By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
October 17, 2021
Hebrews 5:1–10 (ESV)
1 For every high priest chosen from among men is appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. 2 He can deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is beset with weakness. 3 Because of this he is obligated to offer sacrifice for his own sins just as he does for those of the people. 4 And no one takes this honor for himself, but only when called by God, just as Aaron was. 5 So also Christ did not exalt himself to be made a high priest, but was appointed by him who said to him, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you”; 6 as he says also in another place, “You are a priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek.” 7 In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. 8 Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. 9 And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him, 10 being designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchizedek.
The past couple of weeks we have spoken about God’s plan to restore humanity. I want us to consider this more deeply this week. We often look at scripture and the stories within scripture from a very human focused perspective, and rightfully so since humans are the ones to whom this revelation was given. We also tend to look at scripture through the lenses of our experience, and our religious traditions as well. As much as we would like to say that we are open to the context of the text, even the most devout follower so sola scriptura fails to completely pull themselves away from tradition.
I am just as guilty a anyone on that point. I love the history and traditions of the Society of Friends. It is the best expression of faith that I have come across, that is why I am a minister within this tradition. But I must admit that we do at times read things through our tradition and our preferences, just like everyone else. It is part of our human existence. We are social beings, and our societies develop cultures, and it is through those cultural constructs that we learned to understand the world around us. We look at the world from an American perspective, which is different than the perspective that the students I taught in Ukraine looked at things. We look at the world from a Christian perspective, which is different from the way other religions look at things. And we look at things from a Friends perspective which is different than the way other Christians look at things. We can even break that down further. Even states within the United States have a distinct perspective as to what American is. And Friends Churches within the same yearly meeting from different states or even across town might differ slightly because the experiences of the people within have slightly different cultures.
I mention this because Hebrews is a difficult book. There are cultural, aspects to it that we might miss if we do not understand the context not only of words but also the people. And we even see glimpses of different understandings of things from within Jewish traditions. Contrary to what we might think the Hebrew religion was not, and still is not as unified under one understanding. There is a joke that if you ask a group of four rabbis a question you will get five answers. I do not think that is something unique to them as a people group, it just proves the point that all people have a variety of opinions and perspectives. Even within the teachings of the Gospel we see three if not four different perspectives of faith within first century Jewish practices. They are all Jewish but just a bit different. United on some aspects, but willing to argue endlessly on others.
The point of this general letter is to provide an apologetic, a theological defense to the supremacy of Jesus, over the traditions of old. The letter was written during that transitional period of Church history where there was a debate over identity. Are we Christian, or are we Jewish? Can you be both? Can you be one without the other? We might not fully grasp this struggle. For most of us, we have not had to struggle with the concept of identity. We are just what we are. I was born into the Friends Church, for me this expression of faith is not strange but natural. I cannot look at another expression of faith without comparing it to what I already know. Many of you were not born into this meeting, you came here from somewhere or something else. Some of you remember quite well what that experience was like. Some of you might have struggled with our expression, some might still struggle, while others of us may have just seamlessly melded into our community of faith so easily that it might be difficult to pinpoint the exact moment this became your home.
I want us to think about that struggle. The fact that you are still here means that there is some reason you stayed. If you are new, I encourage you to ask questions and to seek answers because that is part of the journey of faith. A church is more than a place to worship, it is part of who you are. It is the place you come to draw close to God, and the group of people you are called to share ministry through. It is like a marriage in many ways. And like every relationship, the best relationships require a great deal of work.
Life in many ways is a series of struggles. Some might say that life requires struggle for us to truly live. It is through suffering and struggles that we gain the strength to endure. In the early 1990’s there was a scientific ecological experiment called Biosphere 2. They named it that because they believed Biosphere 1 was the earth, and because the scientists involved believed we were doing harm to the planet they wanted to create an environment that would be self-contained and supporting. So, this group of scientists built a facility that would seal itself completely off from the rest of the world. And those involved in the study would live completely eating only what was in this environment. They quickly faced struggles that they never imagined. The oxygen levels within the sphere began to drop, and soon the scientists were required to pump more breathable air into the facility. Then something strange happened. We are all told that the rainforests are the lungs of the earth. That the Amazon Forest is supplying the world with breathable air. So, they planted rainforest trees. Only to find that the trees would fall over before they even matured. Through this experiment we learned that the oceans are much more important to the ecosystem than the forests, but we also learned that struggle is important to survival.
The biosphere experiment showed us that the tree needs to struggle against the wind so that it can grow to bear stresses of life. If a tree grows without the forces of wind pushing on it, it will not have the strength to handle maturity. We need struggle to survive.
We need struggle to survive. We do not like hearing this do we. I think that I could do without a little stress. I would love to be able to live life without some of the things that cause stress in my life. But the truth is we would not be who we are without those struggles. Everything we face in our lives allow us to become the people we are. We endured the struggles and now we can face tomorrow, even though we may not believe we can.
