Coptic Orthodox Diocese of the Southern United States

Hebrews: The Superiority of Christ to the Old Covenant and the Fulfillment of the Old Covenant in Christ

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Christ once said, "Search the Scriptures, for it is they which testify of Me."1 The Scriptures to which our Lord was referring were the Old Testament canon, and His remark summarized a monumental fact: that the histories, the prophecies, the poetry, the proverbs, and the psalms of the Old Testament were all written not for an array of miscellaneous reasons, but with one unified intention: to bear witness, to pre-announce, and to promise the coming of Israel's Messiah. It is not an occasional prophecy placed here or there that speaks of the Messiah; but each verse serves as a word, each chapter as a sentence, and each book as a complete thought in God's utterance of His greatest covenant with mankind—salvation through Jesus Christ. The matchless superiority of the Messiah is not only a tenet of the Christian viewpoint, but even Jewish rabbinical writings speak of the Messiah as greater than Abraham and Moses; as greater than the highest angels; as existing before Creation; as the King of Kings who was destined to subdue Satan and cast him into hell; as the redeemer of Israel; and as a being whose status was so close to God's that the boundary separating seemed at times to blur into nothing.2 This is the first key in understanding the Epistle to the Hebrews.

The second key consists of entering into the psychological and emotional experience of the first Jewish Christians. From their earliest days, the (newly) Messianic Jews had grown accustomed to the coveted privileges and venerable traditions of the Hebrew people. In a time of galling subjugation to a foreign power, their Temple ritual was their greatest source of consolation, and their membership in the Israelitish body their greatest source of personal safety and security. To forfeit these was unthinkable. It is further evident from Acts 2:5 that, although the Jewish Christians did not derive their salvation from the Mosaic Law, they still observed that law; for, being national as well as religious, the Law had become so intertwined in Jewish customs and manners, so weaved into the texture of their lives, that the newly converted Jews could scarcely conceive of renouncing "Moses". Thus, they proceeded to live a double-life of Hebraic-Christianity, probably with the expectation that all Israel would soon believe.

It became more and more apparent with time, however, that the Jews as a people would not accept Jesus as the Christ; and it was more and more difficult to hold to both covenants simultaneously. The Jews began to eye their converted countrymen with a sense of distrust and animosity; slowly, the right of participation in the Temple ritual and synagogue services was withdrawn from Christians if they held to their faith. They were taunted by the Jews as apostates from Jehovah and rebels from Moses. These trials from the point of view of the Jewish Christian were most real and most grievous. He could not help asking, 'Was there to be no Kingdom for Israel? Had God cast off His people? Were Christians to be deprived of the historical blessings of sacrificial worship and priestly atonement?'3

Under the severity of the pressure, certain Jewish Christians were in danger of forsaking their faith and returning to the old Judaism. Consequently the Apostle took up his pen and composed this masterly treatise to encourage his wavering brethren to remain steadfast in the faith. Throughout the course of the epistle he warns against five different types of apostasy:4 1. apostasy by neglect (2:1—4); 2. apostasy by unbelief (3:7—19); 3. apostasy by spiritual immaturity (5:11—14); 4. apostasy by backsliding (10:26—39); 5. apostasy by refusing God (12:25—39). In order to raise the Messianic Jews ("Hebrews") above these weaknesses and the sins that so easily ensnared them,5 his primary goal is to prove to them the absolute superiority of Christ over everything in the Old Covenant, and to convince them that their Christian faith provided a means of perfection and blessedness of which their old Jewish ceremonialism was only a shadow. He labored to show them that the New Covenant was the consummation and finishing of the Old; a more perfect and absolute Revelation; heralded by a more perfect and absolute Representative.6 The Old Covenant was, in fact, dying away.7

A secondary purpose of this epistle, it should be added, was to help both Jewish and Gentile Christians make sense of the Old Testament. Was there any function to the Old now that the New had so eminently superseded it? Was it to be discarded as an outdated and obsolete thing? Could the Old be connected or correlated to the New in any way? The Apostle describes in minute detail the relation between the two testaments and thus demonstrates the relevance of the Old to the New.8

The opening paragraph is one grand, comprehensive sentence (v 1—4) summarizing the religious history of mankind, and announcing the central figure of the epistle's message: Christ. He is introduced, in fact, in His three-fold office of Prophet (spoke to us through His Son), Priest (He Himself purged our sins), and King (sat down at the right hand of the Majesty). The Apostle proceeds in the first two chapters to prove Christ's superiority to ANGELS, which might seem unnecessary to us but which was relevant to the Jew, in that it responded to Judaic boastings that their law was mediated by angels on Mount Sinai,9 and must therefore be superior to any teaching of man. By a brilliant collation of OT verses, the Apostle proves that the Messiah is above all heavenly Principalities and Powers, and that before His eternal throne the angels stand, and at whose command they obey and serve.10

In the third and fourth chapters the argument for Christ's superiority resumes regarding two chief figures of Jewish History: MOSES and JOSHUA. Moses, of course, had been inordinately exalted by the rabbis to almost divine status, having been the founder and law-giver of the Hebrew theocracy itself. But Moses was faithful as a servant of the "house" (theocracy, nation), whereas Christ was faithful as a son over "His own house;" and therefore, inasmuch as a son is greater than a servant, or as the builder of a house is honored more than the servant, so much more is Christ glorified above Moses. Again, Christ is superior to Joshua, because it is evident from the history of Israel that the promise of a "rest" for the people of God was not fulfilled by the entrance into Canaan. For if Joshua had given them rest, then God would not have continued to speak of a future state of blessing.11 But now it was the day of salvation, and the final rest was available in Christ; and so the Apostle begs them to enter that rest by mixing the word they heard with faith,12 and not to forfeit it by imitating the disobedience of the unbelieving Jews.13

