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Concluding Exhortations June 13, 2015

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Here are my thoughts on Hebrews 13.

Summary: The author begins by exhorting his readers to continue seeking the best interests of their fellow believers. In particular, they should:

  • honor and have regard for strangers
  • care for, be compassionate toward and visit Christ’s prisoners.

The author then exhorts his readers to:

  • not defile the honorable state of marriage
  • be without covetousness; to support this point, he quotes from Deuteronomy 31:6, where God assures them of His presence and His help, and so they can respond as the psalmist does in Psalm 118:6-7, where the person and work of God is contrasted with the person and work of man
  • remember all who had spoken or preached the Word of God to them and follow their example.

They should be encouraged in heeding his exhortations by the fact that Christ does not change.

Now the author reminds his readers that grace is the only way for one to become spiritually strong; this cannot occur by foods. Indeed, true believers have Christ alone and His sacrifice as their altar; in contrast, those who are ministering at the temple cannot participate in this altar.

The author then asserts that Christ:

  • left the city and church-state of the Jews
  • put an end to all sacrificing in the city and temple as far as that would be accepted by God
  • declared that His sacrifice and its attendant benefits were extended to the whole world
  • declared that His death and suffering were a punishment for sin.

Thus, the author exhorts his readers to relinquish all the privileges of the city and church-state of the Jews for the sake of Christ. Indeed, the city and church-state of the Jews does not endure forever; in contrast, the heavenly state of rest and glory does endure forever, and they anticipate it.

Now the author exhorts his readers to:

  • be grateful for Christ and having grace through Him – as the appointed seasons require; this entails acknowledging the love of God in the redemption of the church in Christ
  • have a gracious propensity and readiness to do good to everyone; moreover, they should embrace all occasions and opportunities to show loving-kindness on the earth.

The author also exhorts his readers to obey all who had spoken or preached the Word of God to them; indeed, these pastors exhibit watchfulness with the greatest care and diligence, since Christ has entrusted them with their souls. Obedience to their pastors would allow them to go on to maturity – and so their pastors would thank Christ for the work of His spirit and grace among them. In contrast, disobedience would allow them to fall into sinful ways – and so their pastors would mourn with grief and sorrow.

Now the author requests prayer from his readers. In particular, he asks them to pray that he would be able to come to them again.

The author then prays for his readers; he prays that God – who raised Christ as the king, priest and prophet of the church from the dead – would make them fit and able for every good deed.

The author tells his readers to bear with the truth and teaching of the Gospel that he has applied for building them up; this stems from the fact that he has given them a compressed summary of the teaching of the law and the Gospel. He tells them the good news of Timothy’s release, and he encourages them to convey his kindness and affection to their pastors; indeed, the believers in Italy have conveyed their kindness and affection to them. The author concludes by praying that the whole goodwill of God through Jesus Christ and all of its attendant blessings would be with them.

Thoughts: In verse 13, the author exhorts his readers to relinquish the Old Testament covenant and embrace the New Testament covenant. Owen offers some insights on this point:

The main point the apostle makes here is that a moral and religious purpose is served by going from this camp. These Hebrews valued nothing so highly as their moral and religious life and their citizenship in Israel. They could not understand how all the glorious privileges given of old to that church and people should stop so that they had to forsake them…All the privileges and advantages, whatever they were, were to be renounced. Anything that was inconsistent with having Christ and participating in him must be forsaken.

While most modern-day believers are not of Jewish descent – and so we do not connect with the primary application of this letter – we can still learn from the secondary application of this letter. In particular, believers occasionally fall into the trap of placing their ultimate worth in external things, including:

  • their nationality – especially when their country of origin plays a prominent role in global affairs
  • their ethnicity – especially when they attend a church that is dominated by members of their ethnic group
  • their income and level of education.

We must remember to constantly return to Christ and find our ultimate identity in Him. In this way we will learn to lose our temporal lives and gain our eternal lives.

An interesting aspect of Owen’s commentary is his conclusion that Paul is the anonymous author of this letter. Of course, the authorship of this letter is still an open question, and so I am certainly curious as to how Owen arrived at his conclusion. Was he influenced by verse 23, where the author refers to Timothy? Was he influenced by verse 24, where the author refers to believers in Italy (since we know that Paul served two prison terms in Rome)? If Paul is the anonymous author of this letter, then this would have to be reconciled with the fact – as presented in verse 19 – that the author previously spent time with the Hebrews. Now I think that the name of the author did appear at the beginning of the original letter, yet that part of the letter was subsequently lost to posterity. I certainly hope to meet the author of this letter in the next life…

Now that I have completed my stroll through Hebrews, I am reminded of the major theme of this letter: Christ and the covenant that He has sealed are superior to all other things; thus, we must respond to Him with faith and obedience. While this experience has not made the task of responding to the Gospel message with faith and obedience significantly easier, I would say that I have been spurred to renew my daily focus on Christ in the midst of this rapidly changing world. This stroll has both reminded me of the dangers of seeking temporal pleasures – thereby “sinking into the world” – and encouraged me to “rise above the world” on a daily basis. I also hope to be able to spur other believers on in their quest to “rise above the world” on a daily basis; perhaps these blog posts will be an encouragement to them in this regard.

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Warning Against Refusing God June 7, 2015

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Here are my thoughts on Hebrews 12:14-29.

