Invitation to Hebrews
Who Wrote Hebrews?
Unlike most New Testament epistles, Hebrews does not open with its author’s name. This is because Hebrews is primarily a sermon, conveyed in writing (see below). We know the original audience knew the author’s identity because he asks them to pray “that I may be restored to you” (13:19). But we do not. For much of church history, the majority view was that Paul authored Hebrews, though significant Church Fathers, as well as Reformers such as Martin Luther and John Calvin, questioned this belief. Luther proposed Apollos (see Acts 18:24–26). Calvin could “adduce no reason to show that Paul was its author,” observing that the style differs from Paul and that the author includes himself among the disciples of apostles (Heb 2:3–4), “which is wholly different in the way in which Paul spoke of himself.”1 Confirming the Reformers’ misgivings is the fact that Christ’s resurrection, which is so central in Paul’s theology, is clearly mentioned just once in Hebrews (13:20), though it is implied elsewhere (7:16, 24–25).
In the late second century, Tertullian attributed Hebrews to Barnabas, a Levite who would have had a keen interest in issues of priesthood, sanctuary, and sacrifice. Hebrews’ use of the Greek translation of the Old Testament (Septuagint) fits Barnabas’s origins in the Jewish Dispersion (Cyprus). The apostles called him “Barnabas,” meaning “son of encouragement” (Acts 4:36), and Hebrews is a “word of encouragement” (13:22) permeated with exhortations.
Still, we do not know the identity of the human author. He would emphasize, however, that more important than the question of human authorship is the fact that Scripture is God’s own Word, which “the Holy Spirit says” to us (3:7; see 1:1–2). The Spirit’s authorship explains Hebrews’ theological consistency with Paul’s epistles (as well as with the Gospels, other epistles, and the book of Revelation). Our uncertainty about the human author is not an insurmountable obstacle to our understanding the message of Hebrews.
What Do We Know about Hebrews’ Original Audience?
Not only did the recipients know the author, but he also he knew them. He reminds them of their history of joy amid suffering, when the light of Christ’s gospel first burst on them (6:9–10; 10:32–34). The author speaks pointedly to their present crisis of faith, which inclines some of them to abandon their trust in Jesus (3:12–13; 12:12–17). He addresses them with pastoral authority and urgency, blending sober warning (6:4–8; 10:26–31), forthright exhortation (2:1–4; 3:12–14), and heartening reassurance (10:35–39).
In manuscripts from as early as the second century, this epistle/sermon has been called “To the Hebrews.” Overwhelming evidence confirms that the original audience were Jewish Christians. The prologue reminds them God addressed “our fathers” through Israel’s ancient prophets (1:1). They are at risk of being attracted to the Mosaic Law’s sacrificial system, but no mention is made of circumcision. So, it is unlikely that these are Gentile Christians tempted to “judaize.” Rather, they are Jewish believers in Jesus now suffering exclusion from Temple, synagogue, and family (13:12–13).
They probably lived outside the Promised Land. The Jewish Dispersion used the Greek Septuagint, which Hebrews typically cites in its many Old Testament quotations. The greeting conveyed from expatriates who had “come from Italy” (13:24) suggests that this congregation resided in Italy, perhaps in Rome itself. They had been followers of Jesus long enough that the author expected to see in them more maturity than they were exhibiting (5:11–14).
Hebrews offers a multifaceted argument for the superiority of Jesus, of his perfect self-sacrifice, and of the free access to God’s throne of grace that he has secured. This argument seems to be motivated by the audience’s misgivings about continuing to trust Christ and their temptation to return to Judaism’s familiar and visible institutions: its priesthood, temple, and animal sacrifices. That return would spare them from the rejection they had suffered through bearing “the reproach of Christ” (13:12–13), but the author of Hebrews aims to encourage them to persevere and remain faithful, knowing that the rewards for fidelity to Christ far outweigh any earthly advantage they might gain by abandoning their faith.
What Kind of Book Is Hebrews, and How Is It Structured?
The author designates Hebrews as a “word of exhortation (or ‘encouragement’)” (13:22). The Greek term paraklēsis and its related verb parakaleō include a spectrum of speech that motivates faithful response, from gentle comfort to firm directive. This expression appears in Acts 13:15, where synagogue leaders invite Paul to bring a “word of paraklēsis” to the congregation. Paul responds with a sermon that surveys God’s faithfulness to Israel, leads to Christ, and applies the message to his hearers. First-century Jewish and early Christian literature likewise use “exhortation” (paraklēsis) to refer to discourses that accompany the reading of Scripture and apply its teaching in worship settings (see 1Tim 4:13).
Our author expects his audience to hear his message read aloud, so he introduces Old Testament quotations not with Paul’s typical perfect-tense verb of writing (“it is written,” Rom 1:17), but with present-tense verbs of speaking: “the Holy Spirit says” (Heb 3:7) and “bears witness” (10:15). In the words of Psalm 95, they are “hearing” God’s voice “today” (3:13; 4:7).
Listening to Hebrews as a “word of exhortation” helps us understand that its doctrinal instruction is always directed toward ethical application. Hebrews has rich truth to teach us about the Person of Christ (his deity and humanity) and his redemptive mission (his once-for-all sacrifice and endless intercession). But these and other doctrines are explored for the purpose of changing us, deepening our trust in Christ, and moving us to express our faith in serving others and enduring suffering. In contrast to Paul’s epistles, in which doctrinal instruction (Rom 1–11 or Eph 1–3) precedes and lays the foundation for application (Rom 12–15 or Eph 4–6), exhortation is interwoven with theology in every section in Hebrews.
Structurally, the “sermon to the Hebrews” is composed of six major sections, each of which displays some dimension of the superiority of Christ to the Old Testament institutions that God gave to ancient Israel (see the outline below). The first two sections (1:5–4:13) discuss God’s self-revelation. The second pair (4:14–10:35), at the sermon’s heart, explore our reconciliation with God through Jesus, the priest in the order of Melchizedek, who surpasses Israel’s priests, sanctuary, and sacrifices in mediating forgiveness and cleansing of conscience. The last two sections (10:36–12:29) focus on the result of reconciliation, which is our experiencing rest with God in our heavenly homeland, and our offering him thankful worship as we approach his heavenly Jerusalem by faith. Each of these six sections is grounded in one main Old Testament passage (though others are cited). Each elaboration of Scripture, in turn, leads to an exhortation to respond faithfully to God’s grace.2
What Are Hebrews’ Main Themes?
At its center, Hebrews states that its “main point” is the priestly ministry of Jesus the Son (8:1–2). He has offered himself as the once-for-all, conscience-purifying sacrifice for sins (9:13–14; 10:10–12). Now he lives forever, interceding in heaven on behalf of all who “draw near to God through him” (7:24–25). This Son is divine, for he is the agent of creation and sustainer of the universe, the radiance of God’s glory (1:2–3, 10–12; 3:3–6), called, “O God” and “Lord” in the Old Testament Scriptures (1:8, 10). He has become human, sharing our flesh and blood, and experiencing the gamut of our temptations, without sinning (2:14–18; 4:14–5:10). Both his changeless deity and his humble humanity are essential to his mission as priest.
Hebrews also teaches much about nature of the Bible and how to interpret it. It presents both the epoch-transcending authority of God’s Word and the unfolding process by which he revealed his redemptive plan over the epochs. The same God who spoke “long ago” through prophets has spoken “in these last days” in a Son, who is the supreme display of his glory (1:1–2). In the prophetic writings, therefore, the Holy Spirit still speaks to us today (3:7). Yet, since Moses was a faithful servant “to testify to the things that were to be spoken later” (3:5), the Law that Moses received at Sinai disclosed only “shadows of the good things to come, not the true form of those realities” (10:1). The good things themselves—the realities that the Law, its sanctuary, and its sacrifices foreshadowed—now “have come” with the appearance of Christ (9:11). So Hebrews gives us the Holy Spirit’s commentary (9:8) on the ancient sanctuary’s architecture and its sacrifices, and how Jesus fulfills them (10:6–10); on how Israel’s pilgrimage through the wilderness to Canaan (3:7–4:13) foreshadowed Christians’ lifelong trek of faith to “a better country, a heavenly one” (11:16); on the old covenant mediated by Moses and its replacement by the new covenant “enacted on better promises,” announced by Jeremiah and mediated by Jesus (8:6–13; 10:15–18); and on Jesus’s fulfillment of Psalm 110’s announcement of a priest-king like Melchizedek, who serves forever at God’s right hand in heaven (7:1–28).
Finally, Hebrews shows how Scripture and redemptive history are shaped by God’s covenant with his people. The word “covenant” appears more often in Hebrews than in all the other New Testament books combined. The covenant motif also appears in such related themes as “promise,” “oath,” and “inheritance” (6:13–20; 9:15; 10:23, 36; 11:8–16, 39–40; 12:28). The new covenant announcement of Jeremiah 31 is quoted at length in Hebrews 8:8–12 and in part in 10:16–17. These Jeremiah 31 citations surround the heart of the sermon (8:1–10:18), which explores how Jesus’s priesthood fulfills the “better promises” of the new covenant: forgiveness, heart-transformation, and intimate access to God for all, “from the least to the greatest” (8:11; Jer 31:34).
Hebrews exhorts suffering and wavering Christians to endure rejection and hardship for their faith, because Jesus, God’s Son, is the superior revelation of God, reconciler to God, and ruler who secures our heavenly inheritance, God’s unshakable kingdom.
“Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”
— Hebrews 4:14–16 ESV
I. Prologue: The Son, God’s Superior “Last Days” Speech (1:1–4)
II. The Son Surpasses Old Covenant Messengers (1:5–4:13)
A. The Son Reigns, the Angels Serve (1:5–2:4)
B. The Son Became Lower Than Angels, Sharing Our Humiliation and Death, to Rescue Us from Death and the Devil [Ps 8:4–6] (2:5–18)
C. Faithful Like Moses, the Son Surpasses Moses [Num 12:7] (3:1–6)
D. Unlike Israel’s Wilderness Generation, Who Did Not Believe God’s Voice through Moses, We Must Trust God’s Word Spoken in the Son [Ps 95:7–11] (3:7–4:13)
III. The Eternal Priest Surpasses Old Covenant Priests, Sanctuary, and Sacrifices (4:14–10:35)
A. Christ’s Priesthood Surpasses Levi’s and Aaron’s [Ps 110:1, 4] (4:14–7:28)
B. Christ Mediates the New Covenant That Surpasses Sinai [Jer 31:31–34] (8:1–13)
C. Christ’s Heavenly Sanctuary Surpasses Israel’s Earthly Replica (9:1–10)
D. Christ’s Once-for-All Sacrifice Surpasses Animal Victims’ Blood, Cleansing Our Consciences and Drawing Us Near to God [Ps 40:6–8] (9:11–10:35)
IV. Our Heavenly Homeland Surpasses Israel’s Temporary Inheritance (10:36–12:29)
A. Enduring Faith Pleases God [Heb 2:2–4] (10:36–39)
B. Ancient Believers Received Foretastes of Promised Blessings as They Endured Suffering in Hope (11:1–40)
C. Looking to Jesus Fortifies Our Faith to Endure [Prov 3:11–12] (12:1–11)
D. Our Heavenly, Joyful Worship Surpasses Sinai’s Fiery Terrors [Exod 9:16–23; Deut 4:11] (12:12–29)
V. Respond to God’s Gifts of Grace with Worship, in Loving Service and Grateful Praise (13:1–25)
Prologue: The Son, God’s Superior “Last Days” Speech (1:1–4)
The prologue introduces the first major theme of the sermon, God’s self-revelation “long ago” in the Old Testament Scriptures (“the prophets”) and their fulfillment “in these last days” through the incarnation and ministry of God’s Son (1:1–2a). Hebrews will demonstrate both the unity of God’s speech in the prophets and in the Son, and the progressive development of God’s revealed word, which is correlated with the unfolding of his redemptive plan in history. As a result of this process, God’s final revelation in his Son is in every respect “better” than the writings, institutions, and mediatorial officers by which he spoke to ancient Israel.
“Many times” refers to the installments of Old Testament Scriptures imparted over roughly a millennium, from the five books of Moses to the post-exilic prophets. “Many ways” sums up different modes of prophetic revelation, including vision, dream, “riddle,” and—setting Moses apart from other prophets—“beholding the Lord’s form” (Num 12:6–7, referred to in Heb 3:1–6). Hebrews argues that the “many-ness” of Old Testament institutions signaled their insufficiency, whereas the “once-for-all-ness” of Christ’s work shows its perfection. The Old Testament order needed many priests and many sacrifices because no Levitical priest could live forever, and no animal death could cleanse the conscience (7:23–25; 10:1–4). Likewise, the many installments of Old Testament revelation testified beforehand (see 3:5–6) to God’s singular and complete “last days” self-disclosure in the Son (1:2), conveyed to us through his apostles (2:3–4). Because the Son shares all divine perfections with the Father, his incarnation definitively reveals God’s glory (“radiance”) and nature (“exact imprint”) (1:3a). Since the Son is God, he is the agent of the universe’s creation, its sovereign sustainer by his powerful word, and the designated “heir” to whom every creature belongs (cf. John 1:1–3; Col 1:15–16).
The Son’s mission, however, is not only to reveal God but also to reconcile people to God (1:3b–4). So the prologue moves from the Son’s eternal deity and his epoch-spanning works of creation and providence to events in history, his sacrificial death (“having made purification for sins”) and subsequent exaltation (“sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high”). Christ’s ministry as the ever-living priest in the order of Melchizedek is this sermon’s main point (8:1) and the theme that dominates its central section (4:15–10:35). So the prologue foreshadows that central discussion of Christ’s once-for-all self-sacrifice and his endless intercession for believers. Because his reconciling mission required his self-humbling to share his people’s flesh and blood, briefly becoming lower than the angels (2:5–18), his exaltation to God’s right hand meant his becoming—now as the incarnate God-man—“superior to the angels” and his inheriting a name—the title “Son”—more excellent than theirs (1:4). The eternal divine Son, having become human, was glorified as the divine-and-human messianic Son at his resurrection (Rom 1:1–4).
The Son Surpasses Old Covenant Messengers (1:5–4:13)
The prologue’s focus on God’s speech introduces the first theme, namely the Christ’s superiority as the agent of divine revelation. Specifically, the message conveyed in the Son, who is the Lord (2:3–4), is better than the Law delivered to Israel on Mount Sinai, mediated through angels (1:5–2:18) and through Moses (3:1–4:13). Although this section focuses on God’s speaking, it also includes a preview of Christ’s priestly ministry (2:17–18), anticipating the sermon’s central section (4:14–10:35).
The Son Reigns, the Angels Serve (1:5–2:4)
Why does the author marshal Old Testament text to show the Son’s superiority over angels? Some scholars theorize that the original audience was tempted by Second Temple Judaism’s fascination with angels and demons in unseen spiritual realms, and perhaps even tempted to revere angels as mediators superior to Jesus, in view of his humanity and suffering. Hebrews itself, however, applies Jesus’s superiority to angels (demonstrated in a series of Old Testament texts, 1:5–14) to the angels’ role in delivering the Law at Sinai (2:1–4). The author reasons that, since those who disobeyed the “word spoken through angels” (dej, ho di’ angelōn lalētheis logos) were punished severely, far worse consequences await those who disregard the “salvation . . . spoken through the Lord” (dej, sōtērias . . . laleisthai dia tou kyriou) (2:1–4). The greater the messenger, the more momentous the message.
The contrast between the Son and the angels also has another purpose. The Son’s divine superiority, demonstrated in seven Old Testament texts (1:5–14), underscores the greatness of his love when he humbled himself to share our humanity, becoming “for a little while lower than the angels,” as we are, in order to die for us and so destroy the devil and set us free (2:5–18).
The Old Testament citations reveal the Son’s superiority to the angels in three ways. First, the same rhetorical question (“To which of the angels did he/God ever say?”) introduces the first and last quotations (1:5, 13), functioning as an “envelope” that surrounds the series. Obviously, the question’s answer is “none—God never addressed any angel like this.” Only Christ is addressed by God as “my Son” (Ps 2:7), and only Christ is invited to sit at God’s right hand (Ps 110:1). No holy angel would lay claim to such divine honor. Second, the amount of Old Testament material addressed to the Son overshadows God’s words spoken to and about the angels. Of the seven citations, five concern the Son (117 words in Greek), and two are about the angels (eighteen words). Finally, the content of the quotations contrasts Christ’s supremacy as Son to the angels’ obligation to worship him, his royal enthronement to their role as servants, and his divine, immutable eternity as Creator to the angel’s identification with the perishable heavens and earth (as “winds” and “a flame of fire,” 1:7).
The first two quotations (1:5), united by the exalted title “Son,” are from Psalm 2:7 and 2 Samuel 7:14. Both focus on God’s promise to establish a Messiah, an anointed king, through the dynasty of David. In Psalm 2, the Lord announced that he had enthroned his Anointed One “on Zion, my holy hill” (v.6) and promised him the nations as his inheritance. Hebrews’ prologue alludes to this promise, describing the Son as the appointed “heir of all things” (1:2). The New Testament teaches the eternal deity of the Son as the second Person of the Trinity (Heb 1:2–3; Col 1:13–17; see John 1:1; 17:5) And the Son was the incarnate God-man from the moment of his conception in Mary’s womb (Gal 4:4; Luke 1:32, 35; 3:22; 9:35). But in citing Psalm 2:7, Hebrews refers to Christ’s resurrection and ascension as the events in which he “became” superior to the angels and “inherited” the name (Son) “more excellent than theirs” (see Acts 13:32; Rom 1:4). 2 Samuel 7:14 states the heart of God’s covenantal promise to David: to establish David’s royal dynasty forever, even though kings descended from David would prove unfaithful. The failures of David’s royal offspring, generation after generation, were a cry for a coming Messiah who would not only display a son’s flawless filial devotion to God but also be in every respect the Son of God (see Ezek 37:21–25).
The third quotation (1:6), drawn from Psalm 97:7 (or Deuteronomy 32:43 in some ancient sources), commands all God’s angels to worship God’s “firstborn” as he brings him into the world. In ancient Israel, the firstborn son was, ordinarily, the preeminent heir and leader among his siblings (1Chr 5:1–2 explains a noteworthy exception to this rule.) So in Psalm 89:27, God promises to make the Davidic king “the firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth.” In Hebrews, “firstborn” not only asserts the Son’s preeminence (see Col 1:15, 18) but also foreshadows his family connection with believers, whom he is not ashamed to call “brothers” (2:11–12). At first glance, God’s bringing the Firstborn Son into the world calls to mind the angelic announcement at Jesus’s birth (Luke 2:9–14). But the Greek term reflected in “world” (oikoumenē) will soon reappear in “the world (oikoumenē) to come” (2:5). Later (10:5–10), a different term describes Christ’s incarnation, when he came “into the world (kosmos)” to offer his body in sacrifice. So here the author’s point is that it was at Christ’s resurrection and ascension, when he passed from the present evil age (Gal 1:4) and entered “the world to come,” that God commanded his angels to celebrate the Son’s glory. An early confession cited by Paul affirms that Christ was “vindicated by the Spirit, seen by angels . . . taken up in glory” (1Tim 3:16).
