Hebrews: A Superior Worship and Its Requirements
YOU might wonder, What value could there be in an old letter that deals at length with an even older form of worship? Yes, how could a 1,900-year-old letter be of any benefit to you now? But certainly each of us can benefit greatly from what we have available in the Bible book of Hebrews, as we shall now see.
Jehovah’s Witnesses (known as Bible Students prior to 1931) have always appreciated the value of this book. In former years, quoting from Hebrews was considered by some outsiders to be the mark of a Bible Student. And for four decades their most basic and most used Bible study aid was Tabernacle Shadows, published in 1881, which treated all the aspects of Israel’s worship in the light of the book of Hebrews. ‘In it,’ we are told, ‘the “divine plan” was clearly presented for the first time: that there would be a heavenly destiny for 144,000 and an earthly paradise for restored mankind.’—The Watch Tower, July 15, 1909, p. 216.
Who wrote this important and enlightening book of Hebrews? There are many reasons to believe that it was the apostle Paul. For one thing, the arguments in the book are logically developed after Paul’s manner. Its author obviously had a great familiarity with the Hebrew Scriptures, such as Paul certainly had. The wording, figures of speech and allusions also may be said to point to Paul. So do the facts that the writer was intimately acquainted with Timothy and hoped to travel with him, and that he wrote from Italy.
Furthermore, the Greek and Asiatic Christians from earliest times held that Paul wrote the book of Hebrews. Perhaps among the most conclusive evidences is the Chester Beatty Papyrus No. 2 (P46), discovered in 1931. It is part of a codex and consists of eighty-six leaves, beginning with Romans, followed by Hebrews and then seven more of Paul’s letters. It makes clear that around the year 200 C.E. the book of Hebrews was recognized as one of Paul’s letters.
True, ever so many Bible scholars from post-apostolic times to our day do not agree with this, but there is not an argument they present that cannot be successfully refuted. Much is made of the fact that some of the vocabulary used in Hebrews is not typically Pauline. But when we understand his purpose of writing and his possible wish to remain unknown, we can see ample reason for his using a somewhat different vocabulary. This would also account for his using a more elegant Greek than he used in his other letters. He really was composing a treatise rather than a letter, as we see from its start.
The objection is also raised that in Paul’s thirteen other letters he repeatedly gives his name, yet not once does he do this in the book of Hebrews. Why would he want to remain anonymous? No doubt because of the prejudice of the Jews against him personally, and because of his being known as the apostle to the nations or Gentiles. And although Paul was sent forth as the apostle to the Gentiles, Ananias was told that Paul would also preach to “the sons of Israel.”—Acts 9:15.
That Paul would write such a letter is in keeping with his deep concern for his Jewish countrymen. He suffered great anguish because of their unbelief. (Rom. 9:1-5; 10:1-4) And he labored in behalf of relief for the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem. (2 Cor. chaps. 8 and 9) So it would be just like Paul, noting the persecution and religious pressure that these Christianized Jews had to contend with, to write them such a letter, filled as it is with exhortation, admonition, illuminating exposition, encouragement and stern warnings.
While it cannot be stated dogmatically that the title of this treatise or letter “To the Hebrews” was penned by Paul himself, it certainly is most fitting. Particularly those Christians who had once been Jews could fully appreciate the arguments Paul adduces to show the superiority of the new Christian system of things over the old. But to which Hebrews did Paul write? To those scattered throughout the Roman Empire? It is true that all such could benefit from it, but from some of its closing words the letter appears to have been directed to Hebrew Christians at a certain place. Thus Paul speaks of his ‘being restored to you sooner,’ and says that “Timothy has been released, with whom, if he comes quite soon, I shall see you.” (Heb. 13:19, 23) Most likely that place was Jerusalem.
When did Paul write this letter? From the letter itself it is clear that temple worship was still being carried on, so it must have been written before 70 C.E., when the temple was destroyed. And since Paul is either expecting his release from prison or had just been released, the year 61 C.E. is the most likely date. From where did he write this letter? In that he sends greetings from those with him in Italy, he must have written it while still in that land, apparently at Rome.
