The purpose of the Epistle to the Hebrews is threefold: (1) to provide the solution to the Hebrews’ dilemma, (2) to prove beyond a doubt that the “mystery” revealed through Paul, and “the dispensation of the grace of God” committed to him, were indeed God’s “eternal purpose … given us in Christ Jesus before the world began,” and (3) to prove that God’s blessings under grace are infinitely “better” than anything Israel, or we, ever knew, or ever could know under the Law.
1. THE SOLUTION TO THE HEBREW’S DILEMMA
To correctly interpret any book of the Bible it is helpful to place ourselves, as it were, in the position of those to whom, or about whom, that book was written.
Let us begin, then, by placing ourselves in thought among the Hebrews addressed in the Epistle to the Hebrews.
Imagine yourself listening to Peter’s Pentecostal address and, deeply convicted, joining those who ” came forward” and tremblingly asked, “Men and brethren, what shall we do?” and hearing Peter reply:
“Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost” (Acts 2:37-38).
Now suppose you do most heartily repent. Suppose you are baptized for the remission of sins, and do receive the gift of the Holy Ghost. Suppose all this is fully verified by the way you live, joining all the other disciples of Christ in living spontaneously and affectionately for each other, as our Lord commanded in His Sermon on the Mount (Acts 2:44-47; 4:32-37).
Suppose further that you hear Peter promise to Israel the return of her risen, ascended Messiah and the long-prophesied”times of refreshing” upon her repentance and the “restitution [making right] of all things” (Acts 3:19-21).
Would you not now be bitterly disappointed if Israel’s leaders, instead of recognizing the overwhelming evidence of Christ’s resurrection, and accepting the offer of His return to reign, persecuted His disciples and sealed their hatred of Him by murdering Stephen while he pleaded for their forgiveness?
And would it not further discourage you if God responded to the stoning of Stephen by saving the leader of the rebellion against Christ and sending him forth to proclaim salvation by free grace to the Gentiles, while Jews from Jerusalem to Rome continued to reject their Messiah (Acts 22:18; 13:46; 18:6; 28:25-28)?
Would you not ask: “What about us? We believe in Christ. And what about all the Old Testament promises about Israel’s redemption and her “times of refreshing” under the reign of Messiah? As the nation continued in her rebellion might you not well ask, “What can Peter’s ‘Hope to the end’ (I Pet. 1:13) mean now? Israel’s rulers have ‘set themselves against the Lord and against His Anointed’ and will not change. Must we conclude that God has failed to keep His Word, or that His millennial promises were but a glorious dream?”
This was the predicament in which the believing Hebrews under the teaching of the Twelve now found themselves. In such a situation would not this letter from Paul provide the greatest encouragement? He knew, and was already proclaiming the truth that:
“. . . God hath concluded them all [both Jews and Gentiles] in unbelief that He might have mercy upon all” (Rom. 11:32; cf. Ver. 33). (Appropriately the apostle did not go so far as to teach these Hebrews the truth of the one “joint body,” for would Hebrews naturally rejoice at being one with Gentiles? Surely not, until having come to see the truths in which saved Gentiles were now rejoicing.)
To Paul the exalted Lord had revealed a sacred secret (“mystery”) not yet made known to the Judaean disciples, and probably not yet fully understood by all his own Jewish followers among the Gentiles. Hence this Epistle of Paul to the Hebrews, explaining how, through the blood of Christ shed at Calvary, they could rejoice with the Gentile believers 1 as “partakers of the heavenly calling” (Heb. 3: 1).
II. THE ETERNAL PURPOSE
Again and again the Apostle Paul stresses the fact that God’s present work of grace was His “eternal purpose.”
Titus 1:2-3 tells us that “God, who cannot lie, promised” eternal life in Christ “before the world began,” and “in due times” manifested this great truth through Paul. It is sad and almost unbelievable that so many clergymen and their followers miss this important fact, for this promise was obviously not made to any human being, and just as obviously not to the angels. Clearly God made this promise to Himself in the counsels of the Trinity. It was His purpose, His determination from the beginning to usher in the dispensation of grace upon Israel’s fall. Again, in 11 Timothy we have light on this subject:
“Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, according to the promise of life which is in [i.e., vested in] Christ Jesus” (II Tim. 1:1).
“Who hath saved us and called us with an holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was given us in Christ Jesus before the world began” (11 Tim. 1:9).
Still another example is found in Eph. 3:11, where in language so typical of Paul, we read of: “. . . [God’s] eternal purpose which He purposed in Christ Jesus our Lord. ”
In the closing benediction of this letter to the Hebrews, this promise made by God to Himself, is called “the eternal* covenant,”**
* In the A.V. the Greek aionios is rendered “everlasting” 24 times, but ,,eternal” 42 times. It refers not, essentially, to how long a thing may last (though sometimes implying this) but rather to uninterrupted duration, and often as here, takes in the past as well as the future. Thus this “eternal covenant” does not merely concern the future, but the past as well, since it was made “before the world began” and will continue valid through the ages to come.
