A unique relation - Hebrews 1:1 - 2:4

This is a sermon by Malcolm Peters from the Riverside Church service on 17th May 2009.

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Are you drifting away from Jesus?  Falling away from the Truth?  Or even worse, are you at risk of denying Jesus, crucifying Him all over again and treating Him with contempt.  Or as one person put it to me, are you in danger of ratting on Christ. 

Intro to the Book of Hebrews

The danger of drifting;  the danger of falling;  the danger of outright apostasy.  That’s what the letter of Hebrews is all about.    Yes there’s some complex theology in it.  Yes you might get lost in some of the detail.  But at the same time, Hebrews is basically a practical letter from a pastor who knew and loved his people very much. 

And to see this pl turn with me to Heb 10:32 on p [1124/  1874]:

 32Remember those earlier days after you had received the light, when you stood your ground in a great contest in the face of suffering.

And onto 13:22:

22Brothers, I urge you to bear with my word of exhortation, for I have written you only a short letter.

Here we have a pastor who knew and loved His people.  He knew what they’d been through.  And he’d written them a short practical word of exhortation, a short sermon of 13 chapter s!    So who were these Hebrews?  Well the title, Hebrews, gives us a big clue.  They were Jews who’d become Christians.  But all was not well.  Persecution was hotting up in the early 60s when the letter was written, especially in Rome.

In the Roman Empire, the official religion was Emperor Worship.  But at the same time, there was a sort of white list of other permitted religions.  Why:  to keep the provinces happy;  religions permitted so long as they didn’t threaten Rome.  And Judaism was on the white list.  And because Jesus and the early Christians were all Jewish, at first the Romans considered Christianity to be under this Jewish umbrella – a breakaway sect they could tolerate.  But as the Gospel spread from Jerusalem, to Judea to the ends of the earth in Rome, the Jews started saying, they’re not with us.  And the Romans started noticing the Christians all over the Empire were refusing to worship Caesar as Lord.  As more and more people became Christians, it was beginning to threaten the Rome’s stability. Christianity was dangerously subversive, the Romans concluded. 

So Christianity moved onto the Banned List.  And persecution followed.  Maybe you already know what happened under Nero in the 60s.  He used Christians as live torches.  He imprisoned them and fed them to the lions and the gladiators in the coliseum. 

Meanwhile, until AD 70, Judaism and all the ritual at the temple continued back in Jerusalem.  But for Jewish Christians in Rome, life was getting tough. 

And the situation of the early church in Rome reminds me of a story I read in the church press some time ago about an underground church, it might have been China, but I can’t remember exactly.  During a service, some masked gunmen burst in and rounded everyone up. They announced that they would begin shooting everyone in 5 minutes.  But, members of the congregation could save themselves by renouncing their faith, leaving the building and never returning.  ½ of the congregation left the building in a hurry.  And then the gunmen took of their masks and announced that they were government officials who’d become Christians and needed to be sure there were no spies or false believers in the congregation before their revealed themselves. 

Now the fact that the actions of these new Christians weren’t hugely godly isn’t the point.  The point is that when the going gets tough, when persecution hots up, it sorts the sheep from the goats.  Why did ½ that congregation renounce their faith when faced with death for being a Christian.  Why, under exactly the same circumstances, did the other ½ stay for what, all they knew, was certain death? 

And it’s the same issue facing these Hebrews.  Persecution was hotting up.  And some of them were in danger of renouncing their faith.  Why?  Because they were struggling with the cost of commitment to Jesus.  In chapter 5 we find out that, although they’d been Christians for some time, they’d not moved on from the spiritual nursery.  They were still on baby milk and not solid spiritual food.  They were spiritually sluggish.  Weak and immature.  So when the external pressure came, they weren’t internally strong enough to resist it.  When persecution came for being a Christian the temptation was to return to the safety net of Judaism on the white list. 

You can imagine what their unconverted Jewish friends and family were saying can’t you.  Don’t be silly and throw your life away.  Come back to Judaism.  We’ve got angels;  we’ve got Moses;  we’ve still got the Promised Land of Israel which Joshua conquered for us.  We’ve got the Priesthood, with all the tangible religious trapping:  the rituals, the robes, the temple.  Religious things you can see, and touch and taste.  And with the added bonus of not being thrown to the lions.  Save yourself and come back to Judaism.

And if we’re honest, most Christians will face that kind of temptation at some point in their Christian life.  I’ve know mature Christians who’s considered jacking in the faith when they’ve been under intense pressure.  I’ve counselled mature Christians having suicidal thoughts because of pressure they’re under.  And although I can honestly say I’ve never doubted the Gospel itself since my conversion, there have certainly been times in my ordained life when I’ve been tempted to go back to earning considerably more money with a fraction of the grief and heartache that comes with full-time Christian ministry. 

And so the author of Hebrews writes to these struggling Christians with an aching heart.  And his central message is:  don’t go back.  And that’s why we’ve called this sermon series: No turning back.  Why?  Because there’s nothing to go back to.  Don’t slowly drift away pretending you can be in some no-mans land half way between Christianity and what you came from.  Drifting away is falling away.  Don’t drift, don’t fall;  don’t reject Jesus.  And how are you going to do that?  Well the book of Hebrew tells us:  by fixing your eyes on J.  And that’s exactly what we’re going to be doing in the first 10 chapters of Hebrews. 