Even our faith needs struggle. The church at the time of the writing of Hebrews faced great struggle. They believed that Jesus was the Messiah, and that the Messiah was going to usher in the kingdom. But as time went on and the kingdom as they expected did not manifest around them, they began to reconsider what they believed. There was a movement that we often see within the letters, urging the Church to go back to the traditions of the first century Jewish faith. They wanted them to come back to the temple, to follow the law, and to offer sacrifices again. If you grew up in that tradition, it would be easy for you to look back on that life and lifestyle with nostalgia. You knew where you stood. You knew what was expected of you. It was easier, than the stress you now face. They did face stress. The church, face persecution by both Jews and Gentiles. They faced struggles because the church often contradicts the wisdom of men.
This goes back to the very beginning. I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that God had the responsibility to restore humanity to our rightfully created position. I want us to realize that God only had this responsibility if He wanted it. God could have chosen to just walk away and start over, but God wanted us to fulfill our purpose. The only way for us to be capable of this task is if God took the responsibility of restoration on himself.
The first books of the Old Testament speak of this covenant that God made. Our first parents were deceived. We may have acted with incomplete knowledge but all actions have consequences. We live with those consequences, and God uses that struggle to bring about better things. I once listened to a podcast by a Jewish Rabbi speaking about the sin of Adam and Eve as being a good thing. That Eve made the right choice in eating the fruit, because God knew that we needed to face struggles before we could become the people, he needed us to become. I do not know if I agree with his interpretation, but I find it interesting because we need struggle to mature. Either way the reason we struggle is because it is a consequence of that action. We now have the knowledge of good and evil, and we must muddle our way through.
God knew that this was going to be difficult so He encouraged some along the way. Scripture is filled with these people. And then he calls one man to form a nation through which God would reveal the truth through. This is the nation of Israel. God chose. God ordained. But even Abraham struggled with his life of faith. We must choose to follow because God will not force us, we must work in cooperation with God, just like the wind works with the tree.
The problem is that the fall of humanity separated us from God. We moved from life to death. That is the curse of sin. We were born infected with death; theologians call this original sin. I do not like that thought process because if the baptism of infants were to alleviate the curse of original sin then why do we still face death, even if we have faith in God. Death will still greet us one day. We have this infection of death. Death is the corruption of life. It is the cancer of life. When a body develops cancer, it means that cells have become corrupt, they no longer do what they are supposed to, instead they spread the corruption until eventually the corrupt cells overcome the healthy cells.
The deception of Adam and Eve, infected humanity with this corruption that separates us from life. Our understanding of the world around us is infected with this deceptive virus, and this affects our ability to interact with God. Atheist will often argue, if there is a God, why is their so much suffering in the world. They have a point there is a great amount of suffering. But when we look at the world through the virus of deception that is all we see. We cannot see the goodness of God because we are infected with death.
God began to teach us using illustrations we would understand. God chose a nation, and within that nation he chose a tribe, and from within that tribe he chose a family. This priesthood shows us that there is a separation, and that separation can only be bridged in a certain manner to prevent the spread of the corruption.
God appointed priest to act for humanity. This prescription was set up not to divide us even more but to teach us that our ways are not God’s ways. We cannot just do whatever we think is best and expect God to bless it, because we are corrupt people. God appointed priest. These priests could not appoint themselves. If this were allowed then humanity would have power over God, but God continued to keep that wall of separation to prove a point. When priests believed that they were entitled to certain luxuries and forgot or became careless with the rituals God prescribed to Moses, they would be quickly reminded that they are also infected with the disease of Death.
We do not often like to read the books of the law. We love Genesis and Exodus but once we enter the next books, we might decide that the scripture is too hard, and we either stop reading or we skip over to more exciting books. We skip often because the books of the law remind us of how corrupt we are. We like the approachable God, we do not like separation from God. The law shows the separation and it proves to us that we cannot approach God on our own. And neither can the priests, even though God appoints them. They must make sacrifices and offerings for themselves and others before they can approach. But these sacrifices cannot ever completely cover the void. They can only at best provide a brief glimpse through a window. Like when we wipe the fog off a window on a cool morning only to have it return moments later. We are and will always be separated from God, the sacrifice is a momentary glimmer what fades again once the smoke dissipates and the blood dries. We return to that place once again, separated from life dwelling in the corruption of death.
The writer of Hebrews speaks of the weakness of the connection the temple sacrifices provide. The priest must keep the smoke rising, the blood must be applied continuously, we must continue to stay active and work without rest or we return to that place of separation. Quarantined from God. Masked behind the veil.
