1. The Background of the Letter to the Hebrews
The Sabbath School Lesson book of the third quarter 2003 was about the letter to the Hebrews. From the lessons it is very clear that the author is convinced that Paul wrote the letter. This is not the general opinion, but it is very clear, that the Spirit of Prophecy was convinced too, that Paul wrote it. See chapter 23 of the Great Controversy.
The author of the Sabbath school lessons has the opinion that Paul wrote it in 66 or 67 A.D. This means that the letter was written just before the fall of Jerusalem. This is very important information, because these two pieces of information are a perfect background to understand the letter.
What happened in 66 A.D.? In 66 A.D. Cestus, a Roman general besieged the city of Jerusalem. And Paul in one way or another learns that Cestus is on the point of taking the city. Then he remembers the last time he was in Jerusalem. Paul became a prisoner, while he was in the temple. He was in the temple to bring a sacrifice. When he came to Jerusalem, he met with the elders of the church in Jerusalem. They said to Paul: "Thou seest brother how many thousands of Jews there are which believe and they are all zealous of the law." - Acts 21:20. Then they told Paul about the rumours going around in the church concerning him. And instead of killing the rumours, the apostles in Jerusalem are led by the rumours. The rumour was that Paul taught "to forsake Moses."
Now these misled leaders said to Paul: "We have four men which have a vow in them; Them take, and purify thyself with them, and be at charges with them, that they may shave their heads, and all may know that those things, whereof they were informed concerning thee are nothing; but that thou thyself also walkest orderly, and keepest the law." - Acts, 21:23-24.
Paul desired to be in harmony with the brethren in Jerusalem and so he listened to them. He forsook his principles and went into the temple with these four people "purifying himself with them." (Acts, 21:26). And when the purifying process was almost finished on the seventh day, Paul was made a prisoner. All the city "was moved." When Paul was in prison he had a lot of time to think it over. This busy apostle was now without any employment and started to think over what happened to him. Again he saw how the Spirit of God had tried to keep him away from Jerusalem. (Acts, 21:4-16). But he did not understand why he should not go to the headquarters in Jerusalem. He remembered coming into the city and he saw himself offering a lamb in the temple. He, the apostle, who preached everywhere that Jesus is our Sacrifice. (1.Cor. 5:7). Now he saw that it was a denial of his faith. He realised all these things and saw that the church in Jerusalem was almost married to the temple: "they are all zealous of the law." (Acts, 21,20). The actual meaning of these words is that they were "daily in the temple." It is almost unbelievable, that Christians were daily in the temple after the Sacrifice of Christ was accomplished. Here we see how difficult it is to bring thoughts and ideas into a new channel.
While in prison Paul sees the real situation of the church in Jerusalem and resolves two things:
First, that he will never, never again enter the temple for ritual purposes.
Secondly, he is determined that he will use the first opportunity to separate the church from the temple.
And now in 66 A.D. he is told that Cestus is besieging the city while the church with its leaders is still in it. This is a most dangerous situation. Paul knew that God would give the church a new opportunity to leave the city. But will the church see it as an opportunity to leave? Or would their zeal for the law and the temple unite them with those who would be slain?
Jesus said: "And when ye shall see Jerusalem compassed with armies, then know that the desolation is nigh. Then let them which are in Judea flee to the mountains; and let them which are in the midst of it depart; and let not them that are in the countries enter thereinto." - Luke 21:20-21. Paul decided the time had come to separate the church from the temple. He will write them a letter.
2. The Letter of Paul to the Hebrews separates the Church from the Temple in Jerusalem
How does Paul do it? The first thing he has to do is to separate the church from the priest. He does it very thoroughly. And just like in his letter to the Galatians, Paul in Hebrews jumps into his subject. His main argument is coming from Psalm 110. Each new argument is closed with a quote from Ps. 110. He uses his first argument very carefully. The first one is that the new priest is God above all and blessed for evermore.
The new priest is the Son
He is the heir of all things
He created the world
He is the brightness of the Fathers glory
He is the express image of the Father
He upholds all things by his powerful Word
He purged our sins. Heb. 1:1-4.
