"GOD, having of old time spoken unto the fathers in the prophets by diverse portions and in diverse manners, hath at the end of these days spoken unto us in His Son."1
Thus the Epistle to the Hebrews opens by declaring the divine authority of the Old Testament Scriptures. It is not merely that they were written by holy and gifted men, but that they are a divine revelation. God spoke in the prophets. And the mention of "prophets" must not lead us to limit the reference to what we call "the prophetic Scriptures." Both in Hebrew and in Greek the term used is wide enough to include all the "diverse manners" in which God spoke to men - not only by prophecy (as the term is commonly understood), but by promise, law, exhortation, warning, type, parable, history. And always through individual men specially chosen and accredited. Through them it was that the revelation came. The highest privilege of "the Jewish Church" was its being entrusted with these "oracles of God"; for not even in its darkest days did that church pretend to be itself the oracle. But the Christian apostasy is marked by a depth of blindness and profanity of which the Jew was incapable.
To understand this Epistle we need to be familiar with the language in which it is written. And it is the language of that "divine kindergarten" - the typology of the Pentateuch. The precise point in Israel’s typical history at which the Epistle opens is the 24th chapter of Exodus; and this gives us the key to its scope and purpose. The Israelites were slaves in Egypt, but more than this, they had fallen under Egypt’s doom. For the death sentence was not upon the Egyptians only, but upon all the inhabitants Of the land.2
But God not only provided a redemption, He also delivered His people from the House of Bondage. They were redeemed in Egypt by the blood of the Passover, and they were brought out of Egypt "with a mighty hand and with an outstretched arm." (Deuteronomy 26:8) And standing on the wilderness shore of the sea, they saw the waters closing over their enemies, and raised their triumph song to their Saviour God? (Exodus 15) But not even deliverance from both the guilt and the slavery of sin can give either title or fitness to draw near to a holy God. And at Sinai His care was lest the people, although thus redeemed, should approach the mountain on which He was about to display His glory. (Exodus 19:21)
The twenty-fourth chapter of Exodus emphasizes this still more strongly; for there we read that even Aaron and the elders were excluded. Moses alone might come near. And Moses’ right of access was due to his being a type of Christ, as mediator of the covenant. The record then recounts the dedication of the covenant. The blood of the covenant sacrifices was sprinkled, on the people - the elders presumably representing the whole congregation of Israel - and then we read, Aaron and the elders ascended the mountain along with Moses. But yesterday it would have been death to them to "break through to gaze." But now "they saw God." And such was their "boldness," due to the blood of the covenant, that "they did eat and drink" in the divine presence.
The man of the world will ask, How could "the blood of calves and goats" make any difference in their fitness to approach God? And the answer is, just in the same way that a few pieces of paper may raise a pauper from poverty to wealth. The bank-note paper is intrinsically worthless, but it represents gold in the coffers of the Bank of England. Just as valueless was that "blood of slain beasts," but it represented "the precious blood of Christ." And just as in a single day the banknotes may raise the recipient from pauperism to affluence, so that blood availed to constitute the Israelites a holy people in covenant with God.
What was the next step in the typical story of redemption? By the sprinkling of the blood of the covenant Israel was sanctified; and then, to the very people who were warned against daring to draw near to God, the command was given, "Let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them." (Exodus 25:8) Moses, the mediator of the covenant, having thus made purification of the sins of the people, went up to God. This was the type, the shadow, of which we have in Hebrews the fulfillment, the reality; for when the Son of God "had made purification of sins" "by the blood of the everlasting covenant," he went up to God, and "sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high." (Hebrews 1:3; cf. 13:20) Here, then, it is that Hebrews takes up the story of redemption. Not at the twelfth chapter of Exodus, but at the twenty-fourth. The Passover has no place in the doctrine of the Epistle. Its purpose is to teach how sinners, redeemed from both the penalty and the bondage of sin, and brought into covenant relationship with God, can be kept on their wilderness way as "holy brethren, partakers of a heavenly calling." (Chap. 3:1) Such a great redemption implies a great Redeemer; and His divine glory is the theme of the opening section of the book. A superstitious assent to the dogma of His Deity is so common in Christendom that we need to be reminded that a real heart belief of that supreme truth is the mark of divine spiritual enlightenment. And we utterly fail to realize the depth of meaning, the almost dramatic force, which the Old Testament Scriptures here cited would have with a godly Jew. Let any one read a Jewish commentary on the forty-fifth Psalm, for example, and then try to gauge the thoughts of a Hebrew saint on learning that the words of the sixth verse of that Psalm are divinely addressed to Him whom the nation called the crucified blasphemer! "Thy throne, O God, is for ever and ever." Every element of prejudice and superstition which leads a nominal Christian to accept this would make the true Hebrew realize his need of divine grace to enable him to assent to it and to grasp its meaning. And yet the great truth which is thus enforced by quotations from the Hebrew Scriptures is implicitly asserted in the opening sentence of the Epistle. "God spake to us in His Son." To a Gentile this may have but little meaning - how little may be judged by the Revisers’ marginal note;3 for we are accustomed to hear that we are all sons of God, and that "Jesus is our elder brother." But the Lord’s claim to be Son of God was rightly understood by the Jews to be an explicit claim to Deity; and because of it they decreed His death.4
And that claim is stated here with new emphasis. Our English idiom will not permit of our reproducing precisely the words of the text, and yet we can appreciate their vivid and telling force: "To us God spoke in SON." The Hebrews Scriptures are divine, for they were given through men who "spake as they were moved by the Holy Spirit," but the words of Christ have a still higher dignity, for He Himself is God.
But to some this truth that He is God may seem to create an impassable gulf between the redeemed and the Redeemer. For we are but men — weak and sinful men, who need not only mercy and help, but sympathy. But there is no such gulf. For though He is "the effulgence of the glory (of God) and the very image of His substance," and upholds all things by the word of His power, He came down to earth, to take part of flesh and blood, to live as a man among men, and to die a shameful death at the hands of men. And having thus been "made perfect through suffering," He has become "a merciful and faithful High-priest in things pertaining to God."5
And yet we must not overlook the special setting in which this wonderful truth is here revealed. The Apostle Paul was divinely commissioned to unfold the great characteristic truths of Christianity - "grace, salvation-bringing to all men," and Christ "a ransom for all." But they must have a strange conception of what inspiration means, who can cavil because these truths have no place in Hebrews. For here we have to do, not with the children of Adam, but with "the children of Abraham," who is the father of all believers. Nor are we told how lost sinners can be saved, but how saved sinners on their way to rest can be "made perfect in every good work to do His will."
The glorious truth of the love of God to a lost world must not be limited by the teaching of Hebrews, neither must the truth revealed in Hebrews be frittered away by ignoring its special meaning. In a sense the Lord has taken up the seed of Adam, but not in the sense in which, Hebrews tells us, "He taketh hold of the seed of Abraham." For though God loves the world, He loves His own the best; and "the children" in Hebrews are not the Adamic race, but the children of the promise, the children of God. And these, and these alone, it is that the Lord here calls His brethren.6 Many a Scripture may be studied in the market place, but we must withdraw from the market place to the sanctuary if we are to join in the worship, or profit by the teaching, of the Epistle to the Hebrews.