So let’s quickly flick through them to get an overview of this main theme starting back in
cpt 1. 

First then, in chapter s 1 and 2, we see that Jesus is greater than angels.  Then in chapter 3, J is greater than Moses, who gave the people the OT Law.  Then in the rest of chapter s 3 and 4, we see that Jesus is greater that Joshua, who gave the Jews the Promised Land of Canaan.  Then in chapter s 5-10, we see that J’s Priesthood is greater than the OT Priests.  Or in summary: J and the New Covenant are greater than the Old Covenant.  It’s not like the Old Covenant was wrong.  But the whole point of the Old Covenant was to point forward to the New.  Turn with me to 8:13:

13By calling this covenant "new," he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and aging will soon disappear.

And of course, in AD 70 when the Romans destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem, the Old covenant with its rituals and ceremonies really did evaporate;  but in another sense its purpose had already vanished on Good Friday;  on that great Day when the temple curtain was torn from top to bottom. 

And so for these Jewish Christians, there’s nothing to go back to.  No going back.    Going back from Christianity to Judaism is like a teenager going back to sleeping in a cot.  It doesn’t fit any more.  It served its purpose at the time, but now it’s obsolete.  There’s no going back. 

None of us, as far as I know, is a Jewish Christian.  But, unless you had the amazing privilege of growing up in a Christian family and never having a period of falling away, unless that’s you, then we all came from something to become Christians.  But whether we’re Jews or Gentiles, the issue’s the same.  If you’re under pressure for being a Christian, don’t drift back into idolatry.  There’s no going back.  Fix your eyes on Jesus.  And that’s what we’re going to start doing now as we get into the detail of chapter 1.

1:1-3:  The Overture:  There’s only one plan of God.

So turn back with me to 1:1 as we remind ourselves of what we learnt last week in 1:1-3.  And if you were here last week, then you might remember that v1-3 were a sort of overture to the whole letter.  And the key teaching point in the whole letter is that there’s only one plan of God in the O and N Ts.  J and the NT aren’t a Plan B because Plan A in the OT went wrong.  No J and the NC fulfilled or superseded the Old.  And these first 3 verses of chapter 1 introduce all the key themes the letter is going to teach us.  All the truths about J we need to be fixing our eyes on. 

And unpacking those dense verses, we saw last week that in v1-2a, J was the final Word of God;  and secondly in v2b & 3, we saw that Jesus was the final work of God. 

After making purification for sins, J sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.  In contrast to the continued and repeated OT sacrifices, J made a once and for all sacrifice of himself.  He was both the High Priest and the Sacrifice.  He sacrificed himself to make purification for sins.  To deal with sin once for all.    Or as he puts it in v13 of Ps 110:  sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstall for your feet’.    

When J had made purification for sins, once for all, he sat down at God’s right hand. Job done.  Finished.  Completed.  Jesus is both the final word of revelation from God.  And Jesus is the final work of God. 

1:4-14:  Jesus’ is greater than the Angels

And v4 wraps up the overture and introduces the first major theme.     J sat down at the right hand of God.    So v4:

4  .. he became as much superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is superior to theirs.

Now in Hebrew thought, your name is more than a nice badge your parents gave

you.  It says something about you.  And Jesus’ name means: Yahweh saves;  the Lord saves.  But J had other names too:  the Christ, the Son of God, the son of Man.  No one had a greater name than J, because J is the exalted Son at God’s right hand.  No one has a greater name or rank than J, and certainly not the angels.  And v4 leads us into the rest of the chapter which is basically proving the point he’s just made in v4.  So in v4-14 we’re going to see that J is greater than the angels.   J is greater than the angels.

But so what, you might be thinking.  Who cares about angels?  Well, for Jews, angels were very special.  Why?  Well flip over the page to 2:2: 


2
For if the message spoken by angels was binding,


The message he’s talking about here is the OT Law which was given to Moses on Mt Sinai.  Now even though there’s no mention of it in the OT, the Jews came to believe that angels had been the agents between God and Moses.  So in a sense, the OT Law have been declared by the Angels on God’s behalf.  And so this made angels very special in Jewish thinking. 

And because Angels had such an exalted position in Jewish thinking and theology, the writer spends 2 chapters proving that J and his revelation is superior to the angels and their revelation.  Let’s have a quick look at his argument in v5-14 where he strings together a whole load of quotes from the OT to make his point:

J is the Divine Son whom Angels must Worship (v5-6)

First then in v5, we have God saying that, unlike the angels, J is my eternal Son.  And as we move onto v6, we see that this eternal Son of the Father is God too, since He’s worthy of our worship;  and the only being we should worship of course is God Himself;  worshipping anything or anyone else would be idolatry.  The created angels must worship J, the Creator.    So in v5-6, we’ve seen that J is the divine Son whom the angels must worship.  And, that means, of course, that J is greater than the angels.