Hebrews 1:7 cites Psalm 104:4 to draw a contrast3 between angels, whose role is ministerial (serving) and who are associated with changing forces in the created world (winds, a flame of fire), and the Son, who reigns forever (Ps 45:6–7) and who endures forever as the unchanging Creator (Ps 102:25–27). Our author capitalizes on the fact that the Greek word pneuma (like its Hebrew counterpart, ruaḥ) can refer either to a “spirit” (immaterial personal creature) or to “wind” (the movement of air).
Psalm 45, cited in Hebrews 1:8–9, was originally addressed to a Davidic king, probably at a royal wedding. Its wording, however, transcends the dignity of any merely human king. As Hebrews notes, God speaks these words to the Son, addressing him (“O God”) and declaring that his throne lasts “forever and ever.” This throne cannot be located within the created universe that “will perish” and “wear out like a garment,” as Psalm 102 will declare (cf. 1:10–12). In fact, this righteousness-loving king is enthroned “at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (1:3), for he is the priest-king in the order of Melchizedek (“king of righteousness,” 7:2) promised in Psalm 110, the seventh Old Testament quotation (1:13). The mention of the king’s “companions” (metochoi) brings into view the community whom he rules and rescues, his brothers and his children (2:11–14) who “share in Christ” (or “are Christ’s companions,” metochoi Christou) through persevering faith (3:14).
In Psalm 102:25–27 (Heb 1:10–12), God proclaims the Son’s divine immutability and imperishability as Lord and creator of the earth and the heavens. We need a high priest and mediator who is our human brother, familiar with our temptations and weakness and capable of offering his flesh and blood in death on our behalf (2:11–15; 4:14–15). But we also need an intercessor who “holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever” and “always lives to make intercession” for us (7:24–25). We can praise God that, although the created universe will perish and church leaders pass away, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (13:8, echoing 1:12).
The final quotation (1:13), drawn from Psalm 110:1, supports the prologue’s declaration that the Son is enthroned, by the Father’s invitation, at God’s right hand (1:3). The announcement that opens this psalm, “The Lord said to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hand . . .”, appears repeatedly throughout the New Testament, both to demonstrate Jesus’s superiority to David, his royal ancestor (Matt 22:41–44) and to announce his present heavenly reign as the living, exalted Messiah (Matt 26:64; Acts 2:33–34; 5:31; Rom 8:34; Eph 1:20; 1Pet 3:22). As we have seen, the rhetorical question, “To which of the angels has he ever said . . .?” connects this invitation (“Sit”) with the announcement of Psalm 2:7, “You are my Son” (Heb 1:5). Together they reinforce the unique superiority of the Son to the angels. Psalms 2 and 110 will reappear together in Hebrews 5:5–6 to illustrate that the Father who acknowledged Christ as Son has appointed him eternal priest, in the order of Melchizedek. In fact, citations of and allusions to Psalm 110 permeate Hebrews (1:3, 13; 5:6, 10; 6:20; 7:3, 11–28; 8:1; 10:12–13; 12:2).
A concluding comment about angels (1:14) underscores the Son’s superiority in terms of posture and place: the Son sits enthroned in heaven, whereas the angels are sent out (from heaven) to serve people on earth, namely “those who are to inherit salvation” through the saving work of the Son. We are the Anointed One’s “companions” (1:9), whom he calls “brothers” (2:11–12), “the offspring of Abraham” (2:16) whom he helps and who await his return from heaven (9:28).
Having established from God’s ancient Scriptures that the Son is superior to the holy angels, the author draws the application to which this contrast leads (2:1–4): “Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard.” Ancient Israelites heard God’s word spoken in the Law entrusted to Moses (12:18–21). Jewish tradition emphasized the role of angels in mediating the Law, as the Lord descended on Sinai with God’s heavenly court. This tradition is grounded in such Old Testament texts as Deuteronomy 33:2 and confirmed in the New Testament (Acts 7:53; Gal. 3:19). The dignity of the Law’s angelic mediators underscored the gravity of violating its commands. Since the Son’s dignity is far greater, to disregard the message of salvation that God has now spoken through him is to incur far worse—inescapable—judgment. The original audience did not directly hear “the Lord” speak this saving word during his earthly ministry, but it was conveyed to them by the apostles who heard him, as God confirmed their witness through the Holy Spirit’s powerful signs (see Acts 2:22, 43; 3:16; 4:33; 5:12–16; 2Cor 12:12). To “drift away” (like a vessel torn from its mooring by strong currents, 2:1) would be to impugn the integrity of the Son, the Father, and the Holy Spirit, as well as the apostolic witnesses.
The Son Became Lower Than Angels, Sharing Our Humiliation and Death, to Rescue Us from Death and the Devil (2:5–18)
The twofold mention of salvation (1:14; 2:3) leads the author to address a reality that appears, at first, to contradict the Son’s superiority to angels: the Son, Jesus (identified by name for the first time), assumed human nature, including a body vulnerable to suffering and death. He came to share humankind’s humble status “for a little while lower than the angels” (2:6–9). He became a human being in order that “through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery” (2:14–15).
We saw that the rhetorical question, “To which of the angels did God ever say . . .?” (1:5, 13), marked the boundaries of the previous series of Old Testament quotations and emphasized the unique superiority of the Son. Now the construction, “not [to] angels” surrounds the explanation of Psalm 8:5–7: God intends human beings, not angels, to inherit the world to come (2:5), so the Son helps “the offspring of Abraham,” not angels (2:16).
Psalm 8 (2:6–8) contrasts the immense universe to tiny human beings, marveling that we are the objects of God’s special care, honored with a position just below the angels and authorized to rule all creatures on earth. The psalmist’s meditation is shaped by God’s royal commission to the newly created Adam and Eve: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Gen 1:28). Yet Hebrews interprets this portrait of human majesty not as a backward-looking memoir of a past Paradise lost, but rather as a forward-looking preview of the “world to come,” for “at present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to” mankind (Heb 2:9).
The ESV’s “for a little while” correctly reflects the Greek construction brachy ti, for human beings’ subordination to angels is temporary, in two respects. First, “the message declared by angels” (2:2), the law received by Moses, established a system of worship (priests, sanctuary, sacrifices) that was intended by God to become obsolete, to be replaced by the “new and living way” of access to God that Jesus has inaugurated (4:14–10:35). Second, although presently we do not yet see the dominion that the psalm forecasts for us, now we do see the new Adam who by his incarnation, suffering, and death became “for a little while lower than angels” (2:8–9). At his resurrection, he was “crowned with glory and honor” (2:7, 9). Jesus’s coming, suffering, and exaltation not only marked the end of the angel-meditated old covenant worship system; it also marked the beginning of his family’s entrance into the glory of the world to come.
Although non-Christians dismiss the message of Christ’s cross as foolishness and weakness (1Cor 1:18–25), it was actually “fitting” for God the Creator to send his Son to “taste death for everyone”—that is, for the “many sons” whom God leads to “glory” through the Son’s suffering (Heb 2:9–12). As the “founder” ( “source” or “captain,” Greek archēgos; also in 12:2; Acts 3:15; 5:31), Christ was made “perfect through suffering,” not by being purged of personal sin, since he had none (Heb 4:15), but rather by being consecrated as high priest to minister in God’s presence on our behalf (5:9; 7:28). Here and elsewhere, Hebrews reflects the use of “make perfect” (teleioō) in Septuagint (Greek Old Testament) texts about priestly consecration (Exod 29:9, 29, 33, 35; etc.).
Psalm 22:22 and Isaiah 8:17–18 are now cited as Christ’s own affirmation of his family connection with believers, who are his “brothers” and his “children” (Heb 2:12–13). Psalm 22 traced the sufferings of the Messiah from its opening “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”—Jesus’s lament on the cross (Matt 27:46)—through details of his torment (vv. 2–21). But Psalm 22:22 marks the transition from suffering to deliverance. This is the plotline that Hebrews 2:7–9 unfolded from Psalm 8—briefly lower than angels, then crowned with glory and honor. This is the trajectory for the Messiah that Jesus and his apostles observed throughout the Old Testament Scriptures (Luke 24:25–27; 1Pet 1:11).
The Son’s path through suffering to glory is “fitting” (2:10) because he had to share the mortality of his human kinfolk (“flesh and blood”), in order to die for them, thereby destroying the devil’s power to demand their death and freeing them from the fear of death (2:14–15). Satan first tempted people to sin (Gen 3:1–5; 2Cor 11:3); then, when his seduction succeeded, he accused them of sin before God’s holy bar of justice (Zech 3:1; Rev 12:7–11). Since sin’s just penalty is death (Gen 2:17; Rom 5:12–21; 6:23), only the vicarious death of a righteous Substitute could clear the guilty and rescue us from our deserved death sentence.
The Son’s becoming “like his brothers in every respect” (except sin, 4:15) was necessary to his mission as “a merciful and faithful high priest” (2:16–18). This theme will be explored in the sermon’s central section (4:14–10:35), but it is introduced here to show the “help” that the Son provides to the “offspring of Abraham” (2:16), his brothers and sisters. We need a priest who is “faithful” to God and qualified to approach God in all his holiness because he is thoroughly holy. Long ago, when Levitical priests abused their priestly office, God promised, “I will raise up for myself a faithful priest, who shall do according to what is in my heart and in my mind” (1Sam 2:30–35). Christ is the fulfillment of that promise, the priest who is “holy, innocent, unstained” (Heb 7:26). We also need a priest who is “merciful” toward us, who has experienced temptation as a human being and who can sympathize with our weaknesses (4:15–16). Jesus is both faithful to God and merciful toward us, so his priestly ministry perfectly provides “propitiation”—averting God’s wrath from us guilty sinners—and concrete assistance as we face temptation, for “he always lives to make intercession for” us (7:25).
Faithful Like Moses, the Son Surpasses Moses (3:1–6)
“Faithful” connects Hebrews 2:17 to the next section, which explores similarities and contrasts between the ministries of Moses and of Jesus. Moses’s faithfulness in his calling as servant foreshadowed Christ’s faithfulness in his greater calling as Son, Creator and Owner of God’s house, God’s people.
The key to persevering in faith is to focus our minds and hearts on Jesus Christ, so Hebrews 3:1 summons us to “consider” the apostle and high priest whom we trust and confess. This call to fix our sights on Jesus will reappear in Hebrews 12:1. Only here in the Bible is Jesus called “apostle” (apostolos), but he himself said that he was “sent” (apostellō) by the Father to speak God’s word and do God’s will (Luke 4:18, 43; John 5:36; 8:42; 17:3, 8, 18; etc.). Hebrews now addresses the theme of Jesus’s revelatory ministry as apostle, like Moses in faithfulness but exceeding Moses in authority (3:2–6). The parallel between Moses’s and Jesus’s faithfulness will be applied in an extended exhortation (3:7–4:13), grounded in Psalm 95, which warns against imitating Israel’s wilderness generation, who refused to heed God’s speech through Moses.
When Moses’s siblings criticized their younger brother, the Lord defended him as “my servant” who “is faithful in all my house,” the uniquely-privileged prophet who “beholds the form of the Lord” and with whom God speaks “mouth to mouth, clearly”—not in visions, dreams, or riddles, as he did to other prophets (Num 12:6–8; Heb 3:2, 5). God’s “house” is the community of God’s people—Israel in Moses’s day and now “we” who trust Jesus under the new covenant (3:6). Moses was a servant in God’s house; he was a member of the people who needed God’s redeeming grace. Moses’s most important role as servant was to “testify to the things that were to be spoken later” (3:5), to bear witness beforehand to the Person and work of Christ, as Jesus himself had told his opponents (“If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote of me,” John 5:46) and his disciples (Luke 24:25–27, 44–49). Hebrews will show how the priesthood, sanctuary, and sacrifices established in the Law of Moses were designed by God to prepare for the arrival of Jesus the eternal high priest, his conscience-cleansing self-sacrifice, and his intercession on our behalf in the original sanctuary of God, heaven itself.
In contrast to Moses, Jesus is the Son over God’s house. As redeemer, he is the “builder” of the house, as he is the creator of everything (3:3–4, 6; see 1:10–12). To enjoy the superior new covenant blessings that Moses anticipated and Jesus has secured, we must “hold fast our confidence” (3:6; see 3:14). The tragic experience of the wilderness generation, who left slavery with Moses but died in the desert, underscores how essential this persevering faith is when we hear God’s voice.
Unlike Israel’s Wilderness Generation, Who Did Not Believe God’s Voice through Moses, We Must Trust God’s Word, Spoken in the Son (3:7–4:13)
3:7–11 Hebrews exhorts us to “hold fast our confidence” (3:6) because the voice that calls us to faith and warns against rebellion belongs to the living God himself (3:12). Through the words of Psalm 95, the Holy Spirit is now calling us “today” (3:7, 13, 15; 4:7), urging us not to harden our hearts in rebellion but instead to embrace God’s promises in hopeful trust.
Psalm 95, which Hebrews attributes to David in 4:7, opens with an invitation to worship the Lord for his greatness, sovereignty, and covenant care for his people (vv. 1–7c); but it ends with a sobering warning against imitating the unbelieving rebellion of Israel’s wilderness generation (vv. 7d–11). Hebrews 3:7–11 quotes the psalm’s grave conclusion, which recalls the Israelites’ “testing” the Lord at Massah and Meribah (Exod 17:1–7) and their rebellion at Kadesh Barnea, when they refused to enter the Promised Land and trust God’s promise and power (Num 13–14). The Lord met that generation’s obstinate unbelief with his own oath banning them from his land and consigning them to another forty years of wandering until they died in the desert (Ps 95:11; Num 14:20–35).
3:12–19 Having quoted the psalm, Hebrews applies its warning to his new covenant audience. Later he will encourage the congregation with reminders of their previous faithfulness and love amid suffering (6:9–12; 10:32–39); but his concern is for individuals who, though associated with faithful followers of Jesus, may harbor “an evil, unbelieving heart,” like the ancient Israelites who trusted the ten spies’ negative report instead of the faith of Joshua and Caleb. The root of that wilderness generation’s rebellion (3:8, 16) and disobedience (3:18; 4:11) was the unbelief (3:12, 19; 4:2) of hearts hardened by the deceitfulness of sin (3:8, 13, 17). The antidote to such apostasy-producing doubt is to “exhort one another every day” to hold fast to our initial confidence in Christ (see 10:23–25). Perseverance in Christian faith is not a solitary achievement but a communal responsibility of mutual encouragement and accountability, so that weak or injured members of Christ’s body “may not be put out of joint but rather be healed” (12:12–13).
4:1–8 The author explains why the experience of Moses’s contemporaries and the ancient warning of David speak directly to Christians living in the new covenant. God’s oath at Kadesh Barnea excluded unbelievers from entering “the land that I swore to give to their fathers” (Num 14:23). In Psalm 95, therefore, “God’s rest” stands for that Promised Land. When the conquest of the land was completed under Joshua’s leadership, “the Lord gave to Israel all the land that he swore to give to their fathers . . . And the Lord gave them rest on every side just as he had sworn to their fathers” (Josh 21:43–44; 22:43–45).
But God’s rest transcends the Promised Land. On the one hand, in the distant past, God entered his own rest as Creator on the seventh day, when he had finished making the heavens and the earth in the beginning, as Moses recorded (Gen 2:2) (Heb 4:3–5). On the other hand, “so long afterward”—centuries after God’s oath at Kadesh Barnea and Joshua’s conquest—“through David” God was still telling his people, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts” (4:6–8). In other words, Israelites who inhabited the Promised Land and enjoyed the “rest” from enemies that God granted David (2 Sam 7:1) were still in the “today” when they needed to hear God’s voice in persistent faith. After all, “if Joshua had given them rest”—if the “rest” that followed the successful conquest was all there was to God’s “rest”—then Psalm 95 would not have spoken of another, later “today” in which God calls us to faith and promises another, greater “rest.”
Because God’s “rest” is bigger than the Promised Land, David’s contemporaries and first-century Hebrew Christians—and we too—live in the “today” when the Holy Spirit is summoning us to hear God’s voice with faith, like Joshua and Caleb who listened to God’s promise long ago (4:2). Abraham and the other patriarchs eagerly awaited a homeland better than Canaan, “a better country, a heavenly one” (11:16). Likewise, believers in Jesus today can endure the loss of property on this earth because they look forward to “a better possession and an abiding one” (10:34).
Like Israel’s wilderness generation, we have heard good news from God’s spokesmen (4:2, 6). The good news the Israelites had heard included God’s promises to the patriarchs, God’s word through Moses, and the assurances of Joshua and Caleb that God would defeat powerful pagan nations and give his land to his people. Now, through the Son and the apostles who heard him, we have heard the (even better) good news of salvation (1:14; 2:3–4): freedom from slavery achieved by the blood of Christ (2:14–15), and the promise that through him we are heirs of the world to come and offspring of Abraham (2:5, 16). So believers “today” have even more reason to “hold our original confidence firm to the end” of our earthly pilgrimage (3:14).
4:9–11 Since we have not yet experienced the Sabbath rest that remains for God’s people (4:9–10), we have not yet “rested from [our] works, as God did from his” (4:11). Instead, we must “strive to enter that rest,” seeking to ensure that none fall short of it. “Strive” describes intense effort, often in athletic competition, and Hebrews will later evoke the metaphor of a long-distance footrace to portray the Christian’s life of persevering faith amid suffering (6:20; 12:1–3, 12–13).
The climax of Hebrews’ discussion of God’s speech through prophets, angels, and Moses in the past and through the Son in these last days reemphasizes the heart-piercing power of the living, dynamic word of God (4:12–13). In the Old Testament the Lord made his Servant’s mouth like a sharp sword (Isa 49:2). In the New Testament, Paul called God’s Word “the sword of the Spirit” (Eph 6:17), and John saw a sharp two-edged sword proceeding from the Son of Man (Rev 1:16; 19:13–15). Because the Lord lives forever (Heb 1:10–12; 13:8), his Word is ever-living. Because his fiery eyes search our hidden hearts (Rev 2:18, 23; Acts 1:24; 15:8), his Word exposes our deepest secrets. There is nowhere to hide from his soul-piercing holiness, so Hebrews now introduces our only hope: the conscience-cleansing priestly ministry of Jesus (4:14–16).
The Eternal Priest Surpasses Old Covenant Priests, Sanctuary, and Sacrifices (4:14–10:35)
This central section of Hebrews explores the superior priestly ministry of Jesus. At its boundaries are paragraphs that exhort us to hold fast our confession and to draw near to God’s holy presence, because Jesus our “great high priest” has atoned for our sin and cleansed our consciences, and because he now intercedes for us in heaven (4:14–16; 10:19–25).4 Between these opening and closing exhortations, four themes are discussed:
- Jesus’s superior qualifications to serve as priest (5:1–7:28),
- the superior covenant that Jesus mediates (8:1–13),
- the superior sanctuary in which Jesus ministers (9:1–10), and
- the superior sacrifice that Jesus offered (9:11–10:18).