The priesthood can only be temporary. Just as every effort we make is temporary at best. We cannot be good enough which is why God made it his responsibility to bridge the divide. We see this in our own relationships. The only way to repair a broken relationship is if we get involved. We each must do our part to enact restoration. God gave us the law so that we are reminded of that separation. Our ways are not his ways. But all the activities of the priests are nothing more than someone giving you flowers after an argument without changing their behavior. The flowers of apology will never completely allow the injury to heal, until there is a change of heart
We cannot just claim one day to stop, we cannot proclaim that we are free from corruption, and we cannot approach God in our own strength. God must provide the way. Just as the injured party must define the terms of reconciliation because they are the ones that are suffering the offense. Jesus was brought forth, or begotten. He was appointed to fill that role; he is the terms of reconciliation. He is the perfect priest to stand in that gap because he passed through the heavens, meaning he is of divine nature. And he was born of Mary making him the Son of Man. He knows our weaknesses and has faced our corruption for and with us.
He endured the suffering and injustice of humankind. He experienced our worst, so that we can experience God’s best. He was begotten or brought forth and appointed by God. This does not mean that he is a created being, but he chose to fulfill a role within creation. A role created for the expressed purpose to restore humanity to their place. But the terms are steep. We can only approach God through him. This is what the language of the priesthood after the order of Melchizedek means. There is much to Melchizedek, but it means that Jesus does not draw his position from the traditions of humankind but is a priest of unique roots and origin. We cannot define it only God. God made it happen, God made the role and the position and did not allow it to become a tradition of man. We cannot claim faith of our ancestor for our salvation. We cannot accomplish it by our own works. The means of our salvation is the cooperative relationship between humanity and God. It is that cooperation that is predestined by God through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. And we can only approach God on those terms.
The early church struggled with this concept. And we too struggle. We struggle because life is hard, and the life of faith is harder. We might start off with great hopes and walk away defeated. We might be on fire but the embers cool. We believe and we doubt. What remains? God. It is Christ who continues to believe in us. It is Christ who, while we were his enemy, appointed and embodied that role himself to restore us. It was Christ who stepped down, through, and up where we could not. And he remains. He helps us through our struggles and lifts us up when we fail. The question remains. Where is our belief and trust? Will we work with the winds of struggle to maturity and strength or will we fall?
If you would like to help support the continued Ministry of Willow Creek Friends Church please consider donating online:
To help support the personal ministry of JWQuaker (Jared Warner) online and in the community click to donate.
By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
October 10, 2021
Hebrews 4:12–16 (ESV)
12 For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. 13 And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account. 14 Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. 16 Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
Last week, we began to consider the Letter to the Hebrews. This mysterious letter is filled with intrigue that might confuse us. We look at the letter on the surface, but do we really see what is inside?
The letter to the Hebrews was written to the church during that transition period, where the Gentile believes were beginning to emerge as the majority voice within the assembly. This shift in demographics seemed to cause tension within the church. Salvation came to those people of Jewish heritage first; it was through them that the revelation of God revealed himself and it is their messiah that we follow. The church’s heritage, its roots, are in the culture and religious practices of the Hebrew people. We must never forget this. We must always consider the revelation we have received in scripture not only through the lens of our tradition and interpretation of the New Testament, but also through the culture and revelation from the Old Testament.
When the church’s demographic began to shift from Jewish and moving toward Gentile believers those of Hebrew ancestry began to push back. Even though the leaders like Peter and James publicly proclaimed that Christ was for all people, and that anyone that God has made clean is clean. At the council in Jerusalem, the first council of the church, it was James that stood up before those present and said, “Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, but should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood. For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues.”
From the time the first Gentile came to Christ to this day the understanding of the church is that there is no distinction between Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female in reference to the grace that we receive from Christ. Yet, as the demographics began to shift many of Jewish heritage began to push back. They began to teach that those that adhered to the teaching of the Torah were greater than those that did not. They began to teach that the Gentiles needed to become Jewish before they could fully experience the promise of God. It is to this ideology that the author of Hebrews speaks.
Like I said last week, we do not know who penned this letter to the general church. Many believed that it was Paul in the first few centuries, but as scholars have analyzed the use of language and style of writing they have nearly universally concluded that Paul was not the author. This does not diminish the value of what is written by any means. It has instead inspired people to study it even more to see what they can find. This quest has led many to believe that because of the writing style it was written by someone that had formal training in the school of Alexandria, because many of the thoughts that are presented reflect the teachings of the great Jewish philosopher, Philo. We see some of that in today’s reading.
How should we live? That is the question going through the collective mind of the early church. We have this rich history of the people of Israel, and many within the community of believers have no biological connection to it. It is easy to understand how or why the idea of converting to the traditions of the religion of Israel would be attractive. Even today there is a great movement of people that want to restore the Hebrew roots of the faith. The Adventist movements, and the Messianic Jewish synagogues all play a role in this movement, I am not saying that they are wrong by any means. But we need to consider what scripture has to say about it.
