35. The Certainty of the New Priesthood

Meditations in Hebrews 7:    35. The Certainty of the New Priesthood

Heb 7:20,21    And it was not without an oath! Others became priests without any oath, but he became a priest with an oath

We concluded the previous study by reflecting on the fact that the writer of this book is saying that the coming of Jesus replaced the Law and the Levitical Priesthood, and that was a major cultural and intellectual change being put before these Jewish Christians. Now our writer is aware of this and so he knows he has really got to set this on concrete, so to speak, if his readers are to really accept this. He does this in a number of ways.

Priest by Oath: Earlier in this book the writer spoke about God confirming His will by making an oath based on Himself. In fact, the word ‘oath’, in this context, comes up 9 times in these chapters of Hebrews. It is a big thing for this writer that God confirms His will by making an oath. There can be no more profound or intense way of conveying His will. So, for the fifth time, he uses the word: “And it was not without an oath! Others became priests without any oath, but he became a priest with an oath when God said to him: “The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind: `You are a priest forever.’” (v.20,21) Jesus becoming a priest was done in a much more solemn way to the ways that all other priests were brought into that role; he came with an oath.

Now we need to realise that again and again he is citing Psa 110:4 so we had better have it before us: “The LORD has sworn and will not change his mind: “You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek,” and we should also observe that was a prophetic psalm where David the psalmist sees the Messiah before God and these verses apply to the Coming One, who is also revealed, as we have seen earlier, as the Son of God. He now, therefore, emphasises the fact that this prophetic word had God swearing an oath, the most solemn way possible of confirming His will, that His Son will operate as a priest for ever in the same way that Melchizedek operated.

He then makes a further loaded comment: “Because of this oath, Jesus has become the guarantee of a better covenant.” (v.22) Notice the words, “a better covenant”. The writer has already inferred that it was the Old Covenant instigated on Mount Sinai that had “not done the job” and thus he is speaking of nothing less than that covenant being replaced by a new covenant based upon Jesus.

An Undying Priest: He explains: “Now there have been many of those priests, since death prevented them from continuing in office; but because Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood.” (v.23,24) i.e. all previous high priests died and had to be replaced by yet another one who would pick up the baton, so to speak, to carry on the ministry, but Jesus, having been raised from the dead, lives for ever and so, “Therefore he is able to save completely (or forever) those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them.” (v.25) i.e. Jesus is always there for us!

A Perfect Priest: The third thing he points out is that although we may have doubts about some of the men who stood in the role of high priest, you need have no doubt whatsoever about Jesus: “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, he does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself.” (v.26,27) The priest stands before God on our behalf. We may wonder if some of the men who took that role really had God’s approval because they were so imperfect (consider Eli, for example in 1 Samuel), but when it comes to Jesus it is completely different. He satisfies all our doubts – meets our need first of all from an intellectual standpoint – because he is holy, blameless and pure and, even more, he is now exalted at God’s right hand, as we’ve seen before. Unlike the other priests of history, he doesn’t need to offer sacrifices for his sins because he never sinned. Even more, he doesn’t need to keep on offering sacrifices for our ongoing failures, because he did it once for all by dying on the Cross for us. In that way he also meets our moral needs as well.

Summary: He summarises what has happened: “For the law appoints as high priests men who are weak; but the oath, which came after the law, appointed the Son, who has been made perfect forever.” (v.28) Let’s look at this verse carefully:

For the law appoints as high priests men who are weak.” The Levitical priesthood established by the Law of Moses had to rely on frail human beings to perform the role. That was the Old Covenant.

“….but the oath, which came after the law…..”  David’s prophetic word from God (which came long after the Law of Moses) instigated an oath to establish God’s will. There can thus be no question as to God’s intent in all this.

“…appointed the Son, who has been made perfect forever.”  The New Covenant came into being through the Son of God dying on our behalf, once and for all, on the Cross at Calvary, to deal with all our sins, past, present and future.

Recap the argument: Now a good teacher is like a lawyer who works his way through the text in great detail to ensure everything has been covered. Our writer started the book showing the greatness of the Son, a Son infinitely greater than the angels, a Son greater than Moses, a Son who has been exalted to the Father’s right hand where he rules over all things, because he had perfectly carried out God’s will by coming to the earth, revealing the Father, and then dying for us, before being raised from the dead and then lifted back to heaven where he now reigns.

In doing this he acted as a high priest but his ‘priesthood’ is different from the Levitical Priesthood, more like that of Melchizedek with no beginning and no end, but superior to the previous priesthood. He is confirmed in this superior priesthood by his Father prophetically through David confirming it with an oath, and thus there is no doubt about him. He acts as our high priest by offering the ultimate sacrifice for sins – himself – and then being there at the Father’s right hand to intercede for us.

It is, rather like we used the illustration earlier, the writer has this check list that he has been working through to ‘cover all the bases’:

  • The previous old covenant failed “to do the job”
  • It has been administered by frail human beings
  • The new covenant is based on Jesus operating as a new high priest with an eternal priesthood, presenting his own body as a sacrifice for sins
  • Operating with the eternal will of God confirmed by a prophetic oath
  • Thus we can be assured that our sins have been dealt with perfectly and the way is open for us to experience that ‘rest’ spoken of earlier in the book, where everything has been done by Jesus so all we have to do is receive the fruits of it.

Now it may have been a bit of a struggle to work through all this argument, but wasn’t it worth while!  Live in that ‘rest’, completely at peace with God, free from striving and struggle and from guilt. Hallelujah!

