“The Excellency of Jesus Christ, the Mediator of a Better Covenant”
A Summary of the Book of Hebrews
By Rev. Martyn McGeown
The letter is written to Hebrew Christians, that is, those who have converted to Christ from Judaism, and who are under pressure to depart from Christ. Hebrews proves that Jesus Christ is superior to all OT types (Moses, Aaron, the tabernacle, the temple, etc.) and contains many sharp warnings against apostasy, and many exhortations to perseverance.
Chapter 1: Christ is superior to the angels
Hebrews 1:1-4 opens with a magnificent description of who Jesus is and what He has done. Jesus is Jehovah’s final word to His people, the old ways of prophecy, etc. having ceased. We learn here who He is (“the brightness [effulgence, radiance; not merely reflection] of God’s glory; the express image [impress, stamp, exact representation or likeness] of His person [being]). This is a powerful testimony to the Deity of the Son. The Son 1) made the worlds (John 1:3); 2) upholds all things (providence; Col. 1:17); 3) purged our sins; 4) sat down at God’s Right Hand. The Son, being God, became 1) the heir of all things (Rom 8:16-17); 2) was made better than the angels; 3) obtained by inheritance a more excellent name than the angels. This, of course, is true of the Son of God Incarnate. In Hebrews 1:5-14 we are given proof from the OT. In contrast the angels are called created, ministering [servants] spirits. In v. 8, the Son is even addressed as God from Ps. 45:6-7. The angels have no kingdom, but the Son has a kingdom (Ps. 45:6-7; 102:25-27). The Son is superior, also, because He is eternal, and because He (unlike the angels) sits at God’s Right Hand.
Chapter 2: Christ is superior to angels (contd.).
Hebrews 2:1-4 is a warning against apostasy in light of who Christ is.
Hebrews 2:5ff. resumes the subject of the superiority of Christ to the angels. The world to come was not placed into subjection to angels, but to Christ (Ps. 8:4-6), but before Christ was exalted, He suffered humiliation for our salvation. There is a close union between the “captain” (v. 10) and the “sons” (v. 10) or “children” (v. 14). He became Incarnate to be a high priest for them.
Chapter 3: Christ is superior to Moses
The writer never denigrates Moses, but honours him as a faithful servant (v. 2), but the Son is greater, because He is not a servant in the house, but “over the house” (v. 6), because He builds the house, which act of building proves His Deity (v. 4). We prove ourselves to be (part of) that house by preserving to the end (v. 6).
Hebrews 3:7-4:16 is a lengthy warning and exhortation not to do what Israel did in the wilderness (see Ps. 95). Unbelievers within Israel did not enter God’s rest (3:11, 19), which was a typical rest (the land of Canaan); unbelievers in the church will not enter God’s rest (heaven). Israel despised the promise, the gospel and the word. Thus they despised God and Christ, and perished.
Chapter 4: An exhortation to enter God’s rest.
Various typical rests are discussed (the Sabbath day; the land of Canaan in Joshua’s day [Jesus = Joshua in v. 8]). The chapter ends with a call to come to the throne of grace through our High Priest, Jesus Christ.
Chapters 5-6: The superiority of Christ’s priesthood.
We learn here that the priest had to be 1) taken from the people, 2) compassionate because he knew his weaknesses; 3) called/ordained by God Himself. Christ Himself was called by God, and prepared by God through sufferings, but His call was not according to Levi, but acc. to the order of Melchizedek. The instruction concerning Melchizedek is interrupted until 7:1 in order that the writer might rebuke the people for their dullness (5:11) and warn them against apostasy (6:4-6). The apostates of Hebrews 6:4-6 are not regenerated believers but false professors in the church who experience something of the gospel and despise it. They only “taste” these things; they do not benefit from them. The writer mixes severe warnings with tender encouragement (6:9-12) and with exhortations to believe God’s promises, using Abraham as an example, and God’s oath to Abraham as an encouragement (6:13-20). With that, we pick up the subject of Melchizedek in chapter 7.
Chapter 7: Christ’s superior priesthood according to the order of Melchizedek.
