Why We Are Christians - A Letter to Hebrews
So, are you saved? When's the last time you heard that question? Usually, you hear that kind of question in evangelical circles. This does not seem to be a Presbyterian Issue. In my long journey through Christianity I stopped at several evangelically oriented churches. The question of salvation is foremost in the minds of evangelicals.
I sometimes wonder whether our focus on works and fellowship, while wonderful, may occasionally come at the expense of focus on salvation through faith. This is not to be critical of our focus on good works and fellowship. But I sometimes wonder if we are not missing a higher dimension in our spiritual journey, important not only for us, but important to young people and to the un-churched.
With that as background, today we're going to take a look at the Letter to Hebrews. It's not really written to Hebrews. It's written to contemporary Christians, no matter what era we are living in.
Last year we discussed Paul's letter to the Romans. Romans is the first letter in the New Testament. It immediately follows the Acts of the apostles. As we explored last time Romans is an encapsulation of the entire Bible. For those who missed our little talk the first eight chapters of Romans recapitulates the entire Old Testament, from Genesis through the prophets. Chapters 9, 10 and 11 correspond to the Gospels and the conversion of Judaism to Christianity and the continuing role of the Jews in nourishing the tree of Christianity. The last five chapters correspond to the rest of the New Testament, where Paul and others describe what it means to be a Christian, and how to achieve salvation, Paul's goal for every Christian.
Today we’re looking at one of the last books of the New Testament, the letter to Hebrews. Some of the most familiar biblical quotes come from Hebrews. But most of us are not familiar with this letter. In short, Hebrews describes why we are Christians. Hebrews explains salvation and why it is worth our lives to pursue it.
No one knows who actually wrote the letter to Hebrews. It's often called Paul's letter to Hebrews, but most scholars don't think Paul wrote it. I don't think so either, although you know how much I admire Paul. The most intriguing theory is that this sensitive, finely drawn discussion was written by a woman. The name of the woman mentioned is Priscilla, which is the diminutive of Prisca, her real name - by which she is also called. She and her husband, Aquila, are mentioned seven different times in the New Testament. They are always mentioned together, and usually with her name first. Why? Well, it wouldn't speak well for Christianity in that era to prominently feature a woman as a disciple - which she and her husband were. But, the subtlety of her name preceding her husband's suggests she was more than a "clinging vine."
In fact, we do know that Prisca instructed one of the key disciples, Apollos, in a better understanding of Christ and his teaching. Luke, in Acts 18, tells us, "There arrived at Ephesus a Jew named Apollos, an Alexandrian by birth, an eloquent man, powerful in his use of the scriptures. He had been instructed in the way of the Lord and was full of spiritual fervor; and in his discourses he taught accurately the facts about Jesus, though the only baptism he knew was John's. He now began to speak boldly in the synagogue, where Priscilla and Aquila heard him; they took him in hand and expounded the way to him in greater detail.
Exactly what did Priscilla teach this powerful, forceful Jewish Christian preacher? First, it's amazing that a woman was the one to set this guy straight. What did Priscilla teach Apollos? That's one of the great mysteries of the Bible. There's another great mystery in the Bible we'll look at today also.
Nobody knows who really wrote Hebrews. I don't either. Many also have trouble understanding it, and why it comes towards the end of the New Testament. But, it helps me understand the context and importance of this letter to think of it as the deeper explanation of Christianity given by Priscilla to Apollos. Not just to Apollos, but to us. We are in many ways like Apollos ourselves. We have a basic understanding of Christianity and teach that to our children. The facts. But, we often do not go the next step ourselves, as adults, and explore the depth and wealth of riches in Christ God has for us. So, let's for this morning, imagine we are listening to the wise words of this woman disciple, Priscilla, as she opens up our eyes to a deeper understanding of Christ and of Salvation. There are 13 chapters in Hebrews. I'll read a key line or two from each of the 13 chapters that will help us understand Priscilla's teaching.
The letter opens with a clear announcement of the authority and divinity of Jesus, and gives a hint as to why this has been called the Letter to Hebrews: Chapter 1 opens... In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.
Jesus is the exact representation of God's being. The Father of course, can not be seen himself, since he is Spirit and has no limiting body. But, in Jesus, in Jesus' presence, teaching and actions, we can see exactly what God is like.
Jesus is a pioneer. He is leading the way. Where? The way to Salvation, to Heaven. For whom? For us. So how do we follow our pioneer, our scout? Chapter 3... Therefore, holy brothers and sisters, who share in the heavenly calling, fix your thoughts on Jesus, whom we acknowledge as our apostle and high priest.
But it's tough down here, and difficult to follow where Jesus is leading. Why bother? Maybe we should just dog it and rest a bit, call it a Sabbath rest. Why not let Jesus be our pioneer, but instead of following him and moving into the new country he is pioneering for us, why not just stay here where it's comfortable? We've traveled far enough. We're good Presbyterians, aren't we? But, we can't stop following Jesus. Why not?
