We have been looking at the New Testament letter to the Hebrews, and suggesting a simplified outline to help us not to get lost, for he paints on a vast canvas.The writer sees history not as a line escalating ever upwards – as if the human race were always making progress (a fable which so many modern folk apparently still believe). Nor is history seen as circular, as a kind of complicated not-so-merry-go-round, in which the different ages keep slowly recurring. The Letter to the Hebrews sees history as the outline of an incomplete triangle: the apex being the person and work of Jesus Christ: all that came before, looks up and forward to him: all that came and comes after him looks upwards and backwards to him.
He is the summit of all history. His shadow is cast on both ancient and modern ages, and to this day he is the point of all history – its peak – the person whose life alone makes sense of all human striving after reality. Instead of us struggling upwards to God, he comes down to us, where we are, and the point of that perfect invasion is Jesus of Nazareth.
So the first ten chapters of Hebrews are, in essence, the four sermons we’ve been glancing at briefly, each answering the questions men are ever asking when they leave God out of their reckoning, such as who am I? , what is a human being – an animal with delusions of grandeur, or a being just a little lower than the angels? If you want to see a man …. then see Jesus (see Hebrews 2: 8 and 9).
The other questions, “Where are we all heading? Whom can we trust? Can we be sure of anything?” are all dealt with in such a way that each answer provides threads out of which, when woven together, produce a wondrous living, breathing, material called FAITH.
That relationship is the subject of the rest of the letter to the Hebrews.
Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for. By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible. Hebrews 11:1-3
“By faith we understand ……” without faith we understand nothing in all the universe.
Lord we believe in thee, help thou our unbelief.
Lord we love thee, yet not with perfect hearts.
Lord we long for thee, yet not with all our strength.
Lord we trust in thee, yet not with our whole selves.
Accept our faith, our longing and our love, and make them perfect, through Jesus Christ, our Lord.
Now read the great Habakkuk 1:1 to 2:4.
When Pontius Pilate asked Jesus ‘What is truth?”, he was asking the Sixty-four million dollar question. “What is REAL”. “How can humans ever be certain of anything. Yes, I know it’s the question a billion people will agonise over this very day. In this life, how can I be sure of anything?
This is the subject of the Fourth Sermon in Hebrews Chapters 8, 9 and 10, and the answer is superb. His text is taken from Jeremiah Chapter 31 where the prophet tells of a new covenant with God, not like the old one. This new one would be a real and personal relationship in which the terms would be written on people’s hearts, and they would all know God personally because the new relationship would not be based on people never putting a foot wrong – but on God’s forgiveness when they did!
But how can a Holy, Pure, Perfect God be in a personal relationship with grubby little creatures, like us? By God making a new relationship with us. Remember that the Bible word for relationship is ‘covenant’. No matter what, this new covenant would be eternal – and real.
That’s how you can be sure. You can trust him when you cannot trust yourself. You trust his love for you more than your love for him. When all is said and done, relation-ships are the only real things in the universe.They are more real than the very people who enter into such wondrous ties. And the word for that new relationship is ‘FAITH’ – personal trust.
This is where the letter to the Hebrews takes a line from each of the four sermons in the first 10 chapters, and twines them together, and makes the strongest chord in the world – it’s called FAITH – and the rest of the letter is all about FAITH in the living God. Using Jewish liturgical pictures or worship, he says in Hebrews 10:19-22
Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and full assurance of FAITH A Prayer:
Lord Jesus Christ, when you take us by the hand, you lead us into the very throne room of the triune God. There is so much we do not understand, but by faith, we know that you are real, and so is your love for us.This means by trusting wholly in you, we are destined to dwell in that perfect relationship of blessedness.
Now read Jeremiah 31:31-34, along with Hebrews Chapter 8 (and when you have time, Chapters 9 and 10).
One of the most demanding questions asked by every age is simply this “When it comes to knowing about God, Is there anyone I can trust?” “How can I be sure that I’m not being led up the garden path?” I mean, “Who is there whose word and life we can trust. Is there anyone who won’t let us down?” Every leader has some axe or other to grind.
Sermon No. 3, in Hebrews, which deals with this, covers three chapters, 5, 6 and 7, and the text is taken from Psalm 110 v. 4.
The author was looking for someone who was different from ordinary mortals, because he knew that people, even the best people, let you down. Even men like King David turn out to be corrupt. Surely no human being is totally reliable? Is there anyone who is like a type of Christ in the Old Testament? Well he found one, in Psalm 110 v. 4 and in Genesis 14: 17-24, which speak of a high priest called Melchizedek. He is a mysterious figure having no family tree, who just appeared – as one who comes from another dimension. Not really like the rest of us.
