Derek Prince - Structure and Major Themes of The Book
A lot of Jewish people say there is no such thing as a Jew who’s a Christian. So, Jews who believe in Jesus, of whom, thank God, there are many, have taken other forms such as "Jewish believers" or "Hebrew Christians" just to avoid that very controversial phrase. But at any rate, bear in mind the people to whom this epistle was addressed were Jewish. That’s very important. We are so used to seeing the New Testament from a Gentile or non-Jewish standpoint that we overlook the fact there are four epistles in the New Testament which were written either exclusively or primarily to Jewish people. Hebrews, James and the two epistles to Peter. Actually, even the translations we use of the New Testament, the two that I’ve recommended, are incorrect when they translate the opening phrases of 1 Peter, because it’s stated that it’s addressed to "people in the Diaspora".
How many of you know what the Diaspora is? A few. The Diaspora is the technical Jewish word for Jewish people scattered abroad outside the land of Israel. So, our translation doesn’t bring out this fact that that epistle was addressed primarily to Jewish people. Peter, after all, was "the apostle of the circumcision," the Jewish people. I think it’s particularly important in connection with Hebrews because of its content. Let me add just what’s there in your outline, it’s been suggested that it was addressed to a house community, what you’d call a house church. Something which was very common in the early centuries of the gospel because the Jewish people basically in their synagogues are used to small buildings and small gatherings of people. In the area where we lived in Jerusalem recently there were probably half a dozen synagogues. But you wouldn’t know they were there because they were over a store or in an apartment building just maybe two rooms or one floor that was dedicated to being a synagogue. And maybe not more than 30 or 50 people would meet there.
So the idea of a small community of believers meeting together is very easy to fit into that background. It’s been suggested that this community might have been in Palestine or Alexandria or Rome. But all three possibilities leave it pretty clear that nobody really knows. I don’t think we need to know. But the important thing about it is the background of these people. The whole epistle assumes that they had a good knowledge of the Old Testament Scriptures and of the rituals and practices and laws of the temple and of Jewish life. They were the people at that point in history who had the greatest spiritual privileges and opportunities. They were far ahead of people from a non-Jewish background who’d never picked up a Bible or the scrolls of the Law and had to find out who Moses was, who Joshua was, who David was.
I’ve been in countries where you have to start, and approach people like that, they’ve never heard of Moses or David or Joshua, anybody. And maybe never heard of Jesus. But these people had a really good background in the knowledge of God, and His Word and His requirements and principles. There’s one Scripture I’d like to turn to there in Romans 9:4-5. Paul is speaking about his "kinsmen according to the flesh" in the previous verse. He says he has tremendous burden for them. Then, in these two verses, 4 and 5, he speaks about all the blessings that they had received that no other group of people anywhere on the earth had received. He says: who are Israelites, to whom belong. And then he lists a series of things that belong to them as Israelites.
As I go through it you might like to count, I want to kind of train you in this counting habit. to whom belongs the adoption as sons and the glory and the covenants and the giving of the Law and the temple service and the promises, whose are the fathers. Seven things, do you agree? And then the climax: and from whom is the Christ [the Messiah] according to the flesh. That’s the eighth. Seven plus Jesus. So in a sense they had it all. They started far ahead of everybody else. Now, nineteen centuries and more later, to whom does that apply? No longer to the Jewish people but to Christians, to people like most of us here, not all of us, whose background is in a Christian culture, who are used to the word church, who know what a hymn is, who know what prayers are.
Probably there are very few people here who couldn’t quote the words of "Amazing Grace" or some of the old great hymns of the church. We’re familiar with the concept of sin. I wonder whether it occurs to you that people who don’t have a background in the Bible don’t know what sin is. One of the things that impressed me in East Africa when I was there is that the African tribes didn’t have a word for "thank you" in any of their languages. That, basically, comes out of the Bible. People without a Bible don’t know what it is to be thankful. So, what the writer says to the Hebrew believers nineteen centuries ago is particularly appropriate to people with a Christian culture and background today. The boot is right on the other foot. We are the people who’ve had it all, who’ve had all the privileges, all the opportunities, who’ve been blessed far more than almost any other group of people anywhere on the earth.
