Hebrews 4

Overview

  • The author says:
  • Now that you know there is a rest, a Promised Land, still out there, don’t stop short of getting there.
  • We, just like out ancestors of the exodus, have heard the good news that God is delivering us.
  • But they didn’t get any value from hearing that message because they didn’t combine faith and obedience (follow-through).
  • Yet, we have! And we get to enter God’s rest!
  • Remember the scripture where God said, “I swear I won’t let them get to the end of the journey and enter the Promise Land. No restful reward for you!’”
  • But also remember that God has rested (i.e. reigned as king), and has had a restful reward (i.e. a kingdom of his own) available to his people since the last act of creation.
  • In the beginning of the Bible, it says that, “On the seventh day, God rested from all his work.”
  • Yet in the passage above it says, “No restful reward for you!”
  • It turns out God’s rest, his full reign, has been available since the beginning of time and the people back then were unable to get into it because they just couldn’t keep trusting in God.
  • So God picked a day when people could enter his reign, and he called that day “today.”
  • God established that “day” 500 years after the exodus, when King David wrote that poem that said, “If you can hear God’s voice today, don’t ignore it.”
  • Think about it: If Joshua, who lead the Israelites into the Promise Land, had managed to bring the people fully into God’s rest (i.e. under his reign), then why would God still have to establish a “day” when people can enter it?
  • Well, all this means that God’s perpetual-seventh-day-reign-like rest is still available for his people to enter.
  • And anyone who enters God’s rest can quit working to try and be saved. They can chill under God’s care alongside God.
  • So let’s try really hard to join God in his reign, and make sure that none of us miss out because we stop trusting and following God like our ancestors did.
  • God’s promises to his people (to make them his own and bring them into his reign) are still alive and active.
  • His promises are sharp, like a duel-edge knife that can be used to cut even the smallest, most integrated bits of you in two. He can see through your deepest thoughts and attitudes right into your heart.
  • Nothing can be hidden from God, not one thing in all creation. Like a sacrificial animal cut open, we are all laid bare, vulnerable to be inspected by God, the one who will judge if we have a blemish on our hearts.
  • But we have a high priest, a person who makes atonement for us, who didn’t just pass through the curtain of the temple into the Holy of Holies, but actually passed through the curtain of heaven to the real throne of God–and his name is Jesus, the Son of God, the one in whom we have faith.
  • Our high priest, Jesus, can totally empathize with us and our weaknesses because he, too, was tempted in every way, but yet he managed not to go astray.
  • That should give us the confidence to enter into God’s presence any time we want to receive mercy and grace in our time of need.

Historical Context

Sabbath Rest

The term “Sabbath” (Hebrew Shabbath) means “day of rest”. It derives from the Hebrew verb shavath defined as “repose, or to desist from exertion” (often “cease”). Another noun form of this root, shebeth (“cessation”), is identical to the common word “to sit.”4

Sabbath was the seventh day in the Jewish calendar, and it was differentiated and set apart (sanctified) from the other six days based on the seven day creation account in Genesis 1. The seventh day is assigned a special significance (blessing) by God, based on the fact that it was the day on which God rested. All subsequent commands to keep the Sabbath assume that this sanctity of the seventh day has already been established (here, at creation) by God. Thus, the Israelites are not commanded to sanctify the Sabbath, but to conduct themselves in such a way as not to profane it (Exodus 31:14; Isaiah 56:2).3

The Torah portrays the Sabbath concept both in terms of resting on the seventh day and allowing land to lie fallow during each seventh year. The motivation is described as going beyond a sign and remembrance of Yahweh’s original rest during the creation week and extends to a concern that one’s servants, family, and livestock be able to rest and be refreshed from their work.4

The Torah describes disobedience to the command to keep the Sabbath day holy as punishable by death and failing to observe Sabbath years would be made up for during the captivity that would result from breaking covenant.4

