Epistle to the Hebrews
Although traditionally attributed to Paul, the actual authorship of Hebrews is unknown. In the fourth century AD, St Jerome supported Paul as its author and is likely the reason the tradition continues today.
However, unlike the other Pauline letters, Hebrews does not claim who wrote the epistle. While the teachings are Pauline in nature, they are not in the language Paul would normally use. Some scholars also note that Hebrews 2:3 suggests it could not have been Paul, as he was among the first generation that heard the Lord’s voice (albeit in a vision).
While there are many possible candidates for the authorship of Hebrews, scholars consider Barnabas (Paul’s missionary companion) and Apollos (one of Paul’s junior companions) as the two most likely authors of Hebrews. Because it is traditionally attributed to Paul and is Pauline in nature, I will use traditional attribution.
To whom the letter was specifically written is unknown. The writings show that it was probably directed to a group of Jews or Jewish Christians who had access to and knowledge of the Hebrew Bible. It is based upon Psalms 110 as its theme, and so the reader would have been very aware of the text of that psalm.
Because the epistle discusses the Tabernacle/temple imagery, it is thought by many to be written prior to the destruction of the Jewish Temple (70 AD).
Purpose of Epistle to the Hebrews
Hebrews was written to strengthen the waning faith of some Jewish Christian members, who were being harassed, perhaps by Jews and local leaders. It was also written as a logical explanation of how Jesus as Messiah could fit into the Mosaic landscape. The temple and the Law of Moses were administered by priests of Aaron, of the Levite priesthood line. How then, could Jesus, who was descended from Judah, ever be able to fill the priestly duties of the Messiah.
While many Jews awaited a kingly Messiah (Messiah ben David), Jesus did not seem to fill those sandals in his mortal life. Rather than leading armies to expel the Romans, Jesus taught to “render unto Caesar.” Paul would describe Jesus as a priestly Messiah.
In the Dead Sea Scrolls (written around the time of Jesus), the Qumran people foresaw a coming priestly Messiah of Aaron that is similar to Jesus’ role as Savior of the world. Given Jesus was not a descendant of Aaron, he could not be that Messiah. Paul will spend much of the epistle, using Psalms 110 as his text, explaining how Jesus could not only be the descendant of King David, but also be the servant who would make the eternal sacrifice.
Christ - the Image of God
Paul begins by explaining to the Jewish Christians that Jesus has greater power than most realize. Through Christ, God has created the worlds. While God spoke through prophets anciently, he called his heir to speak to mankind during Jesus’ personal mortal ministry.
Jesus was heir of all things, and different than the angels, because God proclaimed at Jesus’ baptism, “Thou art my son, this day I have begotten thee” (Heb 1:5, Luke 3:22 - where some early copies of Luke actually repeat Paul’s quote). No one had been literally nor spiritually begotten of God before. Because of the Fall, all mankind was removed from God’s presence. But Jesus opened the door for a spiritual adoption and reconciliation with God.
Jesus receives the throne and sceptre from God (Heb 1:8, Ps 45:6). Paul is using the ancient Jewish and important Christian writings to show Jesus is fulfilling them. In fact, a major portion of his discussion on Christ will revolve around Psalms 110.
“But to which of the angels said he at any time, Sit on my right hand, until I make thine enemies thy footstool?” (Heb 1:13).
Compare this question regarding the status of angels to the Psalmist’s prophecy of the Lord:
“The Lord said unto my Lord, Sit thou at my right hand, until I make thine enemies thy footstool” (Ps 110:1).
God said unto the Lord Jesus to sit at his right hand until all things are finished and the wicked are destroyed. Paul will continue using Psalms to explain Jesus’ divine nature and calling.
In Hebrews 2:6-8, Paul quotes Psalms 8:
“What is man, that thou art mindful of him? or the son of man, that thou visitest him?
Thou madest him a little lower than the angels; thou crownedst him with glory and honour, and didst set him over the works of thy hands:
Thou hast put all things in subjection under his feet.”
He then explains that Jesus was below all the angels and all things in his death and suffering. Yet, Paul previously noted that the resurrected and glorified Jesus “being made so much better than the angels” (Heb 1:4) as a stark contrast to the cross.
“For verily he took not on him the nature of angels; but he took on him the seed of Abraham” (Heb 2:16).
Jesus did not merely become an eternal servant of God, but an heir of Abraham and so an heir of God the Father, as well. In his later discussion, Paul will explain how all can become heirs of Abraham, rather than merely servant angels.
Apostle and High Priest
“Wherefore, holy brethren, partakers of the heavenly calling, consider the Apostle and High Priest of our profession, Christ Jesus” (Heb 3:1).
