A Look at Hebrews
What is the Book of Hebrews?
Hebrews is a letter written to a group of second-generation followers of Jesus (2:3); this letter is specifically addressed to a congregation of Jewish Christians (1:1-2), which is why it was given the name it now has in early Christian tradition. Canonically (meaning, in the order of the biblical books), Hebrews comes after the letters written by the apostle Paul, and in fact has been assumed to have been written by Paul for most of Christian history, but the author does not state their identity.
It is written with a pastoral emphasis, and seems to be a sermon or a series of sermons with the ultimate goal of encouraging its audience to follow the will of Jesus (13:21). For these reasons, we will refer to the writer of Hebrews as “the Pastor” from here on out. Because all of the known New Testament authors are male, we will assume the same here and will therefore be using masculine language when we refer to the Pastor.
Major Theme: Wilderness
Like the other New Testament authors, the Pastor’s worldview is shaped by the Old Testament. This letter especially seems to be informed by the “wilderness” stories (like Exodus 16 and Numbers 14) and the interpretations of those stories (such as Psalms 95, 105, and 106) found in the Old Testament. The Pastor uses these stories of Israel in the wilderness as examples of Christian existence in our present age (that is, the age after the first coming of Jesus and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, but before the second coming of Jesus and the arrival of God’s kingdom in its fullness). It is through this lens of “wilderness” that we will look at Hebrews as a guide for apprenticeship to Jesus.
Key Background Passages
Passage 1: Exodus 16
Through the intervention of God, the people of Israel, led by Moses, have escaped slavery in Egypt after more than 400 years, and are on their way home, to the land that God has promised them through their ancestor, Abraham (Genesis 15:18-21). To get there, they must pass through a deadly desert which the biblical text calls “the wilderness” (v. 1).
What is the wilderness?
The wilderness is a place without life-sustaining resources such as stable supplies of food and water.
The people of Israel are starving and the “whole congregation of the people of Israel” angrily blames Moses and the priest Aaron for leading them out of Egypt, where they at least had consistent supplies of food (v. 2-3).
The credit for rescuing Israel from their captors (though they see it as torment rather than a rescue) of course is rightfully God’s, and God promises to “rain bread from heaven” to remind Israel of the true source of their life and who it is that really brought them out from Egypt (v. 4, 6). God sends this bread (v. 13), which the people of Israel called “manna,” and tells them that they can gather it on all but the seventh day of the week, which is “a day of solemn rest, a holy Sabbath to the Lord (v. 23)”.
When the seventh day came, “some of the people went out to gather (bread), but they found none” (v. 27). God then instructs the people of Israel again to rest on the seventh day, which they all subsequently obey (v. 28-30). At God’s instructions, the people of Israel preserve some of the original manna in a jar, so that future generations may see it and know of God’s faithfulness (v. 32-34). Israel is provided with manna until they reach the “habitable land” of Canaan (v. 35).
Passage 2: Numbers 14
This story is about the generation of Israelites after the Exodus 16 generation, and this story looks a lot like that one, showing how history often repeats itself.
Israel is still in the wilderness! They’re trying to get to the promised land, and like their ancestors, this generation complains about Moses and Aaron (v. 2).
This time, they are at least wise enough to angrily credit God with taking them out of Egypt (v. 3). They then announce that they will choose their own leader, rather than the ones God has appointed them, and go back to Egypt (v. 4).
Moses and Aaron beg them to stay (v. 5), and God threatens to wipe out the unfaithful of Israel (v. 20-34). Instead of returning to Egypt, the people of Israel decide to take their survival into their own hands and make war with rival nations, taking with them neither Moses nor the ark of the covenant of the LORD (v. 42-44); they are promptly defeated in battle (v. 45).
Seven Lessons for Following Jesus
1. Following Jesus is a choice we must make over and over again.The Pastor warns his congregation that they risk “drifting away” from their original faith in Christ if they “neglect such a great salvation” by not “paying attention” to what they have been taught (2:1-3); the Pastor tells us that we must “hold our original confidence (in Christ) firm to the end” (3:14), and uses “all those who left Egypt led by Moses” as examples of being who “heard and yet rebelled” (3:16). Instead, the Pastor encourages the faithful to “draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (4:16), that they may be “made perfect” (10:16).
2. We must see ourselves not just as followers and apprentices of Jesus, but as part of Jesus. You might have heard or read before the expression from Paul’s letters, that followers of Jesus are the “body of Christ” (Romans 7:4, 15:5, 1 Corinthians 10:16, 12:27, Ephesians 3:6, 4:12). The Pastor is using the same concept here in Hebrews using a different metaphor.