Today’s reading begins, “For the word of God is living and active,” I have mentioned the ideas surrounding the phrase word of God many times. The term word used in scripture is often associated with divine wisdom and symbolically connected to the term for light. This is important to remember because throughout scripture the uses these terms in both Hebrew and Greek. In the first century the religious understanding of word or the wisdom of God was connected to Torah. In contrast to this, the disciples of Christ used the term word differently, they used this in reference to Jesus.
Right away you can begin to see the struggle within the early church in reference to the word. Those that wanted to maintain a Jewish identity had to come to terms with this dichotomy. What or who is the word of God? Where does wisdom proceed from? Is it the Torah, given to their ancestors by Moses who had received them from the mouth of God on that holy mountain, or did Jesus possess the words of life as his disciples taught?
We only begin to see an answer to these questions. “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword.” At this point the term word can take on either form, Torah or Christ, because the author simply means that the wisdom of God is living and active and when we encounter that wisdom it is sharp and dangerous. If you were to read the various narrative accounts within the Old Testament, we would see how dangerous it could be to approach God in a manner contrary to what is specified in Torah. Even priest who had permission to approach the holy sanctuary could meet their end if they were careless. What is interesting in this the grouping of two. Living and active, two-edged sword, piercing to the division of again groups of two: soul and spirit, joints and marrow, discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.
I must admit that I was captivated by the illustration of the sword as I studied this week. I spent too much time reading about how this one word was used. It was not a complete waste though. The word for sword in this case does not refer to a sword carried into battle, but something different. Often when I see this word in English, my mind is transported to the battlefield of the Middle Ages, knights riding on their powerful war horses carrying jousts. While clad in complex yet versatile steel armor. And since I am a fan of science fiction, I also think of the movie Highlander, or even the light saber from Star Wars. This is not a sword in this sense, those sorts of weapons are weapons of war, the sword being spoken of in this passage and really throughout the New Testament, are smaller blades. It is a word used for a dagger, a ceremonial knife, or even when used outside of the writings of scripture it could be a surgeon’s scalpel. These are not blades of war. They are the blades used in personal combat or criminal activity; this is the word that Jesus used when he spoke about those that live by the sword die by the sword. I want us to think of that for a moment. This smaller personal blade can be used for self-defense or to threaten others with violence. In both cases the mindset is self-interest, and I am not saying that we should not protect ourselves but we can get into a mindset where we are so focused on protecting ourselves that we immediately respond in violence. That is what Jesus is speaking about, the constant focus on your own self interest at the expense of those around us will often result in violence.
But the word also speaks of a surgeon’s scalpel and a blade used in ritualistic activities. In this sense of the word, the blade is not a weapon of violence but a tool wielded for good. The sense in today’s reading is this type of blade. The word or wisdom of God is living and active, it is piercing with the expressed purpose of dividing.
This is where the influence of Philo is seen. Many of the ancient philosophies had a dualistic thought process. Philo, the Hellenistic Jewish philosopher also took this approach. This is a difference from the traditional though processes of historic religions of Israel. The Hellenistic worldview would often separate the body and spirit. The body remains on earth but the spirit is eternal and will enter the afterlife. The ancient Hebrew faith was often more integrated and integrated to the point that not only were the actions done by an individual important but the whole community.
We are given these groupings of two. And even though there are hints of Greek philosophy within these words, there is still truth. The word is living and active, this means that it is animate and interacts with us. It is sharper than a two-edged blade used by the careful and meticulous hand of a priest or surgeon. Piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and the intentions of the heart. In the philosophical mind, the soul would be the embodied life, where the spirit would be the supernatural or immortal essence. This piercing action of wisdom’s blade divides within us that which lasts forever and that which will be cast away. This continues with the discussion of joints and marrow.
When an animal is offered to the priest for sacrifice, it needed to be a specific type of animal without blemish. The priest would make precise cuts on this animal. At first, they would pierce in one place that would cause minimal pain to the animal yet would pierce a major artery that would allow the life to drain from the animal in a humane manner. Then the priest would use this blade to separate and divide the carcass between the sacred and profane. This division was often made at the joints. It is at the joints where division can be done with efficiency because there is less tissue there. If you have a line of worshippers bringing offerings you do not want to take the time to saw through bone, instead you will simply cut the connective tissues that hold the bones together and make the cuts there. But what about the marrow? After reading about the sword, I began to read about the marrow, because I find it to be a weird word to use since the marrow is on the interior of the bone, and to my dismay scholars match my confusion. They do not know why the author uses marrow instead of bone, most write it off as mere poetry. And it is, it speaks of that inner most core of who we are. Deep within our bones is the marrow. The flesh and connective tissue will eventually turn to dust, but the bones remain long after the flesh has returned to the earth. In my mind what the author is speaking of is dividing that which is temporary and that which remains.