And so as you read these words that we’re going to be studying, to Jewish believers I want you, in a sense, to put yourself in that place. Because, as you’ll see, this epistle is full of reproofs and warnings that they haven’t utilized their advantages. At one point it says" when by this time you ought to be teachers, you have need for somebody to teach you what are the basic principles of the Word of God". That was a rebuke. But that would be true of probably 80 percent of professing Christians today. When we ought to be ready to teach others we need to be taught once more what are the basic principles of the Word of God. That’s why I brought out my Foundation Series about 17 years ago, because I saw that multitudes of people who thought they were spiritual had no knowledge of the basic truths of the Bible. I sought to supply that need.
One of the most dangerous things that you can ever do is say, "We’ve got it all"! I'd like to ask you some questions. If you’ve got it all, first of all, where is it? Why doesn’t it show? Secondly, if you’ve got it all, you’re answerable for it all. "To whom much is given, of him shall much also be required". Going on now with our outline. The distinctive revelation of this epistle, I think, without any doubt, is Jesus Christ as our high priest. I don’t know of any other book in the New Testament which deals with that. It’s there by implication in Revelation but I don’t know of any other book that touches on this theme except Hebrews.
It’s an amazing fact. If Hebrews wasn’t there, we would know nothing about the high priesthood of Jesus Christ. Remarkably, also, as we’ll see in due course, the teaching about the high priesthood of Jesus Christ, and with it the priesthood of Melchizedek, is based on about four verses in the Old Testament. Two verses in Genesis 18 and two in Psalm 110. And yet this tremendous revelation grew out of all that. Never think that because there’s just about two verses about a thing in the Bible it isn’t that important. It may be extremely important. Another thing I want to say on that subject is that what we will be studying is, I would say, 90 percent of it in an unseen realm. It doesn’t belong on this earth that we live on. And there is no way we can know it except by revelation. Science can’t tell you, reason can’t work it out. If God had not chosen to reveal it to us, we would never be able to know it.
So I want you as you move on to set your mind to this that you’re going to have to receive revelation by faith. There’s very little you can check it against. We’re going to find out the pattern of heavenly worship, we’re going to find out the way that our high priest operates in heaven. Particularly, if we don’t know the Old Testament passages that relate to Aaron as high priest, we really don’t have any point of reference. One of the vital truths of this is that without a high priest, we can’t approach God. There is no way. It’s not permitted. And yet I think hardly any of us most of the time are conscious of our total dependence upon our high priest to enable us to approach God. We’ll be studying in two or three sessions the ministry of a priest: What is a priest there for?
As I indicated, we will also take a quick glimpse at the Old Testament picture of Aaron as a high priest because you’ve got to go to the Old Testament to find out the meaning of the New Testament. That’s marvelous. Let me illustrate that from another thing which occurs to me. The description of the death of Jesus on the cross in the gospels, the historical account, is amazingly brief. In fact, it’s in about three words: "They crucified Him". No details about blood, no details about anguish; very, very little. No modern writer would have ever presented that crucial event in such few words. But, if you turn back to the Old Testament and read some of the Messianic psalms like Psalm 22, Psalm 69, Isaiah 50, you’ll have an exposé of what was going on in the inner consciousness of Jesus while He was there on the cross.
So you have to go to the Old Testament to fill out some of the simple statements of the New Testament. Okay, going on in my note outline. The main theme, I would like to say the main practical theme is indicated by some of the recurrent words and we’ll look at them a little later this evening. But particularly three: inheritance, rest and perfection. Practically, this book is designed to get you into your inheritance. And in your inheritance you will find rest and out of that you will achieve perfection or maturity. It’s got a very practical thrust to it. I suspect that for most of you it’ll be an area that you’ve scarcely covered.
To sum up the purpose of the book, I just picked out one phrase which is Hebrews 6:18. We might turn to that. Hebrews 6:18. We won’t even go into the background, we start in the middle of a sentence. "in order that by two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we may have strong encouragement". I picked that phrase out because I felt that’s really the result that the writer wanted to achieve in God’s people, that "we may have strong encouragement". Now the Greek word that’s translated encourage is the same word that’s used in John 14 where Jesus speaks of the comforter. You know the Roman Catholics call it "the paraclete"? That is the Greek word, paracletos. And as a verb, paracleo, it has two related meanings which I express this way: "to cheer up" and "to stir up".
