The Letter to the Hebrews
February 8th, 1959 @ 10:50 AM
THE LETTER TO THE HEBREWS
Dr. W. A. Criswell
2-8-59 10:50 a.m.
You are sharing with us the services of the First Baptist Church in Dallas. This is the pastor bringing the eleven o’clock morning message which message is an introduction to the letter to the Hebrews. In our preaching through the Bible, last Sunday we finished the last message on Philemon. And this Lord’s Day morning, we begin with The Letter to the Hebrews [Hebrews 1:1-4].
I feel like Balboa who with eagle eye for the first time in Western history scanned the vast horizon of the Pacific. So do I feel as I stand at the shore of the vast unfathomable, illimitable truth contained in this incomparable epistle. There is none like it in language or literature, not even in the Holy Word of God. It stands like a great towering mountain peak, separate and apart.
In any study of theology, in any study of biblical theology, in any study of systematic theology, there is always and must needs be, a separate book, a separate discourse on the theology of the Book of the Hebrews. It towers up to the very eternities of heaven. And no man could look upon it; deign to expound its message without finding himself dwarfed by the colossal varieties, and the illimitable truths that herein are presented.
Now the most vital of all of the sermons that will be preached—and they will cover a long period of time from this Book of the Hebrews—is this message this morning. And I humbly pray that God will help me to present this introductory sermon, which will be the foundation and basis upon which all of the following expositions shall be delivered. And may God give to you a listening ear and an open heart of understanding.
In my King James Version of the Bible, it is written: “The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews.” Then it begins:
God, who at sundry times in at divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets,
Hath in these last days spoken to us by His Son, whom He hath appointed heir of all things, by whom also He made the worlds;
Who being the brightness of His glory, and the express image of His person, and upholding all things by the word of His power, when He had by Himself purged our sins, sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high.
We are not even done then with the introductory sentence. Then when the epistle closes, it merely is, “Grace be with you all. Amen” [Hebrews 13:25]. There is no author named. There is no congregation specifically addressed. And this caption in the King James Version, “the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews” is in nowise in the original document.
The letter is without a stated author. It is without a directive address. And from the beginning, there has been endless controversy about who wrote it and to whom the letter was intended. They have suggested Paul. Some have said Paul wrote it as we now have it. Others have said Paul wrote it in Hebrew—in the Hebrew language—and Luke translated it into Greek. Others say Paul gave the thoughts and the arguments and the illustrations and left it to an amanuensis to cast it in the form that he thought best. Still others like Tertullian, said that it was written by Barnabas. The early Latin Fathers, many of them ascribed it to Clement of Rome. Martin Luther and a whole long line of German theologians said it was written by Apollos, the brilliant Alexandrian expositor of the Word of God. Others have said it was written by Aquila and Priscilla, who themselves were the teachers of Apollos—“instructing him in the way of the Lord more perfectly” [Acts 18:26].
I read one time a dissertation upon the possibility that one book of the Bible was written by a woman—Priscilla. That she wrote the Book to the Hebrews. Others have said that Silas, the apostle Paul’s companion in suffering and labor wrote the book. The truth of the matter is this we have lost the very evidences upon which the true author of the epistle could ever be discovered. And those evidences apparently were lost from the very beginning. Clement of Rome, at the close of the first Christian century, wrote a famous “Epistle to the Church at Corinth.” In that epistle he quotes repeatedly from this letter to the Hebrews. But he never names the author. Apparently he himself did not know. It does not matter who wrote it. It is as though you looked upon a beautiful painting and someone says, “It is a Raphael.” If it is a Raphael, then another beautiful work of art has not been lost. Another says, “It is not a Raphael.” Then, if it is not a Raphael, we have discovered another painter of first magnitude. It does not matter. We have the letter itself.
Now to whom is it addressed? It is addressed to a particular congregation—somewhere in some locality. For he closes with the words: “Know ye that our brother Timothy is set at liberty: with whom, if he comes shortly, I will see you” [Hebrews 13:23]. So, they know Timothy. And of course, they know the author. And the author is coming to see them. So it is a congregation somewhere in a definite place and locality. The people to whom it is addressed we know. They were Hebrew Christians. The whole epistle concerns them; Hebrew Christians, Jewish converts to Christ.