** True, several other covenants are also called “everlasting ” but to which of them could Heb. 13:20 refer? Which of them bases the resurrection of Christ from the dead upon the blood that confirmed it? Further, to which of them could the term “the everlasting [or “eternal”] covenant be applied?
Thus God today is saving men on the basis of an “eternal covenant,” a covenant He made, not with any man, but with Himself before the world began, with respect to “eternal life,” to be vested in Christ, who was to die for our sins. This is the true “covenant of grace”!
But while the apostle refers to this eternal purpose again and again in his epistles to the Gentiles, he gives conclusive evidence of its validity in this epistle to the Hebrews, demonstrating through its many types that God’s heart was full of this “mystery, ” this sacred secret, long before He revealed it to Paul. (Hebrews is God’s great commentary on the types. Seldom does Paul mention any of the Old Testament types in any of his Gentile epistles. But in writing to Hebrews this is naturally quite different. Hebrews deals with far more types than all the rest of Paul’s epistles put together, and his Hebrew readers would naturally be interested in their significance.)
Does the reader object that if the glories of the “mystery” were typified in Old Testament times they were not a secret? We reply that this objection stems from a misunderstanding of typology, for which of the Old Testament types were said or even known to be types at the time, or were said to foreshadow anything still future? Consider them all and each one individually: the priesthood, the altar, the offerings, the shed blood, the camp, the tabernacle, the holiest place, the ark, the mercy seat, the washings (Gr. baptismos), Sinai, the Sabbath and all the rest. Did God reveal at the time that any of these were typical at all, much less what they typified? Not one! Search and see. Thus the “mystery” was still a secret indeed in Old Testament times.
It is only now, through the revelation of the mystery” to Paul that we can clearly see that God had the blessings of the present dispensation in mind all the while, indeed, that His heart was filled with them.
Here we must express our disappointment over some who hold that the mystery revealed to Paul involves only one particular truth, such as that of the joint body, or our heavenly position, while, indeed, it is that great body of truth which we rightly call Pauline, beginning with salvation itself, for who before Paul ever arose to declare:
“BUT NOW the righteousness of God without the low is manifested. . . “(Rom. 3:2 1).
“We declare, I SAY, AT THIS TIME, His [Christ’s] righteousness, that He [God] might be just and the Justifier of him which believeth in Jesus” (Romans 3:26).
Israel’s rejection of Christ did not take God by surprise. The temporary blinding of Israel, and the ushering in of the dispensation of grace were integral parts of “the mystery … hid from ages and from generations, but now … made manifest to His saints” (Rom. 11:25; Col. 1:26). But there is more:
III. THE BETTER THINGS OF HEBREWS
The Epistle to the Hebrews has long been known as “the book of the better things,” and rightly so: “For the law made nothing perfect, but the bringing in of a better hope did” (Heb. 7: 19).
It must be clearly understood, however, that the “better hope” of Heb. 7:19 has no reference to the New Covenant, (The New Covenant, discussed at some length in Heb. 8 and 9 is separate subject and should be dealt with more fully in a separate study. Meantime see the author’s booklet, The Lord’s Supper. ) for note:
1. The New Covenant was promised about 600 years before Christ, when God said, “Behold the days come . . . that I will make a new covenant. (Jer. 31:3 1, cf Heb, 8:13).
2. The New Covenant was made at Calvary (Matt. 26:28).
3. The New Covenant will be fulfilled when our Lord returns to “turn away ungodliness from Jacob” and “all Israel shall be saved” (Rom. 11:26-27). Thus the New Covenant has not yet been “brought in,” or fulfilled, but the “better hope” of Heb. 7:19 has indeed been “brought in” by the revelation committed to Paul. This is the “better hope” of God’s “eternal covenant,” the promise He made to Himself in ages past.
The types of the Old Testament, which had no future significance at the time, now blossom with meaning and shower us all-and particularly the Hebrew believers of Paul’s day-with blessings far better than anything the Law ever offered or could offer.
The Levitical Priesthood, comprised of many priests, has now been replaced with one Priest, the Lord Jesus Christ, “a priest forever, after the order of Melchisedec,” who was not even a Hebrew, much less a Levite.
Those priests could not continue in office “by reason of death,” (Heb. 7:23). But this Priest, “because He continueth ever, hath an unchangeable Priesthood” (Heb. 7 24).
The Levitical priest, says the apostle:
“. . . standeth daily, ministering and offering oftentimes the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins:
“BUT THIS MAN, AFTER HE HAD OFFERED ONE SACRIFICE FOR SINS FOREVER, SAT DOWN ON THE RIGHT HAND OF GOD” (Heb. 10:11-12).
How much, how very much more, could be said about this “better” Priest in contrast with the thousands who had lived and died under the Old Covenant! but time and space forbid.
The Altar, of course, has been replaced by Calvary and our Lord’s finished work of redemption.