Summary: The author begins by exhorting his readers to seek peace with all other people and be universally holy. He warns them against the following evils:

  • missing God’s gracious favor and acceptance in Christ
  • those in their midst whose hearts are turning away from the Gospel – as they could contaminate others with abominable errors
  • living in sexual immorality and godlessness – like Esau, who could not cause Isaac to change his mind in conferring his blessing on Jacob.

The author then reminds his readers that their forefathers went to Mount Sinai; at that time:

  • their fear was heightened by words that came straight from God, including the command in Exodus 19:12-13
  • consternation fell on Moses, as seen in Deuteronomy 9:19.

In contrast, the author tells his readers that they have been called to a glorious state through the Gospel. In this glorious state:

  • they see an innumerable company of angels
  • they see God’s elect, who have been called, gratuitously adopted, and made fellow-heirs with Christ of the whole heavenly inheritance
  • they have favorable access to God whenever they wish
  • they see the souls of people who have departed and are totally delivered from all sin
  • they see Christ’s sacrifice, which is superior to the sacrifices before the law.

The author then exhorts his readers to believe and obey God. He reminds them that Christ has revealed the mysteries of the will of God – and those who refuse to believe His revelations will be judged for their sins. To reinforce this point, he quotes from Haggai 2:6, where God promises to destroy the earth – leaving a new kingdom where believers receive spiritual things.

The author infers that since his readers will receive this heavenly, spiritual state under the rule of Jesus Christ through a gift from God, they – and their worship – should be well-pleasing to God. In particular, their worship should stem from a due sense of His majesty and glory along with a due sense of their own vileness. The author concludes by quoting from Deuteronomy 4:24 to drive home this point: God will consume and destroy sinners whose worship is not well-pleasing to Him.

Thoughts: In verses 16 and 17, the author presents the story of Esau as a cautionary tale for his readers. Owen offers some insights on this point in his commentary:

The second evil is godlessness. There are very few people in Scripture about whom more evidence is given of being a reprobate. This should warn everyone not to trust in the outward privileges of the church. Esau was Isaac’s eldest son; he was circumcised according to the law and took part in all the worship of God in that holy family. Yet he became an outcast from the covenant of grace.

I can definitely understand the rationale for Esau’s actions, as it is human nature to focus on short-term needs at the expense of long-term needs. Since Esau was famished after his hunting trip, he was in immediate need of sustenance; most likely he did not ponder the consequences of surrendering his birthright to Jacob. His story should compel believers to consider the consequences of their daily response to the Gospel message. Indeed, believers have short-term needs that they may prioritize over developing their eternal relationship with God, including aiming for a promotion at work, visiting the newest Michelin-starred restaurant in their city, and cheering for their favorite sports team in the midst of a championship run. We must be certain that our actions reflect our long-term focus on God and the eternal inheritance that he has prepared for us.

In verses 18-21, the author reminds his readers of the time when God gave the Old Testament law to their forefathers at Mount Sinai. Owen offers some insights on this point in his commentary:

The giving of the law was so full of terror that the people could not bear it but realized that they would die if God carried on speaking to them. The sinner is overwhelmed when he has a sense of the voice of God himself in the law. When he finds God himself speaking in and to his conscience, he can no longer bear it.

This passage caused me to ponder God’s greatness and awesome power, especially compared to my standing before Him. Indeed, I know that:

  • I am one person living in one city
  • this city is part of one county
  • this county is part of one state
  • this state is part of one country
  • this country is part of one continent
  • this continent is part of one planet
  • this planet is part of the Solar System
  • the Solar System is part of the Milky Way Galaxy
  • the Milky Way Galaxy is part of the Local Group
  • the Local Group is part of the Universe.

While I have omitted some of the intermediate classifications such as the Local Interstellar Cloud and the Virgo Supercluster, the basic point should be clear: I am just a tiny part of God’s creation. I cannot even begin to fathom God’s infinite nature, yet somehow He has chosen to have a relationship with me as one of His adopted children. God’s infinite condescension to His children is truly an amazing concept.

God Disciplines His Sons June 4, 2015

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Here are my thoughts on Hebrews 12:1-13.

Summary: The author begins by exhorting his readers – based on the preceding description of those who went before them in the profession of the faith and are now encouraging them in their duty – to lay aside all vicious habits and patiently persevere in the profession of the Gospel. He then encourages them to look to Christ, as their faith – from first to last – is from Him. Since Christ despised the ignominy and scorn that He was exposed to in His death, they should neither be discouraged with the greatness of the inherent difficulties in their profession of the Gospel nor faint.

The author then warns his readers that as they contend against the effects and fruits of sin in them, they might expect all kinds of violent deaths. Now his readers know that they are being admonished by God; thus, he encourages them as follows:

  • he quotes from Proverbs 3:11-12 to warn them against having little esteem of divine reproofs and show them that God only reproves those whom He has adopted
  • he infers from these verses that God has adopted them
  • he also infers that if his readers had not been reproved by God, then they would have had no right to a divine inheritance
  • he appeals to human experience, where children should be subject to their parents; since their souls belong to God, He is their spiritual parent, and so they should be subject to Him
  • since God is their spiritual parent, he infers that God reproves them so that they can have His image and likeness; in this way, they are sanctified and become peaceable.

Now the author exhorts his readers to apply themselves to their duty; they should overcome their tendency to become tired of professing the Gospel and grow despondent. He concludes by quoting from Proverbs 4:26 to exhort them to make straight tracks for themselves; in this way, they can assist those who retained the Jewish ceremonies and worship alongside the teaching of the Gospel in making spiritual progress.

