Category Archives: Hebrews

The Deity of Christ in Hebrews 1:8

 

The book of Hebrews stands as a beacon in the night shining forth the superiority of Christ above angels, Moses, the Levitical priesthood, other priests (namely Melchizedek), the priestly ministry, including its location, covenant, tabernacle, and sacrifice. Without question, if one wants to understand more deeply, more convincingly who Christ is, they needn’t turn too far away from Hebrews to find Him fully on display.

However, there remain those who are not only unconvinced by the Christology of Hebrews, but those who have taken its words and distorted it to fit their own agenda. One particular group is the Jehovah’s Witness. In their translation ( I use that term loosely, as you will see), known as the New World Translation, the biblical truths of Christ are distorted in order to mask Christ’s deity in seeking to establish Him as a mere man, created in the image of God like other men though having His origin as a spiritual being. Without going into detail regarding their beliefs, they make it clear that 1) They deny the Trinity and 2) They deny the deity of Christ. This was made crystal clear to me during a recent encounter I had with several of them.

One particular verse where this biblical distortion becomes evident is Hebrews 1:8,

“But of the Son he says,

‘Your throne, O God, is forever and ever,

the scepter of uprightness is the scepter of your kingdom.’”

The passage above is in clear reference to the Son from its context in Hebrews and it gives great insight into the intra-Trinitarian conversation between the Father and the Son by quoting a passage from Psalm 45:6. If you knew nothing of the doctrine of the Jehovah’s Witness, if you knew nothing of the Old Testament use of the New Testament, or nothing of the biblical languages, you would still be able to observe what is being said in the verse and the grammatical manner in which it is being said. It is crystal clear that the Son is the One to whom this statement is directed. Likewise, it is crystal clear that this passage calls the Son, God, a point of fact that the Jehovah’s Witness denies.

Additionally, the grammar of this sentence should be clear, namely that the subject of the sentence is “throne” in the first part and “scepter” is the subject of the second phrase as the author of the Psalm develops a parallelism with the two kingly objects, throne and scepter. God, as used in this verse, is what’s known as the vocative, i.e. to Whom the sentence is addressed. From our usage in Hebrews it is clear that this is addressed to the Son. This seems straightforward enough, right?

Well, not for the translators of the Jehovah’s Witness New World Translation. In order to hide this clear indication that Christ is God and thereby divine, being distinct in person but the same in essence as the Father and Holy Spirit, the “translation” of the Jehovah’s Witnesses distorts the grammar of the passage by saying:

“But about the Son, he says: “God is your throne forever and ever, and the scepter of your Kingdom is the scepter of uprightness.”[1]

At first glance, it may not even seem to be a big deal that the NWT translates this passage differently. But, when you understand that their philosophical understanding of Christ is radically different than orthodox Christianity, then it becomes of the utmost importance to understand what is being communicated in their “bible”. When asking the Jehovah’s Witness about the difference in this verse, their comments are typically centered around similar statements such as “Jehovah is your rock”, “Jehovah is your shield”, or that Christ’s authority proceeds from the Father and that this is simply a better way of saying that. Those statements in their given biblical context may be true, but that is simply not what is being communicated in this passage. As was pointed out earlier, the subject of the first part of this phrase is the throne and of the latter, the scepter. In the NWT the subject is changed to “God”, to avoid the vocative use of God that appears in the original Greek and that is made evident in formally equivalent English translations, such as the ESV quoted above. Again, this may not seem like a big deal, but it actually serves to undercut the assertion being made that Jesus is God. Yes, as a David-like King, Christ derives His authority (throne/scepter) from the Father that is clear from the statement, “of the Son he says”. But much more is being communicated and that is that this King, is none other than God-incarnate, the God-Man Jesus Christ.

This is not simply a matter of grammar and punctuation; it is deception for the purpose of distorting the divine nature of Christ. Like their forefathers who promoted the heresy of Arianism, the Jehovah’s Witness have drastically deviated from orthodox Christianity and have created for themselves another Jesus. The Apostle Paul warns of those who proclaim another Jesus in 1 Corinthians 11:4, “For if someone comes and proclaims another Jesus than the one we proclaimed,” all the more reason to be diligent in studying the Word of God to recognize and correct those who do such things.

