[Here I offer some rather preliminary notes and observations on the book of Hebrews. I hope I can writes some more, but I don't want to make promises. This is part of a project I am working on to get myself back into preaching shape. I also offer it as part of the prophet part of prophets, priests and poets. --jlh]
“The story of Easter is thus a prophetic story of the way in which this God will not keep silent (Luke 24; John 20), will not let the conversation (the argument?) between God and humanity be ended simply because of the sin of humanity, will not be defeated by human intransigence. The Risen Christ comes back to the very ones who betrayed the Crucified Jesus, came back to them and resumed the conversation. This is the hope upon which every church is built, the hope upon which every sermon is preached: Christ comes back to his betrayers and talks to them.”(—William Willimon, Conversations with Barth on Preaching, 145)
I have been stuck in the book of Hebrews. I suppose calling it a book is a bit of a stretch since it’s really a letter. It’s a brilliant letter and every time I open its pages I come across something more that I hadn’t noticed on the previous visit. Every time I read this letter, I fall more in love with it. It is so deep, so massive, and so theologically profound that even a surface reading leaves one overwhelmed and in awe. I wish I had discovered this letter sooner in life, but I confess that its depth was enough to persuade me, when I was younger, to avoid it.
At first glance, yes, Hebrews is complicated stuff. In fact, if you have not spent significant time reading through the Old Testament—especially the books of Leviticus and Exodus—you might as well avoid reading Hebrews for a while. Yet I discovered a long time ago that there’s a simpler way to understand the various books of the Bible. Usually, not always, but usually, the author gives us a hint at his purpose in the opening of the book or letter. I think Hebrews is very much like that. So: “In the past God spoke to our ancestors [in] the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son…” When reading the book of Hebrews, it is imperative we listen to what God is saying to us. It seems to me that the author could have started anywhere, but he begins by exhorting us to hear the voice of God which spoke first in the prophets and lastly in Jesus.
It almost seems too simple to say that the book of Hebrews is about this God who speaks to us, but I think that is a pretty good place to start. And it goes a little further, too, when we see that the author has attached his own prophetic voice as the natural successor of Jesus—not that he adds to anything Jesus said, but that he continues proclaiming the message of Jesus. I note that four times (at least) we are told to pay attention to our leaders, to those who speak to us the Word of God. In fact, this idea forms an inclusion for the entire book: “We must pay careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away” (2:1) and “See to it that you do not refuse him who speaks. If they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, how much less will we, if we turn away from him who warns us from heaven” (12:25; cf. 13:7). I suspect, however, that in many cases this idea has been quite lost on us rebels. Many think we don’t need to listen to leaders who expound the Scripture—as if their job is something else. And, to be sure, many leaders take this as a carte-blanche excuse to wield all sorts of ungodly power over the church. We need not look far for examples.
We have to pay attention. But it’s terribly important for us to note who we listen to first. Hebrews is very careful to note that we first listen to God who spoke in Jesus. God spoke in the past in the prophets, in the last days he spoke in Jesus—but regardless of whether it was the first days or the last days, it was God speaking in them and the message was consistent. The continuity between then and now is that it was God speaking. His message was consistent too (see Hebrews 3:5). We have to listen to him who spoke—which is, I think, easy enough to discern: He who spoke is God in Jesus (1:2-3). We are not to refuse Jesus who speaks to us. Why? Because he has spoken to us by Jesus ‘in these last days.’ There is an eschatological element to our listening and to his speaking. We ignore his voice at our own peril: we will drift away, we will not escape, there is no voice left for us if we ignore his voice. God has nothing else to say save for Jesus; that is, Jesus is the last word from God on matters of salvation. Consider the further words of chapter 2:
“For since the message spoken through angels was binding, and every violation and disobedience received its just punishment, how shall we escape if we ignore so great a salvation? This salvation, which was first announced by the Lord, was confirmed to us by those who heard him. God also testified to it by signs, wonders and various miracles, and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will” (Hebrews 2:2-4).
What was announced by Jesus was God’s salvation. If we ignore the message proclaimed by Jesus, confirmed by those who heard, and testified to by God through signs and wonders, what other hope do we have? In the context of the letter to the Hebrews what we find is that this final message of Jesus in these last days concerning salvation is far superior to anything it is compared to. It is superior to the message spoken by the prophets (1:1), superior to the message spoken by angels (2:2), superior to the message spoken by Moses (3:5), superior to the message spoken by Joshua (4:8), superior to the message spoken by the sacrifices (10:5), and superior to the message of Abel’s blood (11:4; 12:24). There is nothing that compares with the voice of Jesus: he has spoken, we must listen; we ignore him to our own peril and disaster. (In fact, the word ‘better’ (Gk. kreitton) is a significant word in Hebrews, 1:4; 6:9; 7:7, 19, 22; 8:6; 9:23; 10:34; 11:16, 35, 40; 12:24). Everything about Jesus and his last word is, finally, better than anything that preceded it or anything that might follow it.
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