This Melchizedek was king of Salem and priest of God Most High. He met Abraham returning from the defeat of the kings and blessed him, and Abraham gave him a tenth of everything. …Hebrews 7:1-2a
But you gave tithes, a tenth of your income, only to God: . So Abraham recognised this priest Melchizedek as someone very special – someone representing God.
First his name means “king of righteousness”, then also “king of Salem” means “king of peace.” Without father or mother, without genealogy, without beginning of days or end of life, like the Son of God he remains a priest for ever. Hebrews 7:2-3
Different from us – as is God himself: yet here amongst us. On our level, but higher than us. Now that is the answer. That is the point. Is there anyone I can trust myself to? Someone like us, but in essence different from us?
Yes, his name is JESUS, who comes from the dimension of eternity. He is the one you can trust totally. He is eternally reliable…. because Jesus lives for ever, he has a permanent priesthood. Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them. Such a high priest meets our need – one who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens. Unlike the other high priests ..Hebrews 7:24-27
The Latin word for high priest, ‘Pontifex’, means a bridge builder, someone on whom you may cross over.
Blessed are you, Lord Jesus, for in you have I put my trust, and I can never be confounded.
Now read Hebrews Chapter 7.
The first ten chapters in the letter to the Hebrews are really four sermons dealing with the most important questions every generation asks: the first was Who am I? (What is a human being?)
The second sermon is: ‘Where am I heading?’or ‘What is my destiny, my goal in life? Is there any point in it?
This sermon is in Hebrews Chapters 3 and 4. Again his text is taken from the Psalms; this time, Psalm 95: 8 and 11
Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hears as you did at Meribah, as you did that day at Massah in the desert, where you fathers tested and tried me, though they had seen what I did. …So I declared an oath in my anger, “They shall never enter my rest”.
The clever thing in this sermon is his use of the word “rest” as a goal in life. He says God always sets goals for us: aims and purposes; and one is a rest to head for, more than the rest from desert wandering but being at home in a lovely land flowing with milk and honey. Another way he uses the word ‘rest’ means ‘To be at home with God, and completely at ease: like a Sabbath rest day. To the Jews the Sabbath was glory, it was worship, a family day; a day of re-creation, time to be truly ‘at home’. It was a joy not a burden. And yet another way he uses the word ‘rest’ is for heaven.
There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest, for the people of God;” Hebrews 4:9
Your goal in life is a place where you are finally at home with God and his family, and able to enjoy living with God. But in these two chapters he keeps repeating the Psalmist’s warning “Today if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts … as your forebears did” – four times he says it.
Something happened at Meribah (which means ‘rioting’, ‘becoming ungovernable’), and Massah (which means ‘rebellion – pride’) which was the sin even of Moses, as if saying: “I’ll show you lot who is the boss!”. The warning is that ungovernable rioting people, and arrogant exasperated leaders do not enter into God’s ‘rest’.Hence the repeated warning today:
The eternal is Now Yesterday is gone -Tomorrow is not here.
All we have got to act in is today NOW!
Open the ears of my soul, O God, that this very day I hear your voice and do not harden my heart.
Now read Hosea Chapter 14.
Here is a simple direction to help find your way through the letter to the Hebrews.The first ten chapters consist of four sermons. Then comes the conclusion.
The four sermons deal with the four big questions which every age asks. Sermon One is the first two chapters and deals with the question everybody asks: Who am I? or What am I?, or, if you prefer the biblical expression, ‘What is man?’ (meaning a human) – is he merely the product of selfish genes? an accident of chance causes?
Like the other sermons it has a text: this one is from Psalm 8 which asks the question:
When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the starts, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him? Psalm 8: 3-5
That doesn’t mean we humans are too small to be of any value in a vast universe. It means the opposite: what is it that makes us so important in God’s universe? Why are we so privileged?
The Bible says you are not an animal with a big brain! You are made to be in a privileged relationship with the God who made you. Harry Fosdick once scornfully dealt with the answer to the mystery of mankind as given by the analytical chemist: “What is man? Why he is:
Enough fat to make 7 bars of soap
Enough lime to whitewash a hen house
Enough magnesium to fill a toy canon
Enough sulphur to put the tips on 200 matches
Enough sugar to fill a small bowl
Enough iron to make a medium sized nail mix with several pails of water, add a few trace elements and you have a man!”