Understanding the significance of this passage from Hebrews as a testimony to the Divine nature of Christ will go a long way in the conversation with a Jehovah’s Witness. Their translation is simply indefensible. Be aware that there will be attempts to refute this, but largely they will be unaware of the translation inaccuracy and their own religion’s attempt to mask the deity of Christ. Be patience and confident in the power of God’s Word and proclaim the deity of Christ at every turn.

Update 4/30/2015: In reading Reasoning from the Scriptures with the Jehovah’s Witnesses by Ron Rhodes (2009, Harvest House Publishers), the author concedes that “God is your throne” is grammatically possible in the Greek, but as shown in the post above is contextually invalid (pg. 93).  Further evidence that the context is in favor of this reading can be found in Psalm 45:5 of the Septuagint (Greek OT) which includes the phrase “Thy weapons [arrows], Oh Mighty One, are sharpened”.  Read in combination with  verse 6 from the post above, “Thy throne, O God” reveals additional Hebrew parallelism between the verses (Rhodes, 95).  I didn’t include this in my original post because I think most faithful English translations recognize the grammatical structure within verse 6 that holds the tension between the subjects “throne” and “scepter” and the discussion of Christ’s Kingship, “O God”, in Hebrews 1 and that is easier to work through if you lack knowledge of the Septuagint.

[1] New World Translation, 2013. http://www.jw.org/en/publications/bible/nwt/books/hebrews/1/

The Typology of Hebrews 9

 

Perhaps more than any other book of the Bible, Hebrews highlights for us what is known as biblical typology. Typology in the Bible is a method of interpreting Scripture in the light of Scripture itself wherein a relationship is established between people, places, events, or institutions and other people, places, events or institutions. The relationship represents an argument from the lesser to the greater and is often found in discussion of how the Old Testament relates to the New Testament. Usually, the lesser (type) points to the greater (antitype) and most often refers to either Christ or His work on the cross.

Typology has sometimes been accused of being allegorical, but this is a misrepresentation because typology finds its foundation in actual, historical people, places, events, or institutions. Sometimes typology is clearly spelled out for the biblical student such as in John 3:14-15 where Jesus says, “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” So Jesus identifies the event of Moses lifting up the serpent in the wilderness as the type, and the event of His crucifixion as the antitype. Likewise, the representation of the serpent being “lifted up” finds its greater reality in the “lifting up” of Christ on the cross. In typology, much like in the reading of parables, it’s important not to force every single detail from the lesser into the reality of the greater. So in this example, there is no reason to force meaning of the use of the serpent onto Christ beyond what is expressed by Scripture.

Sometimes, typology is not quite as clear as the explicit example mentioned above and this is perhaps where some have entered into a zone of speculation, which unfortunately has likely led to criticism of typology as means to biblical interpretation. One classic example of this erroneous use of relationships is the scarlet cord hung from Rahab’s window during the Israelite’s siege on Jericho (see Joshua 2):18). Some have ventured into the realm of allegory by suggesting that the cord represents the blood of the Passover lamb and ultimately the blood of Christ. As this reasoning goes, Rahab and her family were saved on the basis of Christ’s blood, which is symbolized in the scarlet cord. As interesting as this sounds, it’s highly speculative and has difficulty connecting the lesser to the greater.

With these examples and warnings in mind, we come to the book of Hebrews and find typology consolidated for us by the author. Typology in Hebrews really comes to the forefront in chapter 3, so there is much that could be said concerning the wilderness generation, Moses, the Sabbath rest of God, not to mention the typological relationship between Christ and the Levitical priesthood and Christ and Melchizedek. Leaving those discussions for another day, we come to Hebrews chapter 9 to find the consolidation of many Old Testament types with their greater reality, their antitype, the Lord Jesus Christ.

