Years ago during my seminary studies I worked for a laboratory. One of my coworkers was a member of a group we commonly refer to as a “cult.” This sect held many beliefs contrary to traditional Christianity. Most significantly, they believed that Jesus was not truly God. My coworker and I would often have long discussions as we worked together. I would show him Bible verses that described the greatness of Jesus and that he was truly God. His response was always trying to show me that Jesus wasn’t as great as I thought he was!
The writer to the Hebrews would be dismayed by this approach. Throughout the New Testament the focus is always on the greatness of Jesus. The idea that anyone would try to make him less important is contrary to everything we read in Scripture.
God’s Final Revelation through the Son
Hebrews begins by identifying Jesus as the full and final revelation of God. Under the old covenant God spoke to his people through the prophets at various times and in various ways, but “in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son” (1:2). What follows is an extraordinary statement about the supremacy of Christ. This passage represents one of the most exalted Christological statements in the Bible (compare john 1:1–18; colossians 1:15–20). The Son is the Creator, sustainer, and heir of all things. He is fully divine—the “radiance” or reflection of God’s glory and the “exact representation of his being” (hebrews 1:2–3). After accomplishing our salvation, he took his place at the highest position in the universe,
the right hand of God the Father (1:4).
Chapter 1: Superior to Angels
This means, the author says, that Christ is superior to the angels (1:3–4), citing a series of OT quotations to demonstrate this (1:5–14). While angels are merely ministering servants (1:14), Jesus is God’s Son, who will reign on God’s throne forever (1:5–6, 8–13). Angels are created beings; he is the Creator (1:10). While the heavens and the earth are finite, he is eternal: “They will perish, but you remain . . . your years will never end” (1:11–12). Hence, the angels are called to worship him (1:6).
Why this discussion about Jesus’s superiority to angels? The author points out that if disobedience to the old covenant, which was delivered by angels, resulted in severe judgment, how much greater will the judgment be for those who reject God’s final revelation through the Son: “How shall we escape if we ignore so great a salvation?” (2:3).
Chapters 3–4: Superior to Moses and Joshua
(An exposition of Psalm 95)
Just as Jesus is superior to the angels, so he is superior to Moses, God“s mediator for the first covenant. While Moses was faithful as a “servant” in God’s house (3:5), Jesus was faithful as the builder of the house and as the Son who rules over the house (3:1–6).
Similarly, Joshua, who assumed Israel’s leadership after Moses, was a great leader who led God’s people into the promised land. But because the people hardened their hearts, Joshua did not in the end provide them with a true “Sabbath rest” (4:8–9; psalm 95:7–11).
This idea of “rest” is linked both to God’s rest on the seventh day of creation (genesis 2:2) and Israel’s rest in the promised land (psalm 95:11). For the writer of Hebrews, rest becomes a metaphor for God’s final salvation. Since the people of Israel failed to enter that rest, “there remains . . . a Sabbath-rest for the people of God” (hebrews 4:9). Only Jesus, through his once-for-all sacrifice for sins, can provide this true Sabbath rest. The readers are therefore called to be faithful, unlike the wilderness generation, and so to enter that rest (4:11).
Chapter 7: Superior to the Old Testament Priesthood
(An exposition of Psalm 110:4)
Under the old covenant, priests in Israel were members of the tribe of Levi and the family of Aaron. Jesus, however, was from the tribe of Judah and the family of David. How, then, can he serve as a legitimate high priest? In chapter 7 the author explains that Jesus is a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek, an even greater priesthood than that of Levi and Aaron.
The mysterious figure of Melchizedek appears in two places in the Bible, Genesis 14:18–20 and Psalm 110:4. In Genesis 14, when Abraham is returning from defeating the five kings who kidnapped his nephew Lot, Melchizedek, king of Salem, comes out to provide the returning army with a meal and supplies. Melchizedek, whose name means “king of righteousness,” is identified as the king of Salem (Jerusalem), which means “king of peace.” He is also identified as “priest of the Most High God,” confirming that there is an order of priesthood distinct from the line of Aaron.
The author points to remarkable parallels between Jesus and Melchizedek:
(1) Jesus is king of righteousness and king of peace, since he brings reconciliation between God and humanity through his righteous life and sacrificial death. Both of these may be seen as titles of the Messiah. In Isaiah 9:6–7 the Messiah is said to be “Prince of Peace”; and in Jeremiah 23:5–6; 33:15–16 his title is “The Lord Our Righteous Savior.”
(2) Just as Melchizedek has no genealogy in Genesis and so no record of his beginning or end, so Jesus is eternal with no beginning or end.
(3) The author then demonstrates that the Melchizedekian priesthood is superior to the Aaronic, by showing how Abraham gave a tithe (tenth) of the spoils of war to Melchizedek. Since the lesser individual always gives tithes to the greater, Abraham acknowledges that Melchizedek is greater than himself, and so implicitly the priestly order of Melchizedek is greater than the priestly order of Abraham’s descendent Levi.
Some have wondered if Melchizedek was in fact Jesus, appearing on earth in a pre-incarnate form. While this is possible, more likely Melchizedek was an actual earthly king, and the author is drawing an analogy or typology between the two. The author says that Melchizedek is “like” or “resembling” the Son of God (7:3), not that he is the Son of God. Melchizedek is a preview of what the Messiah would be.
Superior to the Old Testament Tabernacle and Sacrifices
Jesus’s superior priesthood means that he offers a better sacrifice than the OT priests. The OT priesthood was transitory, passed down from generation to generation when the high priest died. But Jesus’s priesthood is eternal, as it says in Psalm 110:4: “You are a priest forever . . .” (hebrews 7:8, 15–17, 23–25). As a result, “he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them” (7:25).
While the sacrifices of the OT priests had to be repeated “day after day,” Christ’s sacrifice was “once for all” (hebrews 7:27; 9:12, 26; 10:2, 10)—one sacrifice that paid for all sins for all time. The OT priests’ sacrifices were ultimately ineffective. They offered up only animals, which could never truly take away sins (10:4). Since human beings had sinned, a human being had to pay the penalty for their sins. “For this reason he had to be made like them, fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people” (2:17). As the perfect representative of humanity, Jesus offered himself as a sacrifice for their sins (5:3; 7:27).
In the OT, the high priest was a sinner and so had to first offer sacrifices for himself before he could offer them for the people. Since Jesus was perfect and sinless, he did not have to offer sacrifices for his own sins but could through one sacrifice pay the penalty for the sins of others (7:26–27; 9:14, 28). The OT priests operated in an earthly tabernacle, a mere “shadow” of the true heavenly tabernacle. Jesus entered the
heavenly tabernacle (the presence of God) and so offered a once-for-all sacrifice for sins (9:1–14).
Chapter 8: Superior to the Old Covenant
Just as Jesus offered a superior sacrifice, so also he established a new and superior covenant (8:6–13). Although God had made a covenant with Israel at Mount Sinai, Israel had repeatedly broken it. But God in his grace had promised through Jeremiah the prophet that one day he would establish a “new covenant.” This covenant would provide full and complete forgiveness of sins, personal and authentic knowledge of God, and the law would be written on peoples’ hearts (jeremiah 31:31–34). Hebrews announces that this new covenant has been inaugurated through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, superseding the old (hebrews 8:13).