The Old Testament describes the Sabbath as having three purposes: 1) To commemorate God’s creation of the universe, on the seventh day of which God rested from (or ceased) his work; 2) To commemorate the Israelites’ redemption from slavery in ancient Egypt; and 3) As a “taste” the Messianic Age.4

The Day of Atonement was regarded as a “Sabbath of Sabbaths.” It was on this day alone that the High Priest entered the Holy of Holies inside the Tabernacle where the Ark of the Covenant contained the stone tablets on which the Ten Commandments were engraved. The presence of YHWH in Holy of Holies required that the High Priest be first purified by the sacrifice of a bull in a prescribed manner. Entering the Most Holy Place on other days or without fulfilling the ritual requirements would subject the priest to death.4

The rabbis often asserted that God’s Sabbath (i.e., “the Day of Rest”) never ceased because the regular formula of Genesis 1, “there was evening and there was morning, day. . .,” is never mentioned in connection with this seventh day of creation in Gen. 2:2,3.1

In Matthew 11:25-30 Jesus offered all “rest” in him, an obvious “Sabbath” illusion, with the added claim that he is the source of the rest. These verses immediately precede the “Sabbath controversy” of chapter 12. In chapter 12 Jesus boldly identified himself with God, and indeed, as God, by claiming to be greater than David, greater than the priests, and greater than the temple. He claimed to be the Lord of the Sabbath, thus having the authority not only to interpret the Sabbath Law, but even to set it aside altogether. Jesus set himself up as the true rest, the true Sabbath, the true peace of God.3