We find two interesting points here: First, Jesus is an apostle and a high priest. Second, Paul insists that the members of the church are “partakers of the heavenly calling.”
Discussing the second point, we may ask what is the heavenly calling? It is exactly what Jesus’ life, ministry and resurrection has shown forth. All mankind may become heirs of God, receiving all that God has through Christ, rather than being serving angels in the eternities.
That Jesus is an apostle and high priest denotes his holy calling. Apostle is a Greek word meaning, “Sent”. Jesus was sent as a special messenger of salvation to mankind. Through the power of the apostleship, he would be able to restore the ancient authorities and powers, which the Jews had lost through disobedience. Included would be ordinances and teachings that would sanctify mankind. Through the Gift of the Holy Ghost via the laying on of hands, mankind would be made holy and worthy of being divine and an heir with Christ of all God’s blessings and promises.
As high priest, Jesus would be in the position to perform the great sacrifice required to save mankind from sin. Jesus’ sacrifice would open the door for mankind to believe and repent, making man guiltless. Mankind receives justification through the Savior’s great expiatory event.
Jesus is compared to Moses. Moses was a great prophet, but it was Jesus as Jehovah and Lord that created Israel in the first place. While Jews focused much honor on Moses as the great law giver, Jesus gave Moses the law in the first place. Israel sinned in Moses’ day and lost the promised land. They were literally cast out of God’s presence when they chose to rebel against Moses, and so were not allowed to enter the Lord’s rest (presence).
In modern revelation, the Lord explained that Moses attempted to bring Israel into the presence of God on top of Mount Sinai. The people refused to ascend the mount, and instead chose to rebel and sin below. Because of this, the Lord took the higher priesthood and law from them, giving them the Law of Moses and the lesser priesthood (D&C 84:19-26).
“So we see that they could not enter in because of unbelief” (Heb 3:19).
Levitical/Aaronic Priesthood vs Melchizedek Priesthood
So, how could Jesus perform high priest duties without being a Levite or holding the Aaronic Priesthood? Paul explains that there was a priesthood that preceded and excelled above the Aaronic Priesthood:
“4 And no man taketh this honour unto himself, but he that is called of God, as was Aaron.
5 So also Christ glorified not himself to be made an high priest; but he that said unto him, Thou art my Son, to day have I begotten thee.
6 As he saith also in another place, Thou art a priest for ever after the order of Melchisedec” (Heb 7).
No one could hold any priesthood office, unless called of God, as Aaron was called of God through the prophet Moses. Just as God had proclaimed at Jesus’ baptism that he was begotten of God, so the Father also proclaimed him a high priest after the order of Melchizedek.
Melchizedek was king of the ancient city of Salem. The name “Melchizedek” literally means, “King of Righteousness.” This king was so righteous that Abraham paid tithes to him. Melchizedek offered a holy supper to Abraham and others after a successful conquest (Genesis 14, see JST Gen 14). Melchizedek was a Gentile, and yet held a priesthood greater than Abraham. Some traditions hold that Melchizedek was Shem, the son of Noah. That Levi and Aaron were subordinate to Father Abraham shows that the Levitical or Aaronic priesthood is subordinate to the Melchizedek order of priesthood.
Of Melchizedek, the Lord revealed to Joseph Smith:
“26 Now Melchizedek was a man of faith, who wrought righteousness; and when a child he feared God, and stopped the mouths of lions, and quenched the violence of fire.
27 And thus, having been approved of God, he was ordained an high priest after the order of the covenant which God made with Enoch,
28 It being after the order of the Son of God; which order came, not by man, nor the will of man; neither by father nor mother; neither by beginning of days nor end of years; but of God;
29 And it was delivered unto men by the calling of his own voice, according to his own will, unto as many as believed on his name.
30 For God having sworn unto Enoch and unto his seed with an oath by himself; that every one being ordained after this order and calling should have power, by faith, to break mountains, to divide the seas, to dry up waters, to turn them out of their course;
31 To put at defiance the armies of nations, to divide the earth, to break every band, to stand in the presence of God; to do all things according to his will, according to his command, subdue principalities and powers; and this by the will of the Son of God which was from before the foundation of the world.
32 And men having this faith, coming up unto this order of God, were translated and taken up into heaven.
33 And now, Melchizedek was a priest of this order; therefore he obtained peace in Salem, and was called the Prince of peace.
34 And his people wrought righteousness, and obtained heaven, and sought for the city of Enoch which God had before taken, separating it from the earth, having reserved it unto the latter days, or the end of the world;
36 And this Melchizedek, having thus established righteousness, was called the king of heaven by his people, or, in other words, the King of peace.”