And this brings us to that last dualistic reference, “discerning the thoughts and the intentions of the heart.” This last part is the most difficult to consider from the perspective of a physical blade and brings our mind back from the works of humanity to the place where the spirit lives. We can only see what is before us, but the spirit of God can look deeper within. No one knows what someone else is thinking, nor can we able to discern if their thoughts have been made with good intentions that might have been enacted with incomplete knowledge. From our perspective we can only see the results of actions taken or neglected. We should be slow to judgment, and slow to anger, we need to be able to provide a space where people can express their concerns and be quick to listen to what they are saying, because we have incomplete knowledge.
When I was in school, we worked through a book by Dallas Willard called Renovation of the Heart. This book has made a great impact on me and in this book, Dallas illustrates that our heart is the essence of who we are. Our heart is our true self. Outside of our heart is the mind and emotions. These are the two sources of information that we use the most when we are making decisions. The mind and emotions are the two aspects the writer of Hebrews is point out in this sense, thoughts and intentions. We can react and plan using good intentions but might be lacking in knowledge and wisdom. And we can decide using only wisdom and that decision can be cold and emotionless. We can be right and wrong, and we can be wrong and right all at the same time. I know that sounds ridiculous but our words and actions can have lasting effects on those around us. If I tell my son that his picture is wonderful, I might be wrong in an intellectual manner, but right in an emotional one. If I were to respond as a critic of art and tell him where all the technical flaws are he might never draw again. But is I look at it from an emotional plane, if I were to comment on the passion put into the work, I might be able to inspire him to strive for greater things?
The spirit is discerning where we might not be. Often, I do not inspire people to greatness, often I come across as cold and heartless, even when that is not my intention. God in his wisdom can look beyond that and speak directly to our condition. At times that is painful to hear because we like things the way that they are, and at times God does not convict us in areas that others are concerned with because at that moment we are not ready for the whole truth. God knows what we need to move forward.
This brings us to the last couple of verses. The word of God pierces us and reveals to us the things within us that are lasting and the things that are worthless. We are naked before him completely exposed and without defense because he can show us the full truth without our self-justifications. He can do this because He is the high priest who has passed through the heavens.
Last week we explored the concept that Jesus is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature. The words used in that place tell us that Jesus is God, and that he is the incarnate word of God. He is the essence of God made into flesh. And I mentioned that it was necessary for God to do this because He had a responsibility to restore humanity because his rebellious spiritual beings deceived us to join their rebellion. God is the only one that can initiate that restoration.
Jesus is God incarnate, and since he is God, he is also the wisdom of God made flesh. He is the one being that has the word of God because he came down from heaven or passed through the heavens. Jesus is also the Son of Man. He is flesh, meaning he knows humanity. This brings us to temptation. What is temptation? We often look at this word with a negative perception, but it is not bad. Temptation is a test or being put to a test. This testing proves something about us and we gain knowledge through that experience. Adam and Eve had only experienced the goodness of God in the garden, they did not know evil. When the serpent, or the shining one, came offering a different experience with the promise of greater knowledge, they were intrigued. They knew that they were supposed to bring the entire world into submission and make it like the garden they lived in with God, but how could they do this? The serpent suggested that there might be some knowledge that God did not give them to accomplish that task. And with good intentions and faulty knowledge they took a bite of the fruit that cursed us with separation from God. That is temptation. It is a test where we must discern which direction to go in reference to what we proclaim to believe.
God allows this temptation, but God does not instigate it. We see that also with Job. Satan was out doing his rounds on earth and God gave this accuser or adversary permission to test this righteous man. How do we respond in the test?
Jesus knows what it is like to face the trials of humanity. He is human. He knows the pangs of hunger. He knows the sorrow of loss. He knows the excruciating pain and injustice that others can perpetrate of their fellow men. Jesus knows exactly what it is like to be us, yet he did not sin. He did not sin because he possesses the words of life. He knows the truth, and he knows that suffering last only a while but glory is forever.
“Let us hold fast our confession.” The writer of Hebrews says. Let us not look to our own wisdom, but instead look toward the wisdom that has come down to us from above. Because God himself is enacting our restoration and if we hold to his teaching, if we abide in him and he abides in us we can pass through our trials and stand before God’s through of grace knowing that he has carried us through.
We might ask why all this matters. The early church was very similar to the church today. The church was filled with people. Filled with people that had struggles, joys, passions, and sorrows. Filled with people that had ambitions and people that wanted to encourage others. The church contained people that had faith and with people that doubted their own faith. They just like us, distracted at times, and at other times exhibited faith that would amaze us. The fact is that they and we are not able to do things on our own. We need each other and most importantly we need Jesus. It is only through Him that we can discern true wisdom, the type of wisdom that brings life. As we enter this time of holy expectancy let us consider the living and active word of God. Let us allow that word to pierce us and search us and remove from us all that contributes to spiritual rebellion and death so that we can become encouragers of life.
If you would like to help support the continued Ministry of Willow Creek Friends Church please consider donating online:
To help support the personal ministry of JWQuaker (Jared Warner) online and in the community click to donate.