34. Why the Need?

Meditations in Hebrews 7:     34.  Why the Need?

Heb 7:12    For when there is a change of the priesthood, there must also be a change of the law.

Why all this? The writer has taken us into a series of thoughts about Jesus being a priest after the order of Melchizedek who was both a king and a priest. As the odds are that you are non-Jewish, you might be wondering why he is taking us down this particular path? Well, previously he had spoken of Jesus as our high priest, and he will go on to talk about his high priestly work in some detail in the chapters ahead, but there is a problem in the back of his mind and he realises it may also be in the back of the minds of his Jewish Christian readers, and it is that the high priest always came from the tribe of Levi – but Jesus comes from the tribe of Judah. How to reconcile these two things? He does it by reference to this priest-king, Melchizedek we have been considering.

He has paralleled Jesus with Melchizedek, first on the basis that nothing was known about that priest’s ancestry or subsequent history, he appears mystical and eternal. Next, he points out that Melchizedek blessed Abraham and so was greater than him. Abraham gave him a tithe of all his battle spoils and being the great grandfather of Levi, it was like the Levitical priesthood was submitting to this new priest. We concluded the previous study by noting the question that will shortly be asked, why was there a need for another priesthood, and the answer will be that that Levitical priesthood couldn’t get people into a good place with God. So, let’s see how that works out in the following verses.

Failure of the old order:If perfection could have been attained through the Levitical priesthood (for on the basis of it the law was given to the people), why was there still need for another priest to come–one in the order of Melchizedek, not in the order of Aaron?” (v.11) i.e. if the working and service of the Levitical priesthood could make people perfect in God’s sight that would have been fine, but it didn’t. That priesthood, says the Message version, “provided the framework for the giving of the Law.” The Law and the subsequent priesthood both came through Levi (Moses & Aaron were both Levites) and were the means for administering God’s plans for Israel, yet all the offering of sacrifices could do was appease the conscience of the offender but that did little to make he or she a better person. It put them on a right footing with God but that was all.

The Law and the Levitical priesthood, as the Message version puts it, “didn’t get the job done.” Now, goes on our writer, because the Law and the priesthood are so intertwined, when there is a change of the priesthood, there must also be a change of the law.” (v.12) i.e. if we start talking about another priesthood, we are also going to have to be talking about another Law because Moses’ Law only spoke about the Levitical priesthood.

Jesus from Judah:  Now, before going further, he backtracks to consider Jesus: “He of whom these things are said belonged to a different tribe, and no one from that tribe has ever served at the altar. For it is clear that our Lord descended from Judah, and in regard to that tribe Moses said nothing about priests.” (v.13,14) As we said before, the problem is that Jesus came from the tribe of Judah, not the tribe of Levi, and the Law said nothing about Judah.

The Melchizedek analogy:  Of his own argument, he continues, “And what we have said is even more clear if another priest like Melchizedek appears, one who has become a priest not on the basis of a regulation as to his ancestry but on the basis of the power of an indestructible life. For it is declared: “You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.” (v.15-17) The Message version puts it well for us: But the Melchizedek story provides a perfect analogy: Jesus, a priest like Melchizedek, not by genealogical descent but by the sheer force of resurrection life—he lives!—“priest forever in the royal order of Melchizedek.” i.e. Melchizedek as a mystical figure who just turns up once and then disappears, seems to have no beginning or end. Jesus, because he has risen from the dead, also continues to live on and on, and is thus available today to act as our high priest of a new order.

So, he continues, The former regulation is set aside because it was weak and useless (for the law made nothing perfect), and a better hope is introduced, by which we draw near to God.” (v.18,19) i.e. the coming of Jesus replaces the Law and the Levitical priesthood, which really just didn’t work, didn’t enable people to have a living relationship with God.

Impact on the Jews:  Now perhaps we should pause there and continue in the next study for there is something here that is highly significant.  Who is our writer writing to? The Jewish Christians.  What does the New Testament show us is the main problem the Jewish Christians (for that is all there was to start with) faced?  How to reconcile their new faith with the Law of Moses which had been their foundation of life for many centuries? More than that, the Levitical Priesthood was still there operating and would continue to operate until AD70 when the Temple was destroyed and Israel scattered and the sacrificial system ended.

What this present writer is doing here is the equivalent of removing the Monarchy in the UK and substituting it with something else, or removing the Presidential system and Congress in the USA and substituting it with something else. By putting Jesus forward as a new high priest of a completely new priestly system, he is saying to his readers, the old system – Law and priesthood – has been replaced. That is possibly the most dramatic thing that could possibly happen to their culture and way of living, but that is exactly what God did when He sent Jesus.  This is about as dramatic as you can make things. This new faith is not to be run alongside the old, it is to replace the old.

Practically for us today, we might suggest that many of us had a religion that existed on rules – things you should do and shouldn’t do. That is what made you a good person. Then along comes the Christian faith with Jesus at its head and says, sorry that is all gone. You are justified not on the basis of what you do, but upon who you believe in. Got it? Awesome! An entirely new way of living and looking at life!

33. Melchizedek?

Meditations in Hebrews 6/7:      33.  Melchizedek?

Heb 6:20, 7:1-2   He has become a high priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.” 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. First, his name means “king of righteousness”; then also, “king of Salem” means “king of peace.”

We finished the previous study with those words, “He has become a high priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.”  and so now arrive at the writer’s explanation of this reference to a high priest who he has already referred to twice (5:6, 5:10) before these present verses.