Angels are Created Servants, but J is the eternal Creator (v7-12)

And it’s the same argument in v7-12 from a different angle.  In v7, we see that angels are simply created beings who’ve been given a role of ministry – they are God’s servants, and in v14, we see that one of their roles is to minister to those of us who’ve been chosen to inherit salvation.    Angels are created servants then.

But in v8-12, we see that J is in a different league to the angel-servants.  Look with me at v8:

8But about the Son [God the Father] says, "Your throne, O God, will last for ever and ever, and righteousness will be the scepter of your kingdom.

 

It’s a quote from Ps 45, which was originally referring to Yahweh, to the Lord God himself that is.  But now that exalted language is being applied to J by God the Father.  J is the divine ruler of all creation, which is why in v9 he’s anointed as King;  that’s what the oil of gladness stuff’s all about.

And in 10-12 there’s more of the same.  More OT quotes originally referring to the Lord God, but now being applied by the Father to J.  J is the Creator who’s got the whole world in his hands in v10.  And in v11&12, we learn that creation will wear out and be rolled up like a scroll, changed overnight into the new Creation at the end of time.  But in contrast to all that, at the end of v12, J is always the same.  His years have no beginning or end.  Why?  Because J is eternal.  As the book of Hebrews goes on to say in 13:8, J Christ is the same yesterday, today and for ever. 

And so summing up in v13 and linking us back to v4, God the Father quotes from Ps110 and says to J:  “sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstall for your feet”.  Or to put it simply:  J and the angels are in different leagues.  J is the Son, the eternal Creator and sustainor of the universe.  But angels are simply created beings who serve and worship J as God.  In short, J is greater than the angels. 

But so what, you still might be thinking.  The Jews were really into angels, but we’re not, so there’s not much relevance in the argument for us.  Well maybe, in which case, it would still be good to fix your eyes on this amazing picture of our Lord Jesus Christ.  But actually, I think that angels have made a bit of a come back in Christian circles.  We don’t actually know whether angels were God’s agents in giving Moses the Law.  They might have been, but we don’t know.  Neither the O nor NT tells us much about angels.  But the Jews had taken a few isolated verses and blown them up into a complex theology of angels.  And I think the church is in danger of making the same mistake. 

If you go into many on-line or physical Christian bookshops, you’ll see a whole section devoted to angels.  Certainly angels exist and they’re part of God’s plan, but we can’t say much about them with certainty, because the Bible doesn’t actually tell us much.  Most of what’s on offer in many Christian bookshops is simply speculation.  So perhaps the application for us here, is to forget the angels and focus on J.  God has said loads about J:  who he is and what he’s done for us.   So maybe we should spend our time fixing our eyes on J and not speculating about the angels. 

2:1-4:  Don’t drift away from Jesus

But what’s the application of the bigger picture.  We saw in the overture that J is the both the final revelation of God and the final work of God;  and so, in the rest of chapter 1,  it’s obvious that J is greater than the angels.  But so what? 

Well that brings us back to the reason why the author wrote this deeply pastoral letter in the first place.  Don’t drift away from J, which is what 2:1-4 are all about.  Don’t drifty away from J.  Look with me at 2:1

1We must pay more careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away.

Therefore, because of what I’ve just been talking about, because of the reasons I’ve given you to fix your eyes on J, we must pay more careful attention.  Why?  Because otherwise you might drift back to your pre-Christian way of life and end up rejecting J.  You can’t have it both ways.  You can’t be a half-hearted Christian.  You can’t have a foot in both camps.  For if in v2

2 the message spoken by angels [in the OT] was binding, and every violation and disobedience [by professing believers] received its just punishment, 3how shall we escape if we ignore such a great salvation?

And so the bottom line is where we started:  are you drifting away from Jesus?  Falling away from the Truth?  Or even worse, are you at risk of denying Jesus, crucifying Him all over again and treating Him with contempt.  Are you in danger of ratting on Christ.  If you are, then the constant message all through the book of Hebrews is this:  be warned about the eternal dangers.  Be warned about the eternal dangers of drifting away from Christ.  And the solution to drifting  and disillusionment is to fix your eyes on J.  J the Son of God;  J the creator and sustainor of the universe.  J the one who you’ve professed faith in. Be warned, because if you drift off and reject him, there’s severe punishment in store.  Whatever we’re going through, comparing it with what these 1C Christians were going through gives us some perspective.  And the author will say to them in 12:4  “In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood”.   

But it’s the same story if you’ve never had faith in J in the first place.  J is your creator, but unless He’s also your saviour, then one day you’ll meet Him as your judge. 

So let’s all examine our hearts for a few moments before we close in prayer.

  Closing Prayer

Dear Heavenly Father, thank you that, through J, you created the world.  Thanks you that J is greater than the angels and any other Creator being because He’s eternal along with you.   Thank you that in J your saving plan of redemption is finished.  And thank you for those of us who know you as our Lord and Saviour.  Help those of who profess your name to keep our eyes fixed on J so we can move onto maturity and so be strong enough to weather whatever storms come our way.  In J name and for His sake we pray, Amen.

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