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(Excerpt from Chapter One)
HE HAS SPOKEN TO US BY HIS SON Hebrews 1:2
Two decades ago, Alex Haley's best-selling book, Roots, helped fuel the black pride movement as African-Americans began to reflect on the significance of their ancestry. For Jewish people, history has always been a vital part of our orientation towards life.
In Jewish thought, the greatest of the patriarchs is Avraham avinu (Abraham our father). Abraham, his son Isaac and grandson Jacob are called ha-avot (the fathers). We look to these figures for personal and spiritual identity.
At the celebration of Passover, it is incumbent upon every Jew to consciously identify with his ancestors who were, by God's grace, liberated from the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. There is time set aside to reflect on this. Shemot (the Book of Exodus) is traditionally read in the synagogue during the weeks preceding Passover.
In the fall, the festival of Sukkot (Booths) reminds us of our desert wanderings following the escape from Egypt. For an entire week, especially in Israel, small hut-like dwellings become temporary residences blanketing the landscape in celebration of God's presence with us throughout our lengthy trek to the land of promise.
Yet it is not these festivals alone which call the Jew to remember Yetsiat Mitzrayim (the exodus from Egypt); every prayer, every religious event, compels us to recall our history's chief frame of reference; even the songs of Hanukkah celebrate the Passover's central historical significance.
Will Herberg, the influential twentieth-century scholar of Judaic studies and philosophy, called Exodus-Sinai "the interpretive center of redemptive history." Our history supplies our identity.
We are fortunate that our ancestors spoke with authority and clarity about life's most important matters. Some of these people were set apart by God and called nevi'im (prophets). These prominent figures not only told us what God expected of us, but also strengthened us through telling our people what we could expect of him.
Hebrews 1:1 insists that "God spoke to our forefathers through [literally, 'in'] the prophets." Although the means of divine communication were never made clear, it is worth noting that the titles of the Old Testament books were given with full consideration of the gravity of that communication.
For example, Devarim (Deuteronomy) takes its title from the opening phrase, Eleh ha-devarim, "These are the words." Moses' teaching began with the declaration, "The Lord our God said to us" (Deuteronomy 1:6). The book we refer to by its Latin derivative, Leviticus, is called in Hebrew, Vayikra. This is taken from its first words, "And he called."
Learning the words of God is critical. That's why study is so highly regarded in the Jewish community. Yeshivot (seminaries) are deemed vitally necessary for Jewish boys who want to understand the fullness of their heritage. There are even seminaries for married men whose full-time devotion to Hebrew thought requires hours of study each day.
According to the Talmud, God will one day ask every Jew if he was diligent in setting aside a regular time for study. Israel's hope, it is reasoned, cannot survive if it is detached from that which God has communicated to her.
The writer of Hebrews knew that only an intensified personal understanding of God's final and decisive communication would generate the resilient, sustaining faith they so desperately needed.
The first readers of Hebrews were part of a community whose recent history and experiences had been tragically discouraging. Following Israel's captivity in Babylon, hopes were revived for the return of the visible manifestation of God. Yet the prophecies of Haggai and Zechariah regarding the return of God's sh'khinah, his dwelling glory, to a rebuilt Temple had not been realized. Five centuries of frustration followed.
In the generation preceding Yeshua's time, revolts and other bloodshed took the lives of more than 100,000 Jews. In 31 B.C.E., an earthquake had killed another 30,000. Severe famine and pestilence also took their toll. Herod (so-called "the Great") bled the land mercilessly with unrelenting taxation, a blight which continued long after his death. Messages of hope were rarely heard; despair was everywhere. The average person felt the bleakness of the times and longed for relief, something to buoy his spirits.
In this depressing situation, the writer of Hebrews urged his readers to look at Messiah quite differently from the usual way, as the coming liberator.
The most prominent Jewish expectation associated with Messiah was the exaltation of the Davidic throne. This would be accompanied by a golden age of peace and joy. No rabbi anticipated the magnitude of his glory as it is capsulized here in the opening sentence of Hebrews (1:1-4).
The commonly held Jewish views of Messiah required radical revision. He is no mere monarch, not even a super-David, but a being of awe-inspiring nature. God had identified with man by becoming a man. In him and through him, God had spoken most conclusively and completely. Nothing remained to be said, for "The Son is the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of his being" (1:3).
When Jewish people speak of the glory of God they use the word kavod. The word conveys the idea of "heaviness." In our age, concepts of God are characterized by a kind of weightlessness. You hear it in the songs, the prayers, the attitudes of people. But for Israel, God's "weightiness" is seen in all that he is and all that he does.