THE SUPERIORITY OF THE CHRISTIAN SYSTEM
According to rabbinical teaching, the promised Messiah would be superior to Abraham, superior to Moses and superior even to angels. Paul, in showing the superiority of the Christian system, certainly establishes that to be the case. He begins his letter by showing that while Jehovah in times past had spoken to his people by means of the prophets, he was speaking now through a far superior spokesman, his Son, by whom God created all things. Why, he is superior even to angels, for he has a more excellent name than they have! His is more highly exalted. They are commanded to do obeisance to him. And he is the Son, whereas they are but servants.—Heb. 1:1-14.
The Christian new system of worship also has a superior high priest. High priests under the Law had to offer sacrifices for themselves as well as for their people, and that day after day, year after year. Jesus, as high priest, being “guileless, undefiled, separated from sinners,” did not need to offer sacrifices for himself, but only for the rest of humankind. And due to his being a perfect sacrifice, he needed to be offered only once. High priests under the Law entered with the blood of bulls and of goats into a holy place made with hands. However, Jesus entered, with his own blood, into heaven itself to make atonement for all mankind.—Heb. 4:14, 15; 5:5, 10; 7:26-28; 8:1-3; 9:7-12, 25-28.
Moreover, the high priests under the Law died and had successors. Jesus, however, was given immortality upon his resurrection, and so dies no more and needs no successors. Also, he is not only a high priest but a king-priest, after the manner of Melchizedek. The superiority of the Melchizedekian priesthood over the Aaronic is seen in that Abraham offered tithes to Melchizedek, and so did Aaron, in the sense that he was still in the loins of Abraham. In spite of his superiority, this high priest was put to the test so that he is now able to aid his followers when they are put to a similar test.—Heb. 7:1-24; 2:17, 18.
Consistently, the Christian system of things also has superior sacrifices, for the blood of bulls and of goats could never take away sins, which the blood of Christ can and does do. It also has a better mediator, even as the perfect Son of God is superior to the imperfect servant Moses. Jesus is mediator of a better covenant, which accomplishes its purpose of producing a “kingdom of priests,” something the old covenant failed to do. (Ex. 19:5, 6) The laws of the Christian system are not written on stone tablets but on fleshly, human hearts. The old system had various sabbaths, but under it the Israelites failed to enter into God’s rest. The new system, though, provides a sabbath that all Christians can enter by faith and obedience. Truly, the Christian system of things is far superior to the old.—Heb. 10:1-20; 4:1-11.
ENCOURAGEMENT, EXHORTATIONS, WARNINGS
In Paul’s letter to the Hebrews we also find much encouragement and exhortation, as well as stern warnings against apostatizing. By means of this treatise, all Christians today, like the Hebrew Christians of Paul’s day, may be truly strengthened in faith and better equipped to deal with opposers. Those fine words of Paul also motivate us to serve Jehovah aright and to endure opposition and persecution. Thus, his first chapter concludes with the encouraging thought that God uses angels to minister to Christ’s footstep followers.
Next, Paul exhorts us to pay more than the usual attention to the things we have heard so that we may never drift away. He warns of dire punishment should we grow careless and neglect God’s provision for salvation. (Heb. 2:1-4) Continuing, Paul assures Christians that they will be of Christ’s “house” if they make fast their hold on their freeness of speech and hope down to the end. So he warns: “Beware, brothers, for fear there should ever develop in any one of you a wicked heart lacking faith by drawing away from the living God; but keep on exhorting one another each day, as long as it may be called ‘Today,’ for fear any one of you should become hardened by the deceptive power of sin.” What timely warning! The fact that every year some are excommunicated or disfellowshiped from the Christian congregation for immoral conduct underscores how necessary that warning is!—Heb. 3:6, 12, 13.
In chapter four Paul exhorts us to do our utmost to enter into God’s rest, for fear that any should fall into the same pattern of disobedience as manifested by the Israelites over the centuries. And how can we enter into God’s rest? By doing what the Israelites failed to do: Exercise faith and be obedient. We may never forget that “the word of God is alive and exerts power and is sharper than any two-edged sword . . . and is able to discern thoughts and intentions of the heart.” Yes, “there is not a creation that is not manifest to [God’s] sight, but all things are naked and openly exposed to the eyes of him with whom we have an accounting.” Again a stern warning!—Heb. 4:11-13.