And the location of that locality can be pretty well pinpointed. They were a congregation of Hebrew Christians who were under the immediate and powerful influence of the ritual services in the temple at Jerusalem. Those great controversies of the apostle Paul with the Judaizers over the Mediterranean world concerned circumcision and the eating of foods, clean and unclean, ceremonially. But there is never any word in the controversies of Paul concerning the temple, and the altar, and the high priesthood, and the sacrifice, and the sanctuary. These are the things concerning which this author speaks. And he speaks of them because the people to whom the letter is addressed were, as I said, under the powerful influence of the ritual services in the temple at Jerusalem. So I would suppose that the congregation of Hebrew Christians to whom this letter is addressed is a congregation in Jerusalem or in Judea or in Caesarea or somewhere in Palestine, where the people were close to and observed the worship of the gorgeous ceremonial ritual of the great temple in Jerusalem.
Now the time it was written is just about 63 AD—just before the beginning of the Great War that ended in the final dissolution of the nation and the destruction of the temple and the holy city of God. Now, let us enter into the letter itself. Why was the letter written? It is very plain and very obvious why the author wrote this letter. In order to understand it, we must blot out of our memory and mind the last nineteen hundred years of Christian history and general history. And we must go back to that year of about 63 AD. And transporting ourselves back, we are living now in the day when Nero is emperor of the Roman Empire. And when there is a seething mass of rebellion on the part of the chosen people of God to be free from their foreign oppressors. And that movement of independence is as deep and as earnest and as fierce and as fanatical as the life of the Hebrew people themselves.
They have heard of the miraculous deliverances of God in the ages past. They are singing the war songs of the heroic victories of David their king. They are recounting to one another the patriotic victories and exploits of the sons of Maccabaeus. The little children are taught by their mothers these great stories of Israel. There is a part in the zealots, among the priesthood, by which day and night they are plotting in underground a deliverance from the hated Roman legion. There is an inexorable moving toward that final blood bath of tears and agony and demonical suffering and courage that ended the national life of the people of the Lord.
In 66 AD Vespasian was sent with his Roman legionaries to quell the rebellion. In 69 he was declared emperor of the Roman Empire and returned to Rome and left the conclusion of the war against the Jews in the hands of his son, Titus, who himself was a tremendous general of great ability and who encompassed the utter destruction of Jerusalem. Who, because of his great triumph, was accorded a public triumph in Rome and in whose honor the great Arch of Titus was erected—on which you can see today the sculptured story of Titus’ destruction of the city of God, the taking away of the seven-branched candlestick and the sacred vessels of the temple, and pictured thereon, in marble relief, the Jewish captives who were taken into slavery and to death: that is the times in which this epistle is written.
This despised heresy of the Nazarene in 63 AD was not only an affront against the Jewish religion itself, but it divided the national strength. It was a treacherous attack against the patriotic aspiration of the Jews themselves for independence from foreign and heathen oppressors. These Christians had been taught to flee by the Savior Himself [Matthew 24:14-16]—when they saw the armies of the heathen nations gather against Jerusalem. These Christian congregations were taught to have no part in the sweep of that terrible and bloody rebellion. And you can well see why the patriotic leaders of the Jewish nation—leading their people into a fanatical rebellion against Rome—why they looked upon these despised sects of the Nazarene with bitter hatred.
I could not find an illustration comparable to it. But of the same type of the thing, I walked down the street with Mujeno, the pastor of our little Baptist church in Egueme. And he tried to describe to me the terrible sufferings that he underwent and his little Baptist congregation, in Japan in the days of this last World War. For he and his little group refused to worship the emperor. They refused to bow down at the shrine of Shinto. And they were looked upon with suspicion and with derision and with hatred on the part of all of the Japanese nationals because the great center and rallying point of the Japanese war was around their emperor god, and around his worship in the shrine of Shinto. Consequently, he was looked upon as a traitor and as one who divided the national strength. It was exactly that into which this little congregation of Hebrew Christians had fallen. They were despised and hated and persecuted and outcast because in the days of the preparation for that terrible and final war, they withdrew and held themselves apart.