O no you don’t!! You are much more than the sum of your boiled down bodily parts. Hebrews says that you are superior to God’s angels – you are an adopted son of God – and if you say ‘If we humans are all that important, why don’t we see mankind being as God intended him to be?’. The sermon gives the answer
Yet at present we do not see everything subject to him. But we see Jesus,
In your mercy, Lord, reach out to us, your ailing creatures, for we seek not merely to be cured by your touch, but made whole.
Now read Genesis Chapter 2.
The letter to the Hebrews in the New Testament reads more like a set of sermons than a letter, and many people find it difficult to master because (as someone once told me) “of all the Old Testament furniture and names like Melchizedek …”.
So let’s try and unravel its main themes. To start with:Hebrews teaches that Jesus of Nazareth is the complete and total fulfilment of all previous divine revelation. The most sacred names in Hebrew history are shown to be completely inferior to Christ.The great Moses, the Covenant relationship between God and Israel: the very tabernacle and the Holy Temple – even the angels – all are inferior to Christ. The Prologue to the Book is like the opening bars of a great symphony in which the main theme is stated on which many variations will be played throughout. This is the prologue – the first four verses of Hebrews:
In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down t the right hand of the Majesty in heaven. So he became as much superior to the angels …. Hebrews 1:1-4
All previous revelation of God was variegated and fragmentary. It was true, but partial, like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Now we have the entirely completed picture. Jesus is God the Son, who was instrumental with his Father in creating the universe. He is the radiance of God’s glory – which means the very light of Jesus is God’s light undistorted. It does not pass through coloured or dirty glass. The light of God shines like the sunshine, dazzling and brilliant, and He is the exact image of the invisible Father’s personality stamped (like a signet ring pressed into softened wax) in human flesh and blood. What he came to do, only he could do: only he was qualified. Well, he came and did it, and is now, side by side again with our Father in Heaven.
That’s only a beginning. The master key of this letter to the Hebrews is simply this:-The Old Testament is the Gospel of Jesus casting its shadow before it.
Eternal God, who has shined in our hearts to give the knowledge of your glory in the face of Jesus Christ, grant us now such knowledge of they grace that we may worship, adore and grow more like thee.
Now read Micah 4: 1-9.
We are familiar with militant feminism, and the desire for political correctness, even to the point where one woman preaching in the open air in New York said: “We don’t sing hymns, we sing hers, and when you come to God, don’t worry, SHE will accept you”.
I am not advocating that we drop all forms of attributing masculinity to God in favour of femininity, but surely no one has ever seriously believed that God is some kind of huge invisible male. God made masculine and feminine and is neither one nor the other, but far above and beyond both such creature images. But because we defend the Biblical language as God our Father, we must also acknowledge, as did the ancient Hebrews, that God is also our mother!Listen to this as Isaiah describes the compassion of God:
“I will extend peace to her like a river … you will be nursed and be carried on her arm and dandled on her knees. … * As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you;and you will be comforted … Isaiah 66: 12-13
So the Bible sees God as a mother, as well as a father. I suppose it broadens our gender-bound images to include the loving tenderness and sheer enjoyment which a mother expresses over her little child. That passage is not alone. The next is from Psalm 131 and the picture it paints is that of the yearning of a weaned child still longing for the intimacy of his or her mother’s breast, for when babies are fed they receive much more than milk from their mothers. They receive a sense of love, security, bonding, happiness and trust, all in their purest forms. But they can’t remain tiny babies for ever. Growing up means no longer being breast fed.The relationship has to grow up and deepen.
My heart is not proud, O Lord, my eyes are not haughty …But I have stilled and quieted my soul; like a weaned child with its mother, like a weaned child is my soul within me. Psalm 131: 1 and 2
Lord, let not any butch or machismo spirit keep me from seeking a deeper intimacy with you.
Now read Zephaniah 3:14-20
Yesterday we were acknowledging our debt to the Psalms as the greatest prayer and worship guide of all times. “If you want to learn to pray – pray the Psalms”, say the sages.Well the Jews who worshipped in the Temple at Jerusalem, regarded God as the Father of Israel who knew them and loved them, and like a good father wanted nothing but good for them: even if this involved disciplining them.The idea of God as their Father was not new to them.
As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him; for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust. Psalm 103:13,14.
This is from an admission that even our own fathers and mothers are not as faithful a parent to us as is God. (Psalm 27:10)
Though my father and mother forsake me, the Lord will receive me.
In fact people who have no parents on earth are not bereft.