The Rabbinic style: Because the approach we find here is probably alien to that which most of us are used to, we again need to refer to the rabbinic style of teaching found among Jewish teachers of that day. They used four approaches to handling Scripture. The first was to work on the basis that the text has a literal, plain meaning that the author wants to convey. (that is always our starting point). But second, they would use an approach best described as considering a word, phrase or other element in the text hinting at a truth not conveyed by the plain meaning.  The third approach searches for an allegorical sense within a verse or verses. There was also a fourth approach that involved numerical values of Hebrew letters but that need not concern us here. Bear this in mind in what follows.

Abraham & Melchizedek:  We find the story of Abraham encountering Melchizedek in Gen 14:18-20 and the writer makes the point that he was both a king AND a priest: 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.” (v.1,2) He goes on to explain, “First, his name means “king of righteousness”; then also, “king of Salem” means “king of peace.” (v.2b) But then the writer uses the hinting-allegorical approaches because that is all we know about Melchizedek and so he interprets that to imply something else, something quite significant: “Without father or mother, without genealogy, without beginning of days or end of life, like the Son of God he remains a priest forever.” (v.3) In the account we are told nothing of this king-priest’s background, or indeed his end and so in the account at least he appears as a priest without beginning or end, just like Jesus.

But then he picks up on the fact that Abraham gave him a tenth of his goods which is what the Law required for the Levites: “Just think how great he was: Even the patriarch Abraham gave him a tenth of the plunder! Now the law requires the descendants of Levi who become priests to collect a tenth from the people–that is, their brothers–even though their brothers are descended from Abraham.” (v.4,5) Note the emphasis – the ‘patriarch Abraham’. Abraham was considered a major character in Israel’s history as a ‘friend of God ‘ (2 Chron 20:7,  Isa 41:8, Jas 2:23) and clearly the father of the nation (Isa 51:2) so he is pointing out his greatness, yet he gave a tithe to Melchizedek: “This man, however, did not trace his descent from Levi, yet he collected a tenth from Abraham and blessed him who had the promises.” (v.6)

Strange elements:  So, he concludes, there is something strange in all thatFirst, Abraham was Levi’s great grandfather and so perhaps could be considered an earlier member of the priestly caste, yet he gave the tithe to the other (which he will expand on in a few verses time). Second, Abraham had received all the blessings of God (Gen 12) which would, you might suppose, make him greater but he treats Melchizedek as greater. Third, Melchizedek had blessed Abraham, which seems the wrong way round because, “without doubt the lesser person is blessed by the greater.” (v.7). Yet, he adds, there is a fourth strange thing: “In the one case, the tenth is collected by men who die; but in the other case, by him who is declared to be living.” (v.8) and he stretches this rabbinic approach even further: “One might even say that Levi, who collects the tenth, paid the tenth through Abraham, because when Melchizedek met Abraham, Levi was still in the body of his ancestor.” (v.9,10) i.e. because Abraham is Levi’s great grandfather it is almost like saying the Levitical priesthood paid a tithe to this other priesthood.

(The Message version puts it in an interesting way: Ultimately you could even say that since Levi descended from Abraham, who paid tithes to Melchizedek, when we pay tithes to the priestly tribe of Levi they end up with Melchizedek.”)+

Recap:  Now the argument carries on with even more complexity so I think we’ll stop there and simply recap what is already an unusual line of arguing for us:

  1. Melchizedek was both a king and a priest.
  2. When Abraham met him, Melchizedek blessed him and Abraham gave Melchizedek a tenth of all of his plunder.
  3. If you think of Abraham, as Levi’s great grandfather, it is like he is an early representative of the Levitical priesthood.
  4. The fact that the ‘representative’ of the Levitical priesthood was blessed by the other priest and then gave that other priest a tithe, suggests that the other priest is superior to the representative of the Levitical priesthood.
  5. We know already that the writer has referred to Jesus as a priest after the order of Melchizedek and so we conclude that the writer is making the fairly complex point that Jesus is superior to Abraham.
  6. The question will shortly be asked, why was there a need for another priesthood, and the answer will be that that the Levitical priesthood couldn’t get people into a good place with God, but we’ll wait to the next study to open that up.

Remember, it is all about showing Jesus to be the most superior person in the Jewish culture and history. That is what this is all about.

32. Hang on in there

Meditations in Hebrews 6:    32.  Hang on in there

Heb 6:12,15   We do not want you to become lazy, but to imitate those who through faith and patience inherit what has been promised…… so after waiting patiently, Abraham received what was promised.

This letter (?book) to the Hebrews is a strange mixture of theology and pastoral care – but then perhaps the two should always go together. Theology on its own becomes intellectual sterility that leaves people uncared for, and pastoral concern without explanation becomes ‘nice’, warm, fuzzy, pat-you-on-the-back encouragement that fails to build foundations for faith. Theology is explaining the ways of God, and true pastoral care is caring for people in the context of Biblical truth.

So we finished the previous meditation at this point in verse 12 where there is a challenge to overcome the tendency to laziness by looking to, and following the example of, those who have gone before and walked the path of faith, faithfully. It is that reason that causes the writer to start referring to Abraham. As a good pastor he is aware that people so often have a variety of things with which they struggle and one of those struggle-issues is having to wait to see fulfilment of God’s word. I am in a phase at the moment of having a longing for something in God but it is not yet coming and therefore the call has to be one for patience, the ability to hang on in there, remaining faithful while waiting for the outworking of God’s word.

