Introduction

Contemporary Christians often feel Hebrews to be a strange and difficult book. There are, I think, two reasons for this. First, it seems to ramble about and discuss a lot of themes which have never made it into the ‘top ten’ of Christians discussion tops. It begins with a complex discussion of angels; continues with a treatment of what Psalm 95 really meant in talking about ‘entering God’s rest’; moves on to Melchizedek; lists the furniture in the Tabernacle; and ends with an exhortation to ‘go outside the camp’. Well, you see what I mean; were I a betting man, I would lay good odds that none of my readers have found themselves discussing these things over the breakfast table within the last month or two. Small wonder that most people don’t get very far with Hebrews, or let it get very far with them.—NT Wright, Following Jesus, 4

I think he’s probably correct in his assessment. There is a lot going on in the book of Hebrews—and most of the stuff going on is terribly complicated to understand. The arguments are complicated, the exegesis is tricky, and the logic is sometimes a maze of confusion. I’m not suggesting for a minute that I have it figured out entirely. Not at all. That is not to say, on the other hand, that I am completely wordless or thoughtless about this magnificent book.

Exegesis, Patterns, and the Big Idea

What I like to look for when I am reading is patterns: patterns of thought, recurring phrases, foreshadows, double-backs—you know, all those things we were taught to pay attention to when we were learning to interpret writing back in junior high. Reading through the book of Hebrews has given me an opportunity to notice a pattern repeated without fail over and over again in the book at least 14 times in the book. It’s a simple pattern and really helps us understand what the book is about or, at minimum, what small sections of the book are covering.

I add one small caveat: the book does, I believe, have an overarching point. I again agree with Wright who is very careful to write that

The book of Hebrews offers us, quite simply, Jesus. It offers us the Jesus who is there to help because he’s one of us, and has trodden the path before us. It offers us the Jesus who has inaugurated the new covenant, bringing to its fulfillment the age-old plan of God. And it offers us, above all, Jesus the final sacrifice; the one who has done for us what we could not do for ourselves, who has lived our life and died our death, and now ever lives to make intercession for us. (Following Jesus, 10)

Jesus is the Big Idea in Hebrews, without doubt. What I would like to demonstrate is a pattern for how we understand what the smaller arguments in the book of Hebrews and thus how they all tie together to help us understand the bigger argument of Hebrews, viz., that Jesus is enough.

I think if we break up Hebrews into small chunks and see how the author ends each argument then we will begin to understand the greater point he is making within each argument. That is, each argument he makes leads naturally to breaks and conclusions which are set off by key words or phrases. Then all of these smaller arguments, when clumped together, give us a grand picture of Jesus. Throughout the book, leading up to this grand climax, the author has taught us how to live—not leaving theology without a point because all good theology has, ultimately, the point of teaching us how to live because of Jesus. So we learn how to live because of Jesus or what Jesus has said or what Jesus has done and when the book is done, we can say, “Yes, I will join him outside the camp.”

Conformity to Jesus

Barth noted that “Christian speech must be tested by its conformity to Christ.” Unless ‘speech’ is a metaphor for an entire life, then I would expand upon his thought and say that Christian life must also be tested by its conformity to Christ. We have concocted all sorts of ways to judge one another (how often do we go to church, how much money do we give, how much do we serve, etc.), none of them without some merit and some with more demerit, but it seems to me that the best way to examine ourselves, the Bible way, is to judge ourselves and see if we, I, in fact conform to Christ. I’m fairly certain the apostle Paul wrote something to this effect at some point in Romans or Ephesians or both. And this only makes sense given that Paul did definitely write that we are being transformed into the image of Jesus, renewed in the image of our Creator who is Christ Jesus.

So all throughout Hebrews, the author will give frequent pauses, after short or lengthy expositions of Old Testament Scripture, and say something like, “OK, here’s a conclusion. I just said this and that, therefore, here’s how to check yourselves against what I just wrote.” Or, “OK, I just said this and this about Jesus, now, therefore, here’s the way you ought to be conducting yourselves.” He does this over and over again; I count at least 14 times where this pattern is used. The key, if you are reading in English, is to find the word ‘therefore’. In our English translations, this word will signify the need for the reader to pause and consider what has just been read. It’s a good exercise in exegesis that when you see the word ‘therefore’ to ask what it is there for.

Two final thoughts. First, this is not an artificial pattern I have laid across the book of Hebrews based upon English words usage. There are in the Greek at least five ways of expressing ‘therefore’ in the book of Hebrews—and the author uses them to mix it up for us and keep us on our toes, but I think the point is always the same, that is, to get us thinking about how to apply theology to living for and conforming to Jesus. They are: dia touto; othen; oun; dio; and two inferential particles: toinun and toigaroun. In most cases where these words appear in Greek, the English word supplied is ‘therefore’—so the translators have seen the pattern too and been consistent. (I will note which Greek word is used in the text in the sections below.)

Second, there are many instances where these words appear and they are connected not with us, but with God or Jesus. I am only noting the references that speak to us, although at some point it might be helpful to see how these words also relate to God or Jesus. I found, however, that when they are used with reference to Jesus or God they are often translated as ‘and so’ or ‘then’ or something along those lines.

Since this could be a rather long process, and I don’t want to gloss over any of the references, I will only mention just one in this first post and then, in follow up posts later on, I will supply the balance. I think the pattern will be evident to you and you will probably find the pattern even before I have finished writing this series of posts.

Therefore, Pay Attention

I noted in a previous post on the book of Hebrews that a key feature of the book is that God speaks. The opening verses of Hebrews clearly tell us, “…God spoke…in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son…” We are left with no misunderstanding: from the get-go God is interested in communicating with his people. Not only does God want us to hear, but he wants us to understand. He has condescended to us, taken up our language, and communicated to us in ways that we can understand.