In Melchizedek, we get a prototype and foreshadow of Jesus Christ. Melchizedek took a wicked people and made them fit to be translated or taken up into heaven. He was able to do great works and miracles through the power of his priesthood. This priesthood preceded him, held by Enoch and Adam, who received it from the premortal Christ. Melchizedek was called the “Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6), as a symbol of Jesus Christ’s role as the ultimate Prince of Peace.
So important was Melchizedek and his priesthood that in the Dead Sea Scrolls’ 11Q Melchizedek, the fragment tells us: “Melchizedek is El (God)!” and “Melchizedek is Yahweh (Jehovah).”
This is not to be taken literally that the mortal Melchizedek is God the Father (El) or Jesus Christ (Jehovah). It is to say that Melchizedek is a symbol of the Father and Son. Yes, as a divine heir with Christ of all the Father has given, Melchizedek the man also became a king in heaven, sitting on God’s throne (we’ll discuss more in the upcoming lessons in Revelation), etc. Remember, Melchizedek literally means, “King of Righteousness.” Jesus is our eternal King of Righteousness under Father’s direction.
As before noted, justification, or being guiltless is brought forth by the blood sacrifice of Christ, the great High Priest. The power and ordinances of the Lord’s great priesthood also provides for sanctification as we are made holy through faithfulness, obedience and receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost.
The Lord is in his Temple - a New Covenant
Paul brings us to the Tabernacle or Temple of the Lord. The Tabernacle was Moses’ portable Temple, where the children of Israel could remain in God’s presence (the temple represented the House of the Lord and his Shekinah [Presence]). Later, King Solomon’s temple would replace the Tabernacle, but the same rites and teachings would continue regarding the sacrifices.
Jesus would be the high priest and king in the heavenly tabernacle, pitched by God and not man. While in the earthly tabernacle, animal sacrifices continued day and night in order to atone for man’s sins under the Law of Moses, in the heavenly tabernacle would be only one divine sacrifice. Rather than sacrifice an animal, this one sacrifice would be the lamb of God and Israel’s High Priest, Jesus Christ.
With the divine sacrifice came a new covenant to replace the old one. No longer would the Levitical priests be required to sacrifice animals on the altars of the temple. Instead, Jesus will redeem all mankind in his sacrifice.
How can it be that Jesus was not sacrificed in the temple, but we see this as pertaining to him? Because during the last week of his life during Passover, Jesus taught daily in the women’s court of the temple. And anciently, the entire city of Jerusalem was considered the outer court of the temple. It was the holy city, where the Lord’s presence shown in his house within the city. To slay Jesus in Jerusalem was to essentially kill him in the outer parts of the temple or Tabernacle.
The ancient Tabernacle contained sacred emblems to represent God. Paul mentions the Tabernacle containing different rooms, some more sacred than others, as well:
“1 Then verily the first covenant had also ordinances of divine service, and a worldly sanctuary.
2 For there was a tabernacle made; the first, wherein was the candlestick, and the table, and the shewbread; which is called the sanctuary.
3 And after the second veil, the tabernacle which is called the Holiest of all;
4 Which had the golden censer, and the ark of the covenant overlaid round about with gold, wherein was the golden pot that had manna, and Aaron’s rod that budded, and the tables of the covenant;
5 And over it the cherubims of glory shadowing the mercy seat; of which we cannot now speak particularly” (Heb 9).
Once one entered in from the outer court where sacrifice was made, the priest entered into the Holy place. In this place was the menorah (candlestick with 7 candles), and the table holding the shewbread. In Christian teaching, the menorah represents the Holy Ghost and how it lights our path in life. The shewbread table (which often also held a cup of wine) represented the Savior Jesus Christ as the bread and wine represented his sacrifice.
Within the veil was the Holy of Holies. Herein was found the most sacred of items representing God and his promises to man: manna as the Bread of Life, Aaron’s rod also representing life after death, and the Mercy Seat or throne of God sitting upon the ark of the covenant. Each of these represents a member(s) of the Godhead, and more especially represent Jesus’ various roles as Sacrifice (shewbread), our Example (menorah), resurrection (Aaron’s rod), and eternal life (manna). Judgment and Mercy are shown forth at the Mercy Seat by Jesus, who is our Judge and Intermediary with the Father.
While the priests went daily to offer animal sacrifice and to care for the menorah and table of shewbread, only the chief high priest would enter into the Holy of Holies, and this only once per year. His temple vesture included bells on the fringes of his robe, so that the priests outside could hear if he was still alive. A rope was tied to the chief high priest, so that if God were to strike him down, they could pull the deceased out of the Holy of Holies without entering inside. On the Day of Atonement, the high priest would perform an atonement for himself and all of Israel, sprinkling the blood of a sacrifice upon the Mercy Seat, the ark of the covenant, and all of the holiest of items.
