Archive for May, 2012


In These Last Days–Part One, Chapter One




One important issue that we need to consider when we seek to understand the central argument of the Epistle to the Hebrews is the nature of the problem that the writer intended to correct. What was the “occasion” of the Epistle? As the title of the Epistle suggests, the addressees of the Epistle have traditionally been considered to have been Hebrews. It has also been common, based on internal evidence, to identify these as Hebrews who had left Judaism in favor of Christianity.2 In any case, it is plain that the writer of this epistle understood that all the doctrinal and practical problems that his readers were experiencing arose from their failure to reckon with the fact that God has abrogated the old covenant and has established the new covenant once and for all. Though they had experienced the powerful influences that belong to the messianic age (Heb 6:5), they were casting a longing eye back to the inferior, temporary, and condemning covenant of Moses.

Footnote 2 In the introduction to his commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, Philip Hughes has discussed various theories that have been advanced that have narrowed this description of the Epistle’s recipients in one way or another. The following is a brief digest of his remarks.

Some, e.g., C. Spicq and F.M. Braun, have conjectured that these “Hebrews” were a company of priest who had been converted to Christianity from Judaism.

Jean Daniélou, another scholar who favors this opinion, further conjectures that the “Hellenists” of the early Jerusalem church were in fact converted Essenes who, when driven from Jerusalem by persecution, encountered a group of Zadokites in Damascus and made converts of some of them. This conjecture, if it could be substantiated, would certainly cast helpful light on the question at hand. Of greater value is the connection that he sees between certain teachings of the Zadokites and the argument of the Epistle to the Hebrews. Two of these doctrines, “the extraordinary cult of angels” and the expectation of two messianic personages, one Aaronic and priestly and the other Davidic and kingly, seem to be directly addressed in the Epistle.

Finally, Hughes considers the views of Yigael Yadin, a Jewish scholar of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Yadin posited the view that the addressees of this epistle were members of the Qumran community who, although having been converted to Christianity, still held to some of the views of that sect. In particular, he calls attention to such the belief of that community that there would be two messianic figures. The kingly would be subordinated to the priestly, but both would be subjected to the supreme authority of Michael the archangel. In other words, the “world to come” was to be subjected to angelic authority (cf.2:5). Additionally, they believed that there was to appear a prophetic figure, a second Moses, in fulfillment of the prophecy of Deuteronomy 18:18. They also expected the reinstitution of the whole sacrificial system prescribed by the Mosaic law. It appears likely, given the apparent similarities between these views and those that the writer to this epistle has so ably answered, that there must have been some connection between the addressees of this epistle and the sect of the Essenes. As Dr. Hughes has noted, it is not necessary to limit the scope of the reference to the sect at Qumran, since Essenism was a much larger and more widely spread movement than that one representation of it. He further observes that it is not necessary to assume that those to whom the epistle was written had once been members of this sect. It may be, according to his view, that they had simply encountered and felt the attraction of the teachings of this sect. It seems important, however, to remember that one clear theme of this epistle is the danger of going back. If the “Hebrews” had never been a part of this sect, then to what were they in danger of going back? Although it must be acknowledged that this connection between Essenism and this epistle is conjectural, there seems to be a strong probability that one of the concerns of its writer was to deal with the danger of buying into the erroneous teachings of this sect. (End footnote 2)

They were in danger of trading the blessings of this vastly superior new covenant for a covenant that “made nothing perfect” (Heb 7:18). Time after time (at least 11 times in Hebrews) the writer uses the word “better” to describe Christ and the covenant that He mediates (including its messenger, priesthood, sacrifice, promises, and inheritance) in contrast to Moses and the old covenant of which he is the mediator. Clearly, to draw these contrasts in this epistle was the author’s stated agenda. Yet, it is equally plain that he was not alone in pursuing this aim. We would probably not wide of the mark if we said that the New Testament writers’ purpose in penning their literature was to show the vast superiority of the new covenant to the old covenant. Consider the following contrasts that we find throughout the New Testament body of truth:

1. The old covenant was only “typical” and promissory (It typified and pointed to life but could not grant it). The promises of that covenant were conditioned on obedience. Though God granted blessings to Israel under that covenant, those blessings were only typical of the true, spiritual blessings that result from the mediatorial work of Christ. God could not grant the antitypical blessings until one came who could meet the terms of the covenant. Some Israelites experienced some of the same spiritual blessings that new covenant believers enjoy, e.g., justification by faith. Yet, they did not enjoy these blessings because they had kept the requirements of the law. To those who accounted Him faithful, God granted these blessings “on credit” until Christ appeared to both cancel t he debt (Heb 9:15) and earn the promised blessings. The new covenant is “antitypical.” In Christ, new covenant believers realize the spiritual reality that the types of the old covenant prefigured. (John 1:17). Every promise of spiritual blessing God has made finds its fulfillment in Christ (2 Cor 1:20).

2. The old covenant (the law of Moses) was temporary (2 Cor 3:7-13; Gal 3:19-25); the new covenant is permanent (2 Cor 3:11; Heb 12:28).

3. The old covenant was external, “written in tables of stone.” The new covenant is internal and spiritual “written on the fleshly tables of the heart” (2 Cor 3:3-6).

4. God intended the old covenant to have a condemning and killing effect. It could only grant life to those who kept it perfectly. Since sinful rebels would not and could not obey it perfectly, it effectively revealed that it was absolutely impossible for sinners to obtain justification through personal law-keeping. By contrast, God intended the new covenant to justify and give life.

5. The old covenant could not adequately reveal God’s glory to sinners because of the hardness of their hearts and the blindness of their eyes (2 Cor 3:14). The gospel reveals the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Cor.4:6). The law (the old covenant) could not, because of man’s sinfulness, disclose the way into the presence of God, the holy of holies–”The Holy Spirit was showing by this that the way into the Most Holy Place had not yet been disclosed while the first tabernacle was still standing” (Heb 9:8). Through Christ, under the new covenant, we draw nigh to God (Heb 7:19)

6. Everything about the old covenant said “stay away.” (Heb 12:18-21). As heirs of the new covenant God invites us to “. . .draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith . . . .” (Heb 7:19; 10:22). Because the old covenant could not adequately deal with the sinner’s nagging conscience, it could not produce acceptable worship or worshipers (Heb 10:1- 2; cf. 10:19-22).

7. The old covenant was a national covenant made with Israel alone (Exo 34:27). The two tables of stone (“ten words”) are the covenant that God made with Israel through Moses (Exo 34:28).

8. The new covenant is a universal covenant made with believers in Christ from every tribe and language and people and nation. Under the old covenant, certain days, people, places, and objects were designated as “holy.” Under the new covenant every day is a holy day; every believer is a holy person; every place is a holy place; and everything is holy unto the Lord (Zech 14:20).

9. The old covenant and the old creation with which Paul linked it (Rom 5:20) were characterized by weakness, bondage, and inability to please God (Rom 8:3). The character of the new covenant is power and freedom from the dominion of sin (Rom 6:14).

The law performed splendidly in accomplishing the task for which God had given it, but having fully discharged its function, it was incapable of meeting man’s most basic spiritual needs. It could not cancel guilt; it could not quiet the nagging conscience; it could not sanctify the life; it could not equip people to worship God in truth (Heb 10:1). Indeed, “the law made nothing perfect” (Heb 7:19).

Ebrard stated this point well when he wrote,

The law in every respect opened up and imposed a number of problems without solving any of them. It set up in the decalogue the ideal of a holy life, but it gave no power to realize that ideal. By the law of sacrifice it awakened the consciousness of the necessity of an atonement; but it provided no true, valid offering for sin. In the institution of the priesthood it held forth the necessity of a representation of the sinner before God; but it gave no priest able to save men eis to panteles [completely]. In short, it left everything unfinished.3

3 John Brown, The Epistle to the Hebrews, (London: The Banner of Truth Trust, reprint ed., 1972), p. 344.

The believer who lives in the period that began with the advent of Christ is not waiting for the age of the Messiah and the establishment of the new covenant. The “world to come” (Heb 2:5) has come. Christ has established the new covenant. The “good things to come” (Heb 9:11; 10:1) are ours to enjoy. God has decisively abolished those external regulations he had imposed on Israel until the time of the new order (Heb 9:10). The burden of the writer was to convince believers who live “in these last days,” that we must persevere in fixing our gaze on Christ. We must continue to look to Him, the mediator of the new and better covenant, who, as the Apostle and High Priest whom we confess, is superior to all the messengers and mediators of the old covenant.

Clearly, the writer of this epistle, like the Apostle Paul, wrote from the perspective of redemptive history. The Redemptive-historical approach is one that focuses on God’s mighty acts in accomplishing His eternal decree to save sinners whom He has chosen for Himself. God’s saving activity in history (historia salutis) is the core of new covenant theology. Its primary concern is not the application of redemption to the believer but the accomplishment of redemption in Christ. Thus, new covenant theology focuses on eschatological realization in the first advent of Christ (particularly His death and resurrection)4 instead of the existential application of Christ’s redeeming work.

Footnote 4–The advent of the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost should be viewed as the necessary corollary to the advent of Christ. This unique pouring out of the Spirit is the evidence, long promised in the Scriptures of the old covenant, that the age of the Messiah has dawned. (End of footnote 4)

In speaking of “redemptive-history” we are not suggesting that the history of God’s saving activity among men is different in character from “secular” history. Nor are we suggesting that there is no place in new covenant theology for a discussion of ordo salutis (the order of the application of redemption in the life of the individual sinner). What we are suggesting is that the primary emphasis of the New Testament Scriptures is redemptive-historical, not existential. The following characteristics of the redemptive-history approach are patent in the message of this epistle:

1. The Redemptive-historical approach is Theocentric and Christocentric rather than anthropocentric. This approach focuses not on the believer’s experience in the application of redemption but on the redemption that God has accomplished in Christ. It does not view justification, adoption, sanctification, and glorification as separate and distinct blessings the believer experiences in the application of redemption. Instead, it views these blessings as benefits that accrue because of the believer’s union (existential) with Christ. These blessings belong to them because they are in union with Christ, the justified, adopted, sanctified and glorified one. Richard Gaffin elucidates this point when he writes,

. . . In view of the solidarity involved, being raised with Christ has the same significance for believers that his resurrection has for Christ. To be more exact, the notion that the believer has been raised with Christ brings into view all that now characterizes him as a result of having been joined to Christ as resurrected. It means that he has been justified, adopted, sanctified, and glorified with Christ, better, that he has been united with the Christ, who is justified, adopted, sanctified, and glorified, and so by virtue of this (existential) union shared these benefits.5

5 Richard Gaffin, Resurrection and Redemption. ( Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1987), p.129.

2. The redemptive-historical approach emphasizes the blessings that believers receive in corporate solidarity with Christ. It is not blessings that believers receive individually that the writer of this epistle emphasizes. Instead, it is blessings that belong to Christ as our representative and forerunner that we enjoy in union with Him. For example, He is the heir of all things. We possess the inheritance in Him. He is the Son.6 We are sons because we are in Him. The believer, because of his union with Christ, is sure to inherit certain blessings. He may be confident that God will accept him into His holy presence (he may enter because Christ has entered). It is also certain that God will restore redeemed man to his proper position as (relative) sovereign (subject to the absolute sovereignty of God) over His created works. Christ has ensured this restoration as the “captain of our salvation” by rising victoriously to the throne (Heb 2:5-10–see below). He now reigns, not as pure Spirit, but as a representative man who has faced the foe and won the victory.

Footnote 6 Not only is Christ the Son essentially, He is also the Son economically. In the latter part of Hebrews one, the concern of the writer is to show that Christ has been enthroned as Son over the mediatorial kingdom. He is the Son of God incarnate. As such, He has, at His resurrection, ascension, and glorification, inherited a more excellent name than angels (1:4). There are three words that were associated with Israel’s kings. The king was described as God’s “son,” God’s “firstborn”, and God’s “anointed one.” All of these titles are used of Christ in Hebrews one.

The use of the terms “Son” and “firstborn” is not simply an ontological description of His deity, but a description of His mediatorial character. We must never forget that it is not merely as the Son who is essentially one with the Father that Christ has been exalted to the place of highest honor. It is also as the incarnate Son who has become one in nature with His people that He is now exalted to the place of highest honor and dignity.(End of footnote 6).

3. The salvation-history approach emphasizes eschatology. Yet, it does not do so in a way that postpones the “last days” to some distant period at the end of the age. In the Epistle to the Hebrews, the writer stresses the contrast between the former age and the age to come (the age of the Messiah). In doing so, he shows that we are those on whom “the fulfillment of the ages has come.” This is the final age. These are the last days. This is the time of fulfillment. See Chapter Two, “The New Age Has Come.”
The idea of present eschatological fulfillment creates an “already/not yet” tension between that which is true of the believer because of His redemptive-historical union with Christ and that which is not yet true in his experience. Paul plainly sets forth the idea of present eschatological fulfilllment in the words, “If any man is in Christ, there is to him a new creation, old (that which belongs to a former time) has passed away, the new has come” (2 Cor 5:17). The NEB translation of this verse nicely captures Paul’s meaning. It reads, “When anyone is united to Christ, there is a new world; the old order has gone, and a new order has already begun.” The believer, in union with Christ, no longer belongs to the old order, “this world,” “this creation.” There is to him a new creation. Yet, as far as his experience is concerned, he continues to live life as part of the old creation. He is exposed to temptations, physical weaknesses, sickness, and even physical death. This tension exists in the Epistle to the Hebrews.

4. The Redemptive-historical approach recognizes that a climactic shift occurred at the first advent of Christ. At His resurrection, Christ inaugurated, entered, and became the head of the new order, the new creation. The advent of Christ, together with the advent of the Holy Spirit is the great watershed event of redemptive-history. The cross is the great divide between the old creation and the new creation. This decisive act of God signals the inauguration of that period to which the writer of this epistle refers as “these last days” (Heb 12 1:2), “the coming age,” etc., and marks a radical change in God’s covenant dealings with His people. Thus, this approach emphasizes discontinuity in God’s covenant dealings, not continuity.


In These Last Days

About fifteen years ago, I wrote a book on The Epistle to the Hebrews entitled, In These Last Days. It is a biblical-theological study of the major themes in Hebrews. A good friend of mine recently suggested I republish it here in small segments. Thinking that was a good suggestion, I decided to make the book available in this forum.

It is my conviction that today’s church has greatly undervalued and is largely ignorant of the book of Hebrews. Additionally, it is my view that a person who understands this great treatise would never desire to return in any sense to the outworn covenant of Sinai. I hope it will provide fuel for healthy and edifying discussion on the important issues it addresses.

It is my intention to begin work on a commentary on Hebrews in the near future. I also want to make it available here as I complete it. I hope you will find them both instructive and edifying.


In These Last Days is an investigation of the theology of the Epistle to the Hebrews. Since this is the case, we have made no effort to harmonize its theology with the theology of the rest of the Bible. Our primary concern is to discover the human author’s distinctive approach to traditional theological issues.

I have made no effort to identify the author of this epistle. Such an undertaking would be an exercise in futility. I have my opinion, but it adds nothing to the exposition of this material.

Though we have dedicated a portion of this work to speculations about the identity of the addressees and the occasion for writing, we have drawn no dogmatic conclusions. These matters, too, are concealed from us.

Though the writer identifies this document as a “short letter” (13:22), its form looks more like a collection of expository sermons on OT texts. Could it be that one of Paul’s close associates has developed notes that he took when Paul was preaching in the synagogue (Acts 13:14ff; 17:2-3)? It is impossible to be sure concerning any of these questions.

One thing of which we can be sure is that this document embodies some of the most glorious teaching found anywhere in the Bible. It presents a more extensively developed Christology than any other epistle in the New Testament Scriptures. It is majestic in its presentation. Its logical argumentation is flawless. Its message is timeless.

There is always a tendency to allow our eyes to stray from Christ. Whenever we succumb to that temptation, we will inevitably suffer spiritually. Some to whom this document was addressed were turning their eyes from the resplendent beauty of Christ to the comparatively drab covenant of Sinai. Our author seeks, by logical argumentation coupled with stern warnings, to arrest them in their tracks. His central message forms the basis for all successful Christian living. It is this, ” . . .fix your thoughts on Jesus the apostle and high priest whom we confess” (Heb 3:1). He argues that the long expected age of the Messiah has dawned. He insists that Jesus, the messenger and mediator of the new covenant, is better than all the messengers and mediators of the old covenant. He exhorts his readers to abandon their attraction for the shadows of the old covenant, and rivet their attention on the substance of which the shadows were faint and fleeting emblems.

We have emphasized the necessity of gaining a clear understanding of biblical typology that we might understand the message of this epistle. On this point, S. Lewis Johnson, Jr. has written,

. . .the language of Hebrews is the language of “God’s kindergarten.” It explains the typology of the Pentateuch. The author felt that the weakness of his readers was related to their ignorance of “the elementary principles of the oracles of God” (cf. Heb. 5:12). While he included within the word the messianic promises and other fundamental Old Testament doctrines (cf. 6:1-2), he felt his readers needed also the typical and antitypical truth of the divine revelation, particularly that of Aaron and Melchizedek, and of the priesthood and the services.1

I urge you to read appendices A through F. These contain material concerning Messianic prophecy, the nature of biblical typology, and the uses of the Old Testament in the New, that you must understand if you expect to interpret the Epistle to the Hebrews correctly.

1 S. Lewis Johnson , The Old Testament in the New, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1980), p.69.