Now the suffering and the persecution of this little congregation was especially grievous and hard to bear. For Jesus Himself had come to the lost sheep of the house of Israel [Matthew 10:6, 15:24]. And they, His apostles, stood up to preach to the lost sheep of the house of Israel; to the Jew first [Romans 1:16]. And as they stood to preach between Messiah’s crucifixion [Matthew 27:32-50] and Messiah’s glorious coming to fulfill the promises made to the fathers [Acts 13:32], they stood with open hands and called, and their prayer was for the national repentance of Israel and for faith in Jesus their Messiah [Acts 20:20-22]. They stood there in that persuasion that the love of God had been manifested again. They had crucified their rightful and own Lord [Acts 2:36]. But now, but now God in His mercy was giving to Jerusalem and giving to Israel a second chance. Turn and be saved. Accept Jesus, your rightful Lord and Messiah [Acts 2:38-39]. The bitter persecution that arose around the death of Stephen soon subsided. And the apostles preached the love of God in Christ Jesus to the Jewish nation [Acts 2:40]. And they did it effectively, miraculously, powerfully. So much so that when Paul came to Jerusalem at the end of his third missionary journey, James the Lord’s brother, who was the pastor of the church at Jerusalem says to Paul: “Thou seest, brother, how many thousands of Jews there are which believe”; the Greek word is muriad, and the Greek form of the word is “ten thousand,” and James uses the plural: “Thou seest, brother, how many ten thousands of Jews there are which believe; and they are all zealous of the law” [Acts 21:20]. The Greek word is: “they are all zealots of the law”—that is, those Jewish Christians observed all of the laws of Moses. They went daily up into the temple; they observed the rituals and the ceremonials and the sacrifices. The Gentiles were free [Romans 2:14-15, 6:14].
But to the circumcision, James and John and Paul, the pillars of the church with their people, observed all of the rituals of the Mosaic covenant and all of the ceremonies of the temple law. And when Paul himself came to Jerusalem, Paul himself observed those ritualistic observances in the temple [Acts 21:26]. And it describes what he did in the twenty-first chapter of Acts [Acts 21:23-30]—I do not have time to recount it. And Paul himself took Timothy and circumcised him [Acts 16:1-3]. Those first Jewish Christians saw no conflict at all in their faith in Jesus and in the worship of the Jehovah God in the temple at Jerusalem. They said that David and the fathers were saved by faith, just as they were saved in trusting Jesus. And they called their Jewish compatriots to a like repentance and a like faith in the Lord [Hebrews 4:1-2, 11:32, 12:1-2].
In the midst of that preaching of these apostles to the circumcision, to the Jewish people; in the midst of that preaching, Festus died—the Roman procurator in 63 AD. And Ananias, the high priest, who came into great and almost illimitable power, immediately began to persecute these Hebrew Christians. As though it were no small thing to confiscate their property, he did this other terrible and awful thing. He excluded these Hebrew Christians from the temple. They could not even enter the Court of the Gentiles. They were cast out, there where God said: “And My name shall be forever” [2 Chronicles 7:16]. There where God said, “And My house shall be called a house of prayer” [Luke 19:46]. There where the Lord said, “When thou shalt turn and pray toward this sacred place” [2 Chronicles 7:14-15]. There where the angel Gabriel appeared to Zachariah and announced the coming of the forerunner of the Son of God [Luke 1:5, 11-17]. There where Jesus Himself was presented after forty-one days of purification [Luke 2:21-22], and there where the Lord of the Covenant came and taught the people [Luke 21:37], they themselves were excluded.