Observations

  • The theological issue involves the faith (salvation) or lack of faith of the Israelite adults (20 years and up) who participated in the exodus. Did their lack of faith in the spies’ report mean that (1) they were not allowed to enter Canaan or (2) they were not allowed to enter heaven?1
  • Psalm 95:7-11 has been quoted several times in the context of chapters 3 and 4. Each time a different part of the OT passage is emphasized (like a sermon). 1) 3:7-11 emphasizes “do not harden your hearts” of Ps. 95:8; 2) 3:15 emphasizes “when they provoked Me” of Ps. 95:9; 3)  4:3,5 emphasizes “they shall not enter My rest” of Ps. 95:11; 4)  4:7 emphasizes “today” of Ps. 95:7.1
  • Israel who, though entering Canaan, did not in fact enter fully into God’s rest, in the higher and better sense of becoming a holy nation of righteous and devoted worshipers of God, as God had commanded them (Exodus 19:3-6). Instead they continued to rebel against God time and again; they rejected the theocracy, demanded a king like the nations around them, worshiped idols, oppressed the poor, and even sacrificed their children to Molech. Thus, while entering a type of God’s rest, they failed to attain any reality of it.2
  • The author wants to assure his readers that the Jews failure to enter God’s rest was not due to the fact that the rest had not been prepared, because it existed since the day that God finished his work of creation. This is proved by the words, “And God rested” in one place, and the words “my rest” in another. God’s rest is therefore a fact, and it is clearly his purpose that some shall enter into it.2
  • The argument is that a rest remains because it was not entered by the Jews. Therefore, it was not entering Canaan nor keeping the sabbath day, for they did that. Thus, the true rest referred to here can be neither of those things but must be understood as a reference back to the rest of God himself which is still in progress, a rest the Jews could have entered but did not, and likewise a rest that many now have the right to enter but may come short of it.2
  • The original audience may have conclude that they had missed entering into their rest (i.e., their spiritual inheritance) because the Lord had not yet returned. They expected Jesus to return soon after he ascended into heaven (cf. 1 Thess. 4:13-18; 2 Thess. 2:1-12). The writer urged his readers to wait patiently for the Lord to return (10: 36-37). None of the original readers had failed to enter their rest (inheritance) because they had missed the Lord’s return.5
  • The author implies to his audience that there is a rest from the burden of the law of Moses available to them. In Christ they now able to be kept in perfect peace, an ease that was not available to their ancestors.7
  • Some theologians think that the “word of God” used in Hebrews is based on the Egyptian usage of “word” (logos) meaning “reckoning” or “calling into account.” They assert this fits the original author’s overall argument, that there will be a divine reckoning through examination, using the metaphor of a surgeon (p. 227). Therefore, this text is not a description of the revealed word of God, but the discerning judgment of God.1
  • The word “sword” used by the author (Greek, machairan) was originally a small one like a boning knife that was used to cut up meat. In its double-edged form it was a symbol of judges and magistrates in the Roman world. It illustrated the power of those officials to turn both ways to get to the bottom of a case. However it is possible that by the time Hebrews was written machaira (sword) had come to mean a sword of any size, long or short.5
  • The author implies that the word of God can express and distinguish what is “soulish” (natural) and what is spiritual in our motivation and actions. It can do so even when those elements are as close to each other as our joints and marrow. It is even able to expose our thoughts and attitudes (cf. 1 Cor. 4:5). God’s Word can reach to the innermost recesses of our being. We must not think that we can bluff our way out of anything, for there are no secrets hidden from God.5
  • Many Christians think this verse shows that God will judge unbelievers with his piercing word, but in the context it refers to God judging believers to determine their rewards.5
  • In Hebrew thought the “heart” represents the entire person and their inner motivation.1
  • “Everything is uncovered” in the text is a metaphor that literally means “to expose the neck by lifting the chin.” This OT metaphor was a warning to judges; here it refers to meeting God face-to-face on judgment day, who has full knowledge of our motives.1
  • The author, in telling the readers they will be cut by the word of God, may have been making an allusion to to the state in which the sacrifices called burnt offerings were laid on the altar. The animals were stripped of their skins, their breasts were ripped open, their bowels were taken out, and their backbone was cleft. Then they were divided into quarters; so that outwardly and inwardly they were fully exposed to the eye of the priest, in order to a thorough examination (Leviticus 1:5,6); and, being found without blemish, they were laid in their natural order upon the altar and burnt.2
  • The “word of God” is most plainly “what God speaks.” The idea here is, that what “God had said” is suited to detect hypocrisy and to lay open the true nature of the feelings of the soul, so that there can be no escape for the guilty.6
  • Isaiah 49 uses the sharp sword analogy as well. Here Isaiah uses it to describe himself as the tool/weapon God will use to reconcile Israel (his people) back to himself. In Hebrews, the author argues that Jesus is the ideal representative of God (greater than the greatest prophet, Moses), whose words can reconcile all his people.
  • To separate the soul from spirit implies the taking of a life. The idea here is that the word of God is like a sharp sword that inflicts deadly wounds. The sinner “dies” as if an actual sword had pierced his heart.6
  • Jesus’ “ascending into heaven,” or literally passing “through the heavens” contrasts with the first High Priest, Aaron’s merely passing beyond certain enclosures in the tabernacle.2
  • “Let us approach God’s throne” is a phrase that emphasizes the subject’s continual involvement with this activity (such as, “let us continually be approaching”). This is a technical term in the Septuagint (LXX) for a priest approaching God. In Hebrews this term is used of fallen mankind’s ability to approach God as if they too were priests because of Jesus’ sacrifice (cf. 4:16; 7:25; 10:1,22; 11:6). Jesus has truly made his followers a “kingdom of priests” (cf. Exod. 19:5,6; I Pet. 2:5,9; Rev. 1:6).1
  • The high priests of Judaism could only approach God at his earthly throne (the ark of the covenant), in the holy of holies in the temple, once a year. God’s throne of judgment has now become a throne of grace (undeserved help) for us to approach at any time.5

Discussion

  • Do you think Jesus could have sinned? Why or why not?
  • How does the word of God divide the soul and spirit? What does that mean to you? Why would the author say “soul” and “spirit”? What are the differences? Why would they need to be divided? How have you