When J. I. Packer was a student, he was convicted by the suggestion from a speaker that a good way to grasp the full meaning of a part of Scripture is to read it ten times.  One Sunday, Packer read the Book of Hebrews ten times, and it “remains one of the richest books of Scripture” to him.  J. I. Packer: An Evangelical Life by Leland Ryken (Wheaton: Crossway, 2015), p. 213.

This letter describes itself as a ‘word of exhortation’, and has much in common with the ministry of exhortation which in NT times might have been either written or spoken. Like Peter’s speech in Acts 2 this letter has an explanation of OT texts in terms of their fulfilment in Christ, an application of these to the people who are reading or hearing the message, and strong encouragements for them to take action in response to the message. Note, for example, the personal appeals in Heb 2:1; 4:14 and Heb 10:19-25.

Old Testament passages

Hebrews is based on five OT passages:

1. Various verses from the Psalms 2 Sa 7 Deut 32
2. Ps 8:4-6
3. Ps 95:7-11
4. Ps 110:4
5. Jer 31:31-34

‘Faith’ in the Letter to the Hebrews

1. Faith is ‘being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see’, Heb 11:1 – the emphasis being, as always in Scripture, on the reality of faith’s objects rather than the degree of confidence we feel about them.

2. Specifically, faith honours and pleases God by taking his word about things (creation, Heb 11:3; rewards, Heb 11:6; God’s faithfulness to his promises, Heb 11:11; this life as a journey home, Heb 11:13-16; the fact that obedience always makes sense, even when it looks like nonsense, Heb 11:17-19; etc.).

3. Faith approaches God boldly through Christ (Heb 4:16; 10:19-22 ) to find held and strength for the winning of moral, spiritual and circumstantial victories (Heb 11:32-38; 4:16 ) and for the enduring of hostility both from within and from outside of oneself (sin within, Heb 12:1-4; ill-treatment from without, Heb 10:32-34; 12:3).

4. Faith interprets trouble as God’s discipline of his child (Heb 12:5-11 ) and, so far from being daunted, rejoices to think of it as proving one’s sonship to God and preparing one for peace and pleasure to come.

5. Faith takes courage from examples of living by faith which the “great cloud of witnesses” have left us, (Heb 12:1; 13:7 ) from thoughts of their present happiness, (Heb 12:23 ) and from knowing that when we come to God here on earth we plug into the present worship and fellowship of the heaven that will be our own home one day. (Heb 12:22-24 ) In other words, faith appreciates the communion of saints.

6. Faith battles against temptations to unbelief, apathy and disobedience, sustaining against them the quality sometimes called “stickability” … and referred to in the letter as “patience” and “endurance” (Gk “hypomone“). (Heb 6:11-12; 10:36; 12:1 ) Faith in God produces faithfulness to God.’

(J.I. Packer, God’s Words)

Contemporary relevance

This book, with its preoccupation with sacrifice, seems at first sight very remote from our everyday experience. But this letter address a number of issues of vital importance today.

1. The idea of sacrifice is still very much admired. While we have no interest in animal sacrifice, the idea of someone giving his or her own life that another might live is regarded as heroic.

2. The role of the priest is still regarded as important. Secular priests, in the form of counsellors and therapists, abound. They put people in touch, not with God (as with the religious priest) but with themselves.

3. People still long for access to the divine. This is reflected in New Age thinking, even though the route proposed there is very different the Christian way.

4. The idea of covenant (or rather, the absence of it) is apparent today. Today’s society has move from relationships based on covenant to those based on contract. The idea of a sacred covenant of marriage, for example, which binds the couple together ‘till death us do part’ has been replaced by a secular contract, complete with prenuptial agreement should the relationship fail.

(See Tidball, The Message of the Cross, 262-264)

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