Christ’s Priesthood Surpasses Levi’s and Aaron’s (4:14–7:28)
4:14–16 Because God’s Word pierces the depths of our hearts (4:12–13), and because refusing to heed his voice brings judgment (2:1–4; 3:17–19), our only hope lies in “a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God.” His unique combination of empathy and purity gives us confidence to approach God’s throne. Hebrews 2:17–18 introduced this priest, and now his identification with us and his intervention to help us are explained more fully.
Jesus is qualified to serve as our “great high priest” because he is “the Son of God,” whose divine glory has already been established (1:2–13). Moreover, Jesus “has passed through the heavens” at his ascension. As a result, his ministry is conducted not in a merely earthly sanctuary, but in God’s heavenly throne room, of which Israel’s tabernacle and temple were mere copies (see 8:4–5; 9:11–12, 24). In fulfillment of Psalm 110:1, he has taken his seat at God’s right hand (1:3, 13; 8:1–2).
We need a priest who is not only sinless and therefore welcomed by God in his holiness, but who also identifies with us in our weakness and temptation; therefore, Jesus took to himself our human nature, becoming like us in every respect, except one: he never sinned. He was and is “holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners” (7:26). Nevertheless, his identification with his people in our weakness and vulnerability to temptation gives us confidence that we may draw near God’s throne without the terror-stricken dread that the consuming fire of his holiness (which is real, 10:30–31; 12:28–29) will destroy us.
5:1–6 Christ’s qualifications as priest resemble those of Aaron, since both fit the general description of “every high priest” in Hebrews 5:1–4. Yet, despite their similarities, Aaron and Christ differ in significant ways. Since priests represent human beings in God’s presence, they themselves must be human, acquainted through personal experience with weakness and temptation. Sadly, Aaron succumbed to temptation and needed to sacrifice a bull for his own sins on the Day of Atonement, before offering a goat for the sins of the people (5:2–3; Lev 16:6–14). Jesus, though tempted like us, needed no such sacrifice for his own disobedience, since he was sinless (7:26–27). God retains his sovereign right to grant access to his presence, so priests must be “chosen” (Greek lambanomenos, “taken”) and “called” by God himself, not self-appointed. God appointed Aaron and his successors through a system of genealogical descent (5:4; see 7:16), but the appointment of Christ the Son was secured forever by God’s solemn oath, recorded in Psalm 110:4 (5:5–6; see 7:20–25).
5:7–10 This section teaches that the process of Jesus’s priestly appointment “after the order of Melchizedek” was different from the ordination ritual that set apart Aaron and his sons. Exodus 29 and Leviticus 8 record the bathing, robing, anointing, sprinkling, and slaughter rites entailed in the consecration of Israel’s priests and high priest. Jesus, on the other hand, was “made perfect”5—that is, “designated or consecrated by God as high priest”—through his reverent submission to a death so excruciating that he begged for rescue with “loud cries and tears.” Jesus “learned obedience” through his sufferings (5:8), but not by undergoing correction for disobedience, as human sons learn from their fathers’ discipline (12:5–10); rather, as the costliness of doing God’s will increased, his readiness to obey rose to meet each challenge, even to the finale, the cursed death of the cross (Phil 2:8). The intensity of his desperate prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane is in view (Luke 4:39–44). In an echo of Psalms 22:24 and 116:1, Hebrews assures us that Jesus’s plea for rescue “was heard” by God, “who was able to save him from death.” God’s rescue came not by removing Jesus’s obligation to drain the cup of divine wrath on the cross, but rather by God’s raising Christ from the dead, after he had offered himself as the once-for-all sacrifice for his people’s sins.
5:11–14 The significance of Christ’s priestly office “after the order of Melchizedek” (5:10) will be explained in Hebrews 7. Before that, the author issues an urgent exhortation, summoning his audience toward spiritual maturity, which will strengthen them to resist pressures to abandon the trust in Jesus that they have confessed (5:11–6:20). The difficulty of the theme of Jesus’s Melchizedek-like priesthood lies not in its complexity, but in the original recipients’ spiritual immaturity. Despite their longevity in discipleship, they are like children who still cannot digest solid food and need milk instead (5:12–14).
6:1–3 The “basic principles of the oracles of God” (5:12) and the “elementary doctrine of Christ” refer to foundational truths revealed in the Old Testament (6:1–2). These basics include “repentance from dead works and faith toward God”; “washings,” namely, the cleansing rites connected with the Old Testament sanctuary6; “the laying on of hands” over a sacrificial animal as a worshiper confesses sins (Lev 4:4); resurrection of the dead; and eternal judgment. These truths and practices are foundational, but preliminary. Now Jesus has inaugurated a new covenant (8:6–12), so we must “go on to maturity,” rather than clinging nostalgically to old covenant institutions that contained only “a shadow” of the good things that Christ has brought (10:1; 9:11). This pursuit of maturity is our calling to “strive” to enter God’s rest by holding fast our confidence in Jesus (4:11; 3:6, 14). But our strenuous effort is not driven by our own willpower. We are dependent on God’s gracious help (4:16), so we will grow “if God permits” (6:3).
6:4–12 The author shows that failure to grow from childishness into maturity is spiritually perilous. A sluggish response to God’s Word puts people at risk of falling away altogether—and irreversibly—from the lavish blessings that God’s Spirit showers on his church (6:4–10). This terrifying warning against apostasy and its parallel in 10:26–31 portray the inevitable, eternal destruction that awaits those who deliberately repudiate the faith they once confessed.
Opening with “it is impossible,” the author leaves us in suspense as to what is impossible until he has listed the blessings (vv. 5–6) from which apostates “have fallen away.” Finally, he announces the dire verdict: “it is impossible . . . to restore them again to repentance” (v. 6). Christ’s blood removes the guilt of all sin for those who repent and believe, but those who commit apostasy harden their hearts against the possibility of repentance (see 1Jn 5:17–18).
The blessings forfeited by apostates are displays of God’s grace: being “enlightened” (phōtizō, see 10:32), tasting “the heavenly gift,” becoming companions of the Holy Spirit (translating metochous here as in 1:9), tasting God’s good Word and the powers (or “miracles,” dynameis, as in 2:4) of the coming age. But the warning against forfeiting this array of blessings should not lead us to conclude that Hebrews contradicts the teaching of the rest of the New Testament that Christ gives eternal life to genuine believers, and that no one can snatch us from his almighty hand (John 3:16; 10:27–29). Everyone whom God justifies he will finally glorify (Rom 8:30). Hebrews itself affirms that Jesus “is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him” (Heb 7:25). So, this text should not undermine the assurance of those who are trusting in Christ for forgiveness and access to God or cast doubt on the Holy Spirit’s power to complete his life-transforming work in us (Phil 1:6; Rom 5:1–2).
The blessings that apostates spurn are the means of grace that are at work in the visible covenant community, the church: the Word of God, a “heavenly gift” because Christ speaks to us from heaven through his servants (2:3; 12:25; 13:7); and the Holy Spirit’s power-signs, by which God confirmed the apostles’ testimony (2:4). When God’s Word and miraculous signs first “enlightened” (phōtizō) these Hebrew Christians, as a group they endured suffering with courage (10:32–34). Now, however, some in the congregation may secretly harbor hardened hearts, like Israel’s wilderness generation, and so “fall away from the living God” (3:12; 4:1; 12:15). To experience the grace of hearing God’s voice and seeing his miracles (3:7–11) but then refuse to embrace his Word in faith (4:2), under the old covenant or the new, can only incur severest judgment (2:2–3). The judgment is so severe, and the possibility of repentance excluded, because abandoning one’s confession of allegiance to Christ is, in effect, “crucifying once again the Son of God . . . and holding him up to contempt” (6:6). Such a repudiation is tantamount to alleging that God’s Son deserved the death he died and the scorn he endured, rather than acknowledging that he, the sinless one, died to atone for others’ sins.
The imagery of two types of farmland (6:7–8) illustrates diametrically different responses to the heavenly gift of God’s Word. Both types of soil drink in rainfall, but they yield different vegetation (either useful crops, or thorns and thistles); therefore, God the farmer repays them in very different ways: either blessing, or curse and burning. This mini-parable is rooted in Old Testament texts in which rainfall symbolizes the descent of God’s Spirit and word from heaven (Isa 44:3–4; 55:10–11), and in passages that symbolize Israel’s unfaithfulness as worthless fruit (Isa 5:1–10; Jer 2:21; Ezek 19:10–14; Hos 10:1–8). Its imagery also reflects Jesus’s parable of the Sower, in which only one of four soils bears fruit (Matt 13:3–8, 18–23). God’s heavenly showers of blessing fall on the faithful and the unbelieving: how shall we respond?
The grave warning against committing apostasy is calculated to alarm complacent church members who “have become dull of hearing” (5:11). But it might also shake the assurance of believers with tender consciences. So, in pastoral wisdom, the author immediately follows the warning with encouragement: “in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things—things that belong to salvation” (6:9). Their previous and present display of love for God in serving his saints shows that their hearts are good soil that bears useful fruit in response to the rainfall of God’s Word and Spirit (6:10). The second warning against apostasy (10:26–31) will likewise be followed by an encouraging reminder of their courageous faith in the face of persecution (10:32–39). Although this congregation is, overall, faithful, some need to replace their lethargy with earnest endurance, thus imitating the ancient believers who inherited God’s promises (6:11–12).
6:13–20 In Hebrews 11, a survey of Old Testament believers will focus on their faith and the actions they took because they trusted God’s promises. Here, in the second half of chapter 6, the center of attention is God’s promise itself and the oath he swore to guarantee it to Abraham, and by extension to all Abraham’s offspring (see 2:16; Gal 3:29). God promised to bless Abraham, to give him countless descendants and a homeland, and to make him a means of blessing to all nations (Gen 12:1–3; 15:5–7). Abraham “patiently waited” until, at one hundred years of age, he fathered Isaac, through whom God would multiply his offspring. Even at his death, he was awaiting the fulfillment of God’s homeland promise (Heb 11:9–16). Since God called Abraham to trust his word about “things not yet seen” (11:1, 7, 13), the Lord secured his promise by swearing a solemn oath: “By myself I have sworn, declares the Lord . . . I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring . . .” (Gen 22:16–17). In ancient covenants, to swear an oath was to summon deities to witness the commitments being made, and to impose punishment if those promises were broken. In the inauguration of biblical covenants, the blood and carcasses of slain animals dramatized the lethal consequences of treason against the Lord of the covenant (Exod 24:3–8; Jer 34:15–20). To swear an oath was to seal one’s word with one’s life. Because the Lord who made promises to Abraham has no superior to hold him accountable (Heb 6:13, 16), he swore by himself, invoking himself as the supreme Witness and sovereign Enforcer of his commitment.
In fact, as God looked beyond Abraham to all “the heirs of the promise,” he interposed a second oath, guaranteeing his word by “two unchangeable things” for our sake (6:17–18). That second oath, recorded in Psalm 110:4, is the oath addressed to Jesus: “the Lord has sworn, and will not change his mind, ‘You are a priest forever’” (Heb 7:20–22). God’s oath to bless Abraham and to help his offspring (2:16) is guaranteed by his oath to install Christ as “high priest forever in the order of Melchizedek.” Therefore, “we who have fled for refuge” to Christ have every reason to “hold fast to the hope” extended to us in Jesus. Our lives are secured by the “sure and secure anchor” that reaches right into the God’s heavenly sanctuary, where our ever-living priest ceaselessly intercedes on our behalf (6:19–20).
After his extensive exhortation to listen alertly, progress in maturity, resist apostasy, and imitate Abraham’s patient faith (5:11–6:20), our author has deftly brought us back to the theme of Christ’s appointment as “a high priest after the order of Melchizedek,” on which he has much to say (5:9–11). The secret of our persistence in hope and resistance to apostasy is our grasp of Jesus’s priestly ministry in heaven as our forerunner and advocate (6:20), the guarantor of the new and better covenant (7:22). Now he returns to that theme.
Hebrews 7:1–28 demonstrates, from the two Old Testament texts that mention the priest-king Melchizedek (Gen 14:17–20; Ps 110:4), that Christ’s priesthood “after the order of Melchizedek” is superior to Israel’s priests, who belong to the tribe of Levi and the clan of Aaron. The narrative of Abraham’s interaction with Melchizedek in Genesis 14 connects that ancient figure to Christ in two ways. First, Scripture portrays Melchizedek as fitting the pattern of the Son of God, both in his titles and in his independence from the principal of genealogical descent that defines the priestly qualification of Aaron and his sons (7:1–3). Second, the actions of Abraham and Melchizedek in their encounter show that the patriarch acknowledged Melchizedek as a superior priestly mediator, intervening between Abraham and the Lord (7:4–10).
Hebrews then draws four conclusions from what the Old Testament’s second mention of Melchizedek in Psalm 110:4 teaches (7:11–28). First, the Psalm’s mention of a monarch who is simultaneously a priest “after the order of Melchizedek” implies that the priestly order of Aaron was deficient and destined (by God) to be replaced. Second, the Psalm’s statement that this royal priest will be priest forever shows that his priesthood is better than Aaron’s, which has mortality and ceaseless succession built into it. Third, the priest like Melchizedek retains his office permanently both because his life is indestructible and because his appointment is by God’s immutable oath. Finally, this priest’s unceasing intercession for others secures their salvation “to the uttermost.”
7:1–10 The author explores the details of the account of Abraham’s meeting with Melchizedek, “king of Salem, priest of the Most High God,” after God had enabled Abraham to defeat a powerful military coalition and rescue his nephew Lot (Gen 14:14–17). Their reciprocal actions—Melchizedek blessing Abraham, Abraham tithing to Melchizedek—are initially mentioned (7:1–2) and then elaborated (7:4–10) as evidence that Abraham acknowledged Melchizedek as his priestly mediator before the Most High God, whom both men worshiped.
Our author draws on the Hebrew significance of this mysterious figure’s name—Melchizedek is “king of righteousness”—and his royal office—“king of Salem” means “king of peace” (7:2). Since Psalm 76:2 speaks of the Lord’s abode in Salem, “his dwelling place in Zion,” we can infer Salem was an alternative (more ancient) name for Jerusalem, the site of the temple in which Levitical priests would eventually serve, centuries after Abraham. The translation of Melchizedek’s name and royal position sketches the first lines that connect him to Christ, the divine-and-human king who “has loved righteousness” (1:8–9) and the priest whose once-for-all sacrifice makes peace between the holy God and his guilty people (see Rom 5:1–10; Eph 2:13–18).
The description of Melchizedek as “without father or mother or genealogy” or birth (“beginning of days”) or death (“end of life”) is abrupt and somewhat puzzling (7:3). Some students of Scripture have understood this to mean that the ancient priest-king who met Abraham was not a mere human but a theophany, a supernatural manifestation of God in human form, like Jacob’s wrestling opponent whose face was “the face of God” (Gen 32:24–30). Yet Hebrews states that Melchizedek was “resembling (‘made like’) the Son of God,” not that he was the Son of God. Besides, Hebrews has already stated that, as the result of his suffering, Christ was “designated by God a high priest in the order of Melchizedek” (5:8–10). A better interpretation of the “withouts” is that our author is simply taking note of the surprising silences in the Genesis 14 account. Genesis, Moses’s first book, abounds in genealogies, lists of generations, full of births and deaths, fathers, and a few mothers (Gen 5, 6, 10, 11, 25, 36, 37). These genealogies focus on the family line of those in covenant with the Creator. In fact, Melchizedek is the only worshiper of the true and living God in Genesis who is not connected with that covenant line. The Holy Spirit shaped the biblical account—both what Moses included and what he omitted—in order to make that monarch of ancient Salem a preview of the Son of God who would become human, offer himself as the sinless sacrifice, rise, and ascend to heaven as our ever-living priest.
The interaction between Abraham and Melchizedek narrated in Genesis 14 revealed “how great this man (Melchizedek) was” (Heb 7:4–10). Abraham’s greatness is noteworthy, for he is “the patriarch” of the covenant people, who “had the promises” (7:4, 6; see 6:12–15). But Abraham’s giving to Melchizedek a tenth of the spoils of battle was an act acknowledging that Melchizedek represented God Most High, who had granted Abraham the victory. God’s commandment in the Law of Moses required that the descendants of Levi should receive tithes from their fellow Israelites, for they served as priests in God’s sanctuary, mediating between their kinsmen and the Lord (7:5, 8; Num 18:21–24; Deut 18:1–5). But when Melchizedek met Abraham, the genetically designated priestly patriarch Levi, whose DNA was already nascent in his great-grandfather’s reproductive system (“loins”), bowed before the superior mediator Melchizedek, whose intercessory authority was independent of ancestry (7:9). Melchizedek welcomed Abraham’s tribute on behalf of the true and living God whom they both worshiped, responding to the patriarch’s gift with a blessing from God Most High. Melchizedek’s blessing, like Abraham’s tithe, shows that the ancient priest-king of Salem stood as mediator between the patriarch (and his offspring) on the one hand, and his covenant Lord on the other. After all, “it is beyond dispute that the inferior [Abraham] is blessed by the superior [Melchizedek]” (7:7).
Moreover, by omitting mention of Melchizedek’s death (“end of days,” 7:3), Genesis 14 gives a hint of another reason that the priestly order of Melchizedek surpasses that of Levi: whereas Levitical priests are “mortal men” (Greek apothnēskontes anthrōpoi, “dying men”), “it is testified”—in Psalm 110:4, to be explored in 7:11–28—about the priest like Melchizedek, “that he lives” (7:8). In fact, as the Psalm affirms, since he is a “priest forever,” he obviously “lives forever,” his priesthood grounded in “the power of an indestructible life” (7:16–17, 23–25).
7:11–28 The author then demonstrates how the second Old Testament reference to Melchizedek, Psalm 110:4, validates the inferences he drew from Genesis 14. Psalm 110 begins with King David’s declaration, “The Lord says to my Lord: ‘Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.’” Hebrews 1:13 has shown that God addressed this invitation to heavenly enthronement not to angels, but to his Son. Then in Hebrews 5:5–6, back-to-back citations of Psalm 2:7 and 110:4 established that God himself appointed Christ as high priest, telling him, “You are my Son,” and then, “You are a priest forever.” Now God’s solemn oath, installing his messianic King as priest perpetually, will be elaborated.
The first implication of Psalm 110:4 is that it signals the insufficiency of the Levitical priesthood, of the law of genealogical descent that authorized Levitical-Aaronic priests, and of the whole system of animal sacrifice and ritual cleansing that they administered (7:11–19). The Levitical priesthood could not deliver “perfection.” If it could, then Psalm 110 would never have announced “another priest to arrive after the order of Melchizedek” (v. 4). In Hebrews, “perfection” means “unimpeded access to God and unbroken communion with him.”7 But the Law—including the Levitical priests and the sacrifices they offered—“made nothing perfect” (7:19). Slain animals, sacrificed by Levitical priests, could not cleanse worshipers’ consciences (9:9–14), so they were repeated over and over as reminders, not removers, of sin’s defilement (10:1–4). Moreover, the two chambers of the ancient sanctuary—first, a holy place where priests served daily, and secondly, a most holy place entered by the high priest alone, once a year—showed that access to God’s presence was severely restricted under the Levitical-Aaronic order (see 9:6–8). If the Levitical-Aaronic priesthood could have supplied lasting cleansing of conscience, then God would never have spoken as he did in Psalm 110. But God did speak Psalm 110, introducing a priest whose qualification stands independent from Aaronic ancestry, because his credential is the solemn oath by which God secured his promise by his own divine life (7:20–22, 28). This priest’s tenure in his intercessory ministry is endless.