Thoughts: In verses 1 and 2, the author exhorts his readers to continue in their profession of the Gospel, since the Old Testament believers are encouraging them in that endeavor. Owen offers some insights on this point in his commentary on verse 1:

At the contest in public games alluded to here, there were multitudes, clouds of spectators, who looked on to encourage those who competed with applause and to testify to their success. So it is with our patient perseverance. All the old testament saints, as it were, stand looking at us in our striving, encouraging us in our duty, ready to testify to our success with their applause.

This passage struck a chord with me, as I enjoy exercising and all of its inherent benefits. Now the critical role that the Old Testament believers play in our profession of the Gospel reminded me of several studies that have shown a link between an appropriate level of external motivation and an improvement in exercise output. Throughout my blog posts, I have consistently demonstrated my eagerness to meet many of the believers whose faith and obedience are recorded in the Scriptures; perhaps they are subtly encouraging me as I attempt to exhibit true faith and obedience on a daily basis. Moreover, as New Testament believers, perhaps we should also use this passage to encourage each other in our respective faith journeys; since “no man is an island,” we need the assistance of fellow believers to complete this difficult endeavor.

The bulk of this passage is devoted to the author’s argument that the difficulties that his readers are experiencing in their profession of the Gospel actually constitute God’s natural discipline of them as His sons. Owen offers some insights on this point in his commentary on verse 7:

This presumes two things: first, that every son will more or less stand in need of discipline; second, that every wise and tender father will in such cases discipline his son. So the argument is taken from the illustration of the duty that inseparably belongs to the relationship between a father and a son. From this it is clear that God’s discipline of believers is his dealing with them as his sons.

This passage reminded me of the body of research that illustrates the increased risks of being raised in a single-parent household, compared to being raised in a two-parent household. While one can cite many examples of children who were raised in single-parent households and later attained successful careers, including LeBron James and Kevin Durant, at this point it appears that they constitute exceptions to the norm. Thus, I am very fortunate to have been raised in a two-parent household; in particular, I have benefited from their admonitions and reproofs. Indeed, my childhood memories lead me to concur with Owen’s point about each child standing “in need of discipline;” through many difficult experiences, my parents helped me mature in various contexts. So I would also concur with the author’s point about believers standing “in need of” God’s admonitions and reproofs; moreover, we should embrace them as they arise and aim to mature spiritually in response to them.

By Faith June 1, 2015

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Here are my thoughts on Hebrews 11.

Summary: The author begins by asserting that justifying faith gives the good things that are promised in the future a real substance in the minds and souls of believers. Indeed, all true believers from the foundation of the world until the end of the dispensation of the old testament were commended because of their justifying faith.

Then, the author asserts that by faith, believers assent to the fact that God spoke and the universe was made; they are assured that the things that their senses and reason can understand were made by the invisible power of God.

Now the author furnishes the following examples of true believers in the Old Testament:

  • Abel responded to God’s command and promise by offering a sacrifice – along with 1) a sense of sin and guilt and 2) a trust in the way of redemption and recovery that God had provided; thus, God accepted his sacrifice and spoke well of it, and he is well-known in all generations
  • Enoch was translated from a state of faith and obedience – here in this world – to a state in the next world of enjoying God, and this occurred without the intervention of death; indeed, without faith one cannot be well-pleasing to God, as He only rewards those who are diligently seeking Him
  • when God told Noah that He would destroy the world, Noah had a reverential fear about His warnings, and he built an ark according to His directions; thus, the faith he exercised and his obedience condemned the world, and he was freely adopted by God – obtaining righteousness
  • when God transferred the right and title to Canaan to Abraham and told him to go there, he wholly committed himself to God’s faithfulness and goodness, even though he did not have the least encouragement about Canaan
  • moreover, Abraham sojourned in Canaan – as did Isaac and Jacob, since God specifically made the same promise to them both that he would transfer the right and title to Canaan to them; this stems from the fact that Abraham looked for heaven, as God is the artificer and maker of that settled, quiet habitation
  • Abraham and Sarah were equally involved in the divine revelation concerning the birth of Isaac; thus, although Abraham’s natural body had died – in terms of procreation – his seed became like the stars of heaven due to their faith.

Next, the author asserts that the aforementioned believers persevered in faith to the end; indeed, even though it was a long space of time before God’s promises to them were fulfilled, they greeted them with love and delight. They knew that they were just passing through the world, and they declared their beliefs plainly. If they had desired their own countries, they could have returned to them; instead, they longed for heaven.

Then, the author returns to the examples of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and asserts that:

  • when God commanded Abraham to offer Isaac as a burnt offering, he fully obeyed Him even though He had earlier stated that the promise of his offspring would be fulfilled in Isaac; Abraham’s faith reconciled that promise with God’s command, and so God gave Isaac back to him
  • Isaac authoritatively applied God’s promises to Jacob and Esau
  • as Jacob died, he worshiped God – leaning on the top of his staff; also, he authoritatively applied God’s promises to the two sons of Joseph.