Sing to God, sing praise to his name, extol him who rides on the clouds – his name is the Lord – and rejoice before him. A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling. Psalm 68:4-5
If all Israel knew God as their father, what was so new about Jesus teaching his followers, who were Jews remember, to pray “Our Father …..”? Well, for one thing, there was his personal use of the word ABBA – not quite “Daddy”, but certainly a word of great intimacy and personal trust: a word which puts us as His children. It’s that intimacy which is the heart of all true prayer. Only Jesus truly knows the Father, and yet he shares with us that knowledge which is personal intimacy.
This is Jesus speaking :
All things have been committed to me by my Father.No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. Matthew 11:27
A Prayer pointer:
I saw a Hebrew father, hand-in-hand with his little child, as they stepped into the spring waters of Sachne in S. Galillee.The child started to slip, and in a loud voice cried “Abba, Abba”, and Dad held him firm, in love.
Now read Hosea Chapter 11.
The Jewish people for over a thousand years taught the world to pray. Why, when even well-educated, cultured peoples prayed to their idols, the Jews knew much better that the one true God was invisible to human eyes and no image of him was possible, for nothing in all creation could convey the person of God:His Holiness: His Justice: His Almightiness: His Kindness and His Personality.
The people of Israel got many things wrong, but they were the world leaders in prayer and worship.The Book of Psalms is the world’s greatest hymn book, and also the greatest prayer book and it is also the greatest worship book for congregations and individuals ever written.Our Deepest Christian scholars all say that if you want to learn to pray, pray the Psalms.For one thing the Psalms are so honest.They give voice to some things we would consider to be too primitive for us to bring to God. They didn’t believe that they had to clean up their act first before coming to God.
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me? …O my God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, and am not silent. Psalm 22:1-2
Those words, which became so important to Christians after Jesus had gasped them in his agony on the cross. That cry of dereliction, instead of being a scandal to Christians, led them instead to the very heart of that mystery called the atonement. Now feel the heartbreak in this: If an enemy were insulting me, I could endure it; if a foe were raising himself against me, I could hide from him. But it is you, a man like myself, my companion, my close friend, with whom I enjoyed sweet fellowship …Psalm 55: 12-14a
Here is the beginning of another Psalm, teaching us how to come before God, and approach the God who made us and who loves us.
I love you, O Lord, my strength. The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer; my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge. He is my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.I call to the Lord, who is worthy of praise, and I am saved from my enemies. Psalm 18:1-3
A Prayer pointer:
Lord, teach us to pray like that, with you at the centre of all we are.
Now pray Psalm 4 as finding the secret of peace.
There is a cruel little jibe which goes like this: ‘What’s the difference between a Lada car and a Jehovah’s Witness?’ Answer:’You can close the door on a Jehovah’s Witness.’
Hold on – don’t you marvel at the sheer persistence of the Jehovah’s Witnesses? Don’t you get hot under the collar when Christian lay-abouts criticise the Jehovah’s Witnesses? when they themselves never visit anyone in the name of their faith, and if they did wouldn’t know what on earth to say. In a court of law, a witness is someone who fulfils three tests:
1.He (or she) must have seen or heard for himself: only first hand experience is accepted by any court of law, the rest is hearsay
2.He (or she) must be willing to speak up and tell the truth of what they have experienced first hand, and
3.Be willing to take the consequences of speaking up whether for good or ill.
Those three things make a witness in an English law court today.In my view, the hardest form of Christian witnessing is going cold, door-to-door. People feel invaded, even good people, but on the other hand no one objects to being befriended, listened to, and accepted.
Christian witness first involves simply making friends with people, neighbours and workmates, making friends NOT as a trick to introduce the gospel, but just as an act of love.Make friends whether you ever get the chance to speak for Christ or not. How about inviting for dinner that troublesome neighbour? How about calling someone just because you care how they are. Ask them round for coffee … It wouldn’t be long before they started asking “What makes you tick? You don’t need a regular fix of this or that – what keeps you going?” When asked, and not before, you can tell them. If you’ve anything to say about someone in your life bigger than yourself!
There are vast numbers of open doors out there to millions of lives, and the one secret entering into each of them is, befriend the one behind the door.
“These are the words of him who is holy and true, who holds the key of David. What he opens, no one can shut; and what he shuts, no one can open. I know your deeds. See, I have placed before you an open door that no-one can shut. I know that you have little strength, yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name.” Revelations 3: 7-8
A Prayer preparation:
Lord, I now write out the names of people it is possible for me to befriend from this very day onwards, and to pray for them each day.
Now read I Thessalonians Chapter 2.