We pick up the subject of Melchizedek, which was dropped in 5:10, but which had to be interrupted because of the people’s dullness of hearing (5:11). Melchizedek was a real person in history (Gen. 14:18-20), who serves as a type (a foreshadowing) of Jesus Christ. He was the only Old Testament figure who was both priest and king. The only other mention of Melchizedek is in Psalm 110:4, where God swears an oath to the Messiah that He will be a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek. Melchizedek serves as a type of the Son of God because he appears on the pages of Scripture “without father, without mother, without descent, having neither beginning of days, nor end of life; but made like unto the Son of God; abideth a priest continually” (Heb. 7:3). This does not mean, of course, that the man Melchizedek never died, but that Scripture never records his death or birth, etc. The writer demonstrates the greatness of Melchizedek, and since Christ has the Melchizedekian priesthood, the greatness of Christ’s priesthood: 1) Abraham gave a tenth of the spoils to Melchizedek (7:4); 2) Melchizedek blessed Abraham. One who blesses is superior to the one blessed (7:7); 3) The Levitical priests receive tithes, but they die; it is witnessed of Melchizedek (and therefore of Christ) that he lives (7:8); 4) Since Levi (the grandson of Abraham) was “in the loins of Abraham” when Abraham gave tithes to Melchizedek, Melchizedek received also tithes from Levi (7:9-10). In addition, the priesthood of Melchizedek (and therefore of Christ) is superior to the priesthod of the law (the Levitical priesthood): 1) The fact that God promised a priest according to the order of Melchizedek (in Psalm 110:4) after the priesthood of Levi was established proves that the Levitical priesthood is imperfect (7:11); 2) If the priesthood must be changed, then the law must also be changed (for under the Law of Moses, Christ from the tribe of Judah could not serve as a priest [7:12-14]); 3) The priesthood of Levi was “after a carnal commandment,” but Christ’s priesthood is “after the power of an endless life” (7:16); 4) The law was imperfect, but we have in Christ a better hope, by which we draw nigh unto God (7:19); 5) The Levitical priests are not made priests by an oath, but Christ was made a priest by an oath (7:21; Ps. 110:4); 6) The Levitical priests were subject to death, but Christ lives forever, having an unchangeble priesthood (7:23-24). The chapter ends with a summary of the excellency of Christ’s priesthood (7:25-28).
Chapter 8-10: the inferiority of the Mosaic Law and of the old covenant.
Chapter 8 teaches that Christ is the exalted high priest who serves not in the earthly tabernacle, but in the heavenly (8:1-2). The earthly tabernacle (temple) was typical: it foreshadowed the real, heavenly tabernacle, which is why God commanded Moses to make it exactly according to the pattern shown to him (8:5). Incidentally, that is why we must never go back to it. Christ has a better ministry than Moses, and is the mediator (and surety: see 7:22) of a better testament or covenant (8:6). This leads to an exposition of the New Covenant promised in Jeremiah 31:31 (see also Matt. 26:28; II Cor. 3:6; Heb. 9:15; 12:24). Although the promise of Jeremiah 31 was made to “the house of Israel and the house of Judah,” the New Covenant is fulfilled in the salvation of the church. The house of Israel and of Judah is the whole people of God (see also Hosea 1:10-11; 2:23 and compare with Rom. 9:27-28 and I Peter 2:10). The New Covenant was necessary because we were not able to keep the Old Covenant. The New Covenant is not external, but internal, and its chief blessing is the forgiveness of sins (8:10, 12; see also II Cor. 3).
Chapter 9 continues this contrast with a description of the Old Testament tabernacle (and temple). Strictly speaking, there is one covenant with two administrations. The main issue concerns lack of access to God for the worshipper. The greatest access was on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16) but “the way into the holiest of all was not yet made manifest” (9:8). The tabernacle was a type (9:9). The contrast comes in 9:11 (“but Christ”). There is a further comparison between the cleansing possible under the Old Covenant (ceremonial cleansing; see Num. 19 and Ex. 24) and purification by the blood of Christ (eternal redemption, purifying of the conscience, etc; 9:14, 24-28). Christ, the testator, must die to release the blessings of God’s Testament to the heirs of salvation (9:15-17).
Chapter 10 contrasts the sacrifices and offerings of the Old Covenant with the perfect sacrifice of Christ. The Old Covenant sacrifices were only shadows (10:1); they could never make the worshippers (the people and the priests) perfect; they did not cleanse the conscience. Therefore, they had to be repeated. Christ came in willing obedience to serve God by the offering of His body (Ps. 40; Heb. 10:5-10). There is great emphasis on the once-for-all nature of Christ’s sacrifice (9:25-28; 10:10-12, 14, 18). Beginning at 10:19 the writer brings exhortations and warnings: “Let us” (10:22, 23, 24). The emphasis is on the wonderful access we have in Christ, and the assurance this gives us to come. The writer follows this by a very serious warning against apostasy (10:26-29; see 6:4-6). For those who turn from Christ to seek another way to God (in unbelieving Judaism, for example) there is no more sacrifice for sins (10:26) but only terrifying judgment. How urgent, then, to cling to Christ! The chapter ends with encouragement to remember the past experiences of faith and an exhortation to patient endurance for the future. This bring us to the great cloud of faithful witnesses of chapter 11 (see 12:1-2) who serve as examples of such patient endurance.