Note how this chapter begins:

“Now even the first covenant had regulations for worship and an earthly place of holiness. For a tent was prepared, the first section, in which were the lampstand and the table and the bread of the Presence. It is called the Holy Place. Behind the second curtain was a second section called the Most Holy Place, having the golden altar of incense and the ark of the covenant covered on all sides with gold, in which was a golden urn holding the manna, and Aaron’s staff that budded, and the tablets of the covenant. Above it were the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat. Of these things we cannot now speak in detail.

These preparations having thus been made, the priests go regularly into the first section, performing their ritual duties, but into the second only the high priest goes, and he but once a year, and not without taking blood, which he offers for himself and for the unintentional sins of the people. By this the Holy Spirit indicates that the way into the holy places is not yet opened as long as the first section is still standing (which is symbolic for the present age). According to this arrangement, gifts and sacrifices are offered that cannot perfect the conscience of the worshiper, 10 but deal only with food and drink and various washings, regulations for the body imposed until the time of reformation.”

The first 10 verses of the chapter lay the groundwork for our discussion by presenting the details of the sacrificial system under the Old Covenant. The author has spent the previous chapters highlighting the superiority of Christ as the new and better High Priest, superior over the Levitical priesthood, as well as His superiority over the Melchizedekian priesthood which was the basis for the oath of Christ’s own Priesthood (Psalm 110). In this chapter, he builds upon the superiority of the New Covenant over the Old Covenant by reminding his readers of the bloody, repeated sacrifices that were commanded under the Old Covenant.

Though summarized above, the details of the sacrifices under the Old Covenant can be found in the books of the Law, namely Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers. Obviously a reading of those books would only aide in our understanding of what is being discussed in the introduction to chapter 9 of Hebrews; more on that in a minute. Without going into great detail, we may observe that the Old Covenant sacrificial system involved a priest, a tabernacle (later a temple) divided by a veil into an outer (Holy Place) and inner (Most Holy Place) section, sacrifices (bulls, goats, lambs, etc.), and various appurtenances such as an altar, the ark of the covenant, cherubim over the mercy seat, lampstand, table, and showbread.

The process of sacrifice is summarized in verses 6-10 as the priest is said to have gone in regularly into the first section. These were the daily sacrifices as required under the law. Only the high priest, once a year, could enter into the Most Holy Place with blood; first for himself and then for the unintentional sins of the people. Even within this description we see the narrowing of the process from priests to priest, from the outer area to the inner area and from regular sacrifices to once a year. Entering into the Most Holy was an exclusive, rare occasion and is so described by the author of Hebrews.

Key to our discussion here and to the meaning of the passage, particularly the mention of the Old Covenant sacrificial details are verses 8-9a, “By this the Holy Spirit indicates that the way into the holy places is not yet opened as long as the first section is still standing (which is symbolic for the present age).” The author here, under the divine inspiration of the Holy Spirit has indicated for us that all the Old Covenant sacrifices, tabernacles, priesthoods, etc. were “symbolic for the present age.” The actual word being used here is parabole (ESV renders this – symbolic), from which we get our word parable. As it relates to our discussion of typology, often times Scripture uses different words to express this relationship, whether it be type (Romans 5:14), shadow (Col. 2:17), copy (Hebrews 8:5), or parabole meaning symbol as in this passage; other words used include: prefigured, symbolizes, representation, or pattern, to name a few. So then we see that the summary given in verses 1-7 is actually a cliff-notes version of the Old Covenant sacrificial system which collectively pointed towards Christ in a typological manner and individually certain features (people, places, events, institutions) were a type, literally a parable, pointing forward to Christ.

This should radically transform how we read our Old Testaments. Instead of getting bogged down or even avoiding books such as Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, or even Deuteronomy, we should rejoice as we read through them knowing that the pictures being painted through the brushstrokes of the Holy Spirit leave us with the expectation of something far greater than the blood of bulls and goats, the imperfection of the priests, the repetitive nature of the sacrifices, or the restricted access to the presence of God in the Holy of Holies. All of those things (and more) are but a shadow or type of the greater reality that is in Jesus Christ. When you read these Old Testament books, fight against the desire to get lost or to let your mind wander. Instead, ask how the bloody sacrifices are insufficient and conversely how Christ’s is far superior. Take note of the endless work of the priests in contrast to finished work of Christ who is now seated at the right hand of the Father after making His sacrifice once for all. Observe how God was so detailed in His description of the tabernacle and know that its beauty pales in comparison with the True Tabernacle, the one made without human hands. All Scripture is God-Breathed, not just the parts we may prefer or find interesting and all Scripture points to Christ because all of the promises of God find their yes and amen in Him.