He starts his metaphor by referring again to the wilderness stories, the Pastor uses Moses as an example of a righteous man and a “servant” of God who was “faithful in all of God’s house,” but says that Jesus is holier and more righteous than even Moses. He says that Jesus is the “builder,” and is a “son” of God rather than a “servant” (3:2-5a); the Pastor adds that we (meaning followers of Jesus) are God’s house which Jesus built, as long as “we hold fast our confidence and our boasting in our hope” in Jesus (3:5b). Pay attention to that last part, about “boasting in our hope.”
The Pastor is saying that this “hope” is not just some intellectual belief in God, but something that we are supposed to vocally and loudly take and proclaim as ours.
3. Apprenticeship to Jesus is not a solo practice. Unity within our congregation and within the rest of the larger Body of Christ is something we are called to live into. But we must not have unity for its own sake, but for the purpose of following God. The Israelites of Exodus 16 provide an example of a unified group of people (“the whole congregation”) who are blind to the reality that God has saved them from being slaves in Egypt, not to mention that they actually want to go back there (v. 2-3)!
This is why the Pastor instructs his congregation: “You must warn each other every day, while it is still ‘today,’ so that none of you will be deceived by sin and hardened against God” (3:13). He also tells the Hebrew Christians to “make sure” that each other are not holding onto “bitterness” and are not “sexually immoral” (12:15-16). Therefore, we must also not follow the examples of the Israelites later in Exodus 16, who allowed “some of the people” of Israel to disobey God and attempt to gather bread on the Sabbath (v. 27).
4. Apprenticeship to Jesus is not about running away from the broken and chaotic world around us, like the people of Israel wanted to run away from the harsh reality of the wilderness (Numbers 14:3-4). Instead, we are to live for the good of it. The Pastor tells us that we should not only seek peace with those inside the Church, writing: “Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (12:14). Therefore, seeking unity, peace, and good will with all people is also a part of our Christian witness. The Pastor tells his congregation to “show hospitality to strangers” and to visit and be mindful of “those who are in prison,” as well as “those who are mistreated”.
5. Apprenticeship to Jesus involves taking the advice and following the examples of our leaders and role models in the faith. The Pastor tells us to “not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises” (6:12). He also tells us to examine how our Christian leaders live their lives, “imitate” them and “obey” their instructions (13:7, 17); or as Paul once put it: “You are to imitate me, just as I imitate Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1).
The Pastor is saying that we are supposed to do the opposite of what the Israelites did in the wilderness stories when they turned against the leaders God had chosen for them, Moses and Aaron. Remember that the Israelites of Numbers 14 even began to choose their own leaders instead of the leaders that God picked.
6. Christian Apprentices “eagerly wait” for the impending return of Jesus (9:28). Like the Israelites were motivated in the their journey through the harsh and dangerous wilderness by the hope of reaching the “good land” (Numbers 14:7) which God has promised them, Jesus-followers are called to hope and wait for the “second coming” of Jesus and the “new heavens and new earth” he is bringing with him (Isaiah 65:17, 22, 2 Peter 3:13, Revelation 21:1).
And while we are called to engage in (and not retreat from) the world that we live in, we are also called to value the “treasures” of the coming age as being worth infinitely more than the material possessions we hold in this one (10:34, 11:26, 13:5-6).
7. An apprentice of Jesus should strive to enter God’s rest (4:11). As we see in the wilderness story of Exodus 16, God takes it very seriously that God’s people follow God’s example of resting as part of a weekly life pattern (Genesis 2:2). We Christians are not to follow the initial example of those Israelites who refused to obey God’s command to rest (Exodus 16:27).
I think the Pastor takes the idea of rest a step further when he uses the word “strive,” because it conveys a sense that rest is not just something we are to merely “do,” but the seeking of rest is rather a posture that apprentices of Jesus are to live their lives through; though we may never experience this rest in full “on this side of eternity,” we should nonetheless be “striving” to reach that glorious day, when God’s creation is “made perfect” through the sanctified human race, of which Jesus is the first of many members (11:40).
Therefore, when we as apprentices of Jesus practice a day of “Sabbath rest” (4:9) in this age, we are to do it with our “eyes on the prize” of the final, full rest we will be consumed by when God’s kingdom comes in its fullness, and we have been risen and glorified along with our Master, Christ Jesus.