Chapter 11: A great cloud of faithful witnesses.
The connection between chapters 10 and 11 is important. In 10:35ff the readers are warned not to cast away their confidence, but to press forward in faith. Chapter 10 ends with this confident note: “But we are not of them that draw back unto perdition; but of them that believe to the saving of the soul” (10:39). Chapter 11 explains what it means to believe. The writer presupposes that the saints of the Old Testament believed in Christ. Otherwise, how could they be witnesses to us (12:1)? The chapter begins with a definition of faith: faith is a firm and solid assurance of, and conviction concerning, things to come, that is, the things promised by God, which are the objects of our hope (11:1). By faith we know that the invisible things, which God has promised, are real and we embrace them, although we cannot see them (11:13). Following a summary statement on faith in the first two verses, the writer showcases the Spirit-wrought faith of many Old Testament saints (Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses’ parents, Moses, the Israelites and Rahab). The object of the saints’ faith was nothing carnal or earthly, but spiritual and heavenly (11:10, 13-16, 26-27). By faith in the promises of God, many unnamed and uncelebrated saints performed great feats of courage and endured great sufferings (11:32-40). The implication is that we in the New Testament must do likewise, and we can and will by the power of the same faith.
Chapter 12: Endurance and chastisement
The writer applies chapter 11 by likening the Christian life to a long-distance endurance marathon or race (12:1). The Greek word translated “race” is “agony” (I Tim. 6:12; II Tim. 4:7). We must apply every effort of endurance and self denial to cross the finishing line as victors, as the examples of the Old Testament saints encourage us, and as we keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, who is not only the perfect example, but is also the source of our power (by His cross and resurrection) to run (see also I Cor. 9:24-27; Phil. 3:13-14). There is a danger that the Hebrews might grow faint (12:3), so they must remember the words of Proverbs 3:11-12. The Hebrews were experiencing chastening, which was for their good. Chastening is the Father’s discipline (training or correction) of His children, and, although it is painful, we must neither “despise” it, nor “faint” under it (12:5), but instead endure it patiently. Chastening is (1) evidence of God’s love; (2) evidence that we are God’s children, and not “bastards.” God does not chastise the wicked—He leaves them in their sins; He even gives them over to their sins, so that they perish; (3) sanctifying—“that we might be partakers of His holiness … it yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness unto them which are exercised thereby” (12:10-11). That word “exercised” means exercised in a gymnasium. Trials and chastisements are like the pieces of equipment in a gym designed to exercise different “spiritual muscles” (faith, patience, love, joy, etc.). See also Romans 5:3-5 and James 1:2-4. We do not exercise spiritual graces simply by reading books—our graces must be “exercised” in the gymnasium of affliction!
The rest of the chapter consists largely of exhortations, warnings and application. Verse 12 begins with “wherefore.” We must use this instruction to encourage one another, following peace and holiness, and avoiding bitterness, which as a root grows up to defile the church (12:15). Esau is cited as a warning—he was a covetous and carnal man, but he did not esteem the blessings of the covenant (12:16-18). To illustrate the difference between unbelieving Judaism and the truth of the Christian faith, the writer compares Mt. Sinai with Mt. Zion. To one—Sinai—we have not come: those who dwell in Mt. Sinai perish under the holy wrath of God. All who seek salvation in the law dwell at Mt. Sinai and are under the curse (Gal. 3:10). To the other—Zion—we have come: those who dwell in Mt. Zion enjoy all the blessings of salvation. Zion is a common figure of the church in the Old and New Testaments, for it is the place where God dwells with His people (Ps. 48; Gal. 4:24-31; Rev. 21:9-10). We come—and have come, and remain—at Mt. Zion by faith. The chapter ends with a warning of the coming shaking of heaven and earth, as prophesied in Haggai 2:6-7. When God shakes all things, only the unshakable kingdom of God shall remain (12:28). Therefore, we serve God acceptably in godly fear (12:28-29).
Chapter 13: Closing exhortations
In the final chapter, brotherly love, hospitality, sympathy with the persecuted, sexual purity, faithfulness in marriage, contentment and confidence of God are urged upon us. We have great gospel privileges: we fellowship with God (13:10) in the unchanging Christ, pictured in eating from an altar (see Lev. 19:5-6; I Cor. 10:18); but we do so outside the camp (of Israel), where Jesus was rejected and crucified (13:13), and seek a city to come (13:14). As priests we offer spiritual sacrifices of praise (13:15; I Peter 2:5; Rom. 12:1-2).
The letter concludes with petitions (13:18), benedictions (13:20-21, 25) and greetings (13:24).