It is hard for us to realize the sword that cut into the very soul and heart of those Hebrew Christians, who for Messiah’s sake were now cut off from Messiah’s people. They were worse than Gentiles—cast out like dogs—“separated from the commonwealth of Israel” [Ephesians 2:12]; broken from the covenant of the children of Moses. And in their desperation and in their heartache and in the cruel agony of their soul, they began to falter and to break. To lose their property was nothing. To lose their lives was nothing. But to be cut off from God’s people and to be shut out from the glorious temple where God in His emblems and in His sacrifices and in His types, had brought joy and gladness of grace to their father, to be shut away and cast off was more than human heart could bear. And the little congregation falters, and they are beginning to renounce the faith of Jesus and the assembling of themselves together, and to turn back to the temple, and its worship, and its ritual, and its sacrifices, and its altar, and its priests.
And at that moment, the news is spread abroad. We have a letter! We have an epistle. Our beloved leader has written us out of his heart. And the people come together, and for the first time there is read—didn’t I tell you, it was made to be read—there was read aloud this glorious epistle to the Hebrews. When we look at it, immediately we are riveted. We are attracted by the lofty language and the fullness of diction. The rhythm, the rhapsody, the flow of this language is beyond anything in the literature of the world. And the fullness of his diction and the majesty and loftiness of his, of his language is but an outflowing of the full heart of the revelation that God has poured into his soul.
I could not liken this letter to any other part of the Bible except just one; the glorious prophet Isaiah. Isaiah’s language and the loftiness of his thought, and the glory of his revelation, and the beauty and style of his diction is like this in the letter to the Hebrews. In Isaiah, we see the glory of Emmanuel’s land and we see it here again. In Isaiah, we breathe sabbatic air of Messiah’s peace, and here we see it again. In Isaiah we have described the eternal varieties that can never pass away, and we find them here. And in Isaiah we have that atmosphere of the eternities that come from depth and glory of vision, and we find it here; one of the great, great pieces of literature and diction and language and style of all times. And the content of the letter is beyond compare. The author enters immediately and deeply into their suffering and their triumphs, exactly as the incomparable prophet Isaiah: “Comfort ye, comfort ye My people, . . . Yea, speak ye comfortably unto Jerusalem” [Isaiah 40:1-2]. As Isaiah began, so this matchless, incomparable preacher begins. He enters into the trials and sorrows of the people [Hebrews 2:5-18].
And the message and the burden of his letter is this, that as glorious as was the Old Covenant and the old dispensation and the old law and the old ritual, even more glorious is the New Covenant and the new dispensation, the new hope, the new temple, the new sacrifice, the new altar, the new sanctuary. That is why in the epistle, it is concerning the High Priest, and the altar, and the sacrifice, and the sanctuary, and the Holy of Holies. And in his comforting words to those persecuted Hebrew Christians, he said, We worship the same God of the fathers “who in days past spoke unto the people of the Lord by prophets, but now, that same Jehovah God has spoken unto us by His Son [Hebrews 1:1, 2]. Ye who are the children of the Law, mediated by angels, are now ruled over by Him who is over all principality and power [Hebrews 1:7-14]. You, who have been a part of the covenant of Moses, who was faithful in all of his house, are now made partakers of Him who is the Master of the house Himself [Hebrews 3:1-6]. You who have been brought into the land of Palestine and Canaan by Joshua are now brought into eternal rest through the faith which is in Jesus Christ [Hebrews 4:1-16]. You who have marveled at the beauty and the solemnity of the Aaronic priesthood, are now the children of the greater High Priest “who is able to save to the uttermost,” whoever liveth to make intercession for us” [Hebrews 7:25]; who has entered into the sanctuary in glory; whose sacrifice is perfect and illimitable; and whose promises are of the very God Himself—the substantial and glorious fulfillment of all of the prophecies and promises in Melchizedek [Hebrews 7:15-24]. And you who are cast out and shut away from the temple in Jerusalem, it is to you that God hath given a more glorious temple; a more perfect sacrifice; a more wonderful High Priest; and a promise of life that shall never, never fail [Hebrews 10:1-25].