It may be in respect of a whole variety of things. You may have a loved one who does not know the Lord and yet you have a sure sense that they will come through – one day – but it doesn’t seem yet. A call for patience. Maybe you have a vision for something to do with the kingdom and it doesn’t seem to be coming about, even though you feel you’ve done all you should but it still doesn’t seem like it’s coming. A call for patience. Perhaps you are longing for a partner, or maybe even a child and you have sought the Lord and received reassurance, but still nothing is happening. A call for patience. You see bad circumstances and are challenged by them but seem unable to do anything about it but pray and it has gone on and on. A call for patience.

So here is God and Abraham as the example we have to consider: When God made his promise to Abraham, since there was no one greater for him to swear by, he swore by himself, saying, “I will surely bless you and give you many descendants.” (v.13,14 quoting Gen 22:17) What a situation that was! Abraham, who had left his home at God’s prompting with a wife who was barren (Gen 11:30), a man of faith who followed God, and the Lord promised him descendants, again and again – and he believed God – but the years passed and nothing happened. Eventually Sarai his wife started making suggestion about how that word might be interpreted, maybe he would be a father via one of his servant girls, and so Ishmael was born and Jew and Arab have not been comfortable with each other ever since!  But he still waited and waited and eventually – yes, eventually – Isaac was born to Sarah. But what a period of waiting – 25 years! Possibly one of the greatest examples of impatience followed by patience we have: “And so after waiting patiently, Abraham received what was promised.” (v.15) It happened.

The writer starts thinking about this in more depth, about how God had gone about reassuring Abraham: “Men swear by someone greater than themselves, and the oath confirms what is said and puts an end to all argument.”(v.16) In human experience, making an oath, swearing by something greater than yourself, has always been a way of adding weight to your promise. “Because God wanted to make the unchanging nature of his purpose very clear to the heirs of what was promised, he confirmed it with an oath.” (v.17) Abraham had Isaac, had then had to sacrifice him – but was stopped – and then we read in respect of his descendants, “The angel of the LORD called to Abraham from heaven a second time and said, “I swear by myself, declares the LORD, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.” (Gen 22:15-18) The Lord did this because He did not want Abraham to live out his final years with any doubt that God would do it. Now note this: The Lord had said to Abraham several times that he would have a child – and Abraham believed him – and also that he would become a great nation – but this far on in his life there were few signs of that!

So here’s the theology, the thinking behind this story: “God did this so that, by two unchangeable things in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled to take hold of the hope offered to us may be greatly encouraged.” (v.18) The JBP version puts this well: So in this matter, God, wishing to show beyond doubt that his plan was unchangeable, confirmed it with an oath. So that by two utterly immutable things, the word of God and the oath of God, who cannot lie, we who are refugees from this dying world might have a source of strength, and might grasp the hope that he holds out to us”  i.e. you can utterly trust God because He doesn’t lie. That is point 1. But then God swore by Himself as if to say, “I want you to understand that this is ABSOLUTELY true; if you can’t trust this, you can’t trust me!” That was point 2. i.e. the honour of God’s name hangs in the balance when He used it as a guarantee. If He failed to honour this promise using His own name, then you could never trust God with anything. That is how powerful this is.  Two things that UTTERLY CONFIRMED God’s will for Abraham. Absolutely no room for doubt left!

Now why is he saying all this? Because he is now apply it to us: “we who have fled to take hold of the hope offered to us may be greatly encouraged.”We fled from our sin and our lost-ness to take hold of the salvation that was being offered to us by God and so now we can utterly trust all that God has said – even if we have presently having to wait for it to be worked out. So, he says, “We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure. It enters the inner sanctuary behind the curtain,” (v.19)  Our hope is rooted in heaven, “where Jesus, who went before us, has entered on our behalf. He has become a high priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.” (v.20) This closing verse of the chapter opens the door into the next phase of understanding which we’ll consider in the next meditation. Again the JBP version puts it all together well: This hope we hold as the utterly reliable anchor for our souls, fixed in the very certainty of God himself in Heaven, where Jesus has already entered on our behalf, having become, as we have seen, “High Priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek”. Our hope is assured because it comes from God and Jesus comes from God with the message for us. But he also carries us to God in heaven and as such he acts as this great high priest. More to come!

31. A Second Repentance? (2)

Meditations in Hebrews 6:    31.  A Second Repentance (2)

Heb 6:7,8   Land that drinks in the rain often falling on it and that produces a crop useful to those for whom it is farmed receives the blessing of God. But land that produces thorns and thistles is worthless and is in danger of being cursed. In the end it will be burned.

Again, a reminder of where we have come to in this book. The writer has given several warnings or encouragements to his readers about holding on to their faith, the last one we are considering now is making the point that once you completely drift away it is impossible to get back. We have seen, in verses 4-6, the five things he says they must have experienced but turned away from.  It is a contentious passage with some saying that such people who do, could not have been regenerated to start with. That is possible and yet if I am honest, in respect of both these descriptions in verses 4-6 and what I have witnessed in the lives of apparently godly people who have fallen away, this says that it is possible for genuine Christians to turn away. Yet the bigger issue here in these verses is the warning to each of us who say at the present we love the Lord, to do all we can to make sure we do not drift away.  We’ll consider later how we can do that.

Let’s see what the writer says such people are doing to their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace.” (v.6b) The Living Bible puts it,You cannot bring yourself to repent again if you have nailed the Son of God to the cross again by rejecting him, holding him up to mocking and to public shame.” The writer is saying that when you turn away and reject Christ (because this is what you do when you drift right away) it is tantamount to you joining all the multitudes both in Jesus’ day who rejected him and left him to be put to death and effectively put him out of their lives. It’s like they join with those (and add to them) who mock and deride Christ like some of the modern crusading atheists do. That, he says, is the reality of what this person is doing.

