A Little Extra on the Book of Hebrews

We note initially that the specific audience for this letter is the Hebrew or Jewish community, and the general contents of the letter support that conclusion. Second, we note that many aspects of the Mosaic legal system called “the Law” are discussed. This legal system is not to be confused with the first 5 books of the Bible also called “the Law.” The legal system itself comprised 613 laws and may be divided into 4 main segments or items.

Item 1) The Sacrificial system involving the priesthood;
Item 2) The religious Feasts;
Item 3) The Behavioral Laws involving individuals and other people and
Item 4) The Dietary Laws.

The original law, for all mankind, is called the 10 Commandments which God gave by His own voice to the multitude of assembled Israelites at Mount Sinai (Exodus 20; Deuteronomy 4:35-36).  These 10 were themselves summarized by Jesus as comprising only two elements: loving God and loving your neighbor as yourself. Jesus actually said that these two requirements alone are the basis for all the Law and the Prophets (Matthew 22:40). Indeed, the first four of the 10 Commandments show our love for God, and the last 6 show our love for our fellow humans and their wellbeing. At the time of Messiah, nearly everyone born a Jew was expected to keep the basics of this liturgical legal system. Items 1) and 2) above are involved in showing Israel’s love for God, while item 3) was based on their relationships with those around them -- their neighbors. 4) the dietary laws were a little different, being given primarily for the health of the Jews in the ancient theocracy of Israel.

When Jesus was incarnate, He fulfilled, or filled up, the requirements of the law. As such, He provided a way past that. He made atonement for sins once and for all by His death on the Cross and the shedding of His blood (Hebrews 9:12-15, 10:9-12). Messiah does not have to offer sacrifices continuously, as the priests and Levites did, but once only. He now stands as our High Priest in the presence of God to intercede for us at all times (Hebrews 9:24-26), not just once a year as the High Priest did. The writer then affirms that Christ did not come from the tribe of Levi, but from the tribe of Judah, and that Messiah was a High Priest after the order of Melchizedek, not from Aaron and the Levites (Psalm 110:4, Hebrews 7:1-28). The priesthood of Melchizedek was honored by Abraham (Genesis 14:18-20) and Abraham was accounted righteous by God well before the Mosaic Law was instituted (Galatians 3:6-8, 16-18). In fact, in Galatians 3:17 Paul says that the Law of Moses cannot annul the much earlier promises given to Abraham where he accepted Messiah and His Sacrifice by faith in the promise of His coming.

Then an important point was made in Hebrews 7:11-12. Perfection did not come through the Levitical priesthood but rather through the order of Melchizedek fulfilled in Messiah, and, in the case of this Messianic fulfillment, it was eternal (Hebrews 9:12). The author then points out that the Lord “takes away the first that He might establish the second” (Hebrews 10:9). Therefore, if the priesthood changes from the Levitical order to the order of Melchizedek, then of necessity there must also be a change in the Laws governing the operation of this different priesthood and associated ordinances. Hebrews 7:12 puts it this way: “For the priestly office being changed, of necessity a change also of the law (the Mosaic legal system) occurs.”

Well, what changes occurred in Items 1-4 as a result of Messiah’s work? Item 1): The implication from the book of Hebrews is that all the sacrifices under the Mosaic Law find their fulfillment in Messiah and His sacrifice. There is an interesting foretaste of this during Passion Week when Jesus was in the Temple. The focus for the Gospel writers was Jesus overturning of the tables of the money changers. But Mark adds something of extreme significance in the Greek. Mark 11:16 reads “and He did not allow that any man carry a vessel through the Temple.” In other words, Jesus physically stopped the procession of priests with the vessels carrying the blood from the sacrifices to the Altar. Jesus did this because He himself was soon to be the ultimate sacrifice and offering with His blood to blot out our sins (Hebrews 9:14-15) as Mediator of the New Covenant instead of the Mosaic order.Messiah is also our High Priest, through whom we have access to heaven at all times, not just once a year. For this reason, Paul in 57 AD wrote in Romans 10:4 that “Christ is the end (expiration, conclusion) of the (Mosaic) Law of righteousness for everyone who believes.” So, the entirety of the sacrificial system and its priesthood under the Mosaic Law in Item 1) is changed to a new order under one Man, the Messiah, forever.  The sacrifices under Mosaic Law prefigured Messiah’s perfect sacrifice and our response to it. That response includes the old thank offerings and freewill offerings where we can now present our bodies to the Lord for Him to use as a living sacrifice daily through the indwelling Holy Spirit (Romans 12:1).