If you’re discouraged, you need to be cheered up. If you’re getting lazy and indifferent, you need to be stirred up. They’re both included in the meaning of the one word. So, the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, He’s the "cheerer-upper" and the "stirrer-upper". He just does whatever you happen to need at that given moment. If I were to ask how many of you here tonight either need to be cheered up or stirred up, I imagine many of you would raise your hands. Well, I trust these studies will do that. We come to the key words, which I have to say are very interesting to me. I hope they’ll be to you. I’ve chosen the first word, which is high priest, and then we have 12 words, all of which, in one way or another, are related. I’ve grouped them together in four groups of three because each of those groups stands together. So let’s just go through them, you’ll follow in your outline.
Number one, high priest. We have that on its own. Then three words that are closely related. Promise, oath and covenant. These are related to the high priest because it takes a high priest to guarantee or assure us of the fulfillment of the promise, the oath and the covenant. Without a high priest we’d have no guarantee. Turn to one passage in Hebrews 8:6: Hebrews 8:6: But now he [that is Jesus] has obtained a more excellent ministry, by as much as he is also the mediator of a better covenant, which has been enacted on better promises. You notice the two words covenant and promise in that one verse. But you see that they require a mediator, somebody to make them work out for us. Without a mediator they’re of no avail. So we start with the high priest, the mediator. These are the things he mediates: the promise; the oath and the covenant.
Now, when we come to the word covenant we discover in Scripture that a covenant is of no avail without a sacrifice being offered. And a sacrifice requires the shedding of blood. Let me relate to you how I discovered that, because it’s a good example of the benefits of this analytical method. In l945 which is a long while ago for all of us, and some of you weren’t even thought of at that time, I was in Jerusalem on the Mount of Olives working in a British military hospital. I decided to start studying the Bible in Hebrew. I got myself a Hebrew Bible, got some grammars and other things and started. I started to read the book of Genesis. I think it must have been the prompting of the Holy Spirit, I decided that I would underline three words as I went. One with blue, one with green and one with red.
I recommend this as a very good way to study the Bible. I underlined covenant, Hebrew berith, with blue, sacrifice with green, and the shedding of blood with red. I don’t know what put those three together in my mind. Do you know what I soon discovered as I went through my Bible? Wherever I had the blue, I had the green. And wherever I had the green, I had the red. A covenant is effective only with a sacrifice. A sacrifice is effective only with the shedding of blood. So you see, I grasped one of the most important truths of the Bible just by that particular method of seeking it out for myself. I had no preconceptions when I started. So here we find that because we have a covenant we have to have offering, sacrifice and blood.
Now, turn the sheet over. The next three indicate the response required from us to benefit from what has been said: Faith, hope and confession. I think we understand basically what those are. You’ll find that confession is one of the dominant themes of this epistle. I’ll explain what confession is more thoroughly when we get there. And then in 11, 12 and 13 we get into our objective. Where are we going? I think there’s nothing more frustrating for most people than not to know where you’re going, which is the condition of the majority of the Christian church. Well, this epistle has got a definite objective for which we are headed. It’s our inheritance. In our inheritance, and nowhere else, there is rest. And when we enter into our rest in our inheritance we come to perfection or maturity. So those are the objectives. If the epistle does its work in us, it’ll bring us much closer to those objectives by the time we’ve finished.
Now, there are various other particular features in the epistle that I want to point out to you. The next one is passages containing solemn warnings. I would say this book in the New Testament has more solemn warnings in it than any other book and they’re very, very serious warnings. I think, that relates to the people it was written to. Don’t imagine that because you’ve had it all that you’re secure. On the contrary, the more you know, the more will be expected of you. That’s the essence of it. I’ve set out there five passages that contain solemn warnings. Against each one I’ve noted the thing that we’re warned against. Let’s read the list down. The first is neglect, the second is unbelief, the third is apostasy or falling away, the fourth is willfully continuing to sin, the fifth is coming short of the grace of God.
I think, as a matter of fact, they’re in a logical order. If we begin by neglect we will end up in unbelief. Unbelief will lead us to apostasy and apostasy will cause us to go back to willfully continuing to sin. This epistle says if you get there, there is no more sacrifice for sin, it’s the end. The tragedy will be that we’ve known the grace of God and come short of it. I think this epistle does as much as any passage in the New Testament to correct the very inaccurate and sloppy view of grace which is held among so many Fundamentals and Evangelicals today, which makes grace almost a license to live any way you please. It’s totally out of line with what this epistle teaches. Then there are passages that indicate positive, practical application.