This one is the priest of Psalm 110 because he is sitting at the right hand of the Majesty. See Heb. 1:4 and Ps. 110:1.
Then Paul goes over all these qualifications a second time and calls it the testimony of God, the Father.
By inheritance He obtained a more excellent name as the angels.
The new priest is the Son
The new priest is God above all, because the angels worship Him
His scepter upholds the throne
He purifies from sin because He loves righteousness and hates sin.
He is the Creator because He laid the foundations of the world.
He is the express image of His person because "Thou art the same." This means Jesus the new priest is the self-existent One. Jesus is the "You are He" of Ps. 102:27.
Isaiah 48:12. The first and the last. He is the same. He has no beginning, He is the beginning, the great I AM.
Again Paul closes with Ps. 110:1.
"Sit on my right hand, until I make thine enemies thy footstool." (Compare Heb. 1:5-14).
In the ritual priesthood every priest was taken from among men (Heb. 5:1). But the first qualification of the new priesthood was that the priest was taken from among the Godhead. According to Hebrews chapter one, the first qualification of the real priesthood is that the priest was from among the Godhead. That is a most important qualification because in the real priesthood, the priest is effective in the innermost part of the soul.
In the second chapter of Hebrews follows another series of qualifications of the New High Priest. He took the nature of the children of Abraham. Just like all men He was a descendent of "one", of Adam. His obedience means suffering.
Obedience was made perfect through suffering. The ones He came to save were His brethren. He was the nearest of kin. He suffered being tempted. Finally, He came under the power of death. This One is the priest "in things pertaining to God." Then Paul says "consider this High Priest." The priest of Psalm 110. Then Paul gives us a series of exhortations and in chapter 4 he returns and repeats the human qualifications of the New Priest. He is touched with the feelings of our infirmities. He can have compassion with our infirmities. He learned obedience of the things He suffered. And summing up everything Paul says He was saved, "save him from death." This is the point where we are. Of course, Jesus was not saved from sin as we have to be saved. But our all powerful Priest had to learn what it meant to give Himself completely into the hands of Someone Else. Jesus knows from experience what it means to be saved. Again He closes with Ps. 110: "Thou art a priest forever after the order of Melchisedec." - Heb. 5:6-10.
In chapter 7 Paul finishes his argument about the High Priest. The final qualification is descent. Paul calls it "the order." The word "order" in Hebrew 7 means descent. Paul is talking of descent in the use of the following phrases:
The order of Aaron verse 11
Levitical priesthood verse 11
Sons of Levi verse 5
The office of the priesthood verse 5
But he whose descent verse 6
Levi also, who receiveth tithes verse 9
Our Lord sprang out of Judah verse 14
The law of a carnal commandment verse 16
Order of Melchisedec verse 11
Order of Melchisedec verse 21
It is very clear that the word "order" means descent." His very argument depends on it. The typical priesthood was the order of Aaron. So if you had all the qualifications to be the priest and you were not from the line of Aaron, you could not become priest. So how could Jesus be a priest? Not by being a descendent from Aaron! The argument of Paul is that there is another descent and that is the antitypical descent. Your father had to be a priest in order for you to become a priest.
And remember, the first qualification of the real priesthood, according to Hebrews chapter one is that the real priest had to be from among the Godhead.
The first thing which has to be settled is: is the order of Melchisedec a typical or an antitypical order. If Melchisedec was a typical priest, the order was typical and Jesus is a typical priest. Then we are really in trouble because then Jesus is not the Messiah.
So Paul talking about Melchisedec establishes first the first qualification of the real and antitypical nature of that priesthood and priest. Paul says Melchisedec is:
without beginning of life
without end of life.
These are the qualifications of his person. Then he tells us something about his priesthood:
he is king of righteousness
he is king of peace
The word king here means "origin". Melchisedec as priest is the origin of righteousness and peace. That is what sinners need. Remember, Paul does not say that Melchisedec is righteous and peaceful. No, in both things he is king. It is very clear that this priest is from among the Godhead. It would be almost blasphemy to call a creature the "king of righteousness" or the "king" of peace. "Only God is good" and "Thou only art holy" Scripture teaches us.