 

Dull of Hearing

 

Following the context of the declaration of Christ as High Priest that we looked at in a previous post, the author of Hebrews now switches his attention to the spiritual apathy of his audience. Before he continues his exposition on the typological relationship between Melchizedek and the Lord Jesus Christ, he feels compelled to address the dullness of hearing that is plaguing the Jewish Christians to whom he is writing.

11 About this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. 12 For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, 13 for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. 14 But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.” Hebrews 5:11-14

In verse 11, the flow of discussion concerning the high priestly office of Christ, particularly in His fulfillment of the Melchizedekian type, “About this we have much to say” is interrupted sharply by the author, “and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing.” His comment here is not a reference to the difficulty he faces in explaining the relationship between Christ and Melchizedek, rather the difficulty lies in his hearers grasping the teaching because their spiritual ears have become dull.

It may help our understanding of the message of Hebrews by noting the cultural difficulties that the Jewish Christians were facing at this time and the purpose and motives of the author. For lack of a better term, the time period between Christ’s earthly ministry (~30-33 AD) and the destruction of the temple (70 AD) could be considered a transitional period, i.e. from the Old Covenant to the New Covenant, keeping in mind that much of the Judaism of the patriarchs had been corrupted into a system of works righteousness by the time of Christ. Many of those to whom this epistle is addressed were in danger of slipping back into their former Judaic practices. The author of Hebrews has set out to declare the superiority of Christ over the types and shadows that pointed forward to His coming, namely through the administration of the Old Covenant. With this in mind, the slip back into Judaism was an abandonment of the reality of Christ in favor of the types and shadows with which they had become accustomed. Therefore, when we arrive at such a declaration of Christ as High Priest, superior over the Aaronic priesthood and typological of the Melchizedekian priesthood, we can see how this would have been a radical doctrine for the first century Jews to grasp, particularly if they had become apathetic in their Christian faith. What had been hidden in the Old Testament types and shadows, namely Christ, was now revealed through His ministry (Luke 24). Before the author of Hebrews can expand upon what he has introduced, it is of necessity that the hearers of his message become spiritually attuned to what he has to say if there is to be any hope of understanding.

Spiritual ears to hear is a pervasive theme, particularly in the gospels. In Mark 4:9 we read of our Lord’s declaration, “he who has ears to hear let him hear” The use of hearing in Hebrews draws the reader back to Hebrews 1:1 and has been used in each of the two previous exhortations, 2:1 and 3:15 as an admonition to listen carefully.  There is an ever present danger of those who have been exposed to the hearing of God’s Word for years, yet it now fails to move them.

We turn by way of exhortation to the expectation of progress that the readers of the epistle were to have had, “For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God.” The Christian faith knows nothing of the status quo; nothing of drifting or stagnation. No, indeed it is faith marked with progress, growth in both knowledge of God and practical wisdom and application of this knowledge. Simply stated orthodoxy leading to orthopraxy, or right doctrine for right living.

Concerning the expectation of becoming a teacher, the author of Hebrews is not writing about the official teaching capacity of those who have been called to this church office, rather the expectation is that all believers must be teachers. This is the fulfillment of the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20) and is not limited to a select few who have the gift of teaching. We are called to teach our neighbors, teach our children, our friends, all those with whom God brings into our path. That is the expectation that the author is carrying forward to his audience in beginning his exhortation, but they had failed in this regard and now required to be taught again “the basic principles of the oracles of God”. This phrase will be further defined in the subsequent verses but is referred to here as milk as opposed to solid food.

