The author identified neither himself nor the people to whom he was writing. However, the content of the book, including the frequent references to the Hebrew Scriptures, makes it clear that he was writing to Jewish Christians who were sorely tempted to leave the Christian church and revert to Jewish worship.
The author spends the first ten and a half chapters of this thirteen chapter book (1:1 – 10:18) emphasizing the superiority of Christ and the new covenant to Moses and the old covenant.
In Hebrews 4:14 – 5:14, the author emphasized the superiority of Jesus the high priest over the high priests of Aaronic descent. In 5:5-7, 10, he cited scripture to show that Jesus was God’s Son (in a sense that Aaron was not)––and that Jesus belonged, not to the order of Aaron but of Melchizedek––making Jesus “a priest forever” (5:6).
In chapter 6, the author warned of the peril of falling away (6:1-12) and the certainty of God’s promise (6:13-20).
In chapter 7, he returned to the theme of the priestly order of Melchizedek––how great Melchizedek was (7:4-10), and the significance of another priest like Melchizedek (Jesus) arising (7:11ff.).
In chapter 8, he emphasized Christ as the mediator of a better covenant.
In 9:11-14, he contrasted the limited effects of the Jewish high priest’s ministry with the unlimited effects of Christ’s high priestly ministry.
In chapter 10, he contrasts the atonement work of the priests of the Jerusalem temple with the salvation work of Jesus Christ.
- He starts by speaking of the Jewish law as “a shadow of the good to come” (v. 1).
- He says that “it is impossible that the blood of bulls and goats should take away sins” (v. 4), quoting Psalm 40:6-8 for support––and envisioning the Psalmist’s words as coming from Jesus’ mouth.
- He contrasts the ineffectiveness of the sacrifices and offerings to the Christ who comes to do God’s will, saying “He takes away the first (sacrifices and offerings), that he may establish the second” (the Christ who comes to do God’s will) (v. 9).
- He says that “we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (v. 10)––”once and for all” standing in contrast to the work of the priests, who offered their sacrifices day after day with no letup (v. 11a).
See also Psalm 40:6-8; 50:8-11; Isaiah 1:11; Jeremiah 6:20; Amos 5:21-24; Mark 12:32-34
HEBREWS 10:11-14. BY ONE OFFERING
11 Every priest indeed stands day by day serving and often offering the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins, 12 but he, when he had offered one sacrifice for sins forever, sat down on the right hand of God; 13 from that time waiting until his enemies are made the footstool of his feet. 14 For by one offering he has perfected forever those who are being sanctified.
“Every priest indeed stands day by day serving and often offering the same sacrifices“ (v. 11a). The priest stands day by day. In verse 2, the author will contrast that with Christ, who “sat down on the right hand of God” (v. 12b).
This verse describes the work of priests at the Jerusalem temple. Jewish Law required the Israelite people to offer sacrifices on a recurring basis. These required the services of many priests to administer the sacrificial offerings, which were of several kinds:
- BURNT OFFERINGS were prescribed by Leviticus 1. God required the priests to burn the offering entirely––none was to be eaten. The purpose was atonement or expiation (Hebrew: kapar) (Leviticus 1:4). The word kapar in Leviticus 1:4 suggests covering or cancellation of sin and reconciliation with God. Burnt offerings, then, were specifically linked to the forgiveness of sin.
- PEACE OFFERINGS were prescribed by Leviticus 3; 7:11-36; 22:18-30, and were used for various purposes, but not for atonement.
- SIN OFFERINGS or PURIFICATION OFFERINGS were prescribed by Leviticus 4:1 – 5:13; 6:24-30; Numbers 15:22-31. These offerings had more to do with purification than forgiveness of sins. For instance, Jewish law prescribed these offerings for cleansing after childbirth (Leviticus 12), the administration of Nazarite vows (Numbers 6), and the dedication of priests (Numbers 8).
- GUILT OFFERINGS or TRESPASS OFFERINGS were prescribed by Leviticus 5:14 – 6:7; 7:1-6, and were to make amends for the misuse of sacred things belonging to the Lord.
- CEREAL OFFERINGS or GRAIN OFFERINGS accompanied burnt offerings. They could also be offered without an animal sacrifice, especially by a person too poor to afford even the most modest animal sacrifice.