If these arguments are true then we have no trouble with the "order" or descent of the new priest, because Jesus as a human being was born after Mary concieved a son from the Holy Spirit. The third member of the Godhead is the God appointed Priest in the human heart of the believer. E.G. White is very clear on this point. She said: "Melchisedec is the representative of the Father, the voice of God in the world." (See 1BC 1093).
That the Holy Spirit is the voice of God in the world is the clear teaching of the Word. (Acts, 1:16,28,35. Heb. 3;7; 10:15. 2.Pet. 1:21).
Because Jesus had all these qualifications, He is fully able to save to the uttermost those that come unto God by Him. Seeing He ever liveth to make intercession for them. (Heb. 7:25).
3. The Change of the Priesthood has dramatic Results
a. The law"For the priesthood being changed, there is made of necessity a change also of the law." - Heb. 7:12. Remember Paul is trying to separate the church in Jerusalem from the temple. He started with the priest. Having changed the priesthood it automatically follows that there is a change in the law. Which law? The law of the altar, because from another tribe no one could give the attendance to the altar. Verse 13.
b. The Covenant
But when the priesthood is changed and the law is changed than it follows automatically that the covenant is changed. "By so much was Jesus made the surety of a better testament." Verse 22. The testament here means "covenant". "For if the first covenant would have been faultless, then should no place have been sought for the second." - Heb. 8:7. There had to be a new covenant, verse 8.
c. The Sanctuary
But the change of the priesthood and the law and the covenant would lead automatically to a new sanctuary. The new priest would serve in a new sanctuary "a minister of the sanctuary, and of the true tabernacle, which the Lord pitched, and not man." - Heb. 8:2.
So we see that Paul is taking away piece by piece: the priest and gives them a new priest; the law of the altar and giving them, the power of an endless life; the covenant and giving them a better covenant; the sanctuary and giving them a better sanctuary, even a heavenly one. What is the better thing? All these things could not save to the uttermost, they could not perfect the comers there unto. But Paul, making the church really a spiritual people and make it one universal church he still had to take two more things:
d. The City
The next thing for Paul was to point out that there is also another Jerusalem. He tells them that Abraham was looking for a city which has foundations whose builder and maker is God. (Heb. 11:10).
e. The Country
Now he has to take away the land of Canaan. "But now they desire a better country, that is, an heavenly." - Heb. 11:16. And in this country is a city which God prepared for His children. Verse 16. Paul is using the words of the Old Testament church: the fathers saw themselves as strangers, even David sitting on the throne of Israel, saw himself as "stranger and pilgrim." (Ps. 119:19; Heb. 11:12-16). Every one of the fathers saw the heavenly country as the real country.
4. The Call to leave the City
Now Paul has taken away all the old things and has given them all new things and then he calls on them to leave the city. What is his argument? It is the sacrifice of Christ!!!
"We have an altar, whereof they have no right to eat which serve the tabernacle. For the body of those beasts, whose blood is brought into the sanctuary by the high priest for sin, are burned without the camp. Wherefore Jesus also, that he might sanctify the people with his own blood, suffered without the gate. Let us go forth therefore unto him without the camp, bearing his reproach. For here have we no continuing city, but we seek one to come." - Heb. 13:11-14.
As the church in Jerusalem read these words, and all the admonitions which are given throughout the whole letter it became crystal clear what they had to do. No longer should they go to the priest, no longer to the temple. No longer into the city and now they could even leave the country. They could go away from everything. Now they had an almighty priest, ministering in a new sanctuary, the heavenly, according to the new order, the order of an indestructible life and a new covenant to cleanse the conscience, a new city and a new country. The church gave up all the old things and the new really started to function.
Whatever the letter to the Hebrews meant to the church in Jerusalem just before its fall, it also means to us who live just before the fall of the world.
After Cestus left the city for unknown reasons and the letter to the Hebrews was studied, the church left the city. In 70 A.D. when Titus came and took the city, nearly one million people from all over the world were destroyed in the fall of Jerusalem. No Christian was killed, all had left. The letter to the Hebrews was a perfect preparation for the fall of Jerusalem.