In these last days, God has spoken to us by his Son. This Son—well, he is overwhelming, no? He is the radiance of God’s glory, the exact character of God. He sustains all things by his rema, his Word. He provided purification for sins. He sat down at the right hand of God (another very important theme traced through Hebrews (see 1:3, 13; 8:1; 10:12; 12:2). This Jesus is superior to angels. This Jesus is worshiped. It is the throne of Jesus that will last. This Jesus is amazing beyond all our imaginations in what He accomplished, in who He is, in what He is doing, and how he has saved us.

And God spoke to us in Jesus.

Therefore (dia touto) we must (dei) pay attention to what we have heard so that we do not drift away (2:1). Therefore actually stands first in the sentence. It is key: we pay attention because of who this Jesus who spoke is, and because of what he did, and because of what he has done. This is not a random conjunction: therefore is there for a reason. So God spoke. God has spoken. God has spoken in Jesus. God has spoken in Jesus finally. God has spoken in Jesus finally and Jesus is the Son of God…and therefore we must pay attention. We pay attention so we do not drift away, so that we do not miss the salvation offered—the salvation testified to by God’s Holy Spirit, announced to us by Jesus, and witnessed by his people. We must pay attention. The author is not really giving us room to wiggle around and decide if we want to pay attention. If we are the church and we have ears to hear, we must (dei) pay attention. It’s not optional.

Now the author of Hebrews will wrap this up later too (see 12:25; 13:7) and demonstrate how those who speak the Word of God are following closely in the footsteps of Jesus and continuing the long line of prophets who did the same (see 3:5; 11:4; 12:24 among others). God’s message, culminating finally in Jesus, has been consistent from the beginning. So how important is this? On the one hand, we are to pay attention to what we have heard (from Jesus? From God? From prophets? From preachers?) If we do, we will prevent ourselves from drifting away. How important is it, then, to pay attention to the Word of God? I like a similar passage from Ephesians:

So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. (Ephesians 4:11-15)

The whole point of ‘paying attention’ is in order for Christ to created or imaged in us. When we drift from the word, we become less like Him. When we pay attention to what God has said, we are moving in a direction God has planned for us all along: the maturity and fullness of Jesus—the people of God, the image of God in humanity, true humanity, true Israel. This is the goal of the Word of God. It teaches us how to be like Jesus, why we should be like Jesus, how God makes us like Jesus, and how this has been his goal from before the foundations of the world (see Ephesians 1, 2, and 5; Philippians 2; Colossians). If we miss what God is saying to us, who else will tell us? If we neglect what God is saying to us, who else will save us or what salvation will be left for us? “Today if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts” (3:7, 15; 4:7).

I think also this explains the importance of faithful, biblical, expository preaching. Remember, if we are to listen to Jesus in chapters 1 and 2, the author is not shy to tie it up later in chapters 12 and 13 by telling us to pay attention to our leaders who preach and teach. He warns us not to ‘be carried away by all kinds of strange teaching’ (13:9). There will be a lot of efforts made by the enemy to distract us and tear our attention away from what matters to God: that we hear him speak, that we hear his word, that we pay attention to what he says, and that in hearing and paying attention, we become like Jesus in all ways—even so far, says the author of Hebrews, that ‘we go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore’ (13:13).

William Willimon wrote:

Faithful preaching thus inevitably involves the preacher’s resistance against the tendency of the church to want to contain and stabilize God. Church furniture tends to be heavier than it needs to be, large, bolted to the floor. Church buildings tend to be build mot substantially than is necessary. Perhaps this comes from the church’s inchoate knowledge that it is the nature of this God’s word to cause oaks to whirl, to shake the foundations, ripping doors of their hinges (Psalm 29; Acts 2). Therefore, preaching is a perfect medium for the communication of this God because of its fragility, it orality, its lack of stability, and its resistance to duplication and definition. (Conversations with Barth on Preaching, 175)

Yeah, just imagine if this God and this God’s word actually got a hold of us in a Sunday sermon!

But I don’t think many want to hear such things in the church today. As one who has been on both sides of the pulpit, I can faithfully testify that preachers cannot preach this because they won’t soon have jobs if they do. That sounds harsh, but I submit that if we truly paid attention to what Scripture is saying about Jesus, about life, about our destiny in Christ, our churches would be a lot emptier than they are. That’s not the goal, but I think it’s the truth (see John 5, 6).

Finally

Therefore pay attention: So that you will not drift away.

Therefore pay attention: How shall we escape if we ignore it (2:2; 12:25)? And if this is God’s last word to us, his eschatological word in these last days, what else can we expect?

Therefore pay attention: This salvation was announced by the Lord; confirmed by those who heard him; and testified to by God through gifts of the Holy Spirit.

He tells us to pay attention because the result of not paying attention is drifting. Drifting has the idea of slowly moving away, gradually moving away from that which tethers us to truth—in this case, Jesus. This, I submit, is what those who are mentioned throughout this book were commended for: Moses, Melchizedek, Abel, Abraham, and all the rest. The essence of faith is paying attention to Jesus, keeping our eyes fixed upon the One who spoke, the one who died, and the one who finished the work God gave him to finish (‘sat down’ carries the idea of completion of work). Those who do will have no problem joining him outside the camp and bearing his disgrace.

And, to make matters worse, the book of Hebrews is written to the church. Why would the author of Hebrews have to write to the church and say to them, “Therefore, pay attention”? Do you think it is because the church is always in danger of not listening, not paying attention? Do you think it is because the church is always in danger of drifting?

Strange, that.

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