As far as Item 2) is concerned, Paul in 1 Corinthians 5:6-8 revealed how Christ was the fulfillment of the Passover feast, and in 1 Corinthians 15:20 the fulfillment of the feast of First-fruits. The events of Acts 2 also revealed how the Lord fulfilled Pentecost or the feast of Weeks by the outpouring of His Holy Spirit on believers in Messiah. The other autumn feasts are promised to be fulfilled by Messiah when He returns (as in Zechariah 14:16-19). As a result of Items 1 &2 being fulfilled in this way, Paul could say to the Galatians in 56 AD that “if righteousness came by the Law, then Christ was dead in vain” (Galatians 2:21). So, the Mosaic Law in both Items 1 & 2 has been changed to the new order under Messiah. Therefore, both Messianic Jews and Gentiles (Christians) can legitimately celebrate these feasts by seeing their fulfillment in Jesus.

Item 3 reveals the major change in the method of operation under the new Way. At the time of Christ, from God’s point of view, mankind could be viewed as consisting of two groups from birth; a person was either a Jew or a Gentile. A Jew would be from a bloodline that came from one of the 12 Tribes of Israel that Moses brought out of Egypt and into the Promised Land. As a result of this birth, every Jewish male would be circumcised. Then there were the Gentiles, the non-Jews by birth who, because of that birth, were usually uncircumcised. But something had happened at Pentecost in 33 AD when the Holy Spirit came to personally indwell those who believed in Jesus as Messiah. The process is called the New Birth, and, as Jesus said to Rabbi Nicodemus in the Gospel of John chapter 3 “You must be born again.” He might have said you have been born once physically like everyone else, but God invites you to be born a second time, spiritually, by the entry of the Holy Spirit. This process was the same whether a person was a Jew or a Gentile. A number of years after Pentecost, those who had experienced this process came to be called “Christians.” Thus, in God’s economy, there are only 3 classes of people; Jews, Gentiles, and people from both groups who had the Holy Spirit indwelling them, called Christians. These Jews and Gentiles who were Christians had “put on Christ, so there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all the same in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, you are Abraham’s seed and heirs according to the promise” (Galatians 3:28).

The action of the indwelling Holy Spirit (called the Spirit of Christ in Philippians 1:19), has important implications as far as Item 3 above is concerned, that is the whole set of behavioral Laws. The ultimate outcome was to change each person into the likeness of Messiah with all His gracious characteristics in thought, word, deed, attitudes, actions and reactions, as in Galatians 5:22-23. Jesus had mentioned the outcome of some of this in His Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). There, Jesus showed that acceptable behavior before God and mankind goes far deeper than just keeping a law; it came from the heart. If your heart attitude was right before God and you were being led by the Spirit of God, then, as Paul says in Romans 8:4 that “all the righteous requirements of the Law are fulfilled in us who walk not after the flesh but after the Spirit.” This is a very different method of operation to the Mosaic Law. A new Way of doing things under the direction of the Holy Spirit avoids the necessity for a multitude of Laws in this area.

This has implications elsewhere. Since Jew and Gentile are the same before God when they are indwelt by the Spirit, the importance of circumcision is significantly diminished. When this matter became prominent in the Corinthian ekklesia, Paul wrote that if you became a Christian as a Gentile, do not seek circumcision. If you became a Christian as a Jew, do not seek to be uncircumcised (see 1 Corinthians 7:18). He wrote: “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but faith that works through love” (Galatians 5:6). With this approach, the Jerusalem ekklesia did not require Titus, a Greek, to be circumcised before accepting him (Galatians 2:3). On the other hand, it was expedient for Paul to circumcise Timothy, whose mother was Jewish but had a Greek father. This allowed Timothy to minister in ways and to groups that would not have been possible before (Acts 16:1-3). The Council at Jerusalem in Acts 15 determined that circumcision was not an essential to salvation either. Further, it does not appear as necessary for righteousness since it is omitted in the 10 Commandments. The entire sweep of Item 3 and the behavioral Laws is thus shown to have a different basis and a different approach in this new Way of the Spirit. Indeed in 2 Corinthians 3:6-9 says that this ministration of the Spirit is “more glorious” than that of the Mosaic order.

The 4th Item concerns dietary laws. The ministration of the Spirit is evident here as the summation of all the Laws that was given by God’s voice in the 10 Commandments did not include any of the dietary restrictions. Both Noah (Genesis 7:1) and Abraham (Genesis 15:6) were accounted righteous by God before any Mosaic dietary Laws came into effect. As the apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians 8:8 “But food does not commend us to God: for neither if we eat are we the better, nor if we do not eat are we the worse” while Romans 14:17 says “for the kingdom of God is not food and drink, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” In a word, your diet does not make you righteous or unrighteous before God.  However, the elements in the Feasts, like Passover, have a symbolic Messianic significance which should be retained.