Now the author furnishes additional examples of true believers in the Old Testament:

  • as Joseph died, he focused on the fulfillment of God’s promise – in terms of land – to his forefathers; thus, he put his brothers and their children under oath regarding his funeral arrangements
  • the parents of Moses preserved his life – as a baby – due to their strong faith
  • Moses lived and worked by faith, as he crucified his heart to his outward enjoyments, the riches of Egypt and their attendant advantages; since he believed in Christ and focused on the fulfillment of God’s promise in Him, he was distressed with evil things that destroy nature
  • Moses delivered the people out of Egypt – despite the fact that he had in front of him a bloody tyrant
  • Moses observed the Passover along with the ordinance where one would dip a bunch of hyssop in a bowl containing the blood of a lamb and then use the hyssop to strike the sides and tops of the doorframes of their house; thus, the angel whom God used to execute His judgments did not destroy the firstborn of Israel
  • when God parted the waters of the Red Sea, the children of Israel passed through it; when the Egyptians also tried to pass through it, they were swallowed up
  • the children of Israel marched around the high and strong walls of Jericho for seven days; thus, God allowed them to take and destroy that city
  • Rahab received the Israelite spies, concealed them, gave them intelligence and arranged for their safe escape; thus, God exempted her from the denounced doom of her race, even though she had given herself up to the vilest of sins.

Then, the author describes the faith of other true believers in the Old Testament, including Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, and the prophets. These true believers:

  • subdued kingdoms
  • wrought righteousness
  • observed the fulfillment of God’s specific promises to them
  • put a stop to the mouth of a lion so that it could not hurt anyone
  • committed themselves to God’s sovereignty in a blazing furnace
  • fled from two-edged swords
  • overcame moral and bodily infirmities
  • were armed with strength for battle and defeated foreign armies
  • raised children from the dead – giving them into their mothers’ arms.

The author also asserts that some true believers were:

  • steadfast under torture, as they longed for the resurrection that leads to eternal life
  • mocked and subject to a servile punishment used on vagabonds and the vilest of men
  • imprisoned
  • killed – for example, some were beheaded
  • in a poor and mean condition, and they were in need of friends; they were tormented and pressured by great dangers that were continually brought on them.

Regarding the true believers who escaped death, the author states that even though they sheltered in uninhabited wastes and hollow places where wild beasts sheltered, the world was not worthy of having them live in it.

Now the author asserts that while true believers under the old testament had obtained witness through their faith, the promise of the manifestation of Christ for the redemption of the church was not fulfilled during that time. The author concludes by asserting that this promise has been fulfilled under the Gospel dispensation; thus, his readers are in a preeminent state.

Thoughts: In verse 7, Noah is commended by God for demonstrating his faith in response to His divine warnings and instructions. Owen offers some insights on this point:

These were not yet seen when Noah warned about them, nor were they “seen” a hundred years later. The cause of the flood, the wickedness of the world, and the destruction of the world, through God’s power, was invisible. So it was an act of pure faith for Noah to believe what he had no evidence for, except through divine revelation, especially since the thing itself seemed so incredible.

Clearly Noah demonstrated amazing faith in his unique circumstances. I would certainly like to meet him in the next life and learn how he meticulously designed and constructed the ark, successfully gathered a large group of animals and managed to place them in the ark, and successfully convinced his family to assist him in this massive project. How did he continue working on this project in spite of the insults and hostility of his neighbors? How did he maintain his faith in God’s promise to judge the world while sin continued to reign in his society? Did he feel vindicated when God finally judged the world with the flood, or was he affected by the fact that most of the world had been punished for eternity?

While all of the examples of faith in this passage are cogent, I was particularly struck by the faith of those who had to address life-or-death situations. For example, how did Abraham find the strength to prepare to offer Isaac as a burnt offering, even though he and Sarah had finally gained him as their promised descendant in their old age? How did Moses’ parents find the strength to preserve his life as a baby, even though Pharaoh could have executed them for disobeying his orders? How did Moses find the strength to defy Pharaoh and prove the superiority of the God of Israel to the gods of Egypt, even though Pharaoh could have ended his life with a simple order to his guards? How did Rahab find the strength to assist the Israelite spies, even though she could have been executed for treason? It is truly amazing that God can enable ordinary people to place His interests above the value of their lives.

In verses 35-38, the author cites examples of faithful believers in the Old Testament who endured great suffering. Owen offers some insights on this point:

The apostle now gives a different set of examples, which are more readily suited to the condition of the Hebrews. For hearing about the previous ten glorious examples they might think that they had nothing to do with them. For their condition was poor, persecuted, exposed to all evils and to death itself for the profession of the Gospel. They wanted to know: what will faith do when people are exposed to persecution and martyrdom?

The author provides an inspiring list of examples to encourage the Hebrews in the midst of their difficult circumstances – as they were strongly tempted to return to the apparent safety and comforts of Judaism. This passage reminded me of 2 Corinthians 11:16-33, where Paul provides a similarly impressive list of the difficulties that he endured for the sake of preaching the Gospel message. Clearly the list of examples in this passage would be fodder for an epic film; of course, a major caveat is that none of those believers are mentioned by name. In any event, this list challenges modern-day believers to keep themselves from growing complacent in this world. This list shows us that genuine believers draw closer to their true calling in Christ by drawing away from this world. Thus, we must seek to rise above the world around us; this is extremely difficult, though, as we are inclined to sink into the world around us. We need divine grace and strength so that we can internalize the transitory nature of this life and prepare for the permanence of the next life.

A Call to Persevere May 28, 2015

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Here are my thoughts on Hebrews 10:19-39.

Summary: The author begins by exhorting his readers – in light of the preceding discussion – to:

  • approach God with true hearts
  • be unyielding in continuing in their profession of faith against difficulties and opposition
  • spur each other on in exhibiting the fruit of their saving faith
  • continue coming together themselves.