“which can never take away sins“ (v. 11b). This statement appears to be in conflict with Leviticus 1:4, which says that the burnt offering “shall be accepted for (the person making the offering) to make atonement (kapar) for him.”
However, the prophets made it clear that efficacious sacrifice depended on the broken spirit and contrite heart of he person making the offering (Psalm 51:17; see also Isaiah 1:11; Jeremiah 6:20; Amos 5:21-22). While sacrifices were important as acts of obedience to God’s law, the spirit of the person making the offering was the key to their effectiveness.
The obvious question, then, is why would God command Israel to observe an elaborate system of sacrifices, knowing that they would be only marginally effective. I believe that there are three answers to that question:
- First, the sacrifices, particularly the burnt offerings, would serve as a “shadow” (v. 1) of the sacrifice that Jesus would make on the cross––setting the stage for that event and preparing Israel to receive it. The sacrifices were an imperfect system designed to point toward the perfect offering of Christ on the cross.
- Second, the sacrifices served Israelites as a constant reminder of their sin and need for forgiveness.
- Third, the sacrificial system gave Israel a way to offer God a sweet smelling fragrance that would be pleasing to him (Ephesians 5:2)––and to demonstrate their obedience to God’s will.
“but (Christ), when he had offered one sacrifice for sins forever“ (v. 12a). Christ’s “one sacrifice,” effective “forever,” stands in contrast to the repetitive nature of the animal sacrifices at the Jerusalem temple.
“sat down on the right hand of God“ (v. 12b). Verse 11 portrayed priests as standing to make sacrifices at the temple. The did that “day by day,” a ritual repeated over and over again, even though it “could never take away sins.”
But Christ made his sacrifice on the cross once for all time, and then sat down (rather than standing like the priests). Not only is he privileged to sit, but he does so “on the right hand (the place of honor) of God”––an allusion to Psalm 110:1.
“from that time waiting until his enemies are made the footstool of his feet“ (v. 13). This verse continues the allusion to Psalm 110:1.
Christ’s enemies put him on the cross. They have considerable power yet today, as is evident every time we hear a news broadcast. But Satan and his minions are living on borrowed time. The day will come when they will arrive at their proper place––beneath the feet of Christ.
One of my professors used to quote Genesis 3:15, the curse that God imposed on the serpent after The Fall:
“I will put enmity between you (the serpent––Satan) and the woman,
and between your offspring and her offspring.
He (her offspring) will bruise your (Satan’s) head,
and you (Satan) will bruise his (the woman’s offspring) heel.”
That professor interpreted “your offspring” to mean Satan and his followers––and “her offspring” to mean Christ.
He interpreted “will bruise his heel” to mean Christ’s death on the cross and “will bruise your head” to be a death sentence for Satan.
He noted that a snake with crushed head will continue to writhe for a period of time, but its fate is certain––it is dead. But a bruised heel is a painful but temporary injury. Christ’s cross was a painful injury from which he was delivered at the resurrection. Satan, while still lashing about and dangerous, suffered a fatal injury at Christ’s cross, and will, in time, succumb fully to that injury.
“For by one offering he has perfected (Greek: teleioo) forever“ (v. 14a). “By one offering” refers to Christ’s offering of himself on the cross.
The word teleioo means something that is complete––something that has reached its goal or fulfilled its purpose. In this verse, “perfected” is perfect tense, indicating that the action has been accomplished.
“those who are being sanctified“ (Greek: hagiazo) (v. 14b). At his cross, Christ perfected “those who are being sanctified.”
Sanctified isn’t a word that we use in everyday conversation, but it is central to the life of the Christian. The word hagiazo (sanctify, make holy) is closely related to the word hagios (holy––usually translated “saint” in the New Testament). A saint is someone who has been sanctified (made holy).
We are likely to think, “Well, that doesn’t include me––I’m no saint”––because we have come to think of saints as Christian super-heroes––deserving of Godly Medals of Honor.
But the New Testament uses the word hagios to mean ordinary Christians (Acts 9:13, 41; Romans 1:7; 12:13; 15:26; 1 Corinthians 1:2; Philippians 1:1, etc.). So we are saints––people made holy by the grace of God––set apart for a Godly purpose––”sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ” (Hebrews 10:10).