The Church of Rome has erected an altar, indeed, thousands of altars, for the continued sacrificial offering of Christ in the Sacrifice of the Mass when supposedly, “the real body and blood” of our Lord are offered again and again, but this is not only unscriptural; it is blasphemous. Even an earlier Catholic Dictionary (Cath. Publ. Soc.) states under the word “altar”: ‘Whether the Christian altar is mentioned by name in the Bible is doubtful.” But we can answer that: “There is no “Christian altar” mentioned anywhere in the Bible. Our altar is the cross, where Christ offered Himself for sin “once for all.” Thus Paul declares:
“We have an altar, whereof they have no right to eat [partake] which serve (I.e., still serve.) the tabernacle” (Heb. 13:10).
The Offerings of Old Testament times are now seen to typify the one better offering of Christ Himself as our Savior and Redeemer. We are saved, not again and again, by the offerings of slain beasts, much less through some ritual immolation of Christ in the Mass, but “through the offering of the body of Christ once for all” (Heb. 10: 10).
Moreover, in Old Testament times our Lord was seen as the victim in sacrifice (e.g., Isa. 53:7), but here in Hebrews He is the Victor (Heb. 1:3, et at). In the Old Testament He is offered in sacrifice; here He offers the sacrifice-Himself
“. . . that through death He might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil,
“And deliver them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage” (Heb. 2:14-15; cf. Col. 2:14-15).
The Shed Blood, rivers of it from the Levitical offerings, have now been replaced by “the precious blood of Christ”; His life’s blood poured out to pay our debt of sin.
“Neither by the blood of goats and calves, but by [in virtue of] His own blood He entered in once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us” (Heb. 9:12).
The Camp, i.e., Judaism, too, has been replaced by a Person. Paul’s closing appeal to these Hebrews (Heb. 13:13) was not to go forth from camp to camp, or from one camp to another, as from Judaism to some denominational Church, but to,
“. . . go forth unto HIM, without the camp, bearing His reproach.”
Thanks be to God that in bearing His reproach we enjoy “the fellowship of His sufferings” (Phil. 3:10).
The Tabernacle, of course, was typical of, and has been replaced by, “the true tabernacle, which the Lord pitched and not man” (Heb. 8:2). The former tabernacle (and the temples that followed), says Paul, were evidence that the way into “the holiest of all,” i.e., the true holiest place in heaven, was “not yet made manifest,” as it is now to us.
The Holiest place of the tabernacle, still closed to Jewish believers at that time, except representatively through the High Priest once each year, reminds us of our free entrance into “the holiest of all” in heaven itself. By grace we enter the presence of God,
“. . . by the blood of Jesus . . . a new and living way, which He hath consecrated for us, through the veil, that is to say, His flesh” (Heb. 10:19-20).
Think of it! The old dead way replaced by “a new and living way,” specially consecrated to our use through the blood of Christ! This is the great Pauline doctrine of our access to God (Rom. 5:2).
The Ark of the Covenant is now seen to be “the coffin of the covenant.” The word ark does not mean much to most people, but we all should know that the first occurrence of this Hebrew word, ahrohn, is found in Gen. 50:26, where it is rendered “coffin.” (This is not the same word used for either Noah’s ark or the ark in which little Moses was laid.) And the covenant it enclosed was the Law (Ex. 25:16,21-22) already typified as in a coffin, covered with a “mercy seat,” from which God (representatively) met with His people. Ah, little wonder Paul speaks of the Law as “that being dead wherein ye wereheld” (Rom. 7:6).
The Mercy Seat is now replaced by a “Throne of Grace,” to which we are all freely invited, not only once a year, under the severest restrictions, but “in time of need”–our need! (Heb. 4:16).
The Baptisms (Gr., baptismos) or washings of Judaism were “imposed on them until the time of reformation” (Heb. 9:10). They were atemporary institution. Now, thank God, He says: “. . . Ye are washed … in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God” (I Cor. 6:11).
Mount Sinai cried, “Get away; get away; don’t come near,” with the mount “altogether on a smoke” and an earthquake and thunderings and lightnings driving the people back. But Grace says, “Come; draw near” (Heb. 4:16; 10:22). The blood has been shed. The price has been paid. The way is open.
Finally, the Sabbath, the day of rest. This too has been fulfilled in a Person. Since He, with His Father, rests in the finished work of His redemption, we find our rest in Him. This is surely the appropriation of our position in the heavenlies.
“For he that is entered into His rest, he also hath ceased from his own works, as God did from His” (Heb. 4: 10).
Pastor Edward Drew used to say: “Our Lord came down to earth to do something, and when He had finished what He had come to do, He went home and sat down. And now we can rest in His finished work.”
Truly, we have just begun. Think of all the other types referred to in this great book: Pharaoh, Egypt and its slavery, the wilderness, the smitten rock and the manna, Canaan, the fall of Jericho, the harlot Rahab, the scarlet cord and still others. Little wonder Hebrews is also looked upon as the Bible’s great ‘look of types”–types explained by Paul, the revelator of “the mystery” and its riches of grace!
Reprinted from The Berean Searchlight, the official organ of the Berean Bible Society. (Volume L, Number 2.)
Used with permission