The glory that Israel witnessed on Sinai (Exodus 24:16) also filled all of God's world (Isaiah 6:3). Now that same kavod, revealed in his Messiah, the Son, could be known by all who trusted in his saving work. The writer of Hebrews wanted to strengthen the followers of Yeshua by helping them focus on the greatness of their Lord and savior.
What was true for first century believers is equally true today. We must, in facing life's hardships, develop an abiding preoccupation with our glorious Lord. John Owen, the prominent seventeenth century Puritan, emphasized the point by saying, "If I have observed anything by experience it is this: a man may take the measure of his growth and decay in grace according to his thoughts and meditations upon the person of Christ, and the glory of Christ."
Jeremiah's Book of Lamentations is called in Hebrew, Eykha, based on its first word, "How," which becomes a mournful sigh when spoken. The book is read each year, traditionally by candlelight, sitting on the ground in an atmosphere of gloom; it is often chanted to a sad melody.
While its contents point to the destruction of Jerusalem and Solomon's Temple, its annual reading is also the occasion for remembering other painful events, such as the razing of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. and the Jewish expulsion from Spain in 1492.
All this collective sadness leads the Jewish people to poignantly recall that they have certainly not been the masters of their fate. This led to the writing of many prayers acknowledging that everything happens at the Lord's command. One such prayer, Aleynu, begins by confessing that "it is our duty (aleynu) to praise the master of all," to proclaim the greatness of him who shaped all things. The prayer acknowledges the blessed Holy One of Israel to be "the supreme king of kings."
Hebrews 1:3 reveals that "after [the Messiah] had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the majesty on high." On the same theme, verse 8 continues, "Your throne, O God, will last forever and ever..." Hebrews goes further, however, and confronts us with a cosmic person who must be greater than even our most imaginative conception of him. He is "the exact representation" of God. Not only has he come to us in our need, he is also actively "sustaining all things by his powerful word" (1:3). The universe is nothing less than the handiwork of the Messiah (1:2).
No dry doctrine this! It is impossible to estimate the importance of this truth to the Hebrew believers. Branded meshumadim (traitors to Israel's faith), the rejection by family and friends needed to be offset by the love and full acceptance they received from God's eternal Messiah, the God-Man, sustainer of all things.
I recall, more than half a life-time ago, when I confessed my belief in Yeshua before the disgruntled rabbi in whose synagogue I had received my spiritual education. "How," he asked, "can you identify yourself with those who have persecuted us?"
Although I was young in the faith, I knew enough to tell the rabbi that a true follower of the Messiah, whether or not he called himself a "Christian," would never harm another person, regardless of his ethnic roots. In desperation my rabbi suggested that I was meshugah (crazy) and gave me the name of a Jewish psychiatrist.
During the long ride home from the synagogue, I recall being filled with sorrow. I knew that none of my family relationships could be untouched by what had happened. I sensed I was entering my own midbar (wilderness) and wondered how I'd survive.
But the Messiah had become real to me through the words his disciples had written. Following him was not simply an option. There was for me, as a popular Hebrew saying goes, eyn b'rera (no alternative). One cannot easily dismiss him who created all things and holds them all together (Colossians 1:16-17).
It was not that I was cleaving to him; he was holding me together and pressing me to himself. The psalmist's words expressed my reality: "You hem me in behind and before; you have laid your hand upon me" (Psalm 139:5).
Rabbi Chaim ben Attar observed that Abraham himself was a convert. What matters is not that one is converted, but what one is converted to. In one of the midrashim (Bible commentaries) it is said that "the converted [to Judaism] are beloved to God." But for me and the Jews reading Hebrews, the experience of God's love could no longer be sought or contained within perfunctory Jewish observance. We found our heritage fulfilled in a person, God's Messiah.
Some speak disparagingly of our giyur (conversion), but we could more appropriately call this step "completion" or, to borrow a Messianic term, ge'ulah, redemption.
Table of ContentsPreface
Chapter One: He has spoken to us by his son
Chapter Two: Bringing many sons to glory
Chapter Three: Fix your eyes on Yeshua
Chapter Four: The promise of entering his rest remains
Chapter Five: Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence
Chapter Six: He learned obedience from what he suffered
Chapter Seven: We have this hope as an anchor for the soul
Chapter Eight: Such a High Priest meets our needs
Chapter Nine: I will make a New Covenant
Chaptern Ten: How much more, then, will the blood of Messiah cleanse our consciences
Chapter Eleven: The Law is only a shadow
Chapter Twelve: Let us draw near to God
Chapter Thirteen: Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see
Chapter Fourteen: But you have come to the city of the living God
Chapter Fifteen: Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings
Chapter Sixteen: Our Lord Yeshua, that great Shepherd of the sheep