The author then warns his readers that if they obstinately depart from the living God after they have been convinced of the truth of the Gospel message and experienced its power, then they must look forward to God’s just and righteous sentence on the last day – since God is holy and righteous. Indeed, in Deuteronomy 17:6, God states that He will pass a death sentence on those who reject the Old Testament law, if at least two witnesses are available to testify against them. Clearly, then, those who reject the Gospel message – despising Jesus Christ – will be judged even more harshly by God. He quotes from Deuteronomy 32:35-36 to show that God’s judgment is terrible; moreover, those who reject the Gospel message will be under His power.

Now the author assists his readers in overcoming their difficulties by reminding them of their past sufferings – and how they acted in the midst of those difficulties. In particular, he reminds them that they suffered together with those who were being imprisoned, as they had a real practical concern for their welfare.

The author then reminds his readers about the necessity of continually exercising patience. He concludes by quoting from Habakkuk 2:3-4, where it is asserted that Christ will return soon; thus, those who wait to do God’s wishes show that they have really been made just, while everyone else will definitely be ruined.

Thoughts: In verses 19-22, the author exhorts his readers to approach God with sincere hearts in light of the person and work of Christ. Owen offers some insights on this point in his commentary on verse 22:

But the truth of the heart, which is meant here, is the sincerity of heart that is opposed to all hypocrisy. From this it follows that the heart is what God is most interested in when we approach him, and that universal, internal sincerity of heart is required of everyone who comes close to God in holy worship.

This passage may have influenced at least some of the worship leaders who call worshipers to “quiet their hearts” at the start of each worship service. My personal experience leads me to believe that a worshiper is easily distracted by their surroundings; thus, worshipers need to be reminded as to why they have come to church on a Sunday morning. One helpful strategy along these lines involves the worship leader reading a particular passage; this allows the congregants to meditate on that passage and connect it with the different stages of the service. Now the practice of “quieting our hearts” extends to our daily prayers before God. Indeed, whenever we approach God in any context, we must ask ourselves, “who am I approaching?” The answer to that question should help us approach Him with reverence.

In verses 32-34, the author exhorts his readers to persevere in their faith – just as they had previously persevered in their faith under intense persecution. Clearly the Hebrews were persecuted for their Christian faith, while the Jews of that period enjoyed their special status in the Roman Empire. This passage shows that Christians of that period were subjected to insults, imprisonment and the confiscation of their property. I would certainly like to meet the Hebrews in the next life and learn how they found the strength to “joyfully” respond to the persecution that they faced. How did they grow closer to God as a result of this persecution? Were any of their tormentors affected by their atypical response to persecution – and come to faith in Christ? Who were the other Christians referenced in this passage who were imprisoned? What caused the Hebrews to drift away from God after those “earlier days”?

Christ’s Sacrifice Once for All May 16, 2015

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Here are my thoughts on Hebrews 10:1-18.

Summary: The author begins by:

  • conceding that the old covenant between God and men was a harbinger of the new covenant
  • inferring that the old covenant was not designed to be permanent.

The impotency of the old covenant is highlighted by the fact that God appointed that its attendant sacrifices should be repeated; thus, the blood of those sacrifices could not take away sin.

The author then quotes from Psalm 40:6-8 to show that:

  • none of the sacrifices of the old covenant were suited to either the glory of God or the needs of the souls of men
  • the sacrifice of the new covenant – that of Christ Himself – was suitable in that regard.

Indeed, by offering Himself as a sacrifice, Christ:

  • fulfilled God’s eternal purpose and design
  • perfectly sanctified the church once only.

Now the author reiterates that since the Levitical priests – under the old covenant – had to stand and repeat their sacrifices, those sacrifices could not take away sins. In contrast, Christ sealed the new covenant by offering Himself as a sacrifice once only; He now sits at God’s throne, having perfectly sanctified the church.

The author concludes by quoting from Jeremiah 31:33-34 to show that in the Old Testament, the Holy Spirit declared that God would make a new covenant with men where their sins would be taken away.

Thoughts: In verses 5-7, the author quotes from Psalm 40:6-8 to show that Christ came to dwell among mankind in order to fulfill – and abolish – the old covenant. Owen offers some insights on this point in his commentary:

No sacrifices of the law, not all of them together, were a means for the expiation of sin, suited to the glory of God or the needs of the souls of men. The constant use of sacrifices to signify those things that they could not effect in worshipers was a great part of the slavery that the church was held in under the old testament…Yes, and Christ himself had a command from God to lay down his life for the accomplishment of this work.

I found these verses to be rather poignant, especially since they hint at the great suffering that Christ was prepared to endure in order to abolish the old covenant and seal the new covenant. While I am ignorant in terms of the form and structure of Hebrew poetry, I can still appreciate the beauty of these three verses. Indeed, verses 5 and 6 neatly summarize the problem at hand – that sacrifices and offerings could not mend a broken relationship with God – while verse 7 presents the solution to this problem, which is the sacrifice of Christ Himself. These verses can also encourage modern-day believers, as they lend further support to the notion that doing God’s will is difficult and involves some degree of suffering. Of course, we can be further encouraged by the fact that Christ emerged victorious through His suffering – thereby guaranteeing our ultimate victory through our suffering.

