

Romans 11:26-27:
And so all Israel shall be saved: as it is written, There shall come out of Sion the Deliverer, and shall turn away ungodliness from Jacob:
27 For this is my covenant unto them, when I shall take away their sins.

This blessed end is assured by a new and better covenant in Christ.

Hebrews 12:24:
And to Jesus the mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling, that speaketh better things than that of Abel.

Here is a favorite verse among Christians:

Hebrews 12:2:
Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God.

I believe most Christians read this verse with the understanding that Jesus is the author and finisher of the Christian faith. There is a greater truth to be seen. God is speaking to Israel saying, “This same Jesus, which is taken up from you into heaven” (Acts 1:11); this same Jesus, “whom ye delivered up, and denied him in the presence of Pilate, when he was determined to let him go” (Acts 3:13); this same Jesus is the author and finisher of the Judaic faith. This was God’s plan from the beginning!

The fascinating truths found in the book of Hebrews deserve a far more comprehensive examination than what you’ve read in these few pages. Still, I hope this brief study and its companion outline will add enrichment and enjoyment to your reading of this wonderful epistle.

chart of hebrews


From the March 2012 issue of The Vine & Branches