By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
October 3, 2021
Hebrews 1:1–4, 2:5-12 (ESV)
1 Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. 3 He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, 4 having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.
5 For it was not to angels that God subjected the world to come, of which we are speaking. 6 It has been testified somewhere, “What is man, that you are mindful of him, or the son of man, that you care for him? 7 You made him for a little while lower than the angels; you have crowned him with glory and honor, 8 putting everything in subjection under his feet.” Now in putting everything in subjection to him, he left nothing outside his control. At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him. 9 But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. 10 For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering. 11 For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one source. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brothers, 12 saying, “I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will sing your praise.”
Last week we completed a series on the general letter written by James, Jesus’s brother and today we begin in another general letter. The general or catholic letters are letters usually written to the entire Christian community instead of a single church or region, like the letters that Paul wrote. When Paul wrote his letters, he wrote for specific reasons, and covered certain issues that were happening in those regions. For example, the church in Ephesus was a church that was facing a schism. They were dividing along lines that had nothing to do with the Gospel. They were dividing along prejudices and social hierarchy, reverting to a lifestyle where acceptance was no longer based on the Spirit of God but the wisdom of men. We get an additional glimpse of this in Revelation, where Jesus tells the church of Ephesus that they had wonderful doctrine and would not be swayed by false teachers, but they had left their first love. They had forgotten what is most important. They no longer valued the things that God valued. James wrote a letter similar, but even to this day we have scholars that are troubled by James. They want to say James was teaching something that was different than what Paul taught, and I hope that as we concluded the series on James you were able to see that James and Paul taught similar ideas, they traveled a different pathway to get to the same conclusion.
Hebrews is like James in this regard. James was written to the church that was Jewish. It was penned while the followers of Jesus were still part of the synagogues and only in the last chapter did James begin to refer to the assembly of the disciples of Christ with a term that broke away from the traditional religious community. And he wrote in this way to show us that the church is to break away from the religious traditions and should focus on participating in the continued ministry of Christ. Hebrews is also a general letter written to the church from a distinctly Hebrew perspective.
I mention this so that we can set our mind in the proper context. Many of the concepts we will encounter in the letter to the Hebrews, speak to those that understand first century Jewish faith, and not necessarily Gentile philosophy. This has brought into question, who wrote this book? It might seem like a crazy question, but we do not know. In most letters, the author is mentioned by name so that we know where the authority is coming from. James introduces his letter by saying, “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes in the Dispersion.” And Paul will often introduce his letter by saying something like “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, to the saints who are in …” or “Paul, called by the will of God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus.” But the Letter to the Hebrews begins in a unique way. “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.”
There is not introduction to who the author is it just jumps right into the discussion. And this leaves scholars wondering who wrote the letter. The earliest suggestion is that Paul wrote the letter and that is the primary reason of its acceptance into the cannon of scripture, but universally today this is not accepted. There are many reasons for this, in every writing from Paul he is more than willing to put his name on what he writes. This is largely because so many of the conflicts within the church were that the churches started by Paul had less authority than the ones started by one of the twelve apostles. This is why Paul often states that he is an apostle called by the will of God. Beyond Paul, some of the names that have been put forth for consideration are Peter, Barnabas, Priscilla, Mary, Jesus’s other brother Jude, Apollos, and several others. The interesting thing is that the author did not use the weight of their position for authority, but the words expressed. This is unique to this letter, and really to most of New Testament writings in general along with the works that were written after the apostolic age. Most of the Christian and Gnostic writings we have found seek to claim some apostle for credibility, the Gospel of Thomas, or the Gospel of Mary, each claim to be gaining the authority of their writing from some historical figure, but the words contradict what is written and testified by the apostles, so they were rejected. But the letter to the Hebrews does not have any claim, it simply presents its case to the readers and leaves the reader to determine the authority of what is written.
The words though have deep meaning to the community of believers. It seems to be written in a manner to defend the authority of Christ over the teachings of the first century religious culture. The writer has a strong understanding of the history and the temple practices. There is something interesting about this though, the discussion uses the Greek translation of scripture call the Septuagint instead of the Hebrew text. This may indicate that the author was not from the territory we know as Israel, but instead from one of the Jewish colonies outside of Palestine. This would suggest that someone like Apollos would be a prime candidate for writing the letter, but again the author does not necessarily make a difference, but the focus is on the words written. It could be argued that the letter was written to encourage those earliest followers of Jesus to remain steadfast in their faith and not to return the religious traditions of their ancestors. Since there is a great deal of emphasis on the cultic practices of religious observance it does suggest that it was written early, even prior to the destruction of the temple. And many of the arguments are pointing to Jesus as being the fulfillment and the culmination of all the sacrifices of the temple. And because of the wide acceptance of this letter, this could be why so many of the early Christian writings do not place a great deal of emphasis on the temple destruction because it no longer held any authority over them.
