Book of Hebrews
Paul's letter to the Hebrews is primarily addressed to Jewish believers who were uncertain about the role of the sacrificial system. He argues that Yeshua the Messiah has offered himself as the once and for all perfect sacrifice for sin. The Levitical system of sin offerings is obsolete, and anyone who goes back to it has fallen into apostasy. He separated himself from such people because he wanted to maintain the purity of the faith among Jewish believers who were providing the foundational truths that would be preached to the Gentiles.
Chapter 1. The Status of Messiah
Messiah is described as the first begotten Son of God, meaning he is in the highest position of authority. The term "Son of God" does not imply any physical type of birth, as it is commonly misunderstood by Muslims who say "God is not a man that he should have a son".
He is higher than the angels and is worshipped by them. He took part in the creation of the world, and is indistinguishable from God himself.
Chapter 2. The Greatness of our Salvation
Messiah, though he was so great, made himself a little lower than the angels, taking upon himself human nature, as the seed of Abraham. Therefore how great is our salvation, since it has been provided by Messiah himself. We are to be united with Messiah as his brethren, to rule and reign with him, and we shall not escape if we neglect so great a salvation.
Chapter 3. Do not Harden your Hearts
Messiah, as the appointed Son, was obedient in everything that had been entrusted to him. We, as fellowservants with him, are also expected to be obedient. We should not rebel as the Israelites did in the wilderness, when they made the golden calf.
Chapter 4:1-12. The Rest of Faith
The Sabbath day of rest, when God rested from all his work of creation, prefigures the rest that will be enjoyed by the faithful who will rule and reign with Messiah when he comes. If we are unfaithful, the Word of God will find us out because it is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword.
Chapters 4:13 - 5:10. The Priest According to the Order of Malki-Tzedek
Having established that we must be faithful and approach all matters with due diligence, Paul now explains to them the foundational truth that they must understand if they are ever to resolve the question of sacrifices. He explains that Yeshua the Messiah is a priest according to the order of Malki-Tzedek (King of Righteousness). He is the eternal priest who gives us salvation for ever, not like the Levites who had to continually make offerings on behalf of the people, after first making an offering for themselves.
Chapters 5:11 - 6:8. Immaturity and Apostasy
Paul rebukes the believers because they should be teaching others the foundational truths of the faith, and it should not be necessary for him to teach it to them all over again.
He is particularly concerned with those who have accepted the free gift of salvation by faith, and then gone back to the Levitical system of sin offerings. He denounces them in the strongest possible terms:
For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted of the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Ghost, and have tasted the good word of God, and the powers of the world to come, if they shall fall away, to renew them again unto repentance; seeing they crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh, and put him to an open shame. (Heb. 6:4-6).
This may be connected with other passages about the sin against the Holy Spirit (Matt 12:31-32, Luke 12:10). Yeshua had cast out a devil and the Pharisees denounced him, saying that he had done it by the power of the devil as if it was some kind of trick of the underworld. Yeshua told them that Satan cannot cast out Satan, otherwise his kingdom would be divided. In Matthew's Gospel he says he cast out the devil by the power of the Holy Spirit, and in Luke's Gospel he says the "finger of God". Then he warned the disciples that blaspheming against the Holy Spirit was an unforgivable sin. The Holy Spirit performed the work of Messiah even while he was here on this earth, so how much more are we dependent on him now? It makes no sense at all to blaspheme against the Holy Spirit, and strangely enough we never hear anyone doing it. People take the name of Christ in vain all the time, but never the Holy Spirit, because God protects us from this error. The Pharisees sinned against the Holy Spirit in a most spectacular way. They were the spiritual leaders of Israel and they led the Israelites into a state of spiritual blindness that has continued to this day, but the darkness will be lifted as Paul has prophesied in Romans 11:26.
And so all Israel shall be saved.
Now we come back to the book of Hebrews, and Paul's statement that if people fall away it is impossible to renew them again to repentance. He says they have received the benefits of the Holy Spirit, and then they have abrogated the work of Messiah by crucifying to themselves the Son of God afresh which, in context, is a euphemism for returning to the Levitical system of sin offerings. They are doing something very similar to the sin against the Holy Spirit that Yeshua talked about, although I am not sure that it is exactly the same. The Greek word "adunatos" means weak, powerless or impossible. Depending on the context it means difficult to the point of impossible, or absolutely impossible.
At the very least, Paul was expressing his frustration about a group of people who had fallen into such a state of spiritual darkness that it was impossible to reason with them. Whether or not they had irretrievably fallen from grace is a matter of debate, but they had certainly done something that brought great darkness upon themselves.
Paul's strategy with these people was to disassociate himself from them, as he says later:
Now the just shall live by faith, but if any man draw back, my soul shall have no pleasure in him. But we are not of them who draw back into perdition, but of them that believe to the saving of the soul. (Heb. 10:38-39).
Since the Gospel came from the Jews, Paul was concerned to keep it pure. Those who went back to the system of sin offerings were not considered to be part of the church.
Chapter 6:9-20. Faithfulness and Certainty
Having made it clear how high the stakes are, and the perils of falling away, Paul exhorts the believers to continued faithfulness. He also declares the faithfulness of God, who has made his promise doubly sure by swearing it with an oath.
Chapter 7. Malki-Tzedek
Paul returns to his discussion of Malki-Tzedek, which he began in Chapters 4 and 5. Every important figure in the book of Genesis appears in a list of genealogies. Paul makes the shrewd observation that Malki-Tzedek has no genealogy and must therefore be eternal. He argues that Malki-Tzedek received tithes from Levi who was yet unborn and in the "loins of Abraham". He then leads us to the inevitable conclusion that Malki-Tzedek was a pre-appearance of Messiah himself, which theologians call a "theophany".
The Levitical priesthood came far short of what was needed to bring salvation. The priests themselves were sinners and had to make offerings for themselves, and then for the people, and had to continue the same rituals over and over again. There is no comparison with the Messiah, who offered himself once to secure salvation for the whole world, for all who believe.
Chapter 8. The New Covenant
The Levitical priesthood, the tabernacle, the gifts and sacrifices, were just a shadow of things to come. The eternal priest, the Messiah, brought in the New Covenant that was prophesied by Jeremiah.
. . . Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt; because they continued not in my covenant, and I regarded them not, saith the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, saith the Lord; I will put my laws into their mind, and write them in their hearts, and I will be to them a God, and they shall be to me a people, and they shall not teach every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord, for all shall know me, from the least to the greatest. For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their iniquities will I remember no more. (Heb. 8:8-12. See also Jer. 31:31-34).
Paul continues this discussion with the statement about the obsolescence of the old covenant:
In that he saith, A new covenant, he hath made the first old. Now that which decayeth and waxeth old is ready to vanish away. (Heb. 8:13).
Although the old covenant had no relevance for believers, Paul recognised that the empty shell of ritualistic observance still existed. The Temple was still standing when he wrote this epistle, and the priests were still offering sacrifices, but under continued duress because of harassment from the Roman Empire. Paul was predicting the time when the Temple would be destroyed and there would be no more sacrifices. This was not a prophecy he made by himself. He was just referring to the prophecy of Yeshua, that "There shall not be left here one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down." (Matt. 24:2).
The obsolescence of the old covenant does not mean the obsolescence of the law. The whole law still stands, just as Yeshua said it would.
Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. (Matt. 5:18).
Even the law of sacrifice still stands, the only difference being that Yeshua offered himself as the perfect sacrifice and established the New Covenant with his blood.
Chapter 9 and Chapter 10:1-18. The Temporary Nature of the Old Covenant
Paul goes into more detail about how the Old Covenant sacrifices were performed and how they were just a shadow of things to come. He is basically going through the same argument again, but referring to specific aspects of the sacrificial system, rather than just the system as a whole. He ends this section by repeating part of the prophecy of Jeremiah, about the establishment of the New Covenant.
Chapter 10:19-39. Encouragement to Faithfulness and Warnings against Apostasy
Having padded out the argument, Paul declares that we can enter the holy place, through the new and living way, with full assurance of faith. He then returns to the warnings he has already given in Chapter 6 as follows:
For if we sin wilfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins. But a certain fearful looking for of judgement and fiery indignation, which shall devour the adversaries. He that despised Moses' law died without mercy under two or three witnesses. Of how much sorer punishment, suppose ye, shall he be thought worthy, who hath trodden under foot the Son of God, and hath counted the blood of the covenant, wherewith he was sanctified, an unholy thing, and hath done despite unto the Spirit of Grace? For we know him that hath said, Vengeance belongeth unto me, I will recompense, saith the Lord. And again, The Lord shall judge his people. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. (Heb. 10:26-31).
Clearly, Paul is not talking about all kinds of sin. He is talking about the specific offence of deliberately going back to the Levitical priesthood and sacrificing animals as a sin offerings, as if the sacrifice of Messiah himself was not enough. He is only concerned with wilful offenders, not with those who inadvertently get involved because they happen to be around when an offering is being made.
The chapter ends with the warning of excommunication that we have discussed earlier:
Now the just shall live by faith, but if any man draw back, my soul shall have no pleasure in him. But we are not of them who draw back into perdition; but of them that believe to the saving of the soul. (Heb. 10:38-39).
Chapter 11. The Just Shall Live by Faith
In this chapter, Paul lists the positive achievements of the Patriarchs who were justified by faith. He is elaborating on "the just shall live by faith", taken from the previous chapter, and putting aside the question of those who turn back. He is arguing that justification by faith is nothing new and that all the Patriarchs lived according to it. The chapter ends as follows:
And these all, having obtained a good report through faith, received not the promise, God having provided some better thing for us, that they without us should not be made perfect. (Heb. 11:39-40).
All the hopes of the Patriarchs have been fulfilled in Messiah, and we are part of that fulfillment because we have entered into the New Covenant by faith.
Chapter 12. Running the Race
Since the hopes of the Patriarchs have been fulfilled in us, we are to run the race that has been set before us in front of a great cloud of witnesses, namely the angels who witnessed the coming of Messiah and are now observing with anticipation the mission of the church. We are to accept trials and tribulations, as if they come from a Father who chastises his children for their good. Paul encourages us to look forward to the New Jerusalem, the kingdom of Messiah, and to be faithful until he comes.
Chapter 13. Let Brotherly Love Continue
Paul ends his letter in his usual style, with practical matters, and in particular he commands us to love one another.
Why Did Paul Attempt to Offer a Sacrifice?
In Acts 21 there is a story about how Paul went to Jerusalem and found that there were rumours circulating among the Jewish Believers that he was encouraging the Jews in the Diaspora to forsake the law of Moses and not to circumcise their children. To prove that it was not true, he went to the Temple and participated in a purification ritual, together with four other men, which was to end with offerings of some sort. This was not just his own idea, he was encouraged to do it by the elders of the church. He never got to the point of making the offerings because some of the Asian Jews wrongly assumed that the men with him were Gentiles and they started a riot. Paul was almost killed but he was saved by the Roman soldiers.
Since this ritual was to involve offerings, was Paul doing something contrary to his teaching? Not necessarily. It depends on what sort of offering it was. If it was a sin offering, it would definitely contradict everything that he taught in his letter to the Hebrews. But there were different types of offering in the Levitical system, such as burnt offerings, peace offerings and thank offerings. Clearly, it must have been the custom of the early church in Jerusalem to make offerings of some sort, which had nothing to do with sin.
If this should sound strange to us, we should consider the practice that occurs in many churches today, when an offering is made every year at Harvest Festival. The front of the church is stacked up with fruit and vegetables, loaves of bread and tins of beans which are subsequently distributed to the poor. Sometimes we might see other innovative types of offering, like for example when I was at Spring Harvest and one of the musicians held up his trumpet as an offering to the Lord.
The story in Acts doesn't say specifically that the intended offering would be an animal, although it might have been. One thing is for sure, it could not have been a contravention of Paul's teaching, because the purpose of this ritual was to bring unity among the Jewish Believers and convince them that he was not going to try and de-Judaise them. If he had offered a sin offering, he would have created the most intense argument and disunity, contrary to his intended purpose.
Should Messianic Believers Today Offer Sacrifices?
There are some Messianic Believers today who say that if the Temple was rebuilt in Jerusalem, or if the altar was rebuilt, and the Jews began to offer sacrifices, they would also go up and offer sacrifices. Clearly, if anyone offered a sacrifice for sin, they would bring upon themselves all the condemnation that is laid out in the Book of Hebrews.
There could be pragmatic reasons for making an offering of some sort. For example, Jews who believe in Yeshua are considered to be no longer Jewish, and they might want to make an offering to prove their Jewishness. There might be others who want to do it for Zionistic reasons. They might use it as an opportunity to establish the rights of the Jews to live according to their own customs in their own country.
Whatever the pragmatic reasons might be, the negative aspects of this are too great to make it worthwhile. The Messianic Congregations in Israel today are too fragmented and nowhere near as sophisticated as the early Jerusalem church. In some cases, a so-called "Messianic Congregation" is actually an international church made up of foreign workers and tourists, and a few resident Jews. It is actually easier to find observant Messianic Congregations in England than it is in Israel. The sight of Messianic Believers marching up the hill with their sacrificial animals would create so much confusion in the minds of other Believers in Israel and all over the world, that I cannot conceive of any reason why anyone would want to do it.
Most of the church worldwide would simply disown the Messianic Jews who offer sacrifices, and would have nothing to do with them. A minority might be taken in by the idea of animal sacrifices, and some might even go for sin offerings, failing to distinguish between the different types of offering in the Levitical system, and would bring upon themselves the perilous darkness that Paul warns against in his letter to the Hebrews. Those of us who understand these things should take care, that we do not cause our brother to stumble.
Good Sermon Material
If the Temple is rebuilt, or if just the altar is rebuilt, and the Jews begin to offer sacrifices, we should take it as as an opportunity to preach the Gospel to both Jews and Gentiles. The sight of animals being killed, and their blood being poured out before an altar, is a most dramatic illustration of the seriousness of our sin, a concept that the world has forgotten. We should use it as the starting point for proclaiming that Yeshua the Messiah has come, and has offered himself once and for all as the perfect sacrifice for our sins, to bring eternal redemption to all who believe in Him.