In this verse, “sanctified” is present tense, indicating an ongoing process. Our sanctification (our being made holy) is not yet complete, but is in process and will be in so throughout our lives. That explains the difference between our usual understanding of holiness and our awareness that we seem not to fit that mold. We are a work in process. God isn’t finished with us yet.
Which raises the question, how can we have been perfected (teleioo––complete) while being a work in process (incomplete).
Perhaps the answer is that we have been perfected in the sense that Christ, by his sacrifice on the cross, has drawn us decisively into his realm and God’s kingdom––but we are being sanctified (made holy) day by day, until the day that we are ushered into Christ’s presence at the right hand of God.
HEBREWS 10:15-18. THE HOLY SPIRIT TESTIFIES TO US
15 The Holy Spirit also testifies to us, for after saying,
16 “This is the covenant that I will make with them:
‘After those days,’ says the Lord,
‘I will put my laws on their heart,
I will also write them on their mind;'”
then he says, 17 “I will remember their sins and their iniquities no more.”
18 Now where remission of these is, there is no more offering for sin.
“The Holy Spirit also testifies to us, for after saying“ (v. 15). The word “testifies” is present tense. The Holy Spirit (God’s Spirit dwelling in us) was bearing witness to the people of the author’s time, and is still bearing witness to us today.
In verses 16-17, the author alludes to Jeremiah 31:33-34. It is through those verses that the Holy Spirit speaks to us.
(To allude to something is to mention it indirectly. In this case the author quotes portions of Jeremiah 31 without mentioning where those words come from. He assumes that Jeremiah’s text is familiar to Jewish readers, so that no citation is required.)
“This is the covenant that I will make with them:
‘After those days,’ says the Lord,
‘I will put my laws on their heart,
I will also write them on their mind'” (v. 16a). An allusion to Jeremiah 31:33.
In its’ original context, Jeremiah 31:33-34 gave hope to the Jewish people who were suffering through exile as punishment for their sins. Those verses were God’s promise of forgiveness and redemption. The time would come when God would help them to integrate God’s laws and God’s will so completely that their lives would reflect their devotion to God.
“then he says, ‘I will remember their sins and their iniquities no more’“ (vv. 16b-17). This verse alludes to Jeremiah 31:34.
This is the promise of forgiveness and redemption for the Jewish people.
But the author of Hebrews states in verse 15 that the Holy Spirit is now testifying to us through the words of Jeremiah that God will do for us what he did thousands of years ago for the Israelites. God redeemed them and forgave them. He will do the same for us.
“Now where remission of these is, there is no more offering for sin“ (v. 18). This is the logical conclusion of the premise in verse 17 that God will remember our sins and iniquities no more. In doing so, God doesn’t just sweep our sins under the rug, where they await later discovery. Instead, God transforms our lives, so that our sins, which were scarlet, become white as snow (Isaiah 1:18).
Therefore, it stands to reason that the sin offerings that were such a large part of Israel’s religious practice, are no longer needed. Through Christ’s redemptive action, our sins have become null and void, so the practice of offering sacrifices for the forgiveness of sins has also become null and void.
HEBREWS 10:19-25. LET US APPROACH GOD IN FULL ASSURANCE
19 Having therefore, brothers, boldness to enter into the holy place by the blood of Jesus, 20 by the way which he dedicated for us, a new and living way, through the veil, that is to say, his flesh; 21 and having a great priest over the house of God, 22 let’s draw near with a true heart in fullness of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience, and having our body washed with pure water, 23 let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering; for he who promised is faithful.
24 And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
In verses 11-18, the author laid a theological foundation for what follows.
- In verses 19-21, he personalizes it.
- In verses 22-25, he makes an appeal for action based on the foundation that he laid.
“Having therefore, brothers“ (v. 19a). This phrase ties what follows to what went before. As noted above, in verses 11-18, the author laid a theological foundation for what follows. Now the author begins to spell out the implications of that foundation.
“(having)…boldness to enter into the holy place (Greek: hagion) by the blood of Jesus“ (v. 19b). The tabernacle and temple had two holy chambers:
- The Holy Place and
- The Most Holy Place or the Holy of Holies––the dwelling place of God.