This letter was written to point us to Christ our God, King, and Priest. It was written to express and teach that it is through Christ that we have our hope and only through Christ. According to the author of Hebrews, Christ is greater than all the prophets and priest, even greater than the Law Giver, because Christ is God.
“Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.”
This introductory paragraph is filled with theological imagery, and we can see how the author is beginning to link everything that he will say to the words of the Old Testament. The author is calling the people, who because of the subject matter at hand, are from a Jewish tradition, to look at what is being said through their knowledge of their own scriptures. Are the teachings of Christ based on the teachings of the law and prophets? Do the teachings of the church complement and complete the teachings of the Hebrew people? These are questions that scholars and theologians have been struggling with since the first century. And we still struggle with this because many of us do not look at scripture through the understanding of the first century Israelite. What did they teach about God? What did Jesus do to exhibit his claims and attract their malice?
There is something profound happening in the community of the faithful. The Gospels tell us of the life and works of Christ, and the book of Acts continues to show us that even after the ascension of Jesus, the work continues. This man, Jesus, a common carpenter, began teaching without any traditional authority accepted within the community, and his words and works were fascinating. He spoke with an authority beyond human reason, and the signs pointed to something greater. Yet the religious leaders were fearful of what might happen if this man from common origin gained greater influence. So, they sought to silence the teacher.
Their actions did not silence the teacher. What was once a single man walking through the country then rose to be hundreds. All teaching in the authority of this man. And they backed up what they said with miraculous feats like the one they paid homage. All these teachers were of common stock. Fisherman, tax collectors, common rebels, and laborers. The only thing that connected them with anything was that they followed this man named Jesus. The author of Hebrews recognizes this phenomenon, and he says in these last days he, God, has spoken to us by his son. This is important because of what comes next.
He is the radiance of the glory of God. This term radiance is one that is interesting. It is not something commonly used outside of scripture and is exclusively used in wisdom writings of the second temple period as well as in the works of Philo of Alexandria, who was a prominent Jewish teacher among the Hellenistic Jews living in Dispersion. This word refers to effulgence, which is radiant splendor, or shining light. It can also refer to reflection, or image, but is by in large used in reference to the wisdom of God in relation to the world. In the second verse, the author said that through the Son God created the world. This is connected to this word radiance because the words spoken to bring about the first aspect of creation, light, is often regarded as the beginning of wisdom and word and light are symbols of that divine wisdom that brought about all things. He is the radiance of God. This Son, Jesus, is the light of God, he is the word of God, he is the one through which all wisdom emerged.
Radiance is a particularly important word, but there is more. “He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature.” The next word of interest is glory. He is the radiance of the glory of God. Glory is a word we do not use much in our contemporary language. But it is significant. In much of ancient Greek writings, the word glory refers to what one thinks, or their opinion. It is their nature or the things they represent or hold to be important. Glory takes on a bit of a different nature when the word is used in scripture. This word was used in the Septuagint in reference to the radiance of Moses’s face after he emerged from the tent of meeting. So, within the religious scheme of thinking glory became a word of honor and reputation. The glory of God became a reflection of God’s being and nature. So, radiance and glory are connected in Hebrews saying that this divine light and word is the nature and honor of who God truly is.
Next, we come to exact imprint of His nature. The concept surrounding the word imprint comes from the forms used to make coins as well as the impressions made on official seals. These imprints are unique to the one holding the tool, and when it is used everything that bears this imprint carries the authority of the one whose imprint it bears. These sorts of things are not as common today as they once were, but they are still important. Our identification cards bear a seal of the issuing state. Our birth certificates also have an imprint of the state. When we sign official documents, we are often asked to have these documents notarized, and those that notarize these signatures have a stamp that give them authority to authenticate the document as being signed properly. The use of this exact imprint language is stating that Jesus bears the authority of God. He is not a mere agent acting on behalf of God, but is the exact imprint, meaning that Jesus is or embodies all of God’s glory and nature.
In one verse, the author of Hebrews is telling us in three ways that Jesus is the source of God’s authority. He is the source of God’s power and glory, as well as the one that carries the power of restoration. But within these introductory verses are other words that give us a bit of trouble. Things like heir, inheritance, and later begotten. These words have troubled the church and theologians for centuries. When we consider these words, we often regard them through our own human understanding. We look at them from a hierarchical perspective, and often from the cultural concepts of patriarchy. We begin to pull back from those concepts because we do not like the traditions surrounding those concepts. That is us reading our culture into scripture. We look at begotten and think created being because it implies parentage. We look at heir and we think again of a hierarchy that passes property from one generation to another usually in reference to masculine children.