One of the key words in the epistle to the Hebrews is: “We have, we have”—and he repeats it again and again—“we have.” To these Hebrew Christians who thought they had lost everything—their hope, their Lord, their people, their sacrifice, their altar, their High Priest, their temple—to them he said: “We have.” We have, we have a more glorious dispensation. We have a more glorious High Priest. We have the true altar. We have the true sanctuary. We have the true and living way into the very Holy of Holies of God Himself [Hebrews 10:19-20].
May I make one other remark in the little time that remains? May I speak of his exhortation to steadfastness? All through the epistle—and it is thirteen chapters long—all through the epistle, he never deviates from that one great central idea of appeal and urgency, to steadfastness, to cleaving to Jesus, to staying with the Lord. He does it in a very unusual way. He does it by plunging into the depths of the wisdom and mystery of God in Christ Jesus, leading these people into the very ocean of the truth of the Christian dispensation; asking them to leave the rudimentary, the elementary doctrines of the faith and to go deeper with Jesus [Hebrews 6:1]. And all through his appeal—in whose mystery, unfathomable, illimitable and eternal—yet he never loses sight of his central appeal; steadfastness in Jesus [Hebrews 6:11]. He says to them that all Israel’s history has been that; made by those who suffered and were cast out and who endured persecution. Like a golden thread, the faith of the fathers. And like a scarlet thread the suffering of the fathers can be traced through all Israel’s history [Hebrews 11:1-40].
And even the divine Lord Jesus Himself was cast outside the camp. “He suffered without the gate” [Hebrews 13:12], and he makes His great appeal. “Let us go forth therefore unto Him without the camp, bearing His reproach” [Hebrews 13:13]. Outside the camp is the place of the child of God. Bearing the reproach of Christ is the burden of the child of Jesus; outside the camp, outside the camp [Hebrews 13:13]. And he illustrated it gloriously. Abel, who saw the truth of the atoning sacrifice [Genesis 4:4], himself became a sacrifice [Genesis 4:4, 8-10]. Enoch, who walked with God, testifieth to a gainsaying generation [Genesis 5:24]. Noah alone was saved, of all of the families of the earth [Genesis 7:23]. Abraham was called out from his people to be a stranger and a pilgrim in an unknown land [Genesis 12:1; Hebrews 11:8-9]. Moses suffered reproach for the sake of Christ. And the fathers confessed they were strangers and pilgrims in the earth, seeking a city, which hath foundation, whose builder and whose maker is God [Hebrews 11:10, 24-26]. And unto that pilgrimage, into that faith, into that committal, this author calls that little band of persecuted Hebrew Christians [Hebrews 1:1-4].
By faith, by faith, and by faith, he does not refer just to the trusting of Jesus that saves our souls [Ephesians 2:8], but he means in that word “by faith” what Paul meant when he concluded the glorious fourth chapter of 2 Corinthians. “While we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal” [2 Corinthians 4:18]; “The substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” [Hebrews 11:1]. “Looking unto Jesus” [Hebrews 12:2], our eternal High Priest who is able to save to the uttermost them who come unto God by faith in Him [Hebrews 7:25].
Just to say it does something to the heart and the soul, much less to read the Word itself and to ask God to give us that liberty of language and that sensitiveness of soul, and that ableness of expression to expound its truth these Lord’s Day mornings. May God speak to us as from Sunday to Sunday we read from its text and look full into the face of Jesus who for the souls of men faced death [1 Corinthians 15:3] that we might someday be presented without blot, without blemish, without stain, without sin in the presence of God our Lord [Ephesians 5:25-27; Jude 1:24].
Now while we sing our song, somebody to give his heart to the Lord today [Romans 10:8-13], would you come and stand by me? A family you to put your life in the church by baptism, by letter, by promise of letter, by statement, by reconsecration of your life; while we sing the song, would you come and stand by me? In the great throng of people in the balcony round, somebody today, “I have decided for Christ, and here I come. Here I am, unashamed, standing before the great congregation, giving my heart in trust to Jesus.” Or one somebody you, to come into the church [Hebrews 10:24-25], or a family, while we sing the song and our people prayerfully enter into the appeal, into the aisle and down here to the front, would you come and would you make it now? While we stand and while we sing?