This passage concludes the “theory” section of this letter; the next passage inaugurates the “practice” section of this letter. Overall, I would say that the author has presented an awesome proof of the superiority of the person and work of Christ to all of the core tenets and iconic figures of Judaism. Indeed, the plethora of carefully selected Old Testament quotations serve as an indomitable argument that the Hebrews cannot ignore; they were intimately familiar with the Old Testament, yet they failed to infer – before receiving this letter – that it testifies to the impending arrival of a Person who would render it obsolete in terms of maintaining the relationship between God and men. I would certainly like to meet the Hebrews in the next life and learn how they perceived the “theory” section of this letter. Were they thoroughly swayed by the author’s arguments and utterly convinced that they needed to respond to the Gospel with faith and obedience? Did they dispute the author’s interpretation of at least some of their selected Old Testament quotations? Were they offended to some degree by the author’s systematic dismantling of their former belief system?

The Blood of Christ May 14, 2015

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Here are my thoughts on Hebrews 9:11-28.

Summary: The author begins by stating that when God’s promise in sending and manifesting Christ in the flesh was accomplished, He did all of His work in His human nature. Indeed, He performed His priestly work by offering Himself – thereby paying a valuable ransom to deliver people from their bondage. The author then draws the following contrast to highlight the value of Christ’s sacrifice:

  • in the Levitical services, the blood of clean animals and the ashes of a heifer – mixed with clean spring water – purified sinners in a carnal sense
  • Christ offered Himself to God – through His sufferings – thereby purifying sinners in a spiritual sense.

The author then asserts that Christ is the mediator of a new covenant between God and men, where those He has predestined to receive His blessing shall receive it; this results from His death, which has delivered them from their bondage.

Now the author proves the necessity of Christ’s death for the establishment of the new covenant between God and men as follows:

  • the bequeathing of the possessions of the maker of a will only occurs after their death
  • the old covenant between God and men was solemnly separated for sacred use through blood; indeed, when Moses read the old covenant to the people, he consecrated it by taking the blood of animals that had been offered for burnt offerings and peace offerings, and he sprinkled it on the scroll where the covenant was recorded and on the people.

The author then draws the following contrasts between the Levitical priests and Christ:

  • while the blood of animals that had been offered for burnt offerings and peace offerings was used to consecrate the earthly tabernacle, Christ consecrated heaven by His sacrifice
  • while the high priest entered into the holy of holies on an annual basis, Christ entered into the real presence of God once
  • while the Levitical priests never offered themselves as sacrifices, Christ offered Himself – through His sufferings – as a sacrifice.

The author concludes by asserting that Christ will return from heaven to complete the salvation of the church.

Thoughts: This passage illustrates the power of the blood of Christ, especially in relation to the blood of the Old Testament sacrifices. It also spurred me to ponder Exodus 24:7, where the people of Israel bound themselves to the old covenant. Perhaps they were fully convinced at that time that they would be able to fulfill their obligations under that covenant. Yet they began to repeatedly fall short in that regard; my conjecture is that their responses to their sins fell into three categories:

  • some of them viewed their sins as minor issues in God’s sight; they assumed that as long as they offered the requisite sacrifices, God would forgive them
  • some of them were troubled by their sins and knew that offering the requisite sacrifices could not repair their broken relationship with God; they could not find a solution to this problem, and so they longed for death
  • some of them were troubled by their sins and knew that offering the requisite sacrifices could not repair their broken relationship with God; they trusted that God would provide a solution to this problem that transcended the Mosaic institutions.

Indeed, the members of this third group looked to the Messiah as the solution to their broken relationship with God. Of course, most of the Israelites looked to the Messiah as the solution to a political problem – especially when they were driven from their homeland by the Assyrians and the Babylonians. How were the members of this third group able to trust in the Messiah, rejecting the national consensus regarding His person and work? Perhaps God had predestined that they would choose to look to Him in the midst of their sinfulness, though I am sure that their kinsmen belittled them for their faithfulness.

In verses 27 and 28, the author notes that Christ will return to bring salvation to all believers. Owen offers some insights on this point:

Faith in the second coming of Christ is sufficient support for the souls of believers in their difficulties and trials. All true believers wait, with expectation, for the coming of Christ, and this is one of the distinguishing characteristics of sincere believers. At Christ’s second appearance all sin will be dealt with.

Owen’s thoughts reminded me of the importance of properly expecting the second coming of Christ. My viewpoint on this topic is that since we have been placed on Earth to advance God’s kingdom, it would be improper for us as believers to sell all of our worldly possessions, travel to remote mountaintops, and await the time when the clouds part and Christ descends to Earth. Since God has not revealed the time of Christ’s return, our time on Earth will be more fruitful if we work to advance His kingdom; moreover, if we are still alive when He returns, then He will find us to be (spiritually) “alert” – as opposed to being (spiritually) “asleep.” Indeed, God does not call us to ponder the return of Christ at every waking moment; instead, He will view our actions that glorify Him as actions of “expectation.”

Worship in the Earthly Tabernacle May 11, 2015

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Here are my thoughts on Hebrews 9:1-10.

Summary: The author begins by noting that the old covenant had ordinances for divine service; it also had a worldly holy place. This holy place was fixed; its first part contained a candlestick and a table with holy loaves. Its second part consisted of the holy of holies, including the house of spices and the ark of the testimony – which contained a gold jar of manna, Aaron’s staff that had budded and the Ten Commandments. There were two cherubim over the ark that represented the glorious presence of God, and their wings overshadowed the atonement cover.