These are not necessarily words of creation, but of legal authority. The heir holds equal power to the owner. We see this in Jesus’s parable of the Prodigal Son. The older son is upset at his father for throwing a party for the younger son and says when have you given me a single goat to celebrate with my friends? The father says to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” The heir has equal authority to the father, all that the father has is the heir’s within the cultural perspective of the Hebrew people. Everything the heir does is for the benefit and glory of the father and everything that the father does is for the glory and honor of the family. These are not individualistic concepts but ones of responsibility. Jesus, the heir of creation, has a responsibility to creation because of his position, not because of his parentage. And he has that responsibility because it was through Him that all things were created.
Jesus is the radiance, the glory, the exact imprint of God. He is the heir because he created all things. And it is his responsibility to restore all things back to himself. This is what this letter is about. And the writer attempts to explain all of this through the ideas that surround the cultic practices of their religion.
What was the point of God calling Abraham and Israel as his people? It all goes back to the story of our first parents. We were created to walk with God in his Garden. Eden was more than just a lovely place. It was where God lived. Humans were created in God’s image and were placed in the garden by him for one purpose. We were to make all of creation into a place like the garden. We were given total freedom to do this work, with only one restriction. We were not to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Everything else was at our complete control. But there was a being that rebelled against the authority of God and convinced our first parent that the knowledge of evil would be an important asset to our divinely appointed work. This serpent, or shining one, convinced our first parents to eat of that fruit, and that participation in the rebellion brought death or separation from life, into existence.
Who and what was this serpent? Our translations all call this being a serpent and we assume that this was a talking animal of some sort, but the term serpent can be translate as shining one as well. The idea is that this was a divine being what we would call an angel. The reason we have the serpent image in our minds is because of ancient writing both inside and outside scripture. The divine throne guardians were often depicted as shining or burning beings, and they were often depicted as serpents in Egypt because of the burning sensation resulting from the venous bite of a snake.
In the second chapter of Hebrews the author begins a discussion of angels. Which we often find odd. But if we look at the passage from an ancient supernatural worldview, we can begin to see what is being spoken about. The fall was initiated by the deception of an angel or divine being, a shining fiery serpent that Eve recognized as a being that should have been in service of the Most High God. These beings were not impressed with God’s human creatures because they were given authority over creation and the angels were not. They rebelled because they thought that God was giving the humans greater authority than they had. And the writer of Hebrews tells us, “For it was not to angels that God subjected the world to come,” This means that the world was created for human. They were ticked off that God did not create something for them to rule over. They had power, they were what ancient writers called sons of God, yet they felt as if God shortchanged them.
Do we get a glimpse into what Hebrews is speaking about. Jesus came to restore us because we were caught in the crossfire. We were given authority over all the world, and because of spiritual jealousy we were deceived by those being created by God to assist and serve Him. And the curse of this serpent was that he would eat the dust of the earth, meaning he would be buried in hell.
“What is man, that you are mindful of him, or the son of man, that you care for him? You made him for a little while lower than the angels; you have crowned him with glory and honor, putting everything in subjection under his feet.” this is a direct reference to Psalm 8, and it speaks of Jesus. He was mad for a little while lower than the angels or in Hebrew this word would be Elohim or the gods. This is a reference to the spiritual beings that we created to serve the Most High God. Jesus, incarnate God, made himself lower than these heavenly beings. Meaning he took on the form of creation, or humanity so that he could restore and redeem us to our rightful place. He took on our form for a time, a little while, he took on our suffering our death because that death or separation from life was what those angels deceived us into. Those angels whose purpose was to assist God, to carry his message twisted the words so that we would unknowingly join in the rebellion. Before we even really had a chance we were separated from life. And God chose to redeem us. Redemption through Christ is not for the angels, but it is for us. It is God taking responsibility for the actions done by others on us by beings that were supposed to be speaking for him. We are responsible for our own actions yes, but the curse of death was a deception brought about by divine rebellion and deception. The only way for this separation to be bridged was for God to take that responsibility on Himself, because he is the heir of creation. Jesus through whom all things were created, made restoration possible. He set it in motion through the lives of one family Abraham, one nation Israel, one Tribe Judah, and one faith.
He came to reverse the deception and restore the truth. He took on the shame of our rebellious participation and endured our suffering so that we might be restored. And when we believe in him, we will not die but will have everlasting life. We are joint heirs of creation with our brother and lord Jesus, for whom and by whom all things exist. He took on our suffering and he is not ashamed of this, because we are the image bearers of God. He is not ashamed of us because he the exact imprint of God, restored us through his life, death, and resurrection to our rightful place. We are the image bearers of God. Created to represent Him to creation. And the rest of Hebrews will tell us how Jesus perfects this restoration through a historic look through the history of Israel.
We are created to bear His image; we are created to represent him to creation. We are created to participate with him in ruling over creation. But we first must be restored and redeemed. We must be clothed in the righteousness of Christ so that the true imprint of our God can shine through us. Everything else is mere shadow and deception. Let us not draw close to the one who loves us so much that he took on our form so that we could be restored to his glory.
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