The only reason Judaism exists is due to the Jews’ rejection of Jesus Christ as their Messiah. Judaism was a religion inspired by God (2 Tim. 3:16). Its purpose was to prepare Israel for the coming of the Messiah and his new covenant (Gal. 3:23-26). However, the majority of Israel could not accept this common preacher from Nazareth as being their Savior. A minority of them followed Jesus due to the divinely inspired teaching of his apostles and prophets, including the writer of Hebrews. However, the Jews severely persecuted them. It is against this background of tribulation that the writer of the Hebrew epistle wrote by inspiration, showing us that one of the main purposes of the letter was to encourage Christians of a Jewish background to remain loyal to Christ in the face of hardship (Heb. 10:32-12:13). In order to do this, God inspired him to show his Jewish readers the superiority of Jesus Christ and his new covenant over the Judaism.
The writer opened his letter with this goal in mind. Rather than beginning the epistle with a formal salutation (cf. Phil. 1:1; 1 Cor. 1:1-2), he immediately informs his readers of how God in earlier times had spoken to their fathers at many times and in various ways through the prophets (Heb. 1:1). However, “in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son” (Heb. 1:2a). He then informed his Hebrew readers that God appointed Jesus “the heir of all things” (Heb. 1:2b), God created the world through Jesus (Heb. 1:2c), Jesus “is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature” (Heb. 1:3a), and how Jesus “upholds the universe by the word of his power” and has “sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (Heb. 1:3b). He then went on to describe from the Old Testament how Jesus is greater than celestial angels (Heb. 1:4-2:10). This would make a positive impression among his Jewish readers who had open hearts and minds (cf. Luke 8:15), because the Jews correctly held God’s creation of the universe and his angels in high esteem.
God then inspired the writer to inform his readers of Christ’s higher rank over Moses, the man for whom they had more respect than any other biblical figure. He taught them that while Jesus and Moses were faithful to God (Heb. 3:1-2), Jesus “has been counted worthy of more glory than Moses – as much more glory as the builder of a house has more honor than the house itself” (Heb. 3:3), implying that Jesus was the creator of Moses (cf. Col. 1:16). While Moses “WAS faithful IN all God’s house as a SERVANT” (Heb. 3:5a, emp. added), Christ “IS faithful OVER God’s house as a SON” (Heb. 3:6a, emp. added). He also mentioned how Moses had testified as a prophet “to the things that were to be spoken later,” a reference to his prophecies about Christ (Heb. 3:5b; cf. Deut. 18:15-19; Acts 3:22-23).
We later read from Hebrews that Jesus, the Son of God, is our “great high priest who has passed through the heavens” (Heb. 4:14), a high priest who sympathizes with our weaknesses due to having been unsuccessfully tempted in every way as we have been (Heb. 4:15). Because of this, we can confidently draw close to the throne of grace when we need mercy and grace (Heb. 4:16). Under the Mosaic economy, the Levitical priests must have been without any physical blemish in order to offer sacrifices to God (Lev. 21:17-21). Due to the sacrifice of Jesus, our High Priest, all followers of God under the Christian economy are priests (1 Pet. 2:5, 9) who are without any spiritual blemish (1 John 1:7-9). The writer then compares the Mosaic high priests with our High Priest. The former are chosen from among men by the calling of God and can deal gently with the ignorant and wayward due to also being sinful (Heb. 5:1-2, 4). Therefore, they were obligated to offer sacrifice for their own sins as well as for those of the people (Heb. 5:3). Christ was also appointed by his Father and prophesied in the Old Testament to be after the order of Melchizedek rather than the order of Aaron and the Levites (Heb. 5:5-6, 10; cf. Ps. 110:1-4). During his life Jesus also offered up prayers and supplications to God and was heard because of his reverence (Heb. 5:7). Being without sin and having learned obedience through suffering, our High Priest became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him (Heb. 5:8-9).
Later, God chose to elaborate on the meaning of Jesus being “a high priest forever after the order of Melchizedek” (Heb. 6:20). The Jewish patriarch, Abraham, had received blessings from and offered tithes to Melchizedek, a priest of God of whom there was no record of ancestry, birth, or death (Heb. 7:1-3; cf. Gen. 14:17-20). The Levitical priests, descendants of Abraham, were required under Mosaic Law to receive similar tithes from the people; yet, Melchizedek, a priest from a different order than Aaron, received tithes from their ancestor Abraham and even from them in a sense, since they were “still in the loins” of Abraham at the time (Heb. 7:6, 9-10). After giving this illustration and reminding his readers that “the inferior is blessed by the superior,” thus implying that Abraham was inferior to Melchizedek (Heb. 7:7-8), he then pointed out how perfection could not have been attained through the Levitical priesthood and thus the Mosaic Law; if it had been, there would have been no need for another priest to arise after an order different than Aaron as had been prophesied (Heb. 7:11). He then reminded his readers that a change in priesthood, as had been prophesied (Ps. 110:1-4), required a change in the law as well (Heb. 7:12). With this in mind, Jesus came from the tribe of Judah, a tribe of which Moses had spoken nothing concerning the priesthood (Heb. 7:13-14). This is how Christ is a priest after Melchizedek, who had become a priest not on the basis of a legal requirement of the Mosaic economy but by the power of God (Heb. 7:15-16). Jesus had become a priest by the oath of God, unlike the Levitical priests who were made such without an oath (Heb. 7:20-21). The writer used this illustration to show the weakness and uselessness of the Law of Moses (Heb. 7:18-19), which made Jesus “the guarantor of a better covenant” (Heb. 7:22).
After comparing the mortality of the Mosaic priests to the immortality and purity of our High Priest in order to show the weaknesses of the Old Law when compared with the New (Heb. 7:23-28), God then pointed out the majestic station of our High Priest (Heb. 8:1-2). He then compared the ministry of our High Priest to that of the Aaronic priesthood, informing us that what they did served as “a copy and shadow of the heavenly things” (Heb. 8:3-5a), i.e., the better things to come under the Christian economy (cf. Eph. 1:3). In contrast, our High Priest “has obtained a ministry that is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises” (Heb. 8:6). The writer then goes on to point out how the Old Covenant had not been faultless, thus showing the need for the New (Heb. 8:7). His Jewish readers would have been familiar with the Old Testament prophecy which the writer then cited to prove that God had always intended for the Old Covenant to be replaced with the New (Heb. 8:8-12; cf. Jer. 31:31-34). He then forcefully told them how the Old is now “obsolete” and “ready to vanish away” (Heb. 8:13).
The writer then compared the Old Testament tabernacle with the superior sanctuary Christ entered into under the New Covenant. He listed all the relics and rituals associated with the Mosaic sanctuary (Heb. 9:1-8), only to clarify that they were “symbolic for the present age” and could not “perfect the conscience of the worshiper” (Heb. 9:9; 10:1-4). Instead, they were intended to be in place “until the time of reformation” (Heb. 9:10), a reference to the better covenant put in place by the death of Christ (Heb. 9:11-17) just as the first covenant had also been inaugurated with the blood of animals (Heb. 9:18-28). He then showed the superiority of Christ’s priesthood and covenant over that of Moses by pointing out how Christ needed to offer his sacrifice only once with his own blood, unlike the Aaronic high priests (Heb. 9:22-10:18).
After showing the higher quality of Christ, his priesthood, and his covenant over that of Moses, the writer of Hebrews challenged his readers to “draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith” (Heb. 10:22). May we also accept this challenge and call, resting assured that we are living under and obligated to obey a much better covenant with a far holier priest.