If you’ve never read Hebrews before… no judgment. It’s kind of an elusive book of the Bible.
The title starts right off by tricking us, sounding like some lesser-known book from the Old Testament. Even now you might be flipping through the opening pages of your Bible, scanning for “Hebrews” to show up in the upper-right-hand corner. If that’s the case, you’re going to be flipping for a while – Hebrews is in the New Testament, pretty close to the end of the Bible.
And let’s talk about that: the end of the Bible. As Fred Craddock points out, it’s way back there with obscure books like 2 Peter and the strange territory of Revelation. Hebrews is not a gospel; it doesn’t tell a good story like Acts; it’s not one of the familiar letters from Paul.
And who did write it, anyway? As early as the second century, Christians thought Paul wrote it. But as early as the second century, Christians doubted that Paul wrote it. The Greek is in a different style, and one line (Heb 2:3) says that the author didn’t have a first-hand experience of Christ. Surely Paul would have counted his road to Damascus experience as first-hand.
There’s even less certainty about who the original recipients were. Unlike the books of “Romans” or “Philippians,” the title “Hebrews” seems based more on the content (with all its Jewish references) than location. The audience must be very familiar with the Jewish Scriptures – our Old Testament – but they are also clearly a Christian community. And they are in some kind of crisis; attendance has dropped (Heb 10:25) and commitment is weak.
On the one hand we have no idea who wrote this book and to whom. But on the other hand, we can completely understand the circumstances of this letter we call Hebrews. Any of us who has been involved in a church for some time has probably been involved in a church in crisis. We’ve seen attendance drop and commitment waver. We know all too well the accompanying desperation among the leaders and apathy among the masses.
So in order to rally them and rekindle the flame of their faith, someone writes them a letter. And the bulk of the letter is about clarifying who Jesus is. In theology and church-speak, we call this Christology – “the study of Christ.” Who was he? What did he do? Why did he live and do the things he did?
Christology is important, because misunderstanding Jesus Christ can lead to a state of crisis.
The first lesson on Christology from the letter of Hebrews can be boiled down to a simple mathematical formula:
Jesus > _________________
If you think back to your elementary math lessons, you know what that Pacman mouth means: greater than. Jesus is greater than… something.
Jesus > Angels
First, Jesus is greater than the angels. This might strike most of us as obvious, but Hebrews makes an interestingly careful and strong point here. We might wonder: What was going on with angels in this community? Why spend the better part of two chapters creating a careful case for Jesus’ hierarchy over angels? Perhaps the Hebrews community had begun to exalt angels, as did some branches of Christianity and Judaism in the first century.
But so what if they did? What would be the problem with elevating angels to such a high status? I mean, angels are cool. They deliver tons of God’s messages to people. In the first five books of the Bible they sometimes lead the way (Exod 23) and sometimes block the way (Num 22) and sometimes bring down God’s judgment (Gen 19). They even have swords (1 Chr 21)! What’s not to like? Maybe the angels even deserve a little more credit than they get.
What’s wrong is that angels are not God. Jesus is God. And I can’t help but wonder if worshipping angels would lead us to start imitating their behavior: delivering messages (not so bad), leading the way (good, if we know where we’re going), blocking the way (that would probably get annoying), pulling out swords (um, swords?), and bringing down God’s judgment (not really our job).
But angels are not the ones we’re supposed to imitate. For that, we have Jesus Christ. And the reason we’re able to imitate him is because, for a little while, the equation changed…
Jesus < Angels
For a brief time Jesus allowed himself to be lowered (Heb 2:9). During that temporary state we were able to witness Jesus’ example to us, a very different example than the angels provide. Jesus’ example is self-sacrificial love; it calls us to deliver his messages and follow his way of peace and forgiveness, to refrain from judging others and love our enemies.
Worshiping anyone other than Jesus – even angels – can get us off track. So it’s important to remember that this was only a temporary status. After his death and resurrection, things went back…
Jesus > Angels
…but the human example of Jesus Christ stays with us, locked in our collective memory and recorded for us in the gospels.
Another temptation might be to keep Jesus Christ as a human being. Have you ever heard someone say, “I don’t believe Jesus was God – but he was a really great man?” This kind of thinking is tempting to many of us from time to time, because it sounds so logical and rational. You don’t have to believe in a physical resurrection in order to believe Jesus was a really great man. Neither do you have to wrestle with conundrums like, “If Jesus was God, why did he let people kill him?” And – as a bonus – if you think Jesus was a really great man he still serves as the example of how we should live. What’s the harm in viewing Jesus that way?
But Hebrews thinks there’s a difference. It puts it like this:
Jesus > Moses
Undoubtedly the recipients of this letter had some kind of Jewish background (if they didn’t, then all these references to the Old Testament are completely wasted). And if you have any kind of Jewish background, then there’s one figure who stands above all figures: Moses.
(King David was also a pretty big deal. We could make an argument for him. But let’s at least call it a tie between the two, and move on with Moses as either #1 or tied for #1, ok?)
Moses was faithful in all God’s house (Heb 3:2), but Jesus is better than Moses because Jesus built the house. Moses was faithful like a servant, pointing ahead to things to come (Heb 3:5); Jesus was faithful as a son. It’s his house.
We might be able to follow the example of a really good person, like Moses. But we can’t put our faith in a really good person, because a really good person is still just a person. Faith in Jesus Christ – the Son of God – gives us the confidence and pride that come from hope (Heb 3:6). Only Jesus can do that.
Jesus isn’t an angel.
Jesus isn’t a human being.
Jesus is the Son of God.
In this way, the letter written by we-don’t-know to the people of who-knows-where (aka, Hebrews) becomes the message we all need to hear. Everyone who has thought about Jesus Christ has some kind of Christology, something they believe about who he was and is.
So: What do you believe about Jesus Christ? Is he the Son of God, greater than the angels and any human being who ever lived?
Because who you believe Jesus to be determines the way you follow him.