“For since the law has but a shadow of the good things
to come instead of the true form of these realities.”
Today, I begin a new blog series on what I believe to be the greatest piece of literature in the entire Bible. On more than one occasion, people asked, “If you were stranded on a desert island and could only have one book of Scripture to read, what would it be?” At first, I answered that it would be a toss-up between Romans and Hebrews. But after careful consideration, I said without hesitation that it would have to be the New Testament letter of Hebrews.
Now I can anticipate the reaction of many. Of course, I would choose Hebrews since I am Jewish, and this letter was written to Jews who had come to believe Jesus of Nazareth was the Jewish Messiah. I am indeed drawn to this letter because it was written to fellow Hebrews. But that is not the main reason for my love for this letter. My primary reason for choosing Hebrews above any other biblical writing is the simple fact that it contains the clearest exposition of the Gospel in all of Scripture. In other words, it is not merely those who are Jewish who benefit by studying this letter, but Gentiles (non-Jews) as well. That’s because Hebrews try to make sense of almost two thousand years of biblical history. It demonstrates that everything in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) finds its fulfillment in the appearing of Jesus the Messiah, who, by his death, burial, and resurrection, put away sin once and for all.
Many people are unaware that Hebrews struggled long and hard to gain admission into the New Testament canon of Scripture. One of the reasons is that no one knew for sure who wrote this letter. There are a number of theories on who the author is, but no one can say for sure. In order to find a place in the canon of Scripture, it had to be proven that it was written either by an apostle or under the auspices of an apostle. Since no one knew for sure who wrote it, it was not readily accepted into canonical literature. But eventually, Hebrews won out and was admitted. Why? Because even though it could not be proven conclusively to have been written by an apostle or under his oversight, the early Church Fathers all agreed that it was the most apostolic piece of literature in the canon.
Hebrews is one of the central doctrinal epistles in the Word of God, setting forth Jesus the Messiah in a way no other book does. But what many don’t realize is that Hebrews also contains a strong, practical message. The writer himself (or herself) refers to the letter as an exhortation (Hebrew 13:22). This should not surprise anyone who reads the New Testament letters. Each contains great doctrinal statements, followed by practical exhortations to be carried out in our lives. In the New Testament, doctrine is not merely for the education of our brains but informs how we are to live. In fact, anyone who claims to believe the doctrine found in the letters while denying them in his personal life does not believe them, no matter what he claims.
What do we know about those whom the writer addressed? We know that it was written to Hebrews, but not ordinary Hebrews. They were Jews who, sometime prior to 70AD (that period of time when the temple was destroyed), had come to believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the Jewish Messiah. And we also know that they were suffering greatly for their faith. Some lost all of their possessions, while others were imprisoned. Still others were mocked simply for identifying with those who were imprisoned (Hebrews 10:32-34).
What seems apparent is that many of these believing Jews, due to their suffering, were tempted to turn back from their faith so as to lessen the ire they were receiving from unbelieving Jews. In the strongest terms possible, the writer of this letter urges these believers not to shrink back from their commitment to Jesus of Nazareth but to believe in Him no matter the cost. His approach is incredible. He (I am only guessing the writer was male) spends the majority of his time demonstrating that the Judaism of the Old Testament was just a shadow of the good things to come when Jesus appeared, establishing a New Covenant. To accomplish this, he examines the main features of Old Testament Judaism; the Prophets, Moses, the Promised Land, the Priesthood, the Covenant, the Atonement, and The Tabernacle. By examining each of these Old Testament realities, he demonstrates that they all served as mere shadows, pointing to Jesus the Messiah as the Substance.