I think the interesting thing about it is that they’re comparatively brief although they’re very important. I think it’s interesting that they’re brief because it tells us that most of this epistle is revelatory and it only pauses quite briefly to give us the practical application. What we’re really being initiated into is truth in a realm we would never know in any other way. Then we’re told how that truth will affect the way we live. There are, I find, seven passages of practical application. They’re listed there, we’ll just read and this is just my personal summary, you can probably improve on it, of the things that this epistle requires us or recommends us to do. First of all, confident access to God. Second, going on to maturity or perfection. Go on is a key phrase. Third, the need for zeal, faith and patience. Fourth, an exhortation to draw near, hold fast, assemble and encourage.
Another key word, I think, is encourage. Fifth, to remember and endure. Another key word is endure. Sixth, press on, endure discipline, be strong, pursue peace and holiness. And then the closing passage, which is essentially the last chapter, chapter 13, we’re exhorted to love, holiness, submissiveness and prayer. Then there are seven passages of comparison and contrast. In every case the essence of the thought is that Jesus and the New Covenant are infinitely superior to what was offered to Israel under the Old Covenant. See, the danger was that they were going to settle down in their old religious form and not have the full glory of the revelation of Jesus Christ. I would say the danger of these people was that they were just sliding back into religion without live faith.
If I were to sum it up one way, they were religious people but there was no life, no faith. Because they were sliding back into religion they could no longer see the uniqueness and the supremacy of Jesus. They were willing to put in, more or less, on the level with angels or with Moses. See, they’d lost their vision of what God had offered them. Again, that seems to me so applicable to the majority of Christians. Forgive me for saying this but I remember thinking when I was a boy in the Anglican Church in Britain, I listened to all those beautiful words that are uttered in the Anglican prayer book and they’re as beautiful and as vibrant as any you’ll find anywhere. But as I listened to those people and I uttered them myself I thought, Who really believes this? We all say it, we don’t think what we’re saying; nobody knows what it means.
I remember thinking to myself, if one of these ladies were to walk out of church and drop a lace handkerchief and somebody ran after her and gave her her handkerchief back, she’d be more excited about getting her handkerchief back than she would about all the things she’d been saying she believed about Jesus. I concluded, It’s not real. It’s just a form, a way of doing things. The life has gone out of it. And this was the danger with these people. I like to tell you, out of observation, it doesn’t take long for that to happen. It can happen in two years. In fact, it can happen in less. But you can slide from one to the other in less than two years. Let’s look at the seven points of comparison. I’ve listed inferior, superior.
And again, the references are given in the right-hand corner. First of all, angels. They are inferior to Jesus. It takes most of the first chapter to establish that. Second, Moses is inferior to Jesus. That’s a hard thing for Jewish people to accept. Third, the Levitical priesthood is inferior to the priesthood of Melchizedek. Fourth, the Old Covenant is inferior to the New Covenant. Fifth, the tabernacle of Moses is inferior to the heavenly tabernacle. Sixth, the Levitical sacrifices are inferior to the sacrifice of Jesus. And seven, Mount Sinai is inferior to Mount Zion. So you can go down that at your leisure and pick them out.
Now, another interesting feature of structure in Hebrews is that there are twelve passages where the writer says "Let us" do something. That’s interesting because that phrase "let us" indicates two things. First of all, it indicates a decision. Secondly, it indicates a corporate decision. There’s much in this epistle that shows us we can’t do it all alone. We have to move on with our fellow believers. There again, it corrects a very wrong attitude in some contemporary forms of Christianity where it’s "just Jesus and me". That isn’t it. It’s not "I will," it’s "let us". And it’s interesting to look at the twelve "let us" things. I think, if you go through them, they’ll tell you a lot about the problems of people to whom they were addressed.
First of all, amazing, let us fear. Don’t presume, don’t take it for granted you’re all right because you know all about this and that.
Number two, let us be diligent. Not lazy. It distresses me how little laziness is reproved among Christians. In my observation, laziness is far more severely condemned in the Bible than drunkenness. And yet, few of us would tolerate drunkenness, many of us tolerate laziness.