Jesus was the chief high priest who entered into the Holy of Holies of the Heavenly Tabernacle, and after shedding his own blood for himself and all mankind, would then go forth and take his rightful place sitting upon the throne or Mercy Seat.
In chapter 10, Paul tells us that sacrificing animals really cannot atone for our sins. This is done as a symbol of the great sacrifice done by Jesus Christ for all mankind.
“11 And every priest standeth daily ministering and offering oftentimes the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins:
12 But this man, after he had offered one sacrifice for sins for ever, sat down on the right hand of God;
13 From henceforth expecting till his enemies be made his footstool.
14 For by one offering he hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified” (Heb 10).
Paul finishes explaining his quoting of Psalms 110, wherein the Lord will make his enemies his own footstool. When the Lord ascends to the Mercy Seat, he will judge all mankind. Those who have embraced Christ in faith and repented, will be his true disciples and receive the promises made. Those who reject the Lamb shall be judged for their sins.
Faith and Endurance
Paul goes into a discourse on faith, describing how the ancient prophets were accepted of God because of their great faith. Abel, Enoch, Abraham and others obtained great blessings of God due to their faith. We are promised the same blessings as we become as they were, with unshakable and enduring faith in Christ.
In verses 33-34, we see what power was given to the prophets (compare this with Melchizedek’s power above):
“ 33 Who through faith subdued kingdoms, wrought righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions,
34 Quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness were made strong, waxed valiant in fight, turned to flight the armies of the aliens.”
While they all experienced great trials, and many were slain for their testimonies, they will receive a great reward in heaven for that faithfulness. In times of trial, studying their faithfulness through difficult time can give us the strength and faith to endure well.
In chapter 12, we find that the Lord chastens those he loves. God allows difficult times to occur to the righteous, simply because gold is purified by the highest heat, while the dross is left behind. We cannot easily increase in faith, hope, charity, compassioin, mercy, forgiveness, patience, love, or any other godly characteristic without a trial that will push us beyond our comfort zone and into the arms of God. We only find joy when we find true meaning in life. The plan of salvation shows us that the trials are necessary so we can learn to be and think as God does, And it is necessary so that we come to truly appreciate the atonement of Jesus Christ. If life were easy enough to get through without sinning, we would have no need of the atonement. But then we would not really understand compassion. Paul taught that Jesus suffered so that he would know how to succor us (Hebrews 2:18, Alma 7:12).
“ 7 If ye endure chastening, God dealeth with you as with sons; for what son is he whom the father chasteneth not?
8 But if ye be without chastisement, whereof all are partakers, then are ye bastards, and not sons.
9 Furthermore we have had fathers of our flesh which corrected us, and we gave them reverence: shall we not much rather be in subjection unto the Father of spirits, and live?
10 For they verily for a few days chastened us after their own pleasure; but he for our profit, that we might be partakers of his holiness.
11 Now no chastening for the present seemeth to be joyous, but grievous: nevertheless afterward it yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness unto them which are exercised thereby” (Heb 12).
If we are truly children of God, we will endure the trials he allows us to go through. And we will seek to learn the lessons we need to learn, in order to be like him. If we refuse to accept such trials and learn from them, we are not true children of God, but reject his corrections and guidance. As stated above, such gives us meaning in our lives and from such comes the peace, holiness and the fruit of righteousness.
God is the “Father of our spirits.” He has prepared his Only Begotten to be the great and final sacrifice. God imbued Christ with the Melchizedek Priesthood, so that he could perform all his mighty works, and above all, make us holy and able to enter into the Holy of Holies with Jesus to stand in God’s presence once again.
Jim Faulconer’s notes on Hebrews: http://feastuponthewordblog.org/2011/09/03/nt-sunday-school-lesson-37-jf-hebrews/
Theopedia on Hebrews: http://www.theopedia.com/Epistle_to_the_Hebrews
Wikipedia on Hebrews: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epistle_to_the_Hebrews
Catholic Encyclopedia on Hebrews: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/07181a.htm
Early Christian Writings on Hebrews: http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/hebrews.html
Catholic Resources on Hebrews: http://catholic-resources.org/Bible/Epistles-Hebrews.htm
Justification and Sanctification, see lesson 36 on Romans: http://joelsmonastery.blogspot.com/2011/09/new-testament-gospel-doctrine-lesson-36.html
Joseph Smith Translation concerning Melchizedek the King of Salem: http://lds.org/scriptures/jst/jst-gen/14?lang=eng
11Q Melchizedek in Dead Sea Scrolls: