RPM, Volume 16, Number 1, December 29, 2013 to January 4, 2014

Jesus: The Great Revelation of God

Hebrews 1:1-3

By J. Ligon Duncan

If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to the book of Hebrews. We're beginning a new study tonight and I have given you an outline and I'm not sure whether I will get through that outline tonight. But I think I've decided that we will just take it as it comes. We'll get as far as we can in these studies and then pick up where we left off instead of my trying to rush through and speaking faster than most Yankees speak in order to get the outlines in. This is one of my favorite things to do in order to try and compact sermons, as you already know, having suffered through me for a year and a half. So I'll try and slow down and be a little more Southern and cover the material. And if we don't get half way through it, we'll come back in the next week and pick up from there.

Hebrews is a book about persevering in the faith. It's written to some Christians who were struggling in the faith. I think all of us from time to time in our Christian experience sense a struggle in going on in the faith. There are different reasons for that. But whatever those reasons are, the book of Hebrews speaks to those circumstances. For that reason alone, it's a very practical and helpful book for us to study. It reminds us of the various challenges to the Christian faith. And it points us to the only sure foundation and source of power for the Christian life, for vital Christianity and that source, that foundation, is an understanding of the supremacy and the sufficiency of our Lord Jesus Christ. Over and over in this book, the author of Hebrews will turn us back to Jesus. This will be very powerful, even in the passages that we will look at tonight. When you see the problems that these folks were struggling with, he continually turns them back to Jesus. That may sound simplistic, but as one of our friends Tim Keller says, "one of the things that we learn as we grow in the faith is that the gospel is not just the ABC of the faith, it's the A to Z of the faith." You never get finished with the gospel and then move on to the profound stuff. The gospel is the really profound stuff. It's going back to the resources that we have in the gospel, which is one of the great processes by which God grows us and helps us to persevere in the faith. So as we study this book together, I think you will find it speaking directly to the situations in which we find ourselves today. Let's look at the very first chapter and we'll confine ourselves to the first three verses. Hebrews 1 beginning in verse 1. Hear the word of God:

Hebrews 1:1-4

"Father, we do acknowledge this to be Your authoritative word. We do that with our lips; and I trust, O Lord, that we do that with our hearts. I pray that by Your Spirit, that would become a life reality for us. We all struggle at that point. We know that we ought to live under the word. And yet we find ourselves at various points in life wrestling with the word, sometimes openly wanting to argue with it. Other times, by default, believing at the same time as we ignore it. Lord, we pray that You would close that gap in our experience; and that You would direct us back to Jesus at every point that we fail to see wholeness in our Christian experience. We ask now that You would bless this time of study together in Your word. May it encourage Your saints. May it strengthen and may it equip us to encourage one another. For we ask it in Jesus' name. Amen."

As I said, this book is about persevering in the faith. We need to hear its message just as much as the people needed to hear it who first head this epistle read to them when it was sent to their congregation. Remember that these folks were struggling with hanging on to the outmoded forms of Old Testament religion. All their lives, and as far as they could remember back in their genealogical tree, they had lived under the system of the ceremonial law that had been given by Moses 1400 years before. It had been passed on from generation to generation, and it involved priestly sacrifices and various ceremonial ordinances that they had to keep. It required certain burdensome aspects that went along with spirituality. They were struggling with moving from that form of religion to the form of religion that had been brought by the Lord Jesus, because He had stripped away so many of those ceremonial aspects of their religion.

At the same time, many of these Christians, and by the way, you're wondering, well, where between verses 1 and 3 do we find that? You're going to find the things they are struggling with throughout the book as the author addresses problems. In other words, he wouldn't be addressing the problem if they weren't struggling with it; and so you can detect the things they are struggling with by the issues he raises. So I'm giving you a short synopsis of some of the things you are going to see in the passages in the weeks to come. I trust that you will trust me for a few weeks until I can actually show you in the passages. We'll try and keep our Bibles open during these studies and I'll turn you to as many scripture passages as possible.

These people were also struggling with mixing their thinking with both secular and religious ideas that were floating around in their contemporary world. We're going to see next week, perhaps, and in the week following, that these people were fascinated with the teaching about angels that was floating around in the Mediterranean world in their day. And isn't it interesting how many best sellers there have been in the last five years in our own land about angels? Some of which have had horrible theology, and yet which many Christians have bought into, hook, line, and sinker.

Also, these people were perhaps struggling with feeling that after moving from Judaism into Christianity, they had not found the satisfaction that they had expected. They had not seen the wholeness or the spiritual maturity come that they were looking for. They were not feeling the fulfillment that they were perhaps expecting. And because of that, they were dissatisfied and some of them were being tempted to go back to those forms of religion that had supplied them with the sense that, okay, this is spiritual and that the spiritual aspect of my life is being dealt with.

Now we need to hear this message just as much as they, because many of us struggled with our past forms of thinking. It's funny how difficult it is to shake loose of things that we have learned when we were younger, even when they were wrong and even though we know that they were wrong. Sometimes we have a thought-form drubbed into our mind that is contradictory to Christianity; and we may even sense that it is contradictory to Christianity, but it seems so common sensual that we have never worked on reconciling it, that we just sort of leave it as part of our thinking. We struggle like they did with past forms of thinking. We, too, give in to current ideas and ways of thinking that come some from religious ideas that are from non-Christian origins and some from secular ideas, which are, of course, from non-Christian origins. Those things stunt our spiritual growth and often conspire to rob us of much of the satisfaction and blessing of the Christian life. Often times, it tempts us to resort to some form of ritualism.

Over the last five years, I have had a number of friends who have made professions of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ publicly, and they have even gone so far as to pursue the gospel ministry, revert to forms of religion that were essentially ritualistic, because they did not find spiritual satisfaction in evangelical religion. Now I don't want to throw stones, but I really think in most of those cases they were confusing ritual with spirituality. They were confusing having a spooky, mystical, sort of esthetic experience, with having a deep, personal relationship with Jesus Christ. But the sad thing is, there a lot of people like there out there. They come into the evangelical churches, and they don't find the "satisfaction" or "fulfillment" that they want, and then they go back to some form of ritualism and they mistake that for spirituality, when it's not.

And the author of Hebrews is speaking precisely to people who are tempted with that kind of a void in their experience. Hebrews was originally written to Christians from a Jewish background. This congregation was a Jewish-Christian congregation. And you can imagine their context. They did not have a completed New Testament in front of them. This book was probably written before Jerusalem fell in A.D. 70. And so the New Testament had not been brought together in one bound volume and circulated as a whole. Not even all of the books of the New Testament had been written at the time that the Book of Hebrews had been written. They had to rely on their Old Testaments; but some of them were a little confused as to how a Christian ought to interpret those Old Testaments.

They also had their Jewish training and the theological habits from growing up in Hebrew school and the other things that they would have learned at the knees of their parents. We know that they were living in a time where angel worship was very, very popular. People fixated on angels and found them fascinating, and some even worshiped them. We know that some were wavering in their commitment to Christianity. We know that others were tempted to view Moses and the ceremonial law and the Old Testament revelation as superior to the things that they had learned from the apostles. And so for all those reasons, they were struggling with the Christian faith.

Furthermore, many of you have heard of the Qumran community and the Dead Sea Scrolls that were discovered in this century. Well, the Qumran community was made up of people known as the Essenes. It's very likely that this congregation, which is being written to in this book of Hebrews, had had some sort of contact with those Essenes and those Essenes had some ideas, that if you read, that sound sort of Christian and other ideas they had sounded very, very Jewish. Yet they were contradictory to the Christian faith. It certainly looks as you read this book like these people had been influenced by that particular community and were tempted again to revert from Christianity back into another form of religion.

I might also add that in this day and time, a form of Plato's philosophy was very popular in the Greek world. A man name Philo, who was a Jew in Alexandria, had translated some of the ideas of Plato into religious writing, and he had written commentaries, and he had had a tremendous influence in the Jewish community. It looks also like some of the ideas that this congregation had were drawn from that influence. For instance, Philo had this whole system of mediators between heaven and earth of various forms and often times, those mediators were listed as angels or Moses and as other things. Isn't it interesting that in this book, in the very first chapters, the author of the book of Hebrews is interested to show that Jesus is superior to angels, to Moses, to Aaron, and to the High Priest, all of which were mediators in the Old Testament. And so it seems like he is fighting ideas that they may have picked up from their contemporary circles. This is the context in which this letter was first written and read. These people are wavering in their commitment to Christ and to Christianity.

Of course, like all Scripture, the book of Hebrews wasn't just meant for that local congregation to whom it was first written. It was meant for us. Paul tells us in II Timothy 3:16, 17 that" all Scripture is given by inspiration of God and is profitable." And so it is for us. The Lord has written it for our instruction. And we, too, ought to consider our background and think how that impacts our Christianity and our commitment, how it may affect our perseverance in the faith. We Americans, for instance, practice our Christianity out in a pluralistic society. That makes us sometimes reticent to assert the absolutes of our faith. I remember being looked at as if I had crawled out from under a rock somewhere in college when I announced that I thought that Christianity was absolute truth. My professor just looked dumbfounded that there were some people who still existed that were not just in cartoons somewhere that believed that. And your kids face that even more than I did when I was in college many years ago. We need to consider how our society impacts the way we think about the Christian faith. We live, for instance, in an age of rampant materialism and that impacts how we live our Christianity. We also live in a day and age where the culture is breaking down. Immorality has become acceptable. All you have to do is listen to the pundits justify some of the things that have been going on in, you know where, for the last few weeks, and you know exactly what I mean about people justifying immorality. I have heard some of the cleverest excuses and justifications that I have ever heard over these last few weeks.

We also live in a day of selfishness and irrationalism. We see a society breaking down. People are mixing beliefs in America, even in traditional Christian churches. Who would have believed, if you had said 30 years ago, that mainline denominations like Presbyterians and Methodists and Baptists would sponsor a conference in which the goddess Sophia was worshiped? Somebody would have said, "you are stark plum nuts, you are out of your mind, you belong in Whitfield." And yet it's happened, folks. Amazing things are happening on planet Earth and here in the United States. And so our commitment to Christ and to Christianity is under assault too. We live in a really strange time.

Now let me just a couple of things about the author. We don't know who wrote Hebrews. Some think Paul. Paul didn't seem to write as elegantly in his other epistles, however, as this epistle. I will say that the theology of Hebrews looks very much like Paul. I would suggest that whoever wrote Hebrews had studied with Paul and understood him well, because his theology is very, very much indebted to him. Some have suggested that Barnabas might had been the one, some have suggested that Silas, another companion of Paul, and a favorite today is for people to guess that Apollos wrote Hebrews. There are indications that the person who wrote would have perhaps been from Alexandria, because they would have known about Philo's philosophy, would have been from a Jewish background. The bottom line is, we don't know. This person simply wants to show the superiority of new covenant religion.

Now let me stop and say something about that phrase new covenant. You know in the front of most of your Bibles, it says something like the Old and New Testaments of Jesus Christ our Lord, or it may simply have Holy Bible and then you turn to the opening page of the Old Testament and it will say Old Testament. The English word "testament" comes from the Latin word testamentum. And the Latin word testamentum is a translation of the Greek word diatheke and the Greek word diatheke is a translation of the Hebrew word berith and they all mean covenant. Testamentum is the Latin word for covenant. Diatheke is the Greek word for covenant and berith is the Hebrew word for covenant. And so, when we speak about the new covenant or the New Testament, the New Testament era is the same thing as the new covenant era. It's that era in distinction from the era of Abraham and Moses and David and the prophets prior to Christ. It was that era that was inaugurated by the ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ, and when the Spirit came with power in the Pentecost; it is the era in which we are living. It is the era between the coming of Christ and the return of Christ. And so when we say new covenant, I'm using that interchangeably with New Testament era. I just simply want to be clear about those terms.

The argument that the author of Hebrews makes is that the new faith is better. That which Jesus has brought is superior to the ceremonial code which was simply a shadow of what Jesus was bringing. We don't know exactly where this congregation lived. Some have suggested Rome. I think Palestine is probably the more likely place; and I only say that because there are passages in this book that look like these people had run across the Essene community and that Essene community lived right on the shores of the Dead Sea. It's logical that this congregation was in Palestine somewhere. The book of Hebrews contains lots of exhortations and warnings.

You know that there are least three great warning passages in Hebrews. But the book is filled with exhortations and warnings to Christians. And the book, just like many of Paul's epistles, balances theology and practice. You know in most of Paul's epistles, he gives you theology first and then he gives you application at the end of the book. This book mixes the two together. You get theology and then application, theology and then application.

The book stresses the finality of the Christian revelation over the revelation that had been given in the Old Testament. It stresses the supremacy and the sufficiency of Christ's work. In other words, its answer to these people who are struggling to find fulfillment in Christianity is to point them right back to Jesus. The author wants to impress upon us that there is no higher answer to deep relationship and fellowship with God than Jesus. You can't do better than Jesus. There's no place for a higher experience beyond Jesus.

Listen to what Larry Richards says: "The Book of Hebrews begins with Jesus. Total confidence in Him must be the basis of our new life and of our identity as Christians. It is important to realize that all there is of salvation for us is to be found in Jesus. There is nothing higher or greater than knowing Jesus. There is nothing beyond knowing Jesus that is a key to supposedly higher spiritual experience." Apparently some of these Christians thought that they had experienced Jesus and then they were left being unsatisfied, so they looked for something more.

The author of Hebrews says, "Look, if you thought that you tried Jesus, and He wasn't satisfying, you never knew Jesus. So what we're going to do is, we're going to point you right back to Jesus again and ask you to be reintroduced to Him. Because once you know Christ, there is nothing beyond that that you need. There is no more that you need to tack onto the Lord Jesus Christ."

Believe it or not, we are finally through with the introduction. And I won't do this again, I promise. The verses that we are going to look at today emphasize that the culmination, the fulfillment of all the teaching in the Old Testament is in Christ. Everything that the Old Testament is leading up to is found in Christ. So the stress is on the supremacy and the sufficiency of Jesus. Everything in the gospels, everything in the New Testament is the fulfillment of God's revelation in the Old Testament. And, of course, these passages focus on the character of Jesus. It describes Jesus for us; tells us about His nature. Let's look again then at this short passage.

"God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets, in many portions and in many ways, in these last days, He has spoken to us in His Son."

Christians heed God's final word as supremely authoritative.

The first thing I'd like you to see tonight is that Christians heed God's final word, Jesus. Christians, heed God's final word as supremely authoritative. These Christians are struggling, thinking that perhaps they ought to go back to those Old Testament forms and maybe they will find more fulfillment there than they found as believers in Christ. And the author of Hebrews is stressing to them that they must heed God's final word, who is the Lord Jesus Christ, as supremely authoritative. I want you to note that the author stresses that God is the One Who reveals Himself. God spoke long ago to the fathers. God spoke in these last days in His Son. God's authority underlies all revelation, all prophecy, all Scripture.

Notice that the contrast is not between general revelation, what we know about God in nature and special revelation, and what we know about God from the Bible. The contrast is between the special revelation that God gave in Old Testament times and the fuller revelation that had been given in the Lord Jesus Christ and which had been recorded in the New Testament. These people didn't doubt the authority of the Old Testament. They just discounted the fulfillment of the Old Testament in the gospel teaching of Christ. And so the author of Hebrews wants to stress to them that Christ is the culmination, He is the fulfillment of all the revelation that went before. Both the author and the congregation agreed about the authority of God's special revelation in the days of Hebrew's composition. Nobody was saying, "Well, God's word in the Old Testament isn't inspired, it isn't authoritative." Nobody in this particular discussion believed that. Nobody rejected the authority of God's word as revealed in the Old Testament. However, we do have that problem today. We meet people, even professing Christians sometimes, who will reject the authority of God's word.

Let me just say a few things about that before we go on, because it's so important, when we say the word revelation. When we're talking about God revealing Himself, divine revelation, what we mean is God's own self-disclosure. In revelation, God is disclosing, He is manifesting, He is revealing Himself to us. He's revealing stuff about Himself and He is revealing to us His will. So He reveals to us His person and His will and His ways. Divine revelation is not merely the product of human speculation. Many theologians, even Christian theologians today will say something like this: "The Bible is not revelation, it is witness to revelation." What they mean by that is, that it's our best shot. As poor, fallen humans, we're doing our best to describe God's revelation. The Bible never describes itself that way. It never says, "Well, this is just sort of the best shot." No, it presents itself as being the very words of God about God. That's what revelation is, and that's super-important for us to remember. Because today that is disputed. Some Christians theoretically reject the authority and the revelation of the Bible. However, that is in general not our problem. I think most of us in here would agree that God's word is inspired, infallible, inerrant, and authoritative; and if you don't, I would love to meet with you and argue that case. But I'm not going to do that tonight. But if you want to do it, I'll meet with you any time. You name it and I'll be there and work on that together.

Most of us struggle in the practical area though. We accept God's authority in His word in theory, but in practice it becomes difficult. Sometime we unwittingly reject that authority. Other times, we knowingly reject the authority of that word. And I would suggest that's our biggest problem.

Let me give you two illustrations of that; two ways where we practically undercut the authority of God's revelation. I just mentioned that we live in a day and age where the thought-world impacts us. We live in a day and age where nobody thinks that what you believe matters. You don't have truth today. You have opinions. You don't have morals; you have values. All that is designed to subjectivize what you think about ultimate reality. So that, "Well, that's your opinion; but it doesn't matter because there are lots of other opinions out there." Listen to this interesting passage about how this has impacted Christians from David Well's address to the National Association of Evangelicals a couple of years ago. He says this: "I would like to suggest that one of our problems is the crumbling of our theological character. I have called this in my book, No Place For Truth, the disappearance of theology. It is not that theological beliefs are being denied by Christians. It is that they have little cash value. They don't matter. I likened the situation to that of a child who is in the home, but who is ignored. It is not that child has been abducted, the child is in the home, but he has no legitimate place in the family. And again the research which I have conducted strongly points to the fact that where this kind of theological character is crumbling, the centrality of God is disappearing. When your belief about God begins to be relativized, not surprising, isn't it, God begins to disappear."

He goes on — it gets even better. "Now God comes to rest lightly and inconsequentially upon the church. This, however, is just our own private evangelical version of what we are seeing more generally in culture. In the broader culture, we learn, the polls tell us, that 91% of people say that God is very important to them, but 66% of those same people go on to say that they do not believe in moral absolutes, and 67% go on to say that they do not believe in absolute truth. So God is important to me, but I don't believe in absolute truth and I don't believe in absolute moral value." So God rests inconsequentially upon their lives. You see, we say one thing with our lips, but practically it makes no difference.

I happened to be going through the Jitney-Jungle grocery store line getting baby formula the other night. I saw one of those harbingers of culture. You know, one of the "Good Housekeeping" magazines with a picture of Farrah Fawcett on the cover and in the description next to her name, it talked about how her faith in God had been deepening over the past years. And I scratched my head as I recalled that she had just done a pornographic video a couple of years ago. I sort of wondered to myself how that faith in God kind of worked out with the pornographic video that she had done. Well, that's just how it is in our culture. We talk about God being part of our lives and significant, but it doesn't work out practically.

One other example that David Wells shares, another way we see that God's Word is undercut in our lives is that the Bible itself doesn't shape the way that we are living. Listen to what Wells says: "It is not that there are not enough Bibles in America. In fact there are enough Bibles in America to put one in every home. The problem is that we are not hearing the Word of God. It does not rest unsequentially upon us. It does not cut. It is surely one of the great ironies of our time, that in the 1970's and 80's, so much effort was put into defining inspiration and looking at what were the best words to express and to protect the doctrine of Biblical inspiration, and all the while that that work was going on, unnoticed by us, the church was quietly unhitching itself from the truth of Scripture in practice. It is as if we think that while the Bible is inspired, it is nevertheless inadequate to the tasks of sustaining and nourishing the 20th-century church."

I think it is important that as we begin this study from the outset to say that we are going to honor in our minds and in our lives the authority of Scripture or it does us no good to study the word. If we're not going to live out the truth and to believe it with all of our hearts, there is just no reason to gather and to study the word together on Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights. It is one of the great heritages that has been given to us in this congregation, that there is high respect for the Word of God, and I pray that that never changes, because it is the thing that can make us stand in a culture that would like to help us fall. Let us look to the Lord in prayer.

"Heavenly Father, I thank You for the opportunity to study Your word. Bless us as we do so. Challenge our dearest misconceptions and our most cherished incorrect thinking and touch us, Lord, where we need to be changed by Your word. Help us, we pray. We ask it in Jesus' name. Amen.

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