Chapter 4... For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account... Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.
The Word of God drives us out of our comfort zone. It's a very sharp sword. There is a strong hint here of what this teaching really is. This sharp sword penetrates to the dividing of soul and spirit, joints and marrow. Our joints are outside the bone. Our marrow is inside the bone. Dividing of soul and spirit. Soul is out here. Spirit is in there. Ouch. This is doesn't sound like our Sunday School Christianity.
But here comes the zinger. The writer, let's say Priscilla, zings it to Apollos and to us. In Chapter 5 she mentions Melchizedek, a foreshadowing of Christ, but then says, ...We have much to say about this, but it is hard to make it clear to you because you no longer try to understand. In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the ABC, the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food!
And immediately following comes the opening of Chapter 6: Let us stop discussing the rudiments of Christianity. We are not to be laying the foundation all over again: repentance from the deadness of our former ways and faith in God, by means of instruction about baptism and the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead and eternal judgment. Instead, let us advance towards maturity; and so we shall, if God permits...Even though we speak like this, dear friends, we are convinced of better things in your case—the things that have to do with salvation....(Jesus) has become a high priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.
Zappo! Enough already about the things we teach at confirmation. Yes, we need to know these things, but, Wait! There's more! As mature adults, let's move on and up.
Well, for starters, who’s this mysterious guy, Melchizedek? Remember, in Genesis, after defeating some bad kings, Abraham came across Melchizedek, a priest - without human ancestry. A priest so great that Abraham gave him a tithe of ten percent of his war booty. Mysterious, huh?
As mature Christians, we are called to reflect on this mystery and ask the Holy Spirit to open our minds to understand. These are things that can only be hinted at, and not explained directly, like we do the ABC's. Hints are similar to Jesus' teaching in parables, since that is all we can understand at the moment. Here is the hint: Chapters 7 and 8 showed that Melchizedek represents the parallel but higher, greater spiritual reality all around us, coexisting with the material world we see and touch.
In the same vein, Chapter 10 teaches... The (Old Testament) Law is but a shadow of things to come.… I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts. The Old Testament Law, like the present world, is just a shadow of the true reality we live in the midst of - but do not see. Why don't we see? Because we look with earthly eyes, not spiritual eyes. We try to make big, mysterious things we don't understand, small enough to fit our familiar comfort zone. After all, you remember how Jesus was unable to work miracles in his home town, because they knew he was just the carpenter down the road. A comfortable label that missed the mystery.
This new Christian law is no longer written in stone, in material that can be seen or touched. It is a spiritual reality hinting at and pointing us to the spiritual world that exists all around us. Chapter 9: Now the first covenant had ... an earthly sanctuary....But when Christ came as high priest of the good things that are now already here, he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not made with human hands, that is to say, is not a part of this creation... so Christ will appear a second time... to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him. This is startling! Good things that are already here? Salvation, the Kingdom of Heaven is already here?
Jesus told us often that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, is near, is right here. I believe some of us begin to experience Heaven now, through faith. Others are waiting in hope. In Chapter 11 "Priscilla" teaches Apollos - and us ... Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth.... Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one, a city prepared for them by God...These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, 40 since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect. Those who died before are waiting for us. They need our faith; we need theirs.
Chapter 12 expands on the spiritual reality around us, that we are watched daily and encouraged by those who have gone on before. They need us as we need them. "Priscilla" urges Apollos and us, pleads with us to recognize where we really are, where our pioneer led us, and the treasure that's right at hand in this new city, waiting for us, calling for us to enter...Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, 2 fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith....you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, 23 to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the Judge of all, to the spirits of the righteous made perfect.
Now maybe it wasn't Priscilla who wrote this. But, it's a pretty good summation of why we are Christians. There is a Heaven. It is here, just over the hill. Jesus, our pioneer showed us the way to it and called us to wake up and go there. Not only is Heaven real and present in another dimension, it does not come to us. We are called to go there, where our pioneer, Jesus, awaits. This is Salvation - not just a path, but taking the path of faith. Our aim as Christians is to get there.
The final Chapter 13 is Priscilla's final wise exhortations to love one another and to stop complaining about your Church leadership - maybe something we should also keep in mind: Keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters. 2 Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it... Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you.
Overall, having spent some time ruminating on Hebrews, I think living the Christian life is much like taxi and takeoff in an airplane. Think of a large airfield built on a swamp, a salt marsh. The runways are solid, but taxi in the wrong direction, you nose down in a swamp. We choose our direction, fix our eyes on the correct bearing and open up the engines. We roll down the runway gathering speed, and feel acceleration. We accelerate and stay the course, staying out of the marsh. We gather speed, and suddenly, even with our wheels still on the ground, we feel the lift of air under the wings. Then, perhaps at the moment of physical death, the pilot pulls back on the stick, and effortlessly we are fully airborne with no change in direction - but now heading into another dimension, up.