The word hagion could refer to either chamber. However, in 8:1-2, the author said that Jesus is our high priest, seated at the right hand of God in the heavens. The high priest was the only person authorized to enter the Most Holy Place––and he only on the Day of Atonement when atoning for the sins of the people. It stands to reason then that the author intends hagion to refer to the Most Holy Place in this verse.
He is saying then that we have confidence or boldness to enter the Most Holy Place––that the blood of Jesus authorizes us to enter into the very presence of God. Keep in mind that the book of Hebrews was written for Jewish Christians whose lifelong teachings emphasized the exclusivity of the Most Holy Place––that only the high priest dared to enter it, and he only on the Day of Atonement. For the author to say that Jesus has removed the barriers to entry into that holy sanctuary would be received as a radical departure from their previous teachings. That which was forbidden even to ordinary priests is now open to all believers––because of the blood of Jesus.
“by the way which he dedicated for us, a new and living way, through the veil, that is to say, his flesh“ (v. 20). The veil or curtain separated the Most Holy Place from the Holy Place––the place where only the high priest could enter from the place where ordinary priests could enter. The phrase, “through the veil,” shows that the author did, indeed, intend hagion (v. 19b) to mean the Most Holy Place. Jesus’ flesh––his sacrifice on the cross––created a new entry through the veil that authorizes all believers to enter the very presence of God.
“and having a great priest over the house (Greek: oikos) of God“ (v. 21). The Greek word oikos means house. In 3:5-6, the author contrasted Moses, who was faithful over God’s house as a servant––and Christ, who was faithful over God’s house as a son. He went on to say that we (meaning the church) are (God’s) house if we hold fast to the faith.
Therefore, when verse 21 speaks of “a great priest over the house of God,” the author intends us to understand that those who constitute the church are the house of God. Christ is our great priest, the one who intercedes for us.
“let’s draw near with a true heart in fullness of faith“ (v. 22a). This is the first of three calls to action that follow logically from the author’s statement that Christ has remitted our sins (v. 18)––and that he is our great priest who has made it possible for us to enter into the presence of God (vv. 19-21).
Earlier, the author made a similar appeal: “Let us therefore draw near with boldness to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy, and may find grace for help in time of need” (4:16).
The idea here is that, since we have the great privilege of access to God, we ought to take full advantage of it.
“with a true (Greek: alethinos) heart.” The word alethinos means true, genuine, or sincere. A true heart is the opposite of a deceitful or false heart. This appeal to a true heart is derived from Jeremiah 31:33, where God promised to write his teachings on the hearts of his people. See also Ezekiel 36:26, where God promised to give his people a new heart––to transform their hearts of stone into hearts of flesh.
“in fullness of faith.“ Once we accept the facts that (1) Christ has redeemed us from our sins (v. 18)––and (2) has granted us access to the throne room of God (vv. 19-21), it stands to reason that we will feel have faith enough to enter into the presence of God.
This is no academic issue. We do have access to God in prayer––and in other forms of worship. That raises two questions: (1) Have we retained the sense of privilege that being admitted into God’s presence should evoke? (2) How often do we avail ourselves of the privilege?
“having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience“ (v. 22b). The author is writing this letter to Jewish Christians who are intimately familiar with Jewish faith and practice.
- That sometimes involved the sprinkling of OIL in anointing rites ( Exodus 29:21), although the sprinkling of oil was also associated with cleansing of sin (Leviticus 14:14-27).
- It occasionally involved the sprinkling of WATER for purification (Numbers 8:5-7; 19:18-21; Ezekiel 36:25).
- But the sprinkling most involved with the day to day lives of Jews was the sprinkling of BLOOD for the purpose of atonement or cleansing from sin (Leviticus 4:6, 17; 5:9; 16:14-19; Numbers 19:4; see also 1 Peter 1:2 and Hebrews 9:13-21; 11:28).
“from an evil conscience.” In the last chapter, the author contrasted the cleansing power of the blood of sacrificial animals with the power of the blood of Christ to “cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God” 9:13-14). He further noted the superior quality of Christ’s sacrifice of his own blood (rather than the blood of an animal proxy) (9:23-28).
“and having our body washed with pure water“ (v. 22c). This almost certainly refers to Christian baptism.
“let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering; for he who promised is faithful“ (v. 23). This is the second of three calls to action (see the comments on v. 22a above).
