The following is an excerpt from a recent Sunday school discourse on Jesus our Great High Priest.
We don’t know who wrote Hebrews. We don’t know to whom Hebrews was written. I’ve read many and sometimes compelling theories, but we don’t know. The author doesn’t identify himself. He doesn’t identify his precise audience. The author does, however, make it evident that he was writing to people with an intimate knowledge of the Old Testament. In other words, he was writing to Christians from a Jewish background, not Gentiles.
The author assumes his audience knows and identifies with the history of Israel. He speaks of Abraham, Moses at Mt. Sinai, the Torah, God’s covenant with Israel, the priests, the sacrifices, and even Israel’s wandering through the wilderness as they made their way to the Promised Land. It’s also worth noting that he is writing to Christians. He’s writing to former Jews who have left their old customs and religious practices to follow Christ. He’s writing to Jewish Christians.
Furthermore, he’s writing to Jewish Christians who are now suffering persecution. Turn a few pages over to Hebrews 10, verse 32.
But recall the former days when, after you were enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to reproach and affliction, and sometimes being partners with those so treated. For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one. (Hebrews 10:32-34)
The author is encouraging his readers because they’ve suffered since becoming Christians. He says they initially considered it a joyful privilege to suffer in the name of Christ. They were more than willing to suffer for his sake, but something has changed. He’s reminding them of the zeal they once had because they’ve lost it. They’ve grown discouraged. More to the point of Hebrews, they’re seriously thinking about abandoning the church to return to the old covenant way of worship.
Before we go any further, let’s pause long enough to think about what life was like for them. As non-Jewish Christians in the 21st century, we may be dumbfounded to think anyone would consider turning away from Christ for the sacrificial system of the Old Testament. But for them, the old system was once normal and had been for many generations. When we read Exodus through Deuteronomy, we think, Wow. So many rules to follow. So many commandments to obey. So many details to keep straight. But when they read Exodus through Deuteronomy, they thought, This is how we’ve been faithful to God since the days of Moses.
Jesus told the people of Israel, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Mt 11:28). As Hebrews 10 implies, the gospel was liberating to many first-century Jews. That’s why Paul uses the language he does in Galatians 5:1. He says, “Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”
Why would anyone want to go back? We find the answer here in Hebrews 10: “You endured a hard struggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to reproach and affliction, and sometimes being partners with those so treated” (Heb 10:32, 33).
Pagans didn’t care much for Jews in the first century. They were offended by the exclusive nature of Judaism. Judaism taught that Yahweh is God, and one should have no other gods before him. Paganism allowed people to worship as many gods as they wanted. You could mix and match your religions. So the Pagans didn’t like the exclusive nature of the Jews’ religion, but they tolerated it for the most part. Christianity, however, was another story.
I’ve been reading a series of books called 2000 Years of Christ’s Power. In the first volume, the author explains why persecution against the church became so fierce in the first few centuries. He writes:
The Christians and the Jews insisted that they alone had the true faith and the only way of salvation. The Roman world could tolerate such a view in the Jews, because Jews were simply following the traditional religion of their nation and ancestors, and did not go around trying to make everyone else into Jews. The Christians had no such excuses; their religion was new, unheard-of, and burning with a passion to convert all Pagans. So the Church’s exclusive, intolerant, missionary attitude to other religions marked Christians out and made them very unpopular. To their Pagan neighbors, this evangelistic devotion to Christ as the only Savior seemed highly arrogant and dangerously anti-social.
Imagine you are a 1st-century Jew. The wider world doesn’t like you, but they tolerate you. You live in relative peace. You are free to serve and worship God without persecution. But then, you hear the gospel of Jesus Christ. You believe, and your world is turned upside down. Spiritually, it’s the greatest thing that could ever happen to you. You are set free in Christ. Jesus has accomplished for you what you could never accomplish yourself through the law. Physically, though, it feels like the worst thing that could ever happen to you. Suddenly, you are hated by both Pagans and Jews. You are dis-fellowshipped, made an outcast, and in many cases, violently persecuted.
In his parable of the sower, Jesus warned:
As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away. (Matthew 13:20, 21)
This was a temptation of every Christian. Jewish Christians, in particular, were tempted to abandon Christ and return to Judaism, which is why the book of Hebrews was written. This is why the author continually urges his readers to look to Christ. Look to Christ. Look to Christ. Look to Christ. He’s better than the angels and the Torah who once conveyed God’s Word to us. Christ is the Word. As we heard last week, he’s better than Moses and the prophets. He’s better than the old covenant priests who could never atone for sins. He’s better than all the sacrifices made under the old covenant.
Then, we come to chapter 11 and read about all of those people in the Old Testament who walked by faith. They endured their suffering. Then, chapter 12 begins this way:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.
Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. (Hebrews 12:1-3)
The author of Hebrews acknowledges the terrible difficulties which Jewish Christians faced, but throughout the letter, he shows them the alternative.
Option 1: Persevere through temporary suffering now for eternal joys that are beyond our comprehension.
Option 2: Return to the old, albeit familiar, way of life and be lost forever.
“Look to Jesus,” the author says. “Fix your eyes on him and endure to the end. Don’t go back. Jesus is superior in every way. Frankly, if salvation is what you want, Jesus is the only way.”