Continuing our look at the book of Hebrews this week, the author takes a bit of a detour from his line of reasoning. He had brought up the idea that Jesus was a priest after the order of Melchizedek, but then he breaks that train of thought with today’s passage. This passage is one of the hotly debated passages in Scripture and its interpretation is very much tied to your view of Scriptural teaching as a whole, and to your view of the specific context in which this book of Hebrews is written. I’m not going to try to discuss all possible interpretations, now will I claim that I have it completely figured out. This is just a perspective from my point of view, trying to explain the context and connection to the rest of Scripture as best as I understand it at this point.
First, a reminder that we do not know who wrote this book. I discussed that at the beginning of the series, and will reiterate the basis for my interpretation of the author. I read Hebrews with a picture of Paul in my mind as the author. Paul did not identify himself as he usually does, and the writing style is a bit different, but it makes sense to me that if Paul (who was not liked by a lot of Jews because of his conversion and advocacy for Christianity) wrote this book, he may have not wanted his name attached to it in order to make it more palatable for more of the Jews. Paul definitely had a heart for the salvation and conversion of his own people.
Second, this book is addressed to the Hebrews. I don’t interpret it as a book written primarily to Christian Hebrews, but rather to what we might call “seekers” – those Jews who earnestly want to follow and obey God and are at least seeking to understand if Jesus could indeed be the promised Messiah. Some early readers may have already been convinced, and this book serves to strengthen their belief. Others are still on the fence, and this book is addressed to them to urge them to consider the arguments carefully.
With these two thoughts in mind, let’s turn to the passage itself. The author indicates that he is about to embark on a deeper discussion of Jesus’ comparison to Melchizedek, but he feels the need to explain why he’s drawing this comparison. It’s a comparison that stands fairly uniquely to this book and is probably not a typical argument discussed in Christian circles. Here’s how the author finishes Chapter 5 (verses 11-14).
11 About this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. 12 For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, 13 for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. 14 But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.
The author acknowledges that the readers are sincere followers of God, but they have become callous or “dull of hearing” in the way they are dealing with Scripture. Of course, their Scripture is the Old Testament, though by now some of the New Testament writings may have been circulated and read by some, but the “oracles of God” the author refers to here is the Old Testament. The author is warning them that he is about to feed them some “solid food”, even though they are showing signs of still treating Scripture in very basic ways. In other words, they need to study it deeper and see the nuggets of revelation that are present in it.
This harkens to the story of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearance to the guys on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-32). Jesus walked with them and “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” They were already familiar with the Scripture, but they had yet to make the necessary connections of these stories to the person of Jesus. The author continues in Chapter 6.
1 Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, 2 and of instruction about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. 3 And this we will do if God permits.
In other words, the basic foundations of the gospel are, of course, essential, but his theological argument is going to go beyond that. He’s not downplaying the simplicity of the gospel – just explaining that there is more that can and should be considered.
4 For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, 5 and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, 6 and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt. 7 For land that has drunk the rain that often falls on it, and produces a crop useful to those for whose sake it is cultivated, receives a blessing from God. 8 But if it bears thorns and thistles, it is worthless and near to being cursed, and its end is to be burned.
This is a passage that troubles some people and is hotly debated in Christian circles, specifically the phrase “have fallen away” in verse 6. Again, given the perspective from which I’m interpreting this book, this passage is directed at non-Christians. The author mentions those “who have once been enlightened” but who are “crucifying once again the Son of God”. I believe this refers to Jews who claim to be following God, but who hear the gospel of Jesus and reject it as insufficient to be believed in and of itself. These would be those who were the “Judaizers” of the day, who essentially said, “Fine. You want to believe Jesus is the Messiah? Go ahead, but you still have to become a Jew, follow the laws and customs, and try to please God yourself.” These are the ones who have “tasted the word of God” but can’t find it in themselves to repent of trying to earn their way into heaven. The author, though, continues with a word of encouragement.
9 Though we speak in this way, yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things— things that belong to salvation. 10 For God is not unjust so as to overlook your work and the love that you have shown for his name in serving the saints, as you still do. 11 And we desire each one of you to show the same earnestness to have the full assurance of hope until the end, 12 so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.
Here the author expresses the confidence that his audience is truly “seeking” God and that they will recognize that the gospel of Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s plan – that Jesus IS the Messiah and his sacrifice IS sufficient to fulfill the requirements of God’s law. Hence the coming argument relating Jesus to Melchizedek.
13 For when God made a promise to Abraham, since he had no one greater by whom to swear, he swore by himself, 14 saying, “Surely I will bless you and multiply you.” 15 And thus Abraham, having patiently waited, obtained the promise. 16 For people swear by something greater than themselves, and in all their disputes an oath is final for confirmation. 17 So when God desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he guaranteed it with an oath, 18 so that by two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us.
This is a rather long way of simply saying that God can be trusted. If you follows Jesus, God has promised that his sacrifice is sufficient to cover your sins. The author concludes with:
19 We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain, 20 where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf, having become a high priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.
The author segues back to his Melchizedek theme (which I’ll address next time) by pointing out that because of Jesus, we ourselves (our souls) are able to enter “the inner place behind the curtain” (the Holy of Holies – the throne room of God). This is the confidence that you can have as a follower of Jesus!