“hold fast” means to hang tight––to refuse to let go––to persevere.
“the confession of our hope.” In the next chapter, the author will say “Now faith is assurance of things hoped for, proof of things not seen” (11:1; see also 3:6). “Things hoped for” points to a future dimension––glories to be realized only after our death and resurrection or the Second Coming of Christ.
“without wavering” (Greek: akline). The Greek word akline means without inclining or leaning. This is a call to stand straight and tall in the face of buffeting winds. It is a call to keep the faith in the face of those who would sow doubt. It is a call to remember the glories yet to come, even in the face of present adversity.
“Let us consider (Greek: kataneuo) how to provoke (Greek: paroxusmos) one another to love and good works“ (v. 24). (v. 22a). This is the third of three calls to action that follow logically from the author’s statement that Christ has remitted our sins (v. 18)––and that he is our great priest who has made it possible for us to enter into the presence of God (vv. 19-21).
Kataneuo is made up of two Greek words: kata, a pronoun that intensifies that with which it is linked––and noeo, to think. This is a call to devote intense thought to the matter of encouraging love and good works––to think creatively––to puzzle it out and come up with effective strategies.
Paroxusmos means to stir up or provoke. The author is calling believers to encourage love and good works in other believers.
“not forsaking our own assembling together” (Greek: episynagoge) (v. 25a). Episynagoge is composed of two Greek words: epi (on or upon) and synagoge (a place of worship, synagogue). This is a call to engage in corporate worship, not just occasionally, but as a regular part of one’s life.
“as the custom of some is“ (v. 25b). Many people believe that they have no need of corporate worship––or any kind of communal faith activity. They claim that they can worship just as well by themselves––meditating alongside a lovely stream or in a beautiful woods.
There are at least three flaws in that kind of thinking:
- First, they don’t do it. Unless they submit to a discipline of attending corporate worship, they aren’t likely to engage in any meaningful worship.
- Second, corporate worship is a faith-builder. We grow in faith and understanding when we sing hymns, listen to the scriptures expounded, and especially when we participate in the sacraments.
- Third, corporate worship constitutes corporate witness. We witness to others by our presence in worship, and they witness to us. Someone said, “I want people to know whose side I am on”––and corporate worship constitutes a witness that we are (or are trying to be) on God’s side. None of that takes place, of course, in solitary worship––especially the solitary worship that never happens.
There are exceptions to every rule, and that is true here. An occasional person subjected to solitary confinement has found faith by reading a Bible. Others, in crisis, fall to their knees in prayer. But those are not exceptions that disprove the rule, but rather exceptions that prove it.
“but exhorting (Greek: parakaleo) one another” (v. 25c). The Greek word parakaleo combines two words, para (to the side of) and kaleo (to call), and means “to call by the side” or “to encourage” or “to comfort.”
As noted above (v. 25a), in corporate worship, we witness to one another and help each other to grow in faith.
“and so much the more, as you see the Day approaching“ (v. 25d). “The day” in this verse means the Day of the Lord––a day when God will save the righteous and damn the unrighteous––”a great and terrible day” (Joel 2:11)––a day when “The haughty eyes of people shall be brought low, and the pride of everyone shall be humbled; and the Lord alone will be exalted” (Isaiah 2:11)––a day when God will “bring…distress upon people… because they have sinned against the Lord” (Zephaniah 1:17). “Although the major prophetic emphasis is on judgment, there is a note of comfort––(of) God’s protective care of Israel (Zech. 12-14). Accordingly, the faithful, especially the oppressed, await the Day of our Lord and the vindication of their cause” (Myers, 267).
It makes sense that believers want to be prepared as they consider the Second Coming. That day will determine our eternal future. We want to be among the sheep and not the goats––among those privileged to “inherit the Kingdom prepared for (us) before the foundation of the world” rather than among those cast into “the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:31-46).
Verses 26-31 spell out the consequences of willful sin and being unprepared for the Day of the Lord. They conclude, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (v. 31).
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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MacArthur, John, Jr., The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Hebrews (Chicago: The Moody Bible Institute of Chicago, 1983)
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Myers, Allen C. (ed.), The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1987)
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Copyright 2016, Richard Niell Donovan