Then he uses a little analogy about what God expects and how God responds to what He finds: Land that drinks in the rain often falling on it and that produces a crop useful to those for whom it is farmed receives the blessing of God. But land that produces thorns and thistles is worthless and is in danger of being cursed. In the end it will be burned.” (v.7,8) Verse 7 reveals the Christian who receives of the Holy Spirit and produces the fruits of righteousness, goodness and love and this person pleases God and is blessed by Him.  The other person has all the potential of being a fruit bearer but only brings forth harsh rejection and is in danger of being cursed by God and being burned up at the end.

Whether we think it applies to a person who was saved and then lost, or a person who was saved but lost the joy of their faith experience, the warning is still the same. The writer, like us, doesn’t want to leave this warning on a sour note and so adds, “Even though we speak like this, dear friends, we are confident of better things in your case–things that accompany salvation.” (v.9) i.e. we know you’ll heed these warning and go on to experience the goodness of God. Indeed, he is mindful of their recent past: “God is not unjust; he will not forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped his people and continue to help them.” (v.10) i.e. you ARE bearing good fruit so these strong warnings don’t need to scare you.

It is perhaps worth saying at this point (and perhaps we should have said it earlier) that this ‘falling away’ that we have been speaking about doesn’t mean just the occasional failure, for that happens to all of us from time to time, but it means what I called apostasy, a positive turning away. It may start with a casual drifting away but ends up as a positive rejection of all it had previously known. Thus, to these people he now says, I know it is OK in your case, because you ARE bearing the fruit of a godly life.

Then he presses in once more, with an encouragement (or warning) to keep going for it, and he does it in two ways, one positive and one negative. First, the positive: “We want each of you to show this same diligence to the very end, in order to make your hope sure.” (v.11) I like the JBP version of this: It is our earnest wish that every one of you should show a similar keenness in fully grasping the hope that is within you.”  i.e. positively, go all out to confirm the hope that you have, to build up your faith and godliness.  But then comes the negative (followed by a positive): We do not want you to become lazy, but to imitate those who through faith and patience inherit what has been promised.” (v.12) Laziness in respect of your faith can be a cause of a downward slide. Neglect church, neglect the word, neglect prayer and before you know where you are, everything seems boring, God seems distant and your grace resource seems absent.  Oh no, watch others who are getting it right and go for it, but note the two things mentioned there – faith and patience. Faith is about listening to God (so keep an open ear) and then doing what you hear, and patience is about hanging on when answers seem slow in coming (they will come).

It is easy to let life (and church life) just meander on like a lazy river, with little happening from week to week, and it is in those times we need to heed these warnings. At such times, we can resolve to put aside time to wait on God and listen for Him. At such times, we can look around to see who we can bless. At such times we can settle with the Bible and resolve to purposefully read and study something we’ve never got to grips with before. At such times, we can sit with a Christian friend and say, “Tell me how you came to the Lord, and I’ll tell you how I did.” At such times you can say to your family, “I want to make a fresh point of praying for each of you each day. Are there any things you want me to specifically pray for – short term or long term?”  These are ways we can stir our faith, these are ways we can resist the easy-going nature of life, if that is how it has been for you. Try it out.

30. A Second Repentance?

Meditations in Hebrews 6:    30.  A Second Repentance?

Heb 6:4-6  It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age, if they fall away, to be brought back to repentance

Multi-warnings: Remember, our writer has been warning again and again of the possibility of drifting away from God, of allowing your heart to be hardened, and moving back into unbelief.  He did this,

  • first of all, by pointing out how great our salvation was (Ch.2),
  • then by reminding us of the failure and consequences of the Israelites in respect of the Promised Land (Ch.3),
  • then by explaining there is a ‘rest’ still to be taken by faith (Ch.4),
  • and finally by portraying Christ as our high priest who is there for us and understands us (Ch.5).

ALL of this teaching has this background motive, to encourage his readers not to allow themselves to drift away from the Faith.

Real Conversion: In our present passage, he now gives a warning that if you drift away from the Faith it is impossible for there to be a second repentance. Let me explain that. When a person comes to Christ – truly comes – as we have noted before, repentance, true repentance, must be an ingredient inf the coming about of their salvation. A true awareness that they are lost and need Christ to save them is an absolute essential for the new birth to follow.

The outcome is clear cut; they are clearly born again, new people, and the new life that then follows is clearly utterly different from what it was before. There is a new purpose, a new direction, a new power, a new love. It is all utterly new and it all came about following repentance. Without that repentance, that utter conviction, the Holy Spirit would have been unable to do His work of transformation. His guidance, His direction, and His teaching will only be received on ground that has been cleared through repentance. Now this, in the light of our heading over this study, I might call in this context the ‘first repentance’.

A Possible Second Repentance? The question that those who support the ‘once saved, always saved’ position has to be, do you believe in the possibility of a second repentance? Salvation only flows to and in a life of repentance. It is pure semantics, I would suggest, to say that a person is saved when they have purposefully moved into a place of apostasy where they utterly deny any belief and may even mock their former position. Speaking of such people our writer says, It is impossible for those ….. if they fall away, to be brought back to repentance.” (v.4,6) Note the word impossible. Now in what follows the writer explains what “falling away” entails and then why a return is impossible.

What has to be rejected: First of all then, what “falling away” entails.  He speaks of a) “those who have once been enlightened, b) who have tasted the heavenly gift, c) who have shared in the Holy Spirit, d) who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and e) the powers of the coming age.” (v.4,5)  Now let’s look at each of these, but let’s look at what they mean but also actually how each one can be used to encourage us.

a) Enlightened: the reality always is that the person who has been convicted by the Holy Spirit, comes to see the reality of who they are and who Jesus is and what he has done for them. They come to see these truths – they are enlightened. Now when we look back we should remind ourselves of just what took place, the wonder of the revelation we received that brought us to Christ.

b) Tasted heaven: the truth is of course that something of heaven comes down to us – Jesus the Son of God, the Holy Spirit who we’ll come to in a moment, the goodness and love of God that is revealed to us. Once we came through to Christ, this is what we experienced. Again we need to remind ourselves of the reality of this experience; we were not merely enlightened but suddenly everything appeared new, it was like heaven was shining down on us.

c) Shared in the Holy Spirit: being born again’ is a work of the Spirit, being led by Him is a work of the Spirit, being filled is a work of the Spirit. These are not make-believe things, they really happened and we have been transformed and we should not take that for granted but remind ourselves of it again and again.

d) Tasted the goodness of the word of God: from being a dead book, the Bible came alive. There were times when it spoke to us, there were times when it almost shouted the truth at us. We saw the reality of God and His dealing with His people and the wonder of the life of Jesus. It was all there before us on the pages of the Bible, and it thrilled us. Dare we pray for it to do that again?

e) Experienced the power of heaven for the future: previously we had been fearful of death but as we received the revelation from God, as we tasted something of the wonder and goodness of heaven, as the Spirit and the word came alive, so we found ourselves with a strange reassurance about our eternal future, knowing that the present is but a glimmer of the future. Dare we thank Him for that reality and let Him bring it to us afresh?

And Us? Now I wonder how you respond to this list? Are these realities for you or do they suggest that in fact you have not actually ever been born again because each of these things – which should be familiar to every real Christian – are in fact alien to you? Have you been convicted that you need to know the reality of this path, truly coming to Christ through real surrender?

It may be that these things are now somewhat of a shadow of what they have once been. If that is so then the writer’s calls are calls to you to renew your knowledge of Him so all these things become a reality again. The fact that you are reading these words would suggest that you are NOT someone who has fallen away, however shallow your present experience of Him may be. But the warning is there that “It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, (etc.) if they fall away, to be brought back to repentance.”

I think we’ll pause there because there is perhaps much yet to say about the reasoning of this which we’ll go into in more depth in the next study. The challenge of the book is to face the reality of our Christian lives in the light of each of these experiences and ensure they are realities for each of us today. May they be real.

29. Elementary Teaching?

Meditations in Hebrews 6:  29.  Elementary Teaching?

Heb 6:1-3   Therefore let us leave the elementary teachings about Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again the foundation of repentance from acts that lead to death, and of faith in God, instruction about baptisms, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead , and eternal judgment. And God permitting, we will do so.

I commented and challenged in the previous meditation as to the state of today’s church, as to how these verses would apply to us today. The writer had just commented how he felt his readers were lacking and we considered that. As we move on into chapter 6 we have another of these “Therefore” link words.  i.e. because of what he has been saying, we now need to move on. He then gives us six, what he considers, ‘elementary teachings’ about Christ, with the challenge that we need to move on from these, and we have to question, are these six things the things that we teach to new converts so that we can move on to meatier matters? Are we each familiar with these ‘elementary’ teachings? Let’s consider each of them.

a) The Teachings

  1. Repentance: this is all about the fundamental change of mind that causes one to turn away from sin and the old life, that is necessary in every believer if they are to fully come through to a place where Christ is both Saviour and Lord. Is that a basic understanding in each of us?
  1. Faith in God: this is the positive requirement of trusting in all God says. It is the counterpart of repentance. As repentance is turning away from sin, faith is turning to God. Faith is all about a life of listening to God. Is this also a basic understanding for each of us?
  1. Instruction about baptisms: the plural probably refers to different baptisms with which the Jewish believers would be familiar, such as Jewish baptism of proselytes, John the Baptist’s baptism, and the baptism in water as commanded by Jesus (Mt 28:19) and also the baptism in the Holy Spirit (Mt 3:11/Acts 1:5) Again, part of our understanding and experience?
  1. Laying on of hands: although this sometimes followed baptism (Acts 8:16-17; 19:5-6) or when commissioning ministries (see Ac 6:6; 13:3; 1Ti 5:22; 2Ti 1:6), or when healing the sick (see Mk 6:5; 16:18; Lk 4:40; Ac 28:8) and bestowal of blessing (see Mt 19:13-15), the big emphasis is on the impartation or passing on of power or anointing in this act. Is hids a common part of our church life?
  1. Resurrection of the dead: this is the doctrine of the resurrection of all people in the last days (see Jn 5:25-29; 11:25; 2Co 4:14). Is that part of our hope for the future?
  1. Eternal judgment: this is the doctrine of the destiny of those who reject God’s saving grace and persist in their sinful ways. A warning to be aware of.

We perhaps should comment that the first two are about essentials for coming to salvation, the next two about various ‘procedures’ within the life of the church, and the last two about bringing understanding and hope and warning about life after death. All of them should have very practical outworkings. Let’s consider them to emphasise and ensure understanding:

b) The Outworkings

  1. Repentance: repentance brings us to a place of surrender to God. Without it we cannot do that and then go on to receive all He has for us.
  1. Faith in God: this opens to door for us to receive all of the goodness that He has for us. Without it we fail to receive our inheritance.
  1. Instruction about baptisms: this challenges us to follow Jesus’ pattern and receive the public act of immersion for the washing of sins and receiving the new life, as well as being filled by the Spirit as we are immersed in Him. Without both of these we again come short of receiving all the blessing that God has for us.
  1. Laying on of hands: this takes us into a constant awareness of the power and presence of the Spirit and challenges our availability to Him to move in faith to bring ‘tangible’ blessing to others. Without it, corporate church life lacks the dynamic of the Spirit’s ongoing impartation.
  1. Resurrection of the dead: this brings a measure of hope and assurance for our life after death. Without it we are left wondering about life in eternity.
  1. Eternal judgment: this is the warning and reminder to all that ALL will stand before God and be held accountable. It is only reliance on the work of Christ on the Cross that can give us peace of mind about this future encounter. Without this warning, there is simply casual indifference and failure to realise the awful possibility of hell after death.

So these, he says are basics, elementary teachings, things that should be imparted and understood early in your Christian walk and although we all need reminders, they should not be all that we ever hear (even if we hear this much) for there is so much more for us to learn and experience and do that all comes under the heading of ‘learning’. May we not settle, may we always have a teachable heart, a heart that is open to learn all that God wishes to teach us. Amen? Amen!

28. Slow Learners?

Meditations in Hebrews 5:     28.  Slow Learners?

Heb 5:11,12   We have much to say about this, but it is hard to explain because you are slow to learn. In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again.

Teachers in my life: Our writer is a theologian of sorts, at least a man of understanding but he is also pastoral and as such is aware of the people who might end up reading this letter. I, as an aging Christian writer in the UK, am aware that I have lived through a period, during which in the earlier part at least, there was a proliferation of excellent Christian teachers. I have no trouble remembering the ministries of a large number of men, Spirit-filled leaders who had insights, who took us into the truths of the body of Christ back in the 1970’s before the concept was truly understood. Similarly, through a period during which understanding and experience of the gifts of the Spirit expanded from merely the Pentecostals. Then came teaching on discipleship which, as so often happens initially, went over the top. And there, scattered along the way were a variety of incredibly godly and gifted men (and one or two similar women) who brought a depth and breadth to our teaching which is rare today. Several years ago, one of my grown up Christian sons said to me, “You know Dad, the trouble with my generation is that we are just not so well taught as your generation was.” I found that an amazing insight at the time but as I have reflected on it, it worries me that he was right.

A Challenge to his Readers: The writer to the Hebrews was speaking about Jesus’ high priestly ministry and adds, We have much to say about this, but it is hard to explain,” (v.11a) and I have commented earlier in this series that, certainly by today’s standards, some of his rabbinic teaching has already seemed quite complex and difficult. But he isn’t taking captives, he is quite in your face about it: “because you are slow to learn.”  Whoops! That’s unkind. But he wouldn’t say it unless he knew something about his readers.

So what does he mean, what does he really think about them? “In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food!” (v.12) These people that he has in mind are clearly not new converts as indicated by his words, “by this time”. In what follows there is an assumption that many in today’s church might struggle with – that the Christian life is all about change, about growing up and about coming to maturity so we no longer sit there like sponges taking in, but are out there serving God, blessing others. “You ought to be teachers.” Do you prefer just sitting in the pews to that thought because if we are to mature it means a) we have learnt and b) we are available.

My Testimony: Within the first year of coming to Christ in my early twenties I was leading seven different Bible studies a week. It was the natural thing to do and there were other young people who were hungry for God’s word. I learned as I went along. Yet I am aware of how limited I was. I became a church leader and a number of years later found myself in a position where I was invited to teach in a church in Malaysia for three weeks on “The New Covenant.” I am not quite sure what I taught and how I got away with it but they seemed blessed. I suspect I am much more well equipped today to teach on such things. Yes, it can be a nervy thing to step out but that’s how we learn – by doing it.

The Challenge again: He presses it in: “you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again.” Now he is going to list some of those things he thinks are ‘elementary truths’ when we get to chapter 6 so it will be interesting to see what we feel about those things because, remember, he is saying we ought to be past those things. Then he says something interesting: “Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness.”  (v.13) That is fascinating! Do you see what he is saying? All of that other stuff we’ll see in chapter 6 is ‘the basics’ and we should NOT keep on going over and over those things but move on and teach and learn how to live rightly (righteousness)  i.e. how to live in this world as one of God’s children and how to serve in the kingdom of God, ‘doing the stuff’ as John Wimber used to say.

And in case we didn’t take it in he goes on, “But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.” (v.14). Solid food is a wider understanding of Scripture, knowing how it applies to everyday life so that it produces lives of righteousness, lives that live to the glory of God, revealing the goodness and compassion and love of Christ, lives that are holy, utterly different from those living in the way of the unbelieving and ungodly world.

The Challenge to us today: In the so-called Great Commission, Jesus taught his followers to go out and make disciples, followers in the mold of Jesus, “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you,” (Mt 28:20) and ‘obey’ is the same as “do”, so why don’t we do a few little checks before we finish. As we said before, this is to be a ‘doing’ faith.

Jesus said, “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (Jn 13:34,35) Jesus showed love by being with his disciples, accepting them and blessing them, guiding them and teaching them and pushing them out to do the same things he did. Is this what our church community is like? Do we major on relationships and how they can build a strong, secure, genuinely loving ‘body of Christ’ that risks ministering in word and power as Jesus did?

Jesus said, “seek first the kingdom of God,” and “Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me” (Matt 6:33 & Jn 15:4) and so we might ask, do we put God’s will first and do we seek to draw near to Jesus and know him in all we do in his name? This has very practical outworkings. For instance, many churches have prayer meetings, so suppose yours does, what is it like? Have you learnt (been taught) to listen to God, to be sensitive to His Holy Spirit, to hear His heart so that prayers flow out of that and come with a confidence that is born in heaven?

We could go on with many similar examples. These two speak of a community of God’s people who have learned what a Jesus community means and have learned to be a people who know and respond to Him and are thus able to be used by Him. Consider our weekly preaching and teaching. Yes, we need basic Bible exposition but if that is all we have, we produce a bunch of nice and good people (which is not to be despised) but who are just that and nothing more. Is our preaching the same stuff over and over again, or do we seek maturity in the people of God, a people who both ‘know’ and ‘do’?

27. The Nature of the High Priest

Meditations in Hebrews 5:    27. The Nature of the High Priest

Heb 5:1,2   Every high priest is selected from among men and is appointed to represent them in matters related to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. He is able to deal gently with those who are ignorant and are going astray, since he himself is subject to weakness.

The High Priest’s Humanity: I think I have said before that I am not comfortable with the concept of the High Priest in the New Testament but it may be because he is a figure at the heart of the Jewish Law there in the Old Testament but he is a figure the writer to these Jewish Christians uses to speak more about Jesus.  In the previous chapter the writer had said, we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses,” (4;15) and now he emphasizes again the humanity of the High Priest and how that humanity is there for us as we might have encountered him: “Every high priest is selected from among men and is appointed to represent them in matters related to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. He is able to deal gently with those who are ignorant and are going astray, since he himself is subject to weakness.” (v.1,2) i.e.

a) the High Priest is a human being who

b) is to represent us to God by

c) offering gifts and sacrifices so that

d) in his humanity he can deal with us gently when we get it wrong because

e) he himself is prone to the same sorts of things.

That was the human high priest of the Old Testament period and it was because of his humanity that, “he has to offer sacrifices for his own sins, as well as for the sins of the people.” (v.3) Now there is also something else about this man which is of great significance: “No one takes this honor upon himself; he must be called by God, just as Aaron was.” (v.4)

Jesus appointed as High Priest: Now he is going to apply this teaching to Jesus: “So Christ also did not take upon himself the glory of becoming a high priest.” (v.5a) i.e. Christ did not choose of his own accord to act as our high priest, and to ‘prove’ that from Scripture (in continuing rabbinical teaching style that we noted earlier) he is going to quote yet again from the prophetic psalms: “But God said to him, “You are my Son; today I have become your Father.(or ‘today I have begotten you’, v.5b quoting Psa 2:7 again).  We’ve seen that quote before (1:5) and he simply uses it to establish the direct relationship between the Father and Son and the fact that the Son is obeying the calling of the Father who is supreme in the Godhead.

Melchizedek?  So he shows the Son called by the Father, and so now he is going to link him to the priesthood, but it is NOT the Aaronic priesthood: “And he says in another place, “You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.” (v.6 quoting Psa 110:4) Now we encounter here, yet again, a slightly frustrating approach of our writer in this book because again he makes a brief comment and does not explain it yet. We’ll have to wait two chapters before he explains this. He’s already done this is the way that several times before he mentioned Jesus being our high priest but didn’t explain it at all. Indeed we are going to have to wait some time before he is really going to open up on that thought.

Jesus operating as High Priest: Having said that, he does now give us a small glimpse of the activity of the high priest, and specifically Jesus as our high priest as he goes on, “During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission.” (v.7) We assume this has got to be a reference to Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus cried out in prayer so passionately that he literally sweated (see Mt 26:38-39 and Lk 22:44) and possibly on the Cross as he prayed (Mt 27:46) anguishing over the burden of carrying the world’s Sin.

The writer explains more fully what was happening: “Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him and was designated by God to be high priest in the order of Melchizedek.” (v.8-10)  The JBP paraphrase version puts it well:  His prayers were heard; he was freed from his shrinking from death but, Son though he was, he had to prove the meaning of obedience through all that he suffered. Then, when he had been proved the perfect Son, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who should obey him.”

The first part of that is particularly helpful – that Jesus prayed that he might not have to face an awful death, but was given the grace to do that. He had already declared, “Not my will but yours be done” and in that sense he had backed off backing away from or refusing death, but his prayers were answered in that he was given the ability to face this most terrible of times.

We have already covered references to him being perfect – see the previous meditation where that comes up (2:10) and will be seen again (7:28) and amazingly he will go on to say we too have been made perfect through Jesus’ suffering.

Recap: So to recap what we have seen so far: The role of high priest was to bring man to God. The human high priest was able to do this with a measure of compassion because he himself was also a weak human being. Jesus did it when he came to earth and prayed as part of the process of going to the Cross which was for us, and the writer will expand on that later. Note that the writer has moved away from proving that Jesus was and is greater than angels, or even Moses, and moved on to explaining in Jewish terms Jesus’ ministry. All the while he is doing this, in the background, from time to time comes the explanation that he is doing this so that our faith might be strengthened by this understanding and we be less likely or less vulnerable to fall away.  It is the use of theology to build confidence in Christ and faith in the believer. May that be what it does in us.