Number three, let us hold fast our confession. Don’t give up.
Number four, let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace. We have a privilege, let’s use it.
Number five, let us press on to maturity or perfection. Again, that’s a key phrase. Go on, press on, move on.
Number six, let us draw near into the Holy of Holies. If you study the context, that’s what it means.
Number seven, let us hold fast the confession of our hope. That’s the one phrase that’s repeated. Hold fast.
Number eight, let us consider how to stimulate one another. Again, we cannot be self-centered; we have to look at our fellow believers.
Number nine, let us run with endurance. Another key word, endurance.
Number ten, let us show gratitude or have grace.
Eleven, let us go out to Him [Jesus], outside the camp.
And number twelve, let us offer a sacrifice of praise. There are twelve collective decisions that we need to make.
Now, in closing I want to go through this list of words. I have to say I’m rather proud of it. Okay. Now. We don’t have long and we don’t need long but let’s just glance at these lists of words and references where they occur. You may think it’s kind of dry but I believe if you move into it you’ll find it’s revelatory. The first word, and they’re taken in the same order that we listed-is high priest. That occurs altogether 18 times. It’s interesting to notice somewhat where they first occur. The first account of that is in the second chapter. Also, it’s interesting to notice it goes on till the last chapter which is 13. It runs all the way through. The next word is promise and that occurs 16 times. It begins in chapter 4. It also runs nearly all the way through. The next word is swear or oath.
Now those are two different words but they’re just a verb and a noun for the same thing so I’ve put them together. That occurs 13 times but primarily it’s all in the first half of the epistle. Covenant occurs 16 times and essentially it’s in the second half of the epistle. It runs all the way through to the last chapter. Offer or offering occurs 27 times. Offer is a verb, offering is a noun, but they’re the same. That doesn’t begin till chapter 5 and it runs all the way through. Sacrifice, which is close to offering, occurs 15 times. It begins in the same place as offering and runs all the way through. Seven, blood. It occurs 21 times, but it doesn’t begin till chapter 9. Then it’s very frequent. Then the most common of all the key words is faith or faithful. It occurs 38 times.
I’ll point out when we get there that there’s an adjective, faithful, verb "to believe" and a noun "faith". In English it happens that the verb is different in form from the adjective and the noun. That’s not true in Greek. Here is the place where we bring something together which the English translation wouldn’t indicate it’s so closely related. Of course, all of you know which chapter the word faith occurs most in, don’t you? Hebrews 11. That's right. See, faith is really the antidote for religion, it’s the antidote for letting go; it’s the antidote for getting discouraged. Faith. Let’s never get so clever that we think we can do without faith because we can’t. "Without faith it is impossible to please God".
It’s no good trying. I think these people were trying, but without faith. Ten, confess or confession. I’ve put in parenthesis below that confidence. That is actually a different word. I’ll explain it when we get there But the original Greek word for confidence was initially a political word meaning "freedom of speech". So it’s a confidence that’s expressed in speech. So I put it there together with confess or confession. I put that word in parentheses so you’ll see those references are in parentheses. Can you see that? Together they occur 8 times, each of them occurs 4 times. Then heir, inherit and inheritance. That’s two nouns and a verb, but they’re all from the same basic word. Occurs 10 times. I would say it’s the initial word that hits us. It occurs in the second verse.
When we get there I’ll try to show you how significant that is. The last two words on Page 0/6. Rest occurs 12 times. But the interesting thing about that is it only occurs in two chapters, chapters 3 and 4. In fact, it only occurs twice in chapter 3 so it occurs 10 times in chapter 4. If there’s one thing that God has made real for me in this study as I prepared it, it’s this theme of rest. I trust that the Lord will enable me to share that with you. Finally, a word which is translated various ways but is the same word in the original. Perfect, perfecter, perfection, mature, maturity. They’re all the same Greek word. teleioo. The root of that word is the word end. telos is end, teleioo is perfect.
You come to the end. If I were to sum up what this is intended to do for us, that would be the word. Perfection. It’s to bring us to perfection, completion, maturity, the end of our course. Ok, I think that's an appropriate stopping point for this evening. I hope you haven't got to weary. I know that after a long day at work, it's not so easy to maintain your concentration.