Now the author states the reason for his description of the worldly holy place. In particular, he draws the following contrast:

  • the priests entered the first part of the holy place on a daily basis to attend to the candlestick and serve at the altar of incense
  • only the high priest entered the holy of holies once a year; at that time, he took some fresh blood from a newly killed sacrifice and brought it into the holy of holies, where he sprinkled it seven times toward the ark of the testimony as a propitiation for sins.

Thus, the Holy Spirit shows that the way to the glorious presence of God had not been manifested while the holy place was being used. Moreover, the sacrifices that were offered by the priests did not perfect the conscience of the sinner. The author concludes by asserting the inherent weakness of the services of the holy place.

Thoughts: In this passage, the author discusses the furniture of the tabernacle. Owen offers some insights on this point in his commentary on verse 2:

This tabernacle was set up, as the materials were provided by the people, the materials were worked on by Bezaleel, put in position under Moses’ directions, and adorned for use…There was the lampstand, or candlestick. Its meticulous construction is described in Exodus 25:31-40: “Make a lampstand of pure gold and hammer it out, base and shaft; its flowerlike cups, buds and blossoms shall be of one piece with it…The buds and branches shall all be of one piece with the lampstand, hammered out of pure gold…”

Last year I enjoyed a PBS NOVA special on the forging of a Viking sword, and I remember being quite impressed by the skill of the Viking swordsmiths. Now it could be argued that Bezalel performed an even more impressive feat by crafting the above-mentioned lampstand. Did he start with a solid block of pure gold and progressively hammer out the lampstand from this block? If that was the case, it would have been neat to watch him gradually form the above-mentioned “flowerlike cups, buds and blossoms.” Although my artistic abilities leave much to be desired, I can definitely appreciate the requisite talent and meticulousness for hammering out precise shapes with complex features. I certainly hope to meet Bezalel in the next life and hear how God gave him the wisdom and strength to complete this awe-inspiring task.

Reading a passage that focuses on the tabernacle – and its inherent shortcomings – caused me to ponder the effort that the priests put forth in terms of maintaining it. In particular, cleaning the lampstand and refilling it with oil should be simple compared to the task of maintaining the various altars in and around the tabernacle. Also, cleaning an altar that is used to burn incense should be simple compared to the task of cleaning an altar that is used for animal sacrifices. When cleaning the latter altar, a priest would have to remove a large amount of detritus, including splattered blood, fur and entrails. My assumption is that the altars had to be maintained on a daily basis. If so, one must wonder if the Levite priests approached this task with joy – or if they were overwhelmed with boredom at some point.

The High Priest of a New Covenant May 7, 2015

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Here are my thoughts on Hebrews 8.

Summary: The author begins by summarizing the preceding discussion as follows:

  • believers have a high priest – Jesus Christ – who sits at the right hand of God
  • this high priest is a minister of the holy things in His human nature – which was fixed by God alone.

The author then notes that since the sole purpose of the office of a high priest is the offering of gifts and sacrifices, Christ had to offer gifts and sacrifices. Now if Christ had not been exalted to heaven to carry out His work there, then He could only have offered the same sacrifices as the Levitical priests; since He was not of the tribe of Levi, even that option would have been unavailable to Him. Yet it should be noted that the Levitical priests offer sacrifices in a temple that is only an example of the true temple in heaven; since this temple represents the true temple in heaven, God warned Moses to use great caution to make sure no mistake was made in its construction. In contrast, the ministry that Christ has obtained through the call of God is more excellent than the ministry of the Levitical priests; moreover, He is the mediator of a new covenant between God and human beings that is more excellent than the old covenant where the Levitical priests were mediators between God and human beings.

Now the author tells his readers that if the old covenant that God had made with their fathers at Sinai had been faultless, then there would have been no purpose for a new covenant. Yet the author quotes from Jeremiah 31:31-34 to show that God did complain that their fathers broke the old covenant, and so He states the imminent approach of a day when He will make a new covenant with the church of the elect. This new covenant with the elect has the following characteristics:

  • it will be distinct from the old covenant that God had made with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and the twelve patriarchs when He delivered them from Egypt; they broke that covenant and so God removed His special care from them
  • God will place His laws in the most secret, inner parts of their souls
  • God will renew their natures in His image in righteousness and holiness of truth
  • they will have knowledge of God
  • God will freely pardon their sins.

The author concludes by asserting that the old covenant is growing aged; in contrast, the new covenant is now in force.

Thoughts: In this passage, the author notes that Jesus Christ now serves in “the true tabernacle.” Owen offers some insights on this point in his commentary on verse 2:

I think that the true tabernacle refers to the human nature of the Lord Christ. He is the only way to approach God in holy worship, as the tabernacle was of old. Christ himself called his own body his temple when referring to the temple of Jerusalem, which was put to the same use as the tabernacle…So he said he dwelt among them. This can only really and substantially happen through Christ. He alone, therefore, is this true tabernacle.

This is an interesting interpretation of this phrase. On the other hand, I believe that “the true tabernacle” refers to heaven itself, which is the dwelling place of God the Father. In particular, I am sure that God the Father – not a human being – established heaven as His dwelling place. Also, this letter clearly states that Jesus Christ currently serves as our high priest in heaven. In addition, verses 2 and 5 seems to support my interpretation of this phrase:

  • it seems strange to assert that Christ is currently serving “in” His human nature – as opposed to heaven itself, which is an actual location
  • it seems strange to assert that buildings are examples of the human nature of Christ – as opposed to heaven itself, which is an actual location.

I hope to meet Owen in the next life so that we can discuss our interpretations of this passage.