The actual change to the new Way all started in 41 AD with Peter’s vision from the Lord where three times the Lord insisted, despite Peter’s objection to the offered non-kosher food, that “What God has cleansed, you must not call common or unclean” (Acts 10:11-17). This ultimately resulted in calling the Council of Jerusalem in 49 AD to discuss the Gentiles coming into the ‘ekklesia’ through Peter and Paul’s ministry as recorded in Acts 15:20, 28-29. The key issue was whether or not Gentile Christians had to keep the Jewish Law to be saved. Their brief answer was no, but, in line with the 10 Commandments, sexual immorality was not permitted. The Council decided that circumcision was not needed for righteousness in line with its absence from the 10 Commandments. Also absent from the Commandments are any dietary restrictions. However, in agreement with the 2nd Commandment, the Council required Gentiles to abstain from eating things sacrificed to idols, from things strangled and from blood (eating living things).

This also accords with what God told Noah after the Flood in Genesis 9:3-4 where every living thing that moves may be eaten as food. The turning point for the apostle Peter was seeing that the Lord accepted Gentiles by pouring out His Spirit on them, just as He had done earlier on the apostles. So Peter concluded, “In truth, God shows no partiality. But in every nation, whoever fears Him and works righteousness is accepted by Him” (Acts 10:34-35). Therefore, these Mosaic dietary Laws were simply designed to keep Israel a healthy nation that was free of the diseases which were a worry to surrounding countries. This new Way of doing things retained the basic essentials before God.

The matter of the Sabbath impinges on both the worship of God in Item 1 and the Behavioral Laws of Item 3. It also appears as the 4th Commandment. But the matter was not mentioned as imperative for Gentile believers in the Jerusalem Council decision of Acts 15, though there may be a variety of reasons for that. So, we do not look there for final guidance on this issue. Instead, the apostle Paul makes an interesting statement in Colossians 2:16-17 where we read, “Let no-one judge you in food or drink, or regarding a Feast day, or a New Moon, or Sabbaths, which are only a shadow of things to come, but the substance is Christ.” In case there is any dispute as to Paul’s intention in these verses, his comments in Romans 14:5-6 clarify the issue as he says, “One person esteems one day above another; another esteems every day alike. Let each be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day observes it to the Lord, and he who does not observe the day, to the Lord he does not observe it.” Paul then goes on to make similar statements with regards to food and eating, supporting what was said above about Item 4. Indeed, all four items making up the Mosaic Legal system, the Law, are included in Paul’s statement in Colossians 2:16-17. “Food and drink” are the basis of Item 4; the various “sabbaths” link in with both Item 1 & Item 3; while “Feast days and New Moons” are the subject of Item 2. Finally, the whole tenor of the epistle to the Hebrews is that the sacrificial system is just a shadow of Christ’s sacrifice and so fully involves Item 1.

When this is coupled with the Biblical comments about circumcision, we see there is a freedom within the Messianic community for both Jews and Gentiles to celebrate what Messiah has done and how they can do it. The important thing in all this is to glorify Jesus the Messiah by whatever legitimate means are appropriate. For Jewish Christians in Israel today, this may well involve keeping Shabbat, Feast days, and kosher food. For Gentiles, these things do not have the urgent priority of believers in an Israeli society run by the Rabbi’s. So, Paul is saying, do not be critical of your fellow believers if they celebrate what Messiah has done and are doing so in a different way from you. All are acceptable before the Lord.  This freedom in the Messianic legal system is very different from the strictness of the Mosaic order. In Galatians 5:13, Paul says you have been called to liberty and warned them not to go back to the bondage inherent in the old way of doing things (Galatians 4:9-10).

The closing aspect of this difference between the two legal systems occurred in 62 AD. While under house arrest in Rome, Paul had a revelation from the Lord and pointed out that that God made no difference between Jewish or Gentile believers in Messiah. All were part of the same body, were fellow heirs and partakers of the same promises before God (Ephesians 3). That development completed the choice between the two systems offered in the Hebrews epistle. Therefore, Hebrews had to be written sometime after the Ephesian epistle in 63 AD, where these final blessings were outlined.

This then placed all Jews in the position of making a choice: First they could go back to the old way under the Mosaic Law with successive High Priests, innumerable sacrifices, limited access to God and restrictive laws for food and personal interactions. The alternative was to go on in the new Way under the different laws of Messiah, our High Priest, through whom we have access to heaven at all times and the empowering of the Holy Spirit to live righteously on a moment by moment basis. The writer urges them, having tasted something of the new Way and new Covenant, not to go back to the old Mosaic way of doing things and so miss out on the blessing (Hebrews 6:4-6). The writer then pointed out that the Old Covenant from Moses, and many things associated with it, including the Levitical priesthood, was at the point of disappearing (Hebrews 8:13), so the matter was crucial.

And so, three times, the author of the letter to the Hebrews pleads,

TODAY, if you hear his voice
Do not harden your hearts.