As our author did in Hebrews 4:6–8, where he argued that Psalm 95 implied that God’s “rest” transcended the rest that Israel eventually enjoyed under Joshua (Josh 21:43–44), so here he shows that Psalm 110’s announcement of a priest-king “in the order of Melchizedek” demonstrates from the Scriptures themselves that God had planned, all along, to replace the Levitical-Aaronic priestly order with a superior high priest who would never be replaced (Heb 7:11).
If the original recipients of Hebrews had misgivings about Jesus’s priestly qualification, knowing that as Messiah Jesus descended from King David and belonged to the tribe of Judah (not Aaron’s clan and Levi’s tribe), then Psalm 110 answers their qualms (7:13–14). The Psalm announces a king who is enthroned at God’s right hand, and to whom God has sworn a solemn oath, “you are a priest forever” (7:17, 21, 24). That description, “forever,” signals the infinite superiority of Jesus’s priesthood to that of Aaron’s descendants, since the very system that qualifies them to serve—genealogical descent—consists of a sequence of births and deaths. Generation after generation, Levitical priests beget sons, die, and are succeeded by their sons. The only one who could be “priest forever” is one who remains permanently in office “by the power of an indestructible life” (7:16).
The “former commandment” (by which priests appointed through genealogy offered animal sacrifices) was weak and useless, since it “made nothing perfect” (7:18–19). Such sacrifices, offered by such priests, “cannot perfect the conscience of the worshiper” (9:9). But the perpetual priest in the order of Melchizedek, Jesus, has introduced “a better hope.” Through his once-for-all sacrifice of himself, we can now “draw near to God” (7:19; see 4:16; 10:22).
Christ’s perpetual priesthood is based not only on his endless life, but also on God’s inviolable oath, which Psalm 110 records: “The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind” (7:20–21; Ps 110:4). God’s oath, in which he invokes himself as divine witness and enforcer of his Word, guaranteed his promise to Abraham (6:13–18, interpreting Gen 22:15–18). The oath announced in Psalm 110, addressed to the priest-king in Melchizedek’s order, is foundational to the oath that God swore to Abraham. This priest-king is the mediator through whom blessing flows from the Lord to Abraham, and to his offspring who “through faith and patience inherit the promises” (6:12). Jesus is therefore not only the mediator (Greek mesitēs) of the new covenant (8:6; 9:15; 12:24) but also the guarantor (Greek engyos) of this better covenant, who secures its blessings for his people (7:22).
In 7:23–25 our author shows why the permanence of Christ’s priesthood brings eternal salvation to us “who draw near to God through him.” The Levitical-Aaronic priests were “many in number” across the generations (see 1Chr 6) because each priest’s ministry ended with his death. In Psalm 110:4, on the other hand, God’s oath installs a priest-king who “continues forever,” never needing a successor. Of course, Jesus died once for all as the conscience-cleansing sacrifice that all previous, oft-repeated animal sacrifices foreshadowed (Heb 2:10–18; 7:27; 9:11–14; 10:5–14). Now, however, Jesus has been “brought again from the dead” by the God of peace (13:20) and enthroned at God’s right hand in heaven (1:3; 8:1–2). Henceforth Jesus “always lives” to intercede for those who trust him, and his effectual prayers secure our salvation “to the uttermost” (eis to panteles, which includes both temporal duration—“forever”—and completeness—“in every way,” achieving our comprehensive rescue from every aspect of sin and death).
Finally, Jesus’s utter sinlessness throughout the temptations and sufferings that assaulted him during his life on earth makes him the perfect priest who is worthy to stand in God’s holy presence as our ever-living intercessor and representative (7:26–28). Jesus has shared our experience of weakness and temptation, so he can identify and sympathize with us (2:18; 4:14–15). Yet he was utterly “without sin” (4:15). Therefore, unlike Aaron and his descendants, Jesus did not need to offer a bull to atone for his own sins (Lev 16:6–14) before offering a goat as atoning sacrifice for his people (16:15–20).8 Jesus, our high priest, was “holy, innocent, unstained,” and in his purity “separated from sinners,” even as he “offered up himself” to make “propitiation for the sins of the people” on the cross (Heb 2:17). Having been “exalted above the heavens,” he has now entered God’s heavenly holy place, carrying his own blood for our eternal redemption (see 9:11–12).
Finally, our author sums up the contrast between the many priests in the order of Levi and Aaron on the one hand, and the single priest, the ever-living Son, in the order of Melchizedek, on the other (7:28). The “weakness” of the Levitical-Aaronic priests consisted in their sinfulness and in their mortality. Conversely, the priest-king installed by God’s oath in Psalm 110, which was subsequent to the Law, is the eternal Son of God, who lives forever and holds his priesthood permanently (7:23–24). This Son has been “perfected forever”—consecrated to priestly office to enter God’s holy presence—through his obedience in suffering (5:8–10). Now he “lives forever to make intercession” for his people (7:25).
Christ Mediates the New Covenant That Surpasses Sinai (8:1–13)
8:1–6 At this center point of Hebrews, the author states “the point (kephalaion9) of what we are saying” (8:1), the central theme of the whole sermon. This paragraph connects Jesus’s superior qualifications (“such a high priest”), just discussed in 4:14–7:28, to Jesus’s superior priestly ministry, now to be explored in 8:7–10:35. The author introduces four aspects of Christ’s priestly ministry, which he will develop:
- Seated posture: Our high priest is “seated at the right hand” of God (8:1). As in 1:3, 13, the author alludes to Psalm 110:1. Christ’s seated posture (in contrast to Levitical priests who always stand to serve) demonstrates that his sacrifice of himself “once for all” was sufficient to accomplish our forgiveness and cleansing “for all time” (10:10–14). Jesus’s atoning task has been completed forever.
- Heavenly sanctuary: Our high priest is “at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven,” so he serves “in the true tent that the Lord set up, not man” (8:1–2, 4–5).The sanctuary on earth, in which Levitical priests ministered, was only “a copy and shadow” of God’s heavenly palace, which transcends our universe of space and time. On Mount Sinai, Moses was shown that heavenly holy place and directed to replicate its pattern in the earthly tabernacle (Exod 25:40). The author will survey the design and furniture of the earthly sanctuary (Heb 9:1–5), but he emphasizes that Christ has passed through “the greater and more perfect tent” and “entered once for all into the holy places” of heaven itself (9:11–12, 23–24). As a result, we too may “enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus” (10:19–22).
- Perfecting, once-for-all sacrifice: Since “every high priest” offers sacrifices for the atonement of sins, Christ necessarily had a fitting offering as he entered God’s heavenly sanctuary on behalf of his people (8:3). Hebrews will explain that, whereas animal sacrifices provided only external cleansing and required ceaseless repetition, Jesus’s single offering of “his own blood” purified worshipers’ consciences once for all, “perfecting” them perpetually to draw near to God in worship (9:6–14; 10:1–18).
- Better covenant: In contrast to the covenant inaugurated through Moses at Sinai, which the Israelites broke, Christ has mediated a better covenant, a new covenant, “enacted on better promises” (8:6). Jeremiah 31:31–34, quoted in full in Hebrews 8:8–12 and again, in brief, in 10:15–16, implies the obsolescence of the Sinai covenant and its replacement by a new and better covenant (8:13). That prophecy outlines the new covenant’s better promises—transformation of heart, intimacy of access, and forgiveness of sins—which Christ has secured for all who approach God through him.
8:7–13 Christ’s priestly ministry is “as much more excellent” than the ministry of the Levitical priests as the new covenant that he mediates surpasses the covenant that Moses mediated at Mount Sinai. The promise of this new and better covenant in Jeremiah 31:31–34 implied that the Sinai covenant was not “faultless” (8:6–7). Yet the “fault,” the flaw, of that covenant lay with “them”—with the Israelites who “did not continue in my covenant” (8:8–9). Just as the promise of God’s rest in Psalm 95 implied that “God’s rest” transcends the rest achieved under Joshua (4:8); and just as Psalm 110’s announcement of an ever-living priest-king in the order of Melchizedek implied the insufficiency of the Levitical priesthood (7:11); so Jeremiah 31 implies that, because of Israel’s ceaseless rebellion, the covenant mediated by Moses had to be replaced by a new covenant, which could secure promised blessings of complete forgiveness, heart transformation, and intimacy with God.
The quotation of Jeremiah 31:31–34 in Hebrews 8:8–12 is the longest Old Testament citation in the New Testament. This prophecy of a “new covenant” is shown to be fulfilled by Christ in other New Testament passages, such as Jesus’s institution of the Lord’s Supper (Luke 22:20; 1Cor 11:25) and Paul’s contrast between Moses’s ministry and that of new covenant ministers (2Cor 3:3–18). The return to Jeremiah 31:33 in Hebrews 10:16 signals that this prophetic passage sets the context for this entire section (8:7–10:18), in which the author draws contrasts between sanctuaries (earthly and heavenly, 9:1–11, 21–24), sacrifices (9:12–14; 10:1–14), and covenant inauguration events (9:15–20).
The author’s mention of the new covenant’s “better promises” (8:6) focuses our attention on these promises in the Jeremiah 31 quotation. The overarching promise of mutual covenant commitment between the Lord and his servant-people—“I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (8:10)—appears throughout the Old Testament (e.g., Exod 29:45; Lev 26:12; Jer 24:7; Ezek 36:28; 37:23, 27; Zech 8:8). It expresses the goal of God’s redemptive plan, that his steadfast love will be met by his people’s grateful loyalty and glad obedience. As a result, God receives the glory that he abundantly deserves, and his people receive the blessedness that he generously promises.
Jeremiah 31 articulates three specific facets of that general promise of perfect covenant communion:
- Deep cleansing of minds and hearts: At Sinai God wrote his commandments on tablets of stone and gave them to Moses to deliver to the people (Exod 31:18; 34:1–29; see 2Cor 3:3). The better promise of the new covenant is, “I will put my laws into their minds, and write them on their hearts” (Heb 8:10) This implies a contrast between the external delivery of the Law on Sinai and the internal cleansing that characterizes the new covenant. Hebrews 9:9–14 develops this contrast in terms of the cleansing of the flesh that the sacrificial blood of animals accomplished on the one hand, and the effectiveness of Christ’s blood to “perfect” and purify our consciences on the other.
- Intimate knowledge of God for all: “. . . they shall not teach, each one his neighbor, . . . saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least to the greatest” (8:11). Hebrews 9:6–8 summarizes the limited access to the ancient sanctuary’s Holy Place and Most Holy Place, observing that these restrictions were the Holy Spirit’s signal that “the way into the holy places [was] not yet opened” (9:8) until Christ came. Now that he has died for us, “we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us” (10:19–20). New covenant believers still need leaders who speak God’s Word to us and watch over our souls (13:7, 17). But now all of us may draw near to God’s throne of grace through the one great high priest, Jesus (10:21–22; see 4:14–16).
- Complete forgiveness of sins forever: The third promise, “I will remember their sins no more” (8:12), is repeated in Hebrews 10:17, where its significance is stressed by the additional comment, “Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin.” Leading to this conclusion is the argument that Christ’s sacrifice of himself has accomplished once for all what countless animal deaths could not do: he has purified our consciences, provided redemption from our transgressions, put away sin by “bearing the sins of many,” sanctified believers, taken away sins, and thereby perfected “for all time those who are being sanctified.” This third “better promise” of the new covenant is the source of the first (conscience-deep purification) and the second (access for all believers to approach God).
In Jeremiah’s announcement of a new covenant to arrive in “the days that are coming” (31:31, 38), God declared the covenant he made with Israel at Sinai “obsolete and growing old,” “ready to vanish away” (8:13). Now that Jesus has inaugurated the new covenant with its better promises, going back to the old, with its ineffective sacrifices and priesthood, is unthinkable.
Christ’s Heavenly Sanctuary Surpasses Israel’s Earthly Replica (9:1–10)
The heart of God’s covenant with human beings is worship. God initiates the covenant bond of loyal love to draw people made in his image into his presence so that they may receive his lavish grace and respond in grateful adoration. Thus Hebrews now explores the venue and regulations for worship that God established in the “first covenant,” mediated through Moses at Sinai (9:1), showing that the design and regulations of the tabernacle itself conveyed the Holy Spirit’s message that a better means of access to God was yet to come.
Our author briefly describes the floorplan and furniture of the old covenant’s tabernacle (9:2–5), then he profiles the priestly ministries conducted in the tent’s “first” (outer) and “second” (inner) chambers (9:6–10). The “first section” (Greek skēnē, “tent”), the Holy Place, contained the lampstand and the table on which twelve loaves, “the bread of the Presence,” were laid (9:2; see Exod 25:23–30). It was separated by a curtain from the surrounding open courtyard (implied by “the second curtain,” 9:3), where Israelites brought animals to be slain and consumed on the altar (Exod 27:1–19). Behind the “second veil” lay the section (skēnē, “tent”) called the Most Holy Place. At its entrance was “a golden altar of incense,” and inside was the ark of the covenant, covered with gold and topped by a “mercy seat” overshadowed by the wings of glorious cherubim (9:4–5; see Exod 30:1–10; 25:10–22; Lev 16:13). Our author does not “speak in detail” about this holy furniture (9:5), since his interest is in the priestly ministry associated with each section/tent.
Regularly throughout the year, many priests entered the first section/tent, the Holy Place, to perform “ritual duties” (9:6): maintaining the lampstand and offering incense daily and replacing the bread of the Presence weekly (see Lev 24:1–9; Exod 27:20–21). Into the second section, the high priest entered alone “but once a year,” on the Day of Atonement (9:7; see Lev 16). In contrast to the routine duties of the many priests in the Holy Place, the high priest must take sacrificial blood into the Most Holy Place and seek atonement for his own and the people’s sins. The contrast drawn between the priestly ministers and their ministries associated with the two sections/tents is the way that the Holy Spirit, Scripture’s divine Author, has illustrated that, as long as the “first tent”—the outer chamber, symbolizing the entire earthly sanctuary (see Heb 8:4–5; 9:11, 23–24)—still functioned and Levitical priests still served there, “the way into the holy places is not yet opened” (9:8). Our author’s use of “first” and “second” is brilliant and intentional, for he is showing us that the two chambers of the tabernacle were designed by God to be “symbolic” (9:9) of two successive eras. Their spatial relationship to each other signified a temporal relationship between “the present age” for ancient Israel, when only the high priest, rarely, could draw near to God, on the one hand; and, on the other hand, “the time of reformation” that has now dawned (9:10) with the appearance of Christ as the “high priest of the good things that have come” (9:11).
Christ’s Once-for-All Sacrifice Surpasses Animal Victims’ Blood, Cleansing Our Consciences and Drawing Us Near to God (9:11–10:35)
This section explores the role of sacrificial death in covenant inauguration (9:15–20), sanctuary consecration (9:21–23), and the cleansing of worshipers to approach God (9:11–14; 9:24–10:18). The discussion contrasts the many animal sacrifices mandated in the Law of Moses and administered by Levitical priests on the one hand, to the single sacrifice of Christ and his presentation of his own blood in God’s heavenly sanctuary on the other.
9:11–14 Having noted the restrictive access to God’s presence in the old covenant’s sanctuary (9:6–9) and the superficial nature of the sacrifices offered there (“food and drink and various washings, regulations for the body” [Greek sarx, “flesh”]), the author sets those provisions over against “the good things that have come” through the ministry of Christ (9:11–14). Once a year the Aaronic high priest alone would pass through the tabernacle’s Holy Place to enter the Most Holy Place. So now Christ has passed through “the greater and more perfect tent” (“the heavens,” 4:14) to enter into the heavenly Most Holy Place, bringing his own blood (9:11–12). Because the sanctuary that Jesus entered is “not made with hands, that is, not of this creation,” it cannot be destroyed, as Roman troops would demolish the Jerusalem temple not long after this sermon was written, and as the whole physical heaven and earth will eventually perish (1:11–12; see 12:26–28). Because Christ’s own blood, sacrificed for sinful people, is of infinite value, he has secured for us “eternal redemption.” Through Christ, now we all can “enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus” (10:19–22) and “draw near to the throne of grace” in heaven (4:15–16).
The superiority of the new covenant to the old supports the author’s reasoning that external cleansing through animal sacrifices demonstrates “how much more” the blood of Christ, who “offered himself without blemish to God,” will purify our conscience, cleansing us to approach and serve the living God (9:13–14). Goats, bulls, and heifers that were slain to remove defilement from the flesh had to be without any physical blemish (Lev 4:3, 23, 28, 32; Num 19:2). They foreshadowed the sinless Son of God, who lived a perfect human life that was spiritually and morally without blemish, “holy, innocent, unstained” (Heb 7:23), and who then offered up himself as our conscience-cleansing sacrifice.
9:15–20 The discussion turns to the relationship of Christ’s sacrifice to the old covenant and the new. In order for God’s people to receive the eternal inheritance promised under the old covenant, their transgressions of that Law needed atonement through death. Deuteronomy 28 shows that the Lord’s covenant with Israel demanded such exclusive and devoted loyalty that only two outcomes were possible: if God’s people kept his covenant, then they would inherit blessing; if they violated the covenant, then he would impose curses and death. The ratification ritual of ancient covenants involved the slaughter of animals (Gen 15:8–21; Jer 34:8–20) and the sprinkling of blood (Exod 24:6–8) to symbolize the deadly consequences of disloyalty. This is the ritual in view in Hebrews 9:16–17. Many translations switch from “covenant” to “will” (or “testament”) for the Greek term diathēkē in these verses, and then back to “covenant” in verses 18–20. However, a better translation would be: “Where there is a covenant (diathēkē), the death of the covenant-maker must be brought (pheresthai), for a covenant (diathēkē) is ratified over dead bodies (epi nekrois). It never takes effect when the covenant-maker lives.” In other words, unless covenants are ratified through animal blood and carcasses—symbolizing the covenant-maker’s commitment to stay loyal or suffer death—no covenant exists. Because the stakes of covenant commitment—loyalty or death—are so high, “the first covenant,” mediated by Moses at Sinai, was inaugurated through the shedding of blood (9:18). Slain animals’ “blood of the covenant” was sprinkled on the book of the Law,10 signifying the Lord’s commitment to his promises, and on the Israelites, symbolizing their oath to obey his commands, or else suffer the curse of violent death (9:19–20, summarizing Exod 24:3–8). The curse on treason symbolized by this bloody covenant-inauguration ritual is the reason that Christ had to die to deal with his people’s violations of the first covenant, mediated by Moses, in order to mediate the new covenant and bestow its “eternal inheritance” on believers (9:15).