In this passage, the author asserts that Jesus Christ is the mediator of a new covenant between God and His people that supersedes His previous covenant with them. Owen offers some insights on this point in his commentary on verse 8:

God complains that the people broke his covenant. God gives this promise of a new covenant along with a complaint against the people, so that it would be known that this new covenant was the result of his free and sovereign grace. There was nothing in the people to procure it or to qualify them for it.

This passage caused me to delve into the distinction between the old and the new covenants. Now the laws and regulations that constituted the old covenant were inherently holy and good. The old covenant had a fatal flaw, though: God’s people are inherently sinful, and so they were unable to obey these laws and regulations. They performed various external rites in an attempt to overcome their failures, yet these external rites did not address their inherent (internal) sinfulness. Unfortunately, the application of the blessings of the old covenant – including a lasting relationship between God and His people – depended on their obedience.

This paved the way for God to bring glory to Himself by establishing a new covenant with His people; this covenant also included blessings for His people, yet the application of these blessings did not depend on their obedience. Instead, God attacked the problem of the inherent sinfulness of His people with a two-pronged strategy:

  • He caused the application of the blessings of the new covenant to depend on the obedience of Jesus Christ – who was perfectly holy during His time on earth
  • He placed Himself – in the form of the Holy Spirit – in His people so that they – under His guidance – would respond to His grace with thanksgiving; this attitude of thanksgiving would be expressed in actions that constituted obedience to the timeless aspects of the old covenant.

While the sinfulness of God’s people made the old covenant impotent in terms of maintaining His relationship with them, God employed His Son and His Spirit to make the new covenant omnipotent in that regard.

Jesus Like Melchizedek May 3, 2015

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Here are my thoughts on Hebrews 7:11-28.

Summary: The author begins with the following rhetorical question: if perfection belonged to the priesthood of Levi and the family of Aaron – as this priesthood had been instituted in the law that was given to the whole church of all ages under the old testament – then why did a priest from a different stock appear? This stems from the fact that the priesthood of Levi has been abolished – and so the law that was given to the whole church of all ages under the old testament has been abolished. Indeed, Jesus Christ, who belonged to the priesthood of Melchizedek, was not in the tribe of Levi; it is evident that He rose from the tribe of Judah, and no one from that tribe had either served as a priest or attended the services. Moreover, the law that was given to the whole church of all ages under the old testament states that the priesthood did not belong to the tribe of Judah. Now Jesus Christ was appointed by God as a priest from the stock of Melchizedek; He did not become a priest through the law, yet His life and His divine nature equipped Him to carry out His office. The author supports this point by quoting from Psalm 110:4, where the Holy Spirit spoke through David.

Thus, the whole system of Mosaic institutions is now abolished, since perfection did not belong to it; instead God has brought in the priesthood and sacrifice of Christ. Perfection belongs to His priesthood, and believers now have access to God through Him.

The author then draws the following contrasts between the priesthood of Levi and the priesthood of Christ:

  • people entered the priesthood of Levi without an oath, yet Christ became a priest when God made an oath to Him – declaring His solemn, eternal and unchanging will
  • those who belonged to the priesthood of Levi were mortal men, yet Christ is immortal – and so His priesthood cannot pass away.

Thus, Christ is the surety of all believers under a better testament, and He has the power to save those who believe in God through Him, as He is living a mediatory life in heaven.

The author then asserts that believers can be accepted by the holy God through Christ, as He:

  • does not have sin present with Him
  • is free from evil
  • is unpolluted
  • is separate from sin in its nature
  • now resides in God’s presence in a glorious state.

The author concludes by drawing the following contrasts between the priesthood of Levi and the priesthood of Christ:

  • those in the priesthood of Levi offered animals on a daily basis for themselves and for others, yet Christ offered Himself as a sacrifice once for all
  • the ceremonial law added mere men – who were subject to moral and natural infirmities – to the priesthood of Levi, yet the will of God made Christ – who was free from all moral and natural infirmities – a priest.

Thoughts: The priesthood of Christ is the central focus of this section of the letter. Now the concept of Christ as a priest does not resonate as deeply with me as it would with believers who were raised as Jews; priesthood is a salient feature of Judaism, and many Jews view priests as divine ambassadors. After pondering this concept, I concluded that the concept of Christ as a lawyer – especially a defense attorney who argues my case – resonates more deeply with me. I would definitely require legal assistance in a hypothetical scenario where I was facing criminal charges. In that scenario, I would be unable to properly defend myself by formulating cogent opening and closing arguments, marshaling witnesses and evidence, or devising appropriate lines of questioning and cross-examination. Thus, I would benefit from the services of an attorney with the appropriate training and experience. Indeed, I can see Christ pleading my case before God, the righteous Judge, and I am thankful for His legal assistance.

In verse 28, the author states that God swore an oath to Christ that confirmed His appointment to a new priesthood “after the law.” I was curious as to whether this phrase is peculiar to my NIV translation, so I checked the ESV and NASB translations of this passage; they actually concur with the NIV translation in this regard. Thus, I wonder how we should interpret this phrase. Did Christ not know from the beginning of time that the Father would appoint Him to a new, eternal priesthood? Did Christ have an unspoken understanding with the Father in this regard from the beginning of time before the Father verbally appointed Him to that office after He gave the law to Moses? Could the author be referring to the fact that Psalm 110:4 was written after the Israelites’ journey to the Promised Land? Of course, this may be “much ado about nothing,” but any insightful comments are welcome.