In chapters 5 through 7, we reach what may be considered the very heart of the epistle. The writer proceeds to demonstrate the superiority of Christ's HIGH PRIESTHOOD, by virtue of its universality and finality, as compared to the limited and temporary nature of the Aaronic priesthood. Christ perfectly fulfills the double qualifications of a high priest, which are: (a) that he be able to sympathize with the weaknesses of men by virtue of a common humanity;14 and (b) that he be not self-appointed but called by God.15 But the Apostle does not stop at proving the fitness of Christ to be high priest, but shows that by His affinity to the great figure of Melchizedek, his high priesthood is far superior to Aaron's, for multiple reasons: (1) because it is eternal, not transient;16 (2) because even Abraham acknowledged the superior dignifity of Melchizedek by receiving his blessing and paying him tithes;17 (3) because the imperfect character of the Aaronic priesthood made it subject to replacement, but Christ's priesthood was unchanging and eternal;18 (4) the regular priesthood were in need of offering up sacrifices daily, whereas the single sacrifice of Christ, who offered up His very Self, was sufficient for all people and for all time.19

Chapters 8 through 10 form the momentous follow-up to the great truths announced in 5 through 7, by describing the fulfillment of Christ's priestly work. In particular, the Apostle establishes the superiority of Christ's COVENANT (chpt 8) as well as Christ's SACRIFICE (chpts 9, 10). Here is the final answer to the disappointments and doubts of the Hebrews, as well as the completion of the main argument of the epistle, namely, that "Christ is better"20 than everything the Jews held dear in the Mosaic system. Specifically, he consoles them with the fact that, in comparison to the old high-priest who entered the earthly holy of holies, which was only a "shadow" or "copy" of better things, their new High-Priest has entered into the very heavens and sat at the right-hand of the Majesty.21

Since then His MINISTRY is better than Aaron's, He is by necessity the mediator of a better covenant; for if the Mosaic covenant were faultless, there would be no need for another. But Jeremiah the prophet even pointed to a day when the old covenant would be superseded by a new one, in which all would know the Lord.22 The writer reverently depicts the furniture and service of the earthly tabernacle, then says that Christ came with the "greater and more perfect tabernacle not made with hands and not of this creation," as well as with a more perfect sacrifice (Himself), sanctified by a more perfect blood (His own).23 The impotence of the Levitical sacrifices were also attested by their constant repetition, whereas "by one offering He has perfected forever those who are being sanctified."24 The obvious question becomes, if Christ's sacrifice and covenant are so much better than old Jewish legalism, how could the converted Jew ever go back to the abrogated religion? The writer therefore urges his readers to hold fast their confession (of Jesus as Messiah), to have their hearts cleansed by His precious blood, and to resist casting away their confidence in Christ.25

Chapters 11 through 13 form the exhortation, or moral appeal, of the epistle. It begins with the famous honor roll of the Jewish church,26 a brief catalog of the most illustrious figures of Hebrew history, intended to show those Jewish converts who were in danger of relapsing into their former bondage, that they were sharing the lot of so many eminent Hebrew saints who had remained faithful in the face of suffering. All of them—Abel, Noah, Abraham, Joseph, Moses, and the rest—were at some point despised and ridiculed as outcasts, but still preserved their faith in God: a lesson directly pertinent and uplifting for the disheartened Hebrew Christian. The Apostle presents "Jesus" as the ultimate hero and standard to which his readers should look, as the source and fulfillment of their faith, who also endured shame and hostility from unbelievers for our sake.27 They had come, he continues, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem—not the earthly Jerusalem, from which they were being expelled—and their names were now registered in heaven as "cleansed" 28—as opposed to their inclusion in earthly Jerusalem's register as "unclean." The voice of Jesus causes heaven and earth to shake, and the force of the trembling causes the dislocation of everything impermanent and moveable—namely, the law and ritual of the whole Mosaic dispensation—and the establishment of that which is secure and enduring—namely, the new covenant.29 The Apostle concludes by writing a few other points of admonition and guidance, and by a prayer for their steadfastness in good works and grace.30

1 John 5:39
2 Alfred Edersheim, Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah
3 F. B. Wescott, The Epistle to the Hebrews
4 HG Bishop Youssef, Bible study on Hebrews,
5 12:1
6 3:1
7 8:13
8 HG Bishop Youssef
9 2:2
10 Hebrews 1:14. An idea already anticipated in the heavenly hosts' doxology in the Nativity story of St Luke's Gospel and illustrated in the angelic praises of Revelation. Cf. the Coptic Nativity hymn "Apenshoice".
11 4:8, 9
12 4:1, 2
13 3:19, 4:6
14 4:15—5:2
15 5:4—6
16 7:1—3
17 7:4—10
18 7:11—24
19 7:25—28
20 HG Bishop Youssef
21 8:1—7
22 8:8—13
23 9:1—28
24 10:1—18
25 10:19—39
26 Chpt 11
27 12:2, 3
28 12:22, 23
29 12:25—27
30 13:20—25

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