The book of Hebrews is an amazing book. The Hebrew writer, whoever he may have been, helps his audience understand the continuity between (what we now call) the Old and New Testaments. He helps his Jewish audience understand that following Jesus is both a continuation of their temple worship, but also understand why following Jesus is superior to temple worship. Here are a few things to notice.
I might be wrong, but it seems that perhaps Hebrews was written to Christians living in Jerusalem. The author reminds them of when they were first enlightened. He said they:
- endured a hard struggle with sufferings
- were publicly exposed to reproach and affliction
- had compassion on those in prison
- joyfully accepted the plundering of their property
This sounds a lot like the “great persecution against the church in Jerusalem” (Acts 8:1), when Saul of Tarsus was “ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison” (Acts 8:3). Now, decades later, they are receiving this letter because remaining faithful to Jesus is especially difficult in Jerusalem.
Imagine being a Jew, living in the shadow of the glorious temple, and trying to follow Jesus. Your patriotism, heritage, and faith would be so intertwined with that building and all of the rituals and ceremonies performed in that building. It would be so hard to walk away from all of that. It would be so hard to live with the shame of feeling you had abandoned the traditions of your family.
For many Christians, the pressure probably became too great and they started abandoning the church community in favor of the temple, the priesthood, the sacrifices, and the city of Jerusalem; the things they could see. The writer of Hebrews desperately pleads with those Christians who remain not to neglect the Christian assembly or lose faith in Jesus.
Following Jesus is More Jewish
When speaking to a Jewish audience, the apostles had one goal, help Jewish people realize that following Jesus is the most Jewish thing they could do. If first-century Jews wanted to be faithful to the God of their ancestors, then they should be disciples of Jesus. Being a disciple wasn’t a break from the faith of their ancestors, but a faithful continuation of their ancestral heritage. And what was true then is still true today, Christianity isn’t a separate religion from Judaism; it is the true form of Judaism.
The Hebrew writer reminds his audience that being a disciple of Jesus doesn’t mean they have rejected the prophets, the Law delivered by angels, Moses, the temple, the priesthood, or the sacrifices. Following Jesus didn’t mean rejecting any of those things, because Jesus is the one to whom all of those things point and Jesus brings about a reality of which those things were but mere shadows.
The challenge was that the temple, the sacrifices, and the priests could all be seen, but the reality Jesus brought was “yet unseen.” Which is why the Hebrew writer explains that the Jewish faith has always been a matter of “assurance of things hoped for” and “conviction of things not seen.” By following Jesus, the High Priest they could not see, who made atonement in the temple they could not see, waiting for the city they could not see, they were living like Noah, Abraham, Moses, Joshua and countless other ancestors who had come before.
Heaven and Earth
Modern Christians have a tendency to talk about things that are “spiritual” and things that are “physical.” This is really a false dichotomy and it’s not the point biblical writers are trying to make. We might be tempted to put the things the Hebrew writer discusses in terms of “spiritual” and “physical,” but those aren’t even the terms used in the book of Hebrews.
The Hebrew writer isn’t contrasting spiritual and physical things, but heavenly and earthly things. He wants his audience to understand that the things that are right now “unseen” are no less real than the things are “seen.” In fact, there is a sense in which they can be even more real, because they will always endure; they are “unshakable” because they are heavenly.
One day those heavenly realities, that are right now invisible, will become visible. What is unseen will one day be seen. We live today in anticipation of that Day, convinced that the things of the unseen realm are the true and unshakable realities.
The World and City to Come
When the book of Hebrews was written, Jerusalem may have seemed like the center of the Universe. It may have seemed like the unshakeable city, the city where David reigned, the city of the temple. The most important city in the world to a Hebrew man or woman. But it was a city that would soon fall.
The writer of Hebrews wanted his audience to understand that they may be kicked out of the Jerusalem “camp,” but that was ok,
Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. Therefore let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured. For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come.
Jerusalem was not the true city of God, but there is a “city of the living God.” There is a “city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God.” There is a “heavenly Jerusalem.” This city is the one the Hebrew writer encouraged his readers to “seek.” This is the “city that is to come” in the “world to come.”
Someday, all those who lived their lives seeing the unseen, will receive the promises for which we have waited. We will “rise again to a better life” and the city that has foundations built by God, the heavenly Jerusalem, will come and we will be with God forever.
I love you and God loves you,