9:21–22 The sinful defilement of God’s people is so pervasive that the tent and its implements, produced by human hands, needed purification by sacrificial blood, just as the people themselves needed forgiveness, which could only occur through substitutionary sacrifice. The Day of Atonement liturgy dramatized the link between the cleansing of the sanctuary and forgiveness for the people: by sprinkling blood over the mercy seat of the ark, the high priest “shall make atonement for the Holy Place, because of the uncleannesses of the people of Israel and because of their transgressions, all their sins” (Lev 16:16). Heaven itself, the original sanctuary of God shown to Moses, is “the more perfect tent (not made with hands)” (9:11), so it must be untainted by human sinfulness. Yet Hebrews daringly asserts that, just as the earthly tabernacle’s contents needed cleansing through animals’ blood, so also “the heavenly things themselves” must be purified by an even better sacrifice (9:23). Those “heavenly things” must be God’s guilty people, who “are his house” (3:6) and who need forgiveness.
9:23–28 Now the discussion transitions from the consecration of the sanctuary to the momentous event that transpired annually in its Most Holy Place, the Day of Atonement, when the high priest alone, with “blood not his own,” passed through the second veil to intercede for Israel’s forgiveness (see Lev 16). That yearly atonement ritual remains in view through Hebrews 10:10 (“every year” in 9:25 reappears in 10:1, 3). Our author demonstrates, from several perspectives, how Christ’s high priestly ministry of atonement is superior to that ancient, repetitive ritual.
First, the sanctuary that Christ has entered is not a handmade, earthly copy of God’s true residence. Instead, he entered “heaven itself,” where he appears “in the presence of God on our behalf” (9:25). Second, unlike the Aaronic high priests, he did not bring “blood not his own,” but instead presented “the sacrifice of himself,” by which he “put away sin” (9:25–26). Third, because his sacrifice is completely sufficient, Jesus did not need “to offer himself repeatedly,” but instead has been “offered once to bear the sins of many”—an echo of Isaiah 53:12 (9:27–28). On the ancient Day of Atonement, Israelites awaited the emergence of their high priest from the tabernacle’s Most Holy Place, after he had completed his mission by sprinkling sacrificial blood on the mercy seat atop the ark of the covenant (9:4–5; see Lev 16:15–16). Likewise, now we await the return of Christ our high priest, who “will appear a second time” from heaven, bringing our full and final salvation (9:28).
10:1–10 The author further develops the contrast between Israel’s annual Day of Atonement ritual and the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ. Since the earthly tent was modeled after the pattern shown to Moses on Mount Sinai, it was “a copy and shadow” of the ultimate heavenly sanctuary (8:5). Its vessels, too, were “copies of the heavenly things” (9:23–24). In fact, every ritual instituted in the Law of Moses was “but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of those realities” (Heb 10:1). The contrast between “shadow” and “true form” is historical (that is, eschatological), since the “realities” are “the good things to come” in the future, which have now come with Christ’s arrival appearance in history (9:11).
The insufficiency of the Law’s “shadow” is shown in the fact that the Day of Atonement sacrifices were “continually offered every year” (10:1–2). Neither the blood of bulls (for the high priest himself, Lev 16:11–14) nor that of goats (for the people, Lev 16:15–19) could remove “consciousness of sins” (Heb 10:3) or “take away sins” (10:4). They could never “make perfect”—cleanse and consecrate to enter God’s holy presence—“those who draw near” (10:1; see 9:9). Only Christ’s blood could “purify our conscience” (9:13–14). In fact, the annual repetition of the Day of Atonement sacrifices was “a reminder of sins every year,” not a means of removing sin’s defilement. Those bloody animal victims called to remembrance the worshipers’ sins, both their own remembrance and that of God himself (Num 5:15). Such ceaseless slaughter signaled that the “shadow” system established by the Law could never fulfill the new covenant promise, “I will remember their sins no more” (Heb 8:12; 10:17; citing Jer 31:34).
In 10:5–7, Hebrews cites Psalm 40:6–8 as the Son’s announcement that the Law’s ineffective animal sacrifices are now set aside by the final, God-pleasing, conscience-cleansing offering of Christ’s own body, in fulfillment of God’s will (Heb 10:5–10). The words of this Psalm express the mission that Christ embraced when he “came into the world”11 at his incarnation. Jesus’s own words in John’s Gospel reflect his commitment to the mission: “I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me.” God’s will was for the Son to give eternal life to all whom God had given him (John 6:38–40).
After quoting Psalm 40, our author rearranges its wording to show that this scripture foretold the replacement of animal sacrifices by the final sacrifice offered by Christ, in obedience to God’s will (10:8–10). Two expressions of God’s disapproval (“have not desired” and “have taken no pleasure”) are brought together, as are the four terms describing animal sacrifices (“sacrifices,” “offerings,” burnt offerings,” “sin offerings”). Although such sacrifices were offered “according to the law” (10:8), many Old Testament texts made clear that God was always pleased with obedient hearts, not with slain animals (1Sam 15:22; Pss 50:12–16; 51:16–17; Isa 1:11–17; Jer 7:22–23; Hos 6:6; Mic 6:6–8). What the flow of Psalm 40 distinctively clarifies is that God planned to “do away” with animal sacrifice at that moment in redemptive history when Christ came into the world, announcing, “I have come to do your will, O God” (Heb 10:9). Picking up two key words from the Psalm, “body”12 and “will,” our author concludes that Christ’s entrance into the world, coming to partake in our flesh and blood (2:14), was to accomplish God’s will by offering his body in sacrifice through the cross. It is true that Jesus fulfilled all of God’s commands flawlessly, since he was “without sin” (4:15); but here the “will” of God in view is the Son’s unique mission to lay down his life for guilty sinners. By his submission to this specific “will” of God, “we have been sanctified”—forgiven, cleansed, qualified to enter God’s presence and to approach his throne of grace—”through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (10:10; see 9:12–14, 26, 28; 10:14, 19–22).
10:11–14 Not only the repetitive annual Day of Atonement sacrifices, but also the daily sacrifices—sin offerings and guilt offerings, countless victims slain and consumed on the altar in the sanctuary courtyard—showed the inadequacy of the old covenant priesthood and sacrificial system (10:11–14). Like the bulls’ and goats’ blood on the Day of Atonement, these daily animal deaths could not remove the guilt of sin. That is why the priests who offered them had to “stand daily” and offer them repeatedly. By contrast, Psalm 110 introduces a priest-king who has completed his atoning mission and who, by God’s invitation, “sat down at the right hand of God.” The seated posture of this great high priest is significant, for it demonstrates that his mission of atoning self-sacrifice is completed, never needing repetition or augmentation, “for by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified” (10:12–14). The subjective process by which God’s Spirit conforms our thoughts, desires, words, and deeds to the sinlessness of Jesus will continue throughout our lives. But his self-offering to atone for all our sins has already objectively perfected us “for all time.” Cleansed and consecrated by his blood, we confidently draw near to God (10:19–22).
10:15–18 To conclude our exploration of Christ’s atoning sacrifice and its conscience-deep cleansing, Jeremiah 31, which introduced this section (8:8–12), returns to clinch the argument that Jesus’s death has secured for us the better promises of the new covenant. Instead of quoting the whole of Jeremiah 31:31–34 again, our author cites two new covenant promises: the purification of heart and mind, and the forgiveness of sins. Such deep cleansing, grounded in complete and everlasting forgiveness, nullifies the need for any further atonement for sin: “there is no longer any offering for sin.” Only Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice of himself, the uniquely, utterly pure substitute, could secure eternal redemption, cleanse the conscience once for all (9:12, 14), and make any further sacrifice superfluous and obsolete.
10:19–25 The superior priestly ministry of Jesus demands our response of approach to God in confident trust, persistent allegiance to our confession, and mutual encouragement. This exhortation section flows out of the extended discussion of Jesus’s superior priesthood (5:1–7:28) and sacrifice (8:1–10:18), and it echoes the exhortation to “hold fast” and “draw near” (4:14–16) that introduced that discussion. So, these exhortations form an envelope (a literary inclusio) surrounding the rich exposition of the atoning, reconciling, and interceding ministry of Jesus, the “great high priest” (4:14; 10:21). They share the summons (a) to maintain our confession, and (b) to enter God’s presence (“the throne of grace,” 4:16; “to enter the holy places,” 10:19) with confidence (parrēsia), and (c) the rationale for those exhortations, which is found in the superior priesthood of Jesus (4:14; 10:19, 21).
The exploration of Christ’s priestly ministry (5:1–10:18) has introduced to this concluding application additional elements that were not present in Hebrews 4:14–16. That introductory exhortation highlighted Jesus’s sympathy for sinners as one who has experienced our weakness and temptations (see 2:14–18). Now the focus falls on the access into the heavenly holy places that Jesus has achieved for us through his death (“by the blood of Jesus . . . through his flesh,” 10:19–20). Because he himself has passed through the heavens and entered the Most Holy Place behind the curtain, bringing his own blood for our atonement (6:19–20; 9:11–12), now we too, by faith, can enter God’s heavenly sanctuary, drawing near “with a true heart in full assurance of faith” (10:22). The entryway that Jesus has opened for us is “new” because his mediation of the new covenant has secured for us the forgiveness of all our sins forever (8:8, 12; 10:14–18). No longer is “the way into the holy places . . . not yet opened,” as the Holy Spirit’s restrictive regulations under the old covenant showed (9:8). Now all God’s people, from the least to the greatest, can know and draw near to the Lord (8:11). And this new way is “living” because our great high priest, having offered himself in death once for all, now “lives forever to intercede for” us (7:23–25).
The baptism of our bodies (“washed with pure water”) signifies the cleansing of our hearts by the Spirit, who seals our union with Christ in his death and resurrection. Our hearts are “sprinkled clean,” because Christ’s blood purifies our conscience (9:13–14; 12:24; see 1Pet 1:2). The encouragement to “hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering” repeats earlier exhortations (3:6, 14; 6:18). It also anticipates the coming survey of ancient people of faith, who acted on God’s announcements about the future, trusting him to be faithful to his promises (11:1–40; especially 11:11).
Finally, our author summons us to mutual support along with other believers: “let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works,” continuing to meet with each other and encourage each other (10:24–25). Hebrews has cautioned us against drifting away (2:1) and urged us to “exhort one another every day,” lest anyone fall away from the living God (3:12–13). Our shared responsibility to strengthen each other’s perseverance in the faith will be reinforced in the athletic imagery of supporting weak and injured limbs (12:12–13). The original Jewish-Christian audience apparently faced the threat of social rejection and worse for their faith in Jesus (10:32–34; 13:13). Such pressures may explain why some had lapsed from gathering with the church for worship and mutual encouragement. Since Jesus’s death has granted us confident access to God’s presence, Christians must proactively encourage (“stir up”) each other’s persistence in faith, since “the Day” of our high priest’s return from heaven, bringing the completion of our salvation (9:28), is approaching.
10:26–31 Another sobering reminder of the lethal consequences of apostasy from Christ now underscores the urgency of heeding the exhortations given in 10:19–25 to draw near to God, hold fast our confession, and encourage each other. This is the third portrait of the ruin awaiting apostates, and it combines elements of the previous two texts on apostasy. First, Hebrews 2:1–4 argued that, whereas violation of the Law incurred just punishment, no escape is possible for those who disregard the salvation announced by Christ the Lord. Second, Hebrews 6:4–8 announced that people who deliberately turn away from the graces at work in the visible church, thereby in effect siding with the foes who contemptuously crucified Christ, have placed themselves beyond the reach of restoration. Now, our author argues from the merciless penalties imposed on justly convicted13 violators of the Mosaic Law to the “much worse punishment” deserved by those who deliberately repudiate the Son of God.
The Law of Moses drew a distinction between inadvertent violations committed in ignorance (Num 15:22–29; see Heb 5:2; 9:7) on the one hand, and acts of arrogant defiance against the Lord on the other (Num 15:30–31; Deut 17:12). Hebrews has this distinction in view in speaking of “sinning deliberately” (Heb 10:26). But the context shows that this specific deliberate sin is turning away from Jesus and his once-for-all sacrifice, and instead seeking forgiveness in the animal victims slain under the Levitical system. Such animals’ blood could never take away sin’s defilement (10:4). Even under the old covenant, they were effective only for external, ritual cleansing (9:9–10, 13). Now that Christ has come to inaugurate the new covenant, he “does away with the first”—animal victims—“in order to establish the second”—his own blood and body, which cleanse our conscience (10:5–10). At this point in redemptive history, therefore, “there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins” (10:26)—none, that is, except the once-for-all, completely sufficient, conscience-purifying death of Jesus, whose blood and flesh have opened for us a new and living way into God’s holy place (10:19–20).
Those who turn their backs on Christ’s sacrifice face “a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire” (10:27). This is because, however they may view their decision to leave Christ’s church and return to Judaism, their apostasy constitutes an act of contempt (10:29):
- toward the Son of God, trampling him underfoot (see 6:6);
- toward the blood he shed, treating it as “unclean” and defiling, not sanctifying; and
- toward the Spirit of grace, rejecting his testimony about Christ in apostolic words and miracles (2:3–4; 6:5; see John 15:26–27; Acts 5:32).
Under the new covenant, God’s greater grace in the gift of his Son corresponds to greater judgment for those who spurn such grace. Through Moses, this gracious and jealous God said, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay,” and, “The Lord will judge his people” (Deut 32:35–36). He discriminates, within his visible church, between those who believe his promises and those who doubt and turn away (Heb 10:30; see 3:12–4:2). Even today, in full display of grace under the new covenant, it remains true that, apart from Christ’s mediation, it “is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (10:31), who “is a consuming fire” (12:29; Deut 4:24).
10:32–35 In the same pastoral wisdom that he showed in 6:9–12, our author again follows his terrifying warning against apostasy with an encouraging reminder of the fruit that God’s grace has already borne in his hearers’ lives during past persecution (10:32–35). In “the former days,” they had been “enlightened” through the preaching of God’s Word (6:4–5). Their new faith in Jesus ignited a “hard struggle with sufferings,” which they “endured” in hopeful confidence. Faith that endures in the face of opposition and in anticipation of God’s promises will be the theme of the next section (10:36–12:17). Having exhorted us to become “imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises” (6:12), our author will survey the history of these “people of old,” whom God commended for faith in the Scriptures of the Old Testament (11:1–40).
The sufferings endured by the original audience when they began to follow Jesus touched them both as individuals and as a community (10:32–24). Individually, they were “publicly exposed to reproach and affliction,” as was Jesus himself (13:12–13). This public humiliation may have included banishment from synagogues and from the Jewish community, as other New Testament texts illustrate (John 9:22; 12:42; Acts 17:5–8; 18:4–13; Rev 2:9; 3:9). For some, it also included imprisonment and the confiscation of property (10:34). The most encouraging aspect of their response to this early persecution is the solidarity they exhibited with fellow believers who were bearing the brunt of the hostility. Instead of withdrawing from them or “neglecting to meet together” for the sake of self-preservation (10:24–25), they partnered with those suffering public abuse, and they shared suffering with those imprisoned for Christ—as they will be urged to do in the present (13:3). They had stood together in the beginning, and now their mutual support must continue in the face of impending waves of persecution (12:3–4). Earthly possessions are transient (see 1:10–12; 12:26–28; Matt 6:19–21), but we “have a better possession and a lasting one” awaiting us, like the ancient patriarchs who looked forward in faith to “a better country” and an eternal city (11:10, 16; 13:13).
The “confidence” (parrēsia) that we must not throw away (10:35) is the confidence Jesus’s sacrifice gives us to enter God’s heavenly sanctuary (10:19; 3:6; 4:16). In other words, since Christ’s sacrifice has cleansed our conscience, we may draw near to God’s throne of grace in “full assurance (plērophoria) of faith” (10:22).14 It is his grace and the timely help it supplies (4:16; 2:18) that strengthen us to hold fast our confession of faith and hope in the face of opposition (3:6, 14; 6:11–12).
Our Heavenly Homeland Surpasses Israel’s Temporary Inheritance (10:36–12:29)
This section of the sermon focuses on endurance in trusting the Word of God, especially when the fulfillment of his promises cannot be seen in the short run and when adversity confronts us instead. Terms for endurance (Greek hypomenō, hypomonē) appear five times (10:36; 12:1, 2, 3, 7). In addition to these, the theme of endurance also appears in other ways:
- not “shrinking back” (10:38–39);
- waiting patiently for God to fulfill his promises (11:9–10, 13–16, 20–22, 39–40);
- foregoing present pleasures in anticipation of future reward (11:26);
- suffering hardships, including violent death, in hope of a better resurrection to come (11:35–38);
- not growing weary under God’s fatherly discipline (12:3–11); and
- strengthening weakened and injured limbs (fellow Christians struggling in their faith) (12:12–15).
An opening quotation from Habakkuk teaches that the faith that pleases God is faith that holds fast to his promises for the future, especially his promise that Christ will come again (10:36–39). Then an extended survey of Old Testament narratives (11:1–40) illustrates how such faith moved “people of old” to act in response to the Word of God about “things not seen” (11:1) and “things not yet seen” (11:7). The “great cloud” of ancient witnesses affirm to us from the pages of Scripture that God is faithful, so we must hear and heed their testimony as they direct our attention to Jesus himself, who endured the shame of the cross for the sake of the joy of sanctifying the children of God (12:1–11; cf. 2:9–18). Supporting each other (12:12–17) and drawing near to God in worship (12:18–29) are the keys to sustaining enduring faith.
Enduring Faith Pleases God (10:36–39)
An insightful interpretation of Habakkuk 2:3–4 introduces the theme of enduring faith (10:36–38). Christians are familiar with this passage from Paul’s citation of it to argue that God imputes righteousness to his people through faith, not through our efforts to keep the Law (Rom 1:16–17; Gal 3:11).
Hebrews likewise affirms that faith is key to experiencing God’s pleasure; but our author also draws other inferences from the Habakkuk text. First, faith’s future orientation, as hope for what God has promised (10:36; 11:1, 39), is seen in the announcement that “the coming one will come and not delay” (10:37). Our author adds “a little while” from Isaiah 26:20–21 to emphasize the truth that Christ, the coming one, will not disappoint those who await the salvation that he is bringing at his second coming (see 9:28). Jesus himself taught that his return would not be deferred unnecessarily while his disciples suffer injustice (Luke 18:7–8). He also insisted, however, that the timing of his return was a matter known only to the Father and was not a subject intended for human speculation (Mark 13:32; Acts 1:6–7). So, we should not lose heart when he does not arrive on our timetable.
Second, faith’s persistence in the face of opposition is implied in the contrast that the prophet draws between living by faith on the one hand, and “shrinking back” on the other (10:38). Exhortations to mutual encouragement (3:12–14; 10:24–25) and the negative example of Israel’s unbelieving wilderness generation (3:16–4:2) show us that adversity tempts Christians to shrink back from the confession of our hope in Jesus, instead of holding it fast (10:23). The original hearers had exhibited costly commitment when the light of the gospel first reached them (10:32–34). The author is still confident—about most of them, at least—that “we are not of those who shrink back, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls” (10:39). They are following in the footsteps of ancient believers, who endured loss for the sake of future joy (11:13–16, 24–25, 35–40). But the threat of falling short is still real.