Next, Paul takes to task those Hebrew Christians who have grown dull of hearing (spiritually), and who should by now be teachers but instead have need again to be taught the elementary truths of Christianity. They, in fact, need spiritual milk instead of solid food, which belongs to mature people. What does it mean to be mature? It means to be able to distinguish between right and wrong.—Heb. 5:11–6:3.
Right after that, Paul issues another stern warning of the fate that awaits those who, once having been enlightened, fall away. However, he is convinced of better things from those to whom he is writing. They can be assured that God will reward them for the good deeds they do to their fellow Christians. He then urges them, and so also us, to have the full assurance of the hope down to the end. And what solid grounds we have for strong hope, for God not only gave us his word but also stepped in with an oath! By reason of these two immutable things we can have a hope that is like an anchor, both sure and steadfast. In chapter seven Paul encourages us by pointing out that our Melchizedekian High Priest, Jesus Christ, continues alive and so he is always able “to save completely those who are approaching God through him.”—Heb. 7:15-28.
In next telling of the superiority of the new covenant over the old, Paul comforts us with the thought that according to that new covenant God will be merciful and will never call to mind our forgiven sins. (Heb. 8:7-12) Because of our having a superior high priest and superior sacrifices, we are able to have our consciences cleansed from dead works so as to render sacred service to the living God. (Heb. 9:11-14) And because of our having this favored position, Paul admonishes us: “Let us hold fast the public declaration of our hope without wavering, for he is faithful that promised. And let us consider one another to incite to love and fine works, not forsaking the gathering of ourselves together, as some have the custom, but encouraging one another, and all the more so as you behold the day drawing near.” Certainly that “day” is drawing near!—Heb. 10:22-25.
The apostle next warns of the consequences of apostasy, showing that it is even more serious to fall away from Christian worship than from the Law arrangement, because it involves disregarding the perfect sacrifice of Christ, which is truly able to take away sin. Yes, may we never forget that vengeance belongs to Jehovah, and that “it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”—Heb. 10:26-31.
Paul then urges the Hebrews to call to mind their former days when they suffered much persecution. Again he counsels them not to throw away their great freeness of speech and stresses their need of endurance, so that they may receive the reward. The righteous will live by faith but God has no pleasure in those that shrink back.—Heb. 10:32-39.
Logically, Paul follows this with his remarkable discussion of faith, chapter 11. In it he defines faith, tells how important it is to our pleasing God, and illustrates his theme by numerous notable examples of faith. Having such a great cloud of witnesses surrounding us, we should lay aside every weight and the sin of lack, or loss, of faith and go on enduring. To that end we should look to the example set by Jesus, “the Chief Agent and Perfecter of our faith.”—Heb. 12:1-3.
Thereupon Paul gives us fine counsel to accept discipline from Jehovah, neither belittling it nor becoming a dropout because of it—for whom God loves he disciplines. By accepting discipline and profiting from it we will produce the peaceable fruit of righteousness. And after counseling us to aid those needing help, and to be careful not to stumble others, Paul further warns against being callous over sacred things, citing Esau as a warning example.—Heb. 12:4-17.
In the final chapter 13 the inspired apostle warns also against sexual uncleanness, against the love of money and against being carried away by strange teachings. Christians should “always offer to God a sacrifice of praise, that is, the fruit of lips which make public declaration to his name.” Three times he refers to those who are “taking the lead among you,” to whom Christians are to be submissive and obedient for their own good. He concludes with the prayer that God may equip us with every good thing to do his will, performing in us what is “well-pleasing in his sight.”—Heb. 13:4-24.
Truly the book of Hebrews is filled with most important and useful information as well as with earnest exhortation, fine encouragement and stern warnings lest we fall away from the faith. The better we become acquainted with this Bible book, the more we stand to profit from it.