God’s Word contains both milk and solid food so it’s important for us to not denigrate milk in favor of meat, as both are necessary to good health. Though a baby is unable to digest meat, limited early on to only milk, there is an expectation that he will one day be eating solid food.  Still the balance of milk in his diet is necessary. So too in our spiritual appetite for God’s Word. There are foundational teachings of Christ and the gospel that are milk, which we never progress beyond but instead prepare us for the digestion of meat.  In this context the meat seems to refer, at least in part, to the understanding of Christ as High Priest after the order of Melchizedek.

The Apostle Paul, writing his epistle to the Romans, likewise uses the phrase “oracles of God” in reference to the advantages that the Jews had, Much in every way. To begin with, the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God. Romans 3:2 Here it would seem, as in our passage from Hebrews 5, that the oracles of God refers to the entire corpus of the Old Testament revelation. Oracles in both case is a translation of the Greek word logion related to the word logos and is also found in Acts 7:38 in reference to the oracles of God received by Moses at Sinai and 1 Peter 4:11 in reference to the oracles of God be spoken by those who serve in that capacity. We can see then in general it has reference to the revelation of God, particularly that which has been inscripturated.

Continuing the contrast between milk and solid food we read, “for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. 14 But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.” Those who are content to ingest only the milk of the Word are as children, unskilled (literally untrained or inexperienced) in the word of righteousness. This particular phrase, much like the oracles of God, will be further illumined in subsequent verses, but would seem to follow along the lines of the contrast that’s being made. Those who feed on solid food have their senses (powers) of discernment trained by constant practice and are able to distinguish good from evil. Therefore, they are skilled in the word of righteousness. This would seem to imply that this particular phrase has in mind an ethical or moral behavior that flows directly out of an understanding of biblical doctrine. In other words, righteousness here can be a reference to both the believer’s justification and their subsequent righteous actions to discern good from evil. The author’s use of the phrase, “to distinguish good from evil” should bring to mind Genesis 3:22, “Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil.” Being skilled in the word of righteousness is far more than an intellectual assent, it is putting into practice what God has revealed through the power of the Holy Spirit causing us to be more like Christ.

As this passage continues to unfold, it will lead into one of the most difficult and controversial passages in the Bible that is at the heart of Hebrews 6. For now, the message of this passage of Hebrews is so closely related to the post on the anti-doctrinal movement of evangelicals that I once again want to draw from Pilgrim’s Progress and Christian’s encounter at the foot of the hill with Simple, Sloth, and Presumption. This section from Bunyan’s work is included below:

I saw then in my dream, that he went on thus, even until he came at the bottom, where he saw, a little out of the way, three men fast asleep, with fetters upon their heels. The name of the one was Simple, of another Sloth, and of the third Presumption.

Christian then seeing them lie in this case, went to them, if peradventure he might awake them, and cried, you are like them that sleep on the top of a mast, Prov. 23:34, for the Dead Sea is under you, a gulf that hath no bottom: awake, therefore, and come away; be willing also, and I will help you off with your irons. He also told them, If he that goeth about like a roaring lion, 1 Pet. 5:8, comes by, you will certainly become a prey to his teeth. With that they looked upon him, and began to reply in this sort: Simple said, I see no danger; Sloth said, Yet a little more sleep; and Presumption said, Every tub must stand upon its own bottom. And so they lay down to sleep again, and Christian went on his way.

Yet he was troubled to think that men in that danger should so little esteem the kindness of him that so freely offered to help them, both by awakening of them, counseling of them, and proffering to help them off with their irons.

In a similar fashion, the hearers of the epistle to the Hebrews had fallen into the trap of slothfulness which is in opposition to doctrinal progression and depth of understanding. Their slothfulness in turn led to their satisfaction of a simplistic understanding of God’s Word. Following on, they had come to presume upon their salvation and as we will see in the unpacking of Hebrews 6, this has eternally dangerous consequences. May the warning bell of this passage ring loudly in our ears and may God grant us the desire in our hearts for solid food, that we may be skilled in the word of righteousness and have our senses trained by rightly applying God’s word in every area of our lives unto the obedience of faith.