Third, the Lord’s “soul has no pleasure” in the person who “shrinks back” (10:38). This statement implies its opposite, namely, that God is pleased with those who live by enduring faith. The reward of faith is legal vindication, God’s justifying verdict (“my righteous one”), as Paul argues from Habakkuk 2:4. Through such faith God preserves of our souls (10:39). Moreover, the reward of faith includes the pleasure of God. Enoch’s walk with God until the day God took him from this life “pleased God” because he trusted that God exists and rewards those who seek him (11:5–6). Throughout the Old Testament, God “commends” (that is, “bears witness on behalf of,” Greek martyreō) those who have demonstrated persevering faith (11:2, 4–5, 39).
Ancient Believers Received Foretastes of Promised Blessings as They Endured Suffering in Hope (11:1–40)
Earlier, we were called to be “imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises,” but at that point only Abraham was cited as our example of faith (6:12–18). Now, the author surveys those forerunners in faith, a great “cloud of witnesses” whose lives recorded in Scripture bear witness to God’s faithfulness (12:1). After an introductory description of faith and a comment that the ancients received God’s commendation for exercising it (11:1–2), the survey begins at creation (11:3) and moves selectively through the biblical record prior to Abraham, focusing on Abel, Enoch, and Noah (11:4–7). Abraham and the patriarchs are discussed at length (11:8–22). Next come Moses’s faith and that of his parents (11:23–29), followed by Jericho’s fall and Rahab’s rescue—both by faith—at the outset of Israel’s conquest of the Promised Land (11:30–31). To conserve time, our author then condenses his survey of the faithful in the eras of Israel’s judges and kings, exile, and post-exilic trials (11:32–38). Finally, he concludes that, although God testified in the Scriptures on behalf of these ancient people of faith, the object of their longing and hope, promised by God, lay beyond their own lifetime, awaiting the fulfillment that we now experience because Christ has come (11:39–40).
11:1–7 The author first offers a description of future-focused faith (11:1) to guide our survey of ancient believers in the Old Testament Scriptures (11:2–40). The wording of many English versions suggests an emphasis on the subjective dimension of faith: “assurance” and “conviction” (so ESV); here, however, the author bypasses words that he uses elsewhere to express subjective confidence (parrēsia, 10:19, 35; plērophoria, 10:22) and employs Greek terms that refer to the objective realities on which faith relies:
- hypostasis: “substance” or “nature,” as in 1:3
- elengkos: “proof,” evidence that substantiates a verdict
God-pleasing faith rests on realities not presently perceived by our senses, either past (creation, 11:3), present (11:6, 27), or future (11:7, 13, 22, 26, 39–40). In view of15 those realities, people of faith take appropriate action. For such faith, ancient believers “received their commendation” (11:2)—that is, God bore testimony (martyreō) on their behalf, first by approving their faith-motivated actions (11:4–5) and then by recording their stories in his Scriptures (11:39).16 Just as God testifies on behalf of those ancient believers, so also from the Old Testament they “still speak” to us (11:5) as witnesses (martyreis) on God’s behalf, attesting his trustworthiness for us (12:1–2).
The first biblical event involving faith is the creation of the universe itself, which was not seen by any human observer (11:3); rather, the creation account is the first example of “things not seen” by human eyes and testifies to realities that can only be discerned by trusting the written Word of God revealed to Moses. Moreover, in Genesis 1 the repeated refrain, “And God said,” reveals the power of the spoken word of God—itself “invisible”—to command into existence the vast created order we now see.
Three people of faith prior to Abraham—Abel, Enoch, and Noah—illustrate faith’s costliness in death (Abel), faith’s triumph over death (Enoch), and faith’s obedient response to God’s Word “concerning events as yet unseen” (Noah) (11:4–7). Abel’s God-pleasing worship and violent death demonstrate the costliness of living by faith (11:4). Genesis 4:1–18 records the Lord’s assessments of the offerings presented by the brothers Cain and Abel. Hebrews emphasizes that it was Abel’s faith that made his sacrifice acceptable to God, whereas Cain’s was not (11:4). That the Lord “had regard for Abel and his offering” (Gen 4:4) means he “commended” (martyreō, “bore witness to”) Abel as “righteous”—the first ancient believer to receive God’s commendation (11:2). In the language previously quoted from Habakkuk, Abel was a “righteous one” who “lived by faith.” But Abel also died by faith. Instead of repenting for the unbelief that provoked God’s rejection, his envious brother, Cain, murdered him (Gen 4:8). So, Abel is also the first of many who “died in faith, not having received the things promised” (Heb 11:13). Abel’s blood cried out from the ground against his murderer (Gen 4:9–11); but Abel also “still speaks” to us from the pages of the Old Testament as a witness to God’s faithfulness (Heb 12:1). Moreover, his blood foreshadows the atoning blood of Jesus, which “speaks a better word than that of Abel,” appealing to “God, the judge of all,” not for the punishment we deserve but for the mercy we need (12:23–24).
In contrast to Abel’s martyrdom, Enoch’s rare experience—“taken up so that he should not see death, and he was not found, because God had taken him”—exemplifies the death-defeating life that God confers on his righteous one (11:5). Moses’s comment that Enoch “walked with God” before his translation from earthly life (Gen 5:24) is appropriately expressed, in language reminiscent of Habakkuk 2:3–4, as “having pleased (euaresteō17) God.” God’s pleasure in Enoch reveals Enoch’s faith, for “without faith it is impossible to please” God (11:6). Such faith trusts not only in God’s present reality (“he exists”) but also in his future promises (“he rewards those who seek him”), resting on the solid evidence of God’s Word about “things not seen” (11:1).
Noah shows that God-pleasing faith takes appropriate action when God speaks about “events as yet unseen” (11:7). Moses’s description of Noah in Genesis 6:9 identifies him as “a righteous man” who “walked with (LXX euaresteō, “pleased”) God,” as Enoch did. When God predicted a coming flood (Gen 6:13–21), Noah set to work building the ark. Moses records tersely: “Noah did this; he did all that God commanded him” (Gen 6:22; 7:5, 9, 16). The faith that pleases God is not merely an intellectual assent to concepts; it is a trust that takes action in response to what God has revealed—in Noah’s case, about the impending destruction of the wicked by floodwaters. The outcome of Noah’s active faith was “the saving of his household” from death and their separation from that evil generation (“condemned the world”) (Heb 11:7). Similarly, by faith Moses would later refuse the worldly privilege of his royal upbringing, repudiating “the fleeting pleasures of sin” and the treasures of Egypt (11:25–26). Before the flood, Noah had already “found favor in the eyes of the Lord” who declared him “righteous” (Gen 6:8–9). By heeding God’s warning, Noah showed himself to be “an heir of the righteousness that comes by faith,” fitting the profile of Habakkuk 2:3.
11:8–22 The faith of Abraham (with subsequent patriarchs Isaac, Jacob, Joseph) now receives extended discussion. Our author has introduced Abraham as the example of “those who through faith and patience inherit the promises” (6:12–18; see 7:6). The promises that Abraham believed concerned a homeland, countless offspring, and divine blessing that would overflow to “all the families of the earth” (Gen 12:1–3). These gifts were “things not seen” (11:1) when God called the patriarch to leave Mesopotamia, “not knowing where he was going” (11:8), and childless. The survey of Abraham’s walk of faith first describes the homeland promise (11:9–10), followed by the offspring promise (11:11–2). Then our author elaborates the patriarchs’ understanding of the homeland promise (11:13–16) and the test of Abraham’s faith concerning the offspring promise (11:17–19). Finally, he argues that the faith of Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph was expressed in the words of blessing and prediction that had future generations in view (11:20–22).
The Homeland Promise (11:8–10, 13–16). Abraham’s faith in God’s promise to give him a homeland, as yet unseen, prompted his departure from Mesopotamia (11:8; Gen 12:3–7). Upon reaching the land of promise, Abraham received the promise that God would give his offspring the land (Gen 12:7; 13:14–17; 15:18–21; 17:8). So “by faith” Abraham waited patiently, moving from place to place, and dwelling in tents as a sojourner “in a foreign land” (Heb 11:9; Gen 12:6–9; 13:3, 12, 18; 20:1). So did his son Isaac and grandson Jacob (Gen 26:1–6; 33:17–20). Throughout their lives, these patriarchs described themselves as “strangers and exiles on the earth”18 (Heb 11:13). Abraham did so when he sought to buy a burial place for his wife Sarah: “I am a sojourner and foreigner among you” (Gen 23:4). Jacob characterized his entire life, both in the Promised Land and in Mesopotamia,19 as “the days of the years of my sojourning” (Gen 47:9). Their self-description as transients implied that the true homeland they “greeted from afar” (Heb 11:13) was not the Canaanite territory their offspring would eventually occupy; rather, Abraham was “looking forward” to a permanent, indestructible city with “foundations, whose designer and builder is God” (11:10, 16). All the patriarchs desired “a better country, that is, a heavenly one” (11:16). We have heard that Psalm 95, spoken long after Joshua, presents to David’s generation (and ours) the opportunity to enter “God’s rest,” which transcends the (all-too-temporary) rest that followed the (mostly successful) conquest of Canaan (4:6–8). “God’s rest” is to be found nowhere on this destined-for-destruction earth (1:10–11), but in the heavenly country and the everlasting city to come (11:10, 16; see 13:14).
The Offspring Promise (11:11–12, 17–19). God’s promise of countless offspring depended wholly on the Lord’s enabling Abraham and Sarah to produce a son, even though “she was past the age” and Abraham was, reproductively, “as good as dead” (11:11–12). Although Paul focuses on Abraham’s faith (Rom 4:18–21), Hebrews calls our attention to Sarah’s faith in God’s promise and life-imparting power to produce that humanly impossible conception. Sarah, Rahab of Jericho (Heb 11:31), and the mothers of children raised from the dead by prophets (11:35) are among the women whose faith God commends in the Old Testament. Of course, Genesis shows that neither Abraham nor Sarah displayed unwavering trust that God could keep his word (Gen 15:1–8; 16:1–6; 17:18). After all, both laughed at the absurdity of God’s promise (Gen 17:17; 18:12). Yet their wavering faith was in the unwaveringly faithful God, so from their union “were born descendants as many as the stars . . . and the innumerable grains of sand” (Gen 22:17; see 13:16; 32:12).
The great test of Abraham’s faith came when God commanded him to offer Isaac as a burnt offering (Heb 11:17–19; Gen 22:1–19). The Lord had already dismissed Abraham’s proposal to designate Ishmael as the heir of God’s promises (Gen 17:18–21), so Isaac was indeed the “only son” through whom the Lord’s commitments could come true (Gen 22:2). The only way that Abraham could reconcile God’s promises with this excruciatingly costly command, therefore, was “by faith” that “considered that God was able even to raise [Isaac] from the dead” (Heb 11:19). Although God’s angel stayed Abraham’s knife-wielding hand and supplied a ram to die in Isaac’s place, “figuratively speaking” Abraham did receive his son back from the dead. Both the ram that was slain instead of Abraham’s offspring (Heb 2:14–16) and the son that was raised (figuratively) from death foreshadow Jesus, the final sacrifice (10:10) and the ever-living high priest and great shepherd (13:20).
The Blessing (11:20–22). The blessings pronounced by Isaac on his sons Jacob and Esau and by Jacob on Joseph’s sons expressed these patriarchs’ faith in God to keep his promises in future generations. Isaac’s blessings elevated Jacob, the younger twin, over Esau, designating Jacob as the father of the line with whom God would maintain his redemptive covenant (Gen 27:27–29, 39–40). Jacob’s blessing on Ephraim and Manasseh constituted these grandsons as heads of tribes who would inherit parcels in the Promised Land, along with their uncles (Gen 48; 1Chr 5:1–2). Centuries would pass before the Lord would fulfill the patriarchs’ prophetic blessings, but by faith they saw those blessings from afar. In that same far-seeing faith, Joseph mentioned the future exodus (Heb 11:22), which God had foretold to his great-grandfather Abraham (Gen 15:13–16). Trusting God’s promise of rescue and return to their earthly homeland, Joseph commanded that his bones be brought out of Egypt for burial in the Promised Land—a directive that Moses and Joshua obeyed (Gen 50:24–25; Exod 13:19; Josh 24:32).
11:23–31 With respect to Moses, the biblical record of fearless faith begins with his parents, who hid him to protect him from the Egyptian king’s order that Israel’s newborn sons be slaughtered (Exod 1:15–16; 2:1–2). Moses’s own faith was exercised in four events: his repudiation of status and wealth as the adopted son of Pharaoh’s daughter; his leaving Egypt; his observing the Passover; and Israel’s crossing of the Red Sea. Assuming readers’ familiarity with the account of the Egyptian princess’s discovery of the baby floating in the Nile River and his nurture in the royal court (Exod 2:3–10; see Acts 7:21–22), the author focuses on Moses’s instantaneous decision to kill an Egyptian taskmaster who was beating a Hebrew slave (Heb 11:24–26; Exod 2:11–12; see Acts 7:23–25). By that single life-changing action, Moses identified himself irrevocably with his suffering kinfolk, forfeiting his royal status, “the fleeting pleasures of sin,” and “the treasures of Egypt” (11:25–26). The mistreatment suffered by God’s people demonstrated their union, by grace through faith, with the suffering Messiah who was to come; so, Moses was choosing “the reproach of Christ” as his greatest treasure and reward. Our author will remind his hearers, who had suffered reproach and loss (10:32–34), that Jesus died in rejection “outside the gate,” so they must “go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured” (13:12–13).
Also “by faith” Moses “left Egypt, not being afraid of the anger of the king” (11:27). This departure is narrated before the first Passover (11:28) and Israel’s exodus through the Red Sea (11:29), so it seems to refer Moses’s hasty departure when his killing of the Egyptian became public. But Moses’s own account of his motivation for flight states frankly that he “was afraid,” since Pharaoh sought to kill him (Exod 2:13–15). Surely the original audience knew the Exodus account and was aware of Moses’s fear, just as they would recall Abraham’s and Sarah’s doubting laughter at God’s seemingly impossible promise of a son. Our author is not trying to deceive them or us by denying the Old Testament saints’ flaws; his point is that, despite their failures, both in character and in trust, even feeble faith that clings to God’s promises delights God. Although Moses was afraid (as he honestly recorded), his faith overshadowed his fear, for he saw “him who is invisible” (11:27). His readiness, in a moment, to exchange a life of ease and privilege for a life of self-denial and danger showed that, even before he met the Lord at the burning bush, Moses was trusting in the Lord, who is the supreme Reality among “things unseen” (11:1).
The faith of Moses and of the Israelites was displayed in the events of the exodus, namely, keeping the Passover (11:28) and crossing the Red Sea (11:29). Believing the Lord’s announcement that he was about to send “the Destroyer of the firstborn” throughout Egypt to inflict death on humans and beasts (Exod 11:4–9), Moses and his kinfolk killed lambs, sprinkled their blood on the doorframes of their homes, and ate a solemn meal together, and they were protected from death through the blood of the lambs (12:1–30). At this final plague, Pharaoh expelled the Israelites from Egypt (12:31–32). When he changed his mind and pursued them, the Israelites, though fearful (14:10–12), “by faith” crossed the Red Sea as on dry land, since the Lord had parted the waters before them (14:21–25).
The fall of Jericho’s walls and the rescue of Rahab forty years after the exodus are the last events the author narrates before he moves to an abbreviated summary. Hebrews 3:7–4:13 already discussed that tragic forty-year interim, during which a whole generation perished in the wilderness through unbelief—all except Joshua and Caleb, who trusted God’s promises (3:19–4:2; see Num 14:6–9, 24–30). “By faith” the children of that unbelieving generation encircled the fortified walls of Jericho for seven days, following God’s direction, and then watched the walls crumble at the blast of the Lord’s trumpets and the shout of his people (Josh 6). Amid that destruction, Rahab the prostitute was spared because she had believed the reports of the Lord’s invincible power and risked her life to protect Israel’s spies (Josh 2; 6:22–25; see Jas 2:25).
11:32–38 Since “time would fail” the author if he were to recount in detail all the stories of faith-motivated judges, kings, and prophets throughout Israel’s history, he closes with an abbreviated summary. Capitalizing on his hearers’ familiarity with the Old Testament, he mentions names that would evoke whole narratives of victories won “through faith” (11:32): Gideon’s 300 defeating Midian (Judg 6), Barak conquering Canaanites (Judg 4–5), Samson destroying Philistines (Judg 15–16), Jephthah fighting Ammonites and Amorites (Judg 11), the newly anointed King David slaying the Philistine champion Goliath (1Sam 17), and God speaking his word through Samuel and other prophets. Discerning listeners, of course, would also recall these men’s failures of faith: Gideon’s demand for signs, Barak’s refusal to fight unless accompanied by Deborah the judge, Samson’s contempt for his Nazirite consecration, Jephthah’s foolish vow, David’s adultery and murder. It is not people of flawless faith whom God commends, but those who, despite their failures, trust tenaciously in his promises.
In this summary, individual believers’ names (11:32) and their actions (11:33–38) are no longer in chronological order. The summary of faith’s actions first gathers instances in which faith’s victory was obviously displayed in history (11:33–35a), then it moves to situations in which the faithful suffered hardship, rejection, destitution, and death (11:35b–38). Some of faith’s triumphs are recognizable from specific Old Testament texts: Daniel “stopped the mouths of lions” (Dan 6), and his three faithful Hebrew friends “quenched the power of fire” (Dan 3). David “became mighty in war” and “put foreign armies to flight” (1Sam 17). Through the prophets Elijah and Elisha, “women received back their dead by resurrection” (1Kgs 17; 2Kgs 4). On the other hand, ancient people of faith endured torture and death, “refusing to accept release” if it meant renouncing allegiance to God. They trusted God’s promise of a better resurrection to everlasting life (Greek kreittonos anastaseōs; ESV: “rise again to a better life”), just as the patriarchs accepted their alien status on earth because they desired a better, heavenly homeland (Heb 11:13–16). The Hebrew Christians, too, had accepted the seizure of their property because they anticipated a better, abiding possession (10:34). Old Testament believers endured not only imprisonment and homelessness (1Kgs 17; 22; Jer 37) but also slaughter by stones, saws, and swords (1Kgs 19; 2Chr 24; Jer 26). Though despised by the unbelieving world, that world “was not worthy” of those who, through enduring faith, were heirs of “a kingdom that cannot be shaken” (Heb 12:28).
11:39–40 This survey of ancient believers closes as it began: in the pages of the Old Testament, God “commended” (martyreō, “testified on behalf of”) them through their faith (11:2, 39). Their experience illustrates the forward-looking feature of faith as the evidence that confirms “things hoped for” (11:1), since in their own redemptive-historical era they “did not receive what was promised” (echoing 11:13). Just as the Law presented shadows of “good things to come”—blessings now brought by Christ (10:1; 9:11)—so also Isaac’s birth (11:11) and Israel’s inheritance of Canaan (11:30) were only partial, preliminary previews of the ultimate fulfillment of “the promise” (Greek tēn epangelian, rendered “what was promised” in ESV; 11:39). That promise came true through the Son’s incarnation to achieve his redemptive mission (2Cor 1:19–20). At Christ’s coming, “something better” finally arrived. Now old covenant and new covenant believers together are “made perfect,” our consciences cleansed to approach God’s holy presence by Jesus’s once-for-all sacrifice (10:14).
Looking to Jesus Fortifies Our Faith to Endure (12:1–11)
12:1–4 The opening conjunction “therefore” and the mention of “so great a cloud of witnesses” reveal the conclusion toward which the history of the faithful (Heb 11) has been leading (12:1). From the pages of the Old Testament, not only does God testify on behalf of those ancient believers (11:2, 4, 5, 16, 39), but they also testify to us on God’s behalf, attesting his faithfulness to keep his promises (11:4, 11, 20–22). Their testimony strongly encourages us to “run with endurance the race set before us,” shedding every encumbrance that would hinder us.
This sports imagery, drawn from the ancient Panhellenic games (precursors to our modern Olympics), illustrates both the self-denial and the stamina required of those who strive toward “the goal for the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil 3:14). Our author already assured us that Jesus, as “a forerunner on our behalf,” has entered God’s heavenly sanctuary, where he has anchored securely our hope of salvation (Heb 6:19–20). In another athletic metaphor, he will soon remind us that we run the marathon of faith as teammates who must strengthen each other, especially those who are weak or injured (12:12–15).
The “weight” that would hinder our striving is “sin which clings so closely.” Every form of sin that is not resisted obstructs our growth in godliness, and Hebrews explicitly identifies such sins as immorality and addiction to money (12:16; 13:4–5). But the deadliest sin, against which Hebrews warns most often, is “to fall away from the living God” by renouncing the Son of God and his atoning sacrifice (3:12; 4:11–13; 6:4–6; 10:26–31; 12:15–17). The necessity of endurance that does not “shrink back” (Heb 10:35–39), which was illustrated in the lives of ancient believers (11:27, 35–38), is now presented as the right response of beloved sons to their Father’s wise, though painful, discipline (12:1–11).
The ancient saints’ testimony turns our eyes away from the saints themselves, for the strength that sustains our endurance is found not in their example but in “looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith” (12:2–3). He is the source and captain (archēgos; see 2:10) who secured our salvation. Christ trusted the Father to reward his obedient suffering with the salvation of his children (2:12–15), so we rest our trust in Christ, the guarantor of the new and better covenant (7:22). Jesus is faith’s “perfecter” because he “always lives to make intercession” as our eternal high priest, thereby saving “to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him” (7:25).
As Moses looked forward to the reward promised by God, willing to endure the reproach of Christ (11:25–26), so Christ himself looked beyond the cross and its shame (see 1Cor 1:18–25; Gal 3:13; 6:14; Deut 21:22–23) to “the joy that was set before him” (12:2). That joy included his enthronement “at the right hand of the throne of God.” But it also embraced his delight in telling God’s name to his brothers and singing God’s praise among those whom he had redeemed by his blood (Heb 2:12, citing Ps 22:22). As Isaiah predicted, “. . . when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring, he shall prolong his days . . . Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied” (Isa 53:10–11).
Considering Jesus, who endured intense hostility from sinners, will fortify our hearts against weariness and faintheartedness in our own struggle against the arch-sin of apostasy (12:3). After all, despite the hardships that the original audience had endured (10:32–34), they were still alive. In contrast to Jesus himself, who willingly embraced shameful death on the cross (12:2), the hearers’ own struggle had not reached “the point of shedding your blood” in martyrdom (12:4).
12:5–11 To resist the temptation to self-pity and discouragement, the hearers must remember that, whoever their sinful persecutors may be, their adversity ultimately demonstrates their Father’s loving acceptance and wise discipline. The “exhortation” (or “encouragement”; Greek paraklēsis includes both; cf. 6:18) to sons spoken in Proverbs 3:11–12 assures believers that the Lord reserves his discipline—painful though it is—for those whom he loves, acknowledges, and welcomes as his legitimate children. The exhortation in Proverbs forbids two negative responses to God’s discipline: (1) regarding it “lightly,” in arrogant resistance to correction, or (2) growing weary, interpreting the father’s reproof as personal rejection (Heb 12:5).
In Greco-Roman society, wealthy men routinely married one wife to produce legitimate heirs but also had relationships with other women, both courtesans and slaves. The illegitimate offspring of such illicit unions were “left without discipline” (12:8), since their dissolute conduct did not jeopardize the father’s reputation or estate. The legitimate son and heir, on the other hand, was subjected to a rigid regimen of discipline (comparable to slavery; cf. Gal 4:1–2) because he bore the family name and would inherit his father’s wealth. So also God’s discipline in believers’ lives—even in the form of suffering for resisting sin and holding faith fast—is evidence that “God is treating you as sons” (12:7).
By comparing and contrasting human fathers’ discipline and God’s discipline, the author reasons from the lesser to the greater to establish the point that sons’ natural respect for their human fathers should be evident all the more in Christians’ trust, honor, and submission to our heavenly Father (12:9–10). Three contrasts make the point:
- Our “earthly fathers” (ESV) are “the fathers of our flesh” (Greek tous tēs sarkos pateras), who gave us physical life, whereas God is “the Father of spirits,” who has given us spiritual life.
- Human fathers’ discipline was “for a short time,” while God’s discipline continues throughout our lives.
- Human fathers, at their best, disciplined their sons “as it seemed best to them.” Their motives may have been sincere, but their wisdom was limited. God’s discipline is unerringly “for our good, that we may share his holiness.”
Acknowledging that, in the moment, “all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant,” the author urges us to fix our sights not only upward to Jesus at God’s right hand (12:2–3), but also forward to the future, when our present distress will yield “the peaceful fruit of righteousness” (12:11). This focus on the Father’s disciplinary goal expresses the enduring, God-pleasing faith that perceives “things not seen” (11:1, 26, 35). When our faith is weary in the struggle and at risk of shrinking back, Jesus, our merciful and faithful high priest who “suffered when tempted” and endured the cross for the sake of the joy that lay beyond, stands ready to help us (2:17–18).
Our Heavenly, Joyful Worship Surpasses Sinai’s Fiery Terrors (12:12–29)
More athletic imagery—drooping hands, weak knees, lame feet at risk of dislocation—reintroduces the theme that maintaining enduring faith is a corporate responsibility (see 3:12–14; 4:1; 10:24–25). Christians are responsible for each other. We must encourage the weak, the wounded, and the wavering (12:12–13). Together we must pursue peace and holiness (12:14). Whereas the church’s leaders “watch over your souls” as those accountable to the Lord (13:17), here everyone is called to be vigilant, lest anyone “fails to obtain the grace of God,” acting as a “root of bitterness” that jeopardizes others’ faith (12:15) and imitates Esau’s fixation on immediate gratification and contempt for God’s long-range promises (12:16–17).
12:12–16 The mention of injured limbs (12:12–13) alludes to the prophecy of Isaiah, in which the summons to “strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees” is immediately explained: “Say to those who have an anxious heart, ‘Be strong; fear not!’” (Isa 35:3–5). In an echo of Proverbs 4:25–27, the “straight paths” that help to heal an injured joint are level routes that lead straight to the goal: the eternal city that God has promised us (Heb 13:14). Through opposition and social rejection, some of the first audience were apparently tempted to disillusionment and to lapsing in their commitment to Christ and their confidence in God’s promises (4:1; 6:4–8; 10:24–25, 39; 12:15). To counteract this risk, all the hearers must “exhort (encourage) one another daily” (3:13; 10:25).
Positively, this mutual support will take the form of striving for (Greek diōkō, “pursue”) “peace with everyone, and for . . . holiness” (12:14). Since the Father’s painful discipline of his beloved sons will yield “the peaceful fruit of righteousness” (12:11), our unity and peace with brothers and sisters in the church must be pursued strenuously in the present. Paul likewise urged the Christians of Ephesus to “be eager (Greek spoudazō, “take pains, make every effort”) to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph 4:3). Peaceful unity among Christ’s people is created by his sovereign Spirit, but it also demands our commitment to humility, gentleness, patience, and forbearing love (Eph 4:2). Our Father disciplines us “that we may share his holiness,” his purity of character (Heb 12:10). But the “holiness” (hagiasmos) in view in 12:14 focuses on enduring trust in the conscience-cleansing sacrifice of Christ. Hebrews uses the cognate verb hagiazō (ESV, “sanctify”) to describe the defilement-removing effectiveness of Jesus’s death once for all (2:11; 10:10, 29; 13:12; see 9:13–14). It is Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf that “perfects” us once for all (10:14), so that we may draw near and see God. To pursue this “holiness,” this status as those consecrated to stand in God’s presence, we must hold fast our confession (4:14; 10:23) and not fall away from the Son of God and his sanctifying blood (6:6; 10:29).
12:15–17 Failing to persevere, the danger against which we must be vigilant (ESV “see to it,” Greek episkopeō, “be on watch”), is described in three ways: believers are to watch out (1) lest anyone fails to obtain God’s grace, (2) lest any root of bitterness springs up, and (3) lest anyone be immoral or profane like Esau. To fall short of God’s grace is to imitate the unbelieving wilderness generation, who “fail[ed] to reach” God’s rest through unbelief (4:1; 3:12). Such doubt harms not only the individual but also the community, for the person whose seeds of unbelief grow into full-blown apostasy resembles the “root of bitterness” against which Moses warned Israel: “Beware lest there be among you a man or woman or clan or tribe whose heart is turning away today from the Lord our God to go and serve the gods of those nations. Beware lest there be among you a root bearing poisonous and bitter fruit . . .” (Deut 29:18) To turn away from Christ and turn back toward the old covenant sacrificial system is to spurn the “new and living way” of access to God (10:19–20). Such treason spreads distrust among God’s people and defiles other followers of Jesus.
The attitude to be opposed is that of Esau, who preferred the instant gratification of his physical desires to the inheritance God had promised for a distant future (Gen 25:29–34). Moses’s summary of Esau’s motive is blunt: “Thus Esau despised his birthright” (Gen 25:34). Genesis 27 shows that Esau lost the blessing that he anticipated as the firstborn through his mother’s and brother Jacob’s conspiracy. Although Jacob was far from praiseworthy, his determination to obtain both birthright and blessing exhibited a far-sighted trust in God’s long-term promises (Heb 11:13). That faith, which perceived things not yet seen, set Jacob apart from Esau, whose sensual appetites blinded him to the reality of God, who rewards those who diligently seek him (11:1, 6). The repentance (ESV, “chance to repent”) that Esau sought but could not find might possibly refer to his tearful plea that his father Isaac reverse his “mistaken” blessing of Jacob and restore to Esau the firstborn’s blessing—a plea that his father refused (Gen 27:33–38). Probably, though, Esau himself had gone beyond the point at which he could repent of his sensual and faithless lifestyle. Esau was like those who once experienced life in the community of faith, but who then fall away and renounce Christ irrevocably (Heb 6:4–8). Mutual encouragement in Christ’s church is vital to enduring faith.
In 12:18–29, the author presents a vivid picture to motivate us (“For”) to strengthen weak believers and to safeguard our fellowship from those who endanger others’ spiritual health. We are privileged to enter a heavenly sanctuary and participate in joyful worship, both of which stand in sharp contrast to the terrors of Mount Sinai, where Moses received the Law.
12:18–21 The description of the touchable mountain, Sinai, is drawn from several texts in the books of Moses. Sinai’s “blazing fire and darkness and gloom and tempest and the sound of a trumpet and a voice” (Deut 4:11–12; Exod 19:16–19) displayed the consuming holiness of God, who descended on the mountain to summon Israel into covenant relationship. The divine voice struck such terror into the Israelites’ hearts that they begged the Lord not to address them directly, but instead to convey his word through Moses (Exod 20:18–21). Israel’s Holy One forbade man and beast from even touching the mountain, upon pain of death (Exod 19:12–13, 20–23). Even Moses himself trembled in fear that the Lord would destroy his people for their idolatrous worship of the golden calf (Deut 9:18–19; see Exod 24; 32).
12:22–24 The terrifying phenomena of Sinai not only displayed God’s dangerous holiness but also foreshadowed Israel’s future treason. They would violate “the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke . . .” (Jer 31:31–32; Heb 8:8). Their rebellion eventually led to exile.
But that terrifying mountain, identified with the shattered old covenant, is not the venue of our worship, now that Christ’s sacrifice has opened for us a “new and living way” into God’s heavenly sanctuary (10:19–22). Instead of approaching God in guilty terror, we now enter by faith into God’s true sanctuary, “Mount Zion and . . . the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem” (12:22). There we participate in the joyful worship that angels and perfected saints offer to God through Jesus, “the mediator of a new covenant” (12:22–24). Hebrews has already spoken of the “city with foundations” for which Abraham and all the patriarchs hoped (11:10, 16). New covenant believers too await an abiding (eternal) city to come (13:14). John saw in his vision “the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God” (Rev 21:2), permeated by the radiant splendor of God (Rev 21:10–23). But our access to that eternal city is not only future—it is also present: “you have come to . . . the city of the living God.” Already, by faith, in our worship we enter an ongoing celebration in heaven.
As we enter this heavenly “festal gathering,” we join “innumerable angels” (12:22), who eagerly obey the command that God issued at his Son’s ascension: “Let all God’s angels worship him” (Heb 1:6). This congregation is also “the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven,” namely, “the spirits of the righteous made perfect” (12:23). These are those ancient believers who trusted God’s promises but were not yet perfected in their own lifetimes (11:39–40). Now through Jesus’s sacrifice they have been perfected and consecrated as priests, as we all have been (10:14). United by faith with God’s unique firstborn Son, his preeminent heir, these people who are righteous by faith (10:38) share the privileged “firstborn” status of the Son who calls them brothers (2:11–12; see Rom 8:29). They are “enrolled in heaven,” for their names are recorded in the Lamb’s book of life (Rev 21:27; Luke 10:20; Phil 4:3; see Exod 32:32–33; Dan 12:1).
The focus of these angelic and human worshipers’ adoration is, of course, “God, the judge of all,” and “Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant” (12:23–24). As we have seen, that new covenant, inaugurated by Christ’s sacrificial death on our behalf (9:14–15), succeeds the broken Sinai covenant and secures “better promises” (8:6–13). Whereas Abel’s blood cried out against his murderer, demanding just retribution (Gen 4:10), Jesus’s blood “speaks a better word,” appealing for mercy toward the guilty; and his Father the Judge readily grants his plea (Heb 7:23–24; see Rom 8:33–34).
12:25–29 The contrast between Sinai’s terrors and heaven’s joys calls us to heed God’s Word and to worship him with gratitude and reverent awe. We have learned the penalties for violating the Law delivered by angels at Sinai, and given the Son’s superiority to those angels, no escape is possible for those who neglect his announcement of salvation (2:1–4). Here the same point is made from the contrast of God’s speaking on earth at Sinai and his presently speaking from heaven to us. At Sinai the Lord’s voice made the mountain “tremble greatly” and the Israelites withdraw in fear (Exod 19:18; 20:18–19). Now new covenant believers hear God’s voice from heaven, where Christ sits at God’s right hand (Heb 8:1), imparting his Word through church leaders empowered by the Holy Spirit (2:3–4; 13:7).
In keeping with God’s promise (Hag 2:6), someday God’s almighty voice will “shake not only the earth but also the heavens,” dismantling the whole universe, which “will perish” and “wear out like a garment” (Heb 1:10–12, citing Ps 102:25–27). That future cosmic cataclysm will display the holiness and justice of our God, who is, as Moses said, “a consuming fire, a jealous God” (Deut 4:34; Heb 12:29). His daunting, dangerous purity demands that we worship him “with reverence and awe” (12:28). On the other hand, through Jesus, we are already receiving “a kingdom that cannot be shaken,” which will transcend this transient universe (12:27–28). Such overwhelming grace calls for overflowing gratitude. The ESV’s “let us be grateful” reflects the Greek echōmen charin, meaning (probably) “let us have gratitude,” or (possibly) “let us have grace”—a deliberately chosen ambiguity, since elsewhere in Hebrews charis refers to God’s grace extended to us (2:9; 4:16; 10:29; 12:15; 13:2, 25). Worship that pleases God blends thankful wonder over his mercy with the reverent awe that befits his majesty.
Respond to God’s Gifts of Grace with Worship, in Loving Service and Grateful Praise (13:1–25)
Hebrews shifts in style from sermonic to epistolary, closing with items that we see in other New Testament letters: terse commands, directions about congregational leadership, prayer requests, travel plans, personal greetings, and two benedictions. A variety of themes—ethical, theological, pastoral, and personal—are addressed in quick succession. Three opening commands focus on love for fellow Christians (13:1–3). Next are directives about marital purity and financial contentment (13:4–6). Past human leaders are to be remembered and imitated, while our hearts are stabilized by the unchanging Christ (13:7–8). One final warning against turning back to the old covenant’s sacrificial system is supported by appeal to the greater blessings that Jesus’s blood has secured for us (13:9–14). Such grace elicits worship that pleases God (13:15–16). The congregation must submit to their current leaders, who are accountable to God (13:17). The author requests prayer, especially regarding his hope to revisit the congregation (13:18–19). A first benediction invokes the God of peace to equip his people to “do his will” for his pleasure, through Jesus (13:20–21). The congregation should patiently hear this “word of exhortation” (13:22). Returning to his travel plans, the author mentions that Timothy may accompany him (13:23). Mutual greetings are exchanged before a final benediction (13:24–25).
13:1–3 Our obligation to “let brotherly love (philadelphia) continue” in proactive, practical ways (13:1) has been expressed in exhortations to encourage those whose faith is weak and wavering (3:12–13; 10:24–25; 12:12–17). Moreover, the original audience has been commended for their past and present service to the saints (6:10) and readiness to stand in solidarity with fellow believers who endure public reproach and imprisonment (10:32–34). Christ is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters (adelphoi) (2:11), so their evident love for each other as spiritual siblings must be maintained.
Specifically, this brotherly love must be exercised in hospitality (Greek philoxenia, “stranger-love”) to traveling believers and concrete concern for those imprisoned for Jesus (13:2–3). In an environment of persecution, Christians might doubt unknown travelers’ claims to be followers of Jesus (Acts 9:26), and therefore withhold welcome into their homes, out of fear of betrayal. But Jesus regards hospitality extended to his own as welcome offered to himself (Matt 10:40–42; 25:34–40). Besides, one’s unrecognized guests might be angels, as Abraham and Lot discovered (Gen 18–19). Brotherly love must also extend to those who are in chains and abused for Christ. When we identify with such sufferers, as “in prison with them” and “in the body” that suffers harm, it expresses our union with Christ, who reckons his people’s injuries as his own (Acts 9:4–5).
13:4–6 Next, exhortations to sexual purity and material contentment are linked by parallel word order:
- Precious (be) the marriage (Greek ho gamos)
- Not-money-loving (be) the lifestyle (Greek ho tropos)
We have been warned against imitating Esau’s fixation on immediate gratification of his sensual appetites (12:16–17). Now our author commends virtues that are the opposite of Esau’s vices. Central to treasuring the precious value (ESV “honor,” Greek timios) of marriage is maintaining the purity of its sexual consummation—to keep its bed “undefiled”—through exclusive fidelity to one’s spouse. Elsewhere the Bible presents a positive motivation for such fidelity: it makes human marriage a reflection of God’s covenant with his people (Isa 62:5; Jer 2:1–3; Ezek 16; Eph 5:31–32; Rev 19:7–8; 21:2). Here, the rationale for marital faithfulness is negative: “God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous,” as other Scriptures also warn (Lev 20:10–16; Mal 2:10–16).
13:5–6 The “love of money” may be fueled by a thirst for pleasure or power, but here its motive is the security that money promises. Its antidote, which keeps us content with what we have (see Phil 4:11–13; 1 Tim 6:6–10), is God’s promise, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” The Lord made this promise to Jacob as he fled from his angry brother Esau (Gen 28:15), and to Joshua as he faced the daunting task of conquering the Promised Land (Josh 1:5). Jesus also made this promise, though in different words, to his church as he sent us to make disciples of all nations: “I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt 28:20). Because of his promise, we can echo the ancient psalmist’s calm assertion that the Lord’s presence as our helper calms our fears (Ps 118:6; see Heb 2:16–18; 4:16).
13:7–8, 17 Although the Lord, through his Spirit, will never leave us, church leaders (elders) do change from one generation to the next. Having spoken God’s Word to Christ’s people, those who have completed their marathon of faith and faithful ministry are to be remembered and imitated (13:7). Despite their passing, our security is grounded in the truth that Jesus is “the same yesterday and today and forever” (13:8). The Son who created the heavens and earth “remains the same,” even when the universe wears out and perishes (1:10–12, citing Ps 102:25–27). He lives and ministers forever as the priest in the order of Melchizedek (7:13–22), so he can “save to the uttermost” those who approach God through him (7:28). His changeless Person, power, and presence secure our hearts against every threat and fear. Moreover, the church’s present leaders must be obeyed and respected, since they are watchmen who are accountable to Jesus, charged to protect the safety of his church (13:17; Ezek 3:17–21; Acts 20:28–31). Although the elders of new covenant churches, like Israel’s ancient priests, change from generation to generation (Heb 7:23), our changeless Christ—both eternal God and perfect man—faithfully and powerfully shepherds his sheep (13:20).
13:9–14 Past and present leaders who are true to God’s Word are to be remembered, respected, and imitated because “diverse and strange teachings” threaten to lead believers away from trust in Christ. Our author’s response to these dangerous doctrines shows that the error involves access to “foods,” the meat of sacrifices offered on the altar of “the tent.” In other words, this “strange” error involves returning to old covenant institutions (Aaronic priesthood, earthly sanctuary, animal sacrifices, dietary regulations, and external cleansing rites), which is to abandon our confession of faith in Jesus. Those institutions were established by God “until the time of reformation” arrived (9:8–10), but they offered only “a shadow of the good things to come” (10:1) and have been rendered obsolete by Jesus’s mediation of the new covenant (8:6, 13). Jewish Christians would have been shocked to hear the ancient sacrificial system described as “diverse and strange teachings,” but our author has already said that returning to Judaism and abandoning Jesus is to “fall away from the living God” (3:12) by showing contempt for God’s Son and his sanctifying blood (6:6; 10:29). Now that Christ has entered history to complete the Father’s will, the Son’s sacrifice has replaced the Law’s rituals (10:5–10). To turn back is to rebel against God.
The “grace” that strengthens our hearts is not meat left over from Israel’s peace offerings (Lev 3) but the benefits of “an altar” that nourishes only those who trust in Jesus (13:9–10). By God’s grace, Christ died for all his brothers and sisters (2:9–11), thereby imparting the blessings promised in the new covenant: the forgiveness, cleansing, and consecration required to approach God with confidence (8:6, 10–12; 10:19–23).
Our union with Christ by faith, which nourishes our hearts, also entails identifying with him in his suffering (13:11–14). On the Day of Atonement, after the high priest brought the blood of a bull and a goat into the Most Holy Place, their carcasses were carried outside Israel’s camp—to the realm of ceremonial “uncleanness” (Lev 13:45–46)—to be consumed by fire (Lev 16:27–28). It was with this practice in view that the author tells us, “Jesus also suffered outside the gate,” the location of his crucifixion symbolizing his rejection by his people (John 1:11; 19:14–17). Receiving God’s grace through Jesus includes bearing “the reproach he (Jesus) endured,” just as Moses did when he renounced his privilege as prince of Egypt and identified himself with God’s suffering people (Heb 11:24–26). For the original audience, going to Jesus “outside the camp” would mean exclusion from Temple and synagogue, even rejection by family and friends (John 12:42; 16:2; Acts 18:5–7). Such losses, however, cannot compare with the welcome that is ours into the eternal city to come (13:14), the object of the patriarchs’ hope (11:10, 13–16) and the heavenly sanctuary of angels’ and saints’ celebratory worship (12:22–24).
13:15–16 God’s grace elicits our grateful worship. In Hebrews 12:28 we heard that his gift of “a kingdom that cannot be shaken” should move us to “offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe.” Now our anticipation of the everlasting city to come (13:14) calls us to “continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God,” as well as the sacrifices of doing good and sharing our possessions with others. Jesus’s atoning death has ended altogether any need for the repeated animal bloodshed to deal with sin’s guilt and penalty (10:5–10, 17–18). Nevertheless, new covenant believers, ransomed by the Lamb’s blood and consecrated as a “kingdom and priests” (Rev 5:8–10), now offer other forms of sacrifice that please God. Our “spiritual sacrifices” (1Pet 2:5) now flow from our response to God’s mercies by presenting our bodies as a “living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God” (Rom 12:1). In the old covenant sanctuary, animals were offered as “sacrifices of praise (or “thanksgiving,” Greek tēs thysias tēs aineseōs)” (cf. Lev 7:12–15). Yet even in the Old Testament, worshipers are directed to “offer to God a sacrifice of praise (Greek thysian aineseōs),” namely, keeping vows, calling on the Lord, and glorifying him (Ps 50:14–15), for “The one who offers thanksgiving (praise) as his sacrifice (thysia aineseōs) glorifies me” (Ps 50:23). So also Hebrews identifies our “sacrifice of praise” (thysian aineseōs) with the words we speak: “the fruit of lips that acknowledge (or “confess,” Greek homologeō) his name.” Jesus is the “high priest of our confession (homologia)” (Heb 3:1), and we have been exhorted to hold fast our confession of trust in him (4:14; 10:23). As our act of worship, confession is not merely verbal agreement; it is outspoken acclamation of God’s grace in Christ. We must also “not neglect” doing good to others and sharing (koinōnia) with those in need, for such sacrifices please God. The exhortation to “not neglect” is repeated from 13:2–3, where we learned that “doing good” entails hospitality to homeless strangers and engagement with prisoners (see also 6:10; 10:33–34). In the same vein, Paul wrote his thanks to the Philippian Christians, assuring them that their eagerness to “share” (koinōnia) their resources to meet Paul’s need was actually “a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God” (Phil 4:14–19).
13:18–19 Another privilege of priests is to “draw near to the throne of grace” (Heb 4:16), not only to present their own requests but also to intercede for others (7:25). Therefore, our author now asks his audience to “Pray for us,” especially that God would enable him to return to minister to them in person in the near future. Since he has followed his own counsel by trusting Christ’s blood to cleanse his conscience, holding fast his confession, and striving for peace and holiness by acting “honorably in all things,” he has “a clear conscience.” As he has urged his audience to gather for mutual encouragement (10:24–25), he is eager to rejoin them in worship and edification again, in person.
13:20–21 A first benediction draws together the glorious themes of this majestic epistle-sermon. Biblical benedictions are not merely prayers to God on behalf of other people. They are addressed to the people, but they invoke God’s blessing on those people, so they are pronounced by those whom God has authorized to stand as links between the Lord and his people. Aaron and his sons, Israel’s priests, “placed [the Lord’s] name on the people of Israel” with the well-known blessing: “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace” (Num 6:24–27). Even earlier in redemptive history, the priest-king of Salem, Melchizedek, pronounced a benediction on Abraham (and Abraham’s offspring): “Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth; and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand!” (Gen 14:19–20; see Heb 7:6–7).
It is the “God of peace” who confers blessing on his people through the priest-king in the order of Melchizedek, king of Salem, which means “king of peace” (Heb 7:2). The conscience-cleansing blood of Christ has reconciled us to the divine Judge, granting us peace with God (Rom 5:1). His blood has secured the “eternal covenant” (Isa 61:8)—the new covenant that can never be broken by our sins, for God has promised that he will “remember their sins no more” (Heb 8:12; 10:17). When God “brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus” at the resurrection, he certified publicly that Christ’s sacrifice had atoned for all our sins (see Rom 4:25). Jesus’s resurrection to endless life and enthronement at God’s right hand demonstrate why his priestly ministry infinitely surpasses that of Aaron (Heb 7:16–17, 23–25). Isaiah 63:11 described Israel’s exodus through the Red Sea in imagery that Hebrews now echoes: “. . . he . . . brought them up out of the sea with the shepherds of his flock.” Our Lord Jesus, however, is “the great shepherd of the sheep”—greater than Moses and Aaron (Heb 3:1–6; 5:1–2; 7:11, 27–28). The rescue that his death achieved for his flock has vanquished a far worse foe than Egypt, namely, “the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil” (2:14–16).
God’s blessing will “equip” his people with the desire and power of his Spirit “working in us,” so that we “may do his will” (as the recipients had been doing, 10:36). By God’s transforming power, our motives and affections, relationships, words, and actions become “pleasing in his sight.” The adjective “pleasing” (euareston) returns to the motif of worship that delights God as our supreme purpose (12:2820; 13:16). The radical transformation that enables us to fulfill this high and holy priestly ministry comes only “through Jesus Christ,” not from ourselves. It is therefore appropriate that he is the one to receive “glory forever and ever.”
13:22–25 The final greetings and closing benediction bring themes explored earlier to a fitting conclusion. Our author identifies his work as a “word of exhortation”—the ancient Jewish Dispersion’s term for a sermon (see Acts 13:15). This description explains the repetition of “exhortation” (parakaleō) terminology (3:13; 6:18; 10:25; 12:5; 13:19) and the hortatory sections interspersed throughout the sermon (2:1–4; 3:7–4:13; 5:11–6:12; 10:19–31; 12:1–17, 25–29; 13:1–19). Moreover, it sends the signal that the purpose of Hebrews’ rich theological exposition of the Person and atoning work of Jesus Christ is to exhort and encourage Christians to respond to God’s grace with worship, endurance, and mutual support. The sermon is “brief,” in part, because the author has abbreviated at points (9:5; 11:32) to avoid wearying his hearers.
Timothy—presumably the Timothy who was Paul’s pastoral apprentice, since he receives no introduction—has been released from prison. He may accompany the author as he returns to serve the original congregation (13:23). Our author has practiced his directive to “remember those who are in prison” by maintaining communication with Timothy during the latter’s captivity. Timothy’s imprisonment shows that bearing “the reproach of Christ” can be costly, as Old Testament believers (11:24–26, 35–38) and the original audience (10:32–34; 12:3–4; 13:12–13) knew from experience. The greeting to “your leaders,” as well as to “all the saints” (13:24), reinforces his encouragement to obey and submit to the church’s present elders (13:17). As observed in the introductory notes, the greeting from “those from Italy”—believers currently residing outside Italy—may imply that the epistle-sermon was addressed to a congregation in Italy, perhaps in Rome itself.
Finally, a closing benediction: “Grace be with all of you” (13:25). It was “by the grace of God” that the divine Son became human in order to “taste death” for us all and to free us from the fear of death (2:9, 14–15). Since Jesus is our merciful and faithful high priest, we may “draw near to the throne of grace” to “receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (4:14–16). It is God’s grace that strengthens our hearts to endure in hope during our lifelong pilgrimage toward the everlasting City of God (13:9, 14).
Brown, Raymond. The Message of Hebrews. TBST. Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1984.
Bruce, F. F. The Epistle to the Hebrews. Eerdmans Classical Biblical Commentaries (originally NICNT). Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018.
Ellingworth, Paul. The Epistle to the Hebrews. NIGTC. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993.
Guthrie, George H. Hebrews. NIVAC. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998.
–––. “Hebrews” in Beale, G. K. and D. A. Carson, eds. Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007.
Heen, Erik H. and Philip D. W. Krey, eds. Hebrews. ACCS New Testament 10. Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2005.
Hughes, Philip Edgcumbe. A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987.
Hughes, R. Kent. Hebrews: An Anchor for the Soul. Preaching the Word. Wheaton: Crossway, 2015.
Johnson, Dennis E. “Hebrews” in ESV Expository Commentary. Vol. 12. Wheaton: Crossway, 2018.
Johnson, Luke Timothy. Hebrews: A Commentary. NTL. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2006.
Kruger, Michael J. Hebrews For You. Charlotte, NC: The Good Book Company, 2021.
Lane, William L. Hebrews 9-13. WBC 47A, 47B. Dallas: Word, 1991.
Peterson, David G. Hebrews: An Introduction and Commentary. TNCT. Downers Grove: IVP, 2020.
Phillips, Richard D. Hebrews. REC. Phillipsburg: P&R, 2006.
Schreiner, Thomas R. Commentary on Hebrews. BTCP. Nashville: Holman, 2015.
Vos, Geerhardus. The Teaching of the Epistle to the Hebrews. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1956.
Endnotes & Permissions
1. John Calvin, The Epistle of Paul the Apostle (sic) WHY “SIC” HERE? to the Hebrews and the First and Second Epistles of St. Peter (tr. William B. Johnston, eds. David W. Torrance and Thomas F. Torrance) (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), 1.
2. “Table 1.1: Major Sections in Hebrews” from Dennis E. Johnson, “Hebrews,” Iain M. Duguid, James M. Hamilton, Jr., and Jay Sklar, eds. ESV Expository Commentary, vol. 12 (Wheaton: Crossway, 2018), 23. Used by permission.
3. The Greek makes the contrast more obvious than the ESV: “of the angels on the one hand (Greek men, omitted in ESV), he says . . .”, then “but on the other hand (Greek de), of the Son he says . . .”
4. Repetition of terms (we have, great priest, heavens/holy places, Jesus, hold fast, confession, confidence, draw near) links these paragraphs, signaling that Hebrews 10:19–25 marks the conclusion of the long central discussion of priesthood, covenant, sanctuary, and sacrifice, which was introduced in 4:14–16. Following 10:25 is a vivid warning about apostasy followed by a reassurance to the faithful (10:26–35), which serves as a transition to the next theme: access to our heavenly homeland through enduring faith (10:36–12:29).
5. Hebrews’ use of “make perfect” (Greek teleioō), especially with respect to Jesus (2:10; 5:9; 7:28), reflects the usage of the Greek Old Testament (Septuagint, or “LXX”), to express the consecration of priests to enter God’s holy place (Exod 29:9, 29, 35; Lev 8:33).
6. The Greek term for “washings” is baptismos, which reappears in 9:10 to describe superficial cleansing rites under the Mosaic law (see 9:13). In the New Testament, a different word, baptisma, refers to Christian baptism.
7. F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews. NICNT, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1990), 80.
8. In Hebrews 7:27, “he did this once for all” refers only to his sacrifice for his people’s sins, since he had no sin.
9. This Greek term appears in Acts 22:28 to refer to a monetary amount. In literature outside the New Testament, it designates the “main point” or “summary” of a discourse.
10. Moses’s record of this covenant inauguration mentions the sprinkling of blood on the people of Israel and on the altar.
11. “World” reflects a different Greek word (kosmos) from oikoumenē, which in Hebrews 1:6 and 2:5 refers to the “world to come,” the eschatological realm that Christ entered at his resurrection and ascension, after his atoning sacrifice on the cross.
12. In the Hebrew Scriptures, Psalm 40:6 reads, “ears you dug for me” (see ESV footnote), but Hebrews follows the three main manuscripts of the Greek Septuagint (LXX), which have “a body you prepared for me.”
13. The severity of capital punishment required that accusations be substantiated by “the evidence of two or three witnesses” (Heb 10:28; Num 35:30; Deut 17:1–7; 19:11–15). This requirement applies also to matters of church discipline under the new covenant (Matt 18:16; 1Tim 5:19).
14. Elsewhere in the New Testament, parrēsia also expresses boldness and openness in proclaiming God’s Word to other people (Acts 4:13, 29; 2Cor 3:12; 7:4). In Hebrews, parrēsia (“confidence,” 3:6; 4:16; 10:19, 35) and plērophoria (“full assurance,” 6:11; 10:22) are roughly synonymous expressions of fearlessness in approaching God’s daunting holiness, resulting from the cleansing of one’s conscience through the priestly mediation of Jesus.
15. Our author would insist that, by faith, the unseen realities were indeed “in view” for those ancient believers!
16. The ESV’s “received commendation/commended” represents the Greek verb martyreō in 11:2, 4, 5, 39.
17. Hebrews’ use of euaresteō follows the LXX’s paraphrase of the Hebrew metaphor “walked with God” (Gen 5:21, 24). The verb eudokeō in the citation of Habakkuk 2:4 (Heb 10:38) describes divine pleasure from the perspective of God, the subject who is pleased, whereas euaresteō presents the complementary perspective: the believer (Enoch) gives pleasure to God (11:5–6).
18. The Greek noun gē may designate a specific “land” (as in 11:9) or the entire earth (as in 1:10; 8:9; 12:25–26). Our author reasons from the patriarchs’ acknowledgement of their alien status in the land of promise that they saw and “greeted from afar” an infinitely better city and homeland than Canaan, “a better country, a heavenly one” (11:16). In 11:13, the ESV’s translation “earth” fits the author’s argument.
19. In Haran, Jacob served his father-in-law Laban for fourteen years to obtain his wives Leah (through Laban’s deceit) and Rachel (whom Jacob loved) (Gen 29:15–30). He continued to live in Mesopotamia and tend Laban’s flocks for a significant period, since it was not until after the birth of Joseph, his eleventh son, that he returned to the land of promise (Gen 30:24; 31–33).
20. In Hebrews 12:28, the ESV uses “acceptable” to represent the Greek adverb euarestōs.
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The Supremacy of God’s Son
1:1 Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. 3 He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, 4 having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.
5 For to which of the angels did God ever say,
“You are my Son,
today I have begotten you”?
“I will be to him a father,
and he shall be to me a son”?
6 And again, when he brings the firstborn into the world, he says,
“Let all God’s angels worship him.”
7 Of the angels he says,
“He makes his angels winds,
and his ministers a flame of fire.”
8 But of the Son he says,
“Your throne, O God, is forever and ever,
the scepter of uprightness is the scepter of your kingdom.
9 You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness;
therefore God, your God, has anointed you
with the oil of gladness beyond your companions.”
“You, Lord, laid the foundation of the earth in the beginning,
and the heavens are the work of your hands;
11 they will perish, but you remain;
they will all wear out like a garment,
12 like a robe you will roll them up,
like a garment they will be changed.1
But you are the same,
and your years will have no end.”
13 And to which of the angels has he ever said,
“Sit at my right hand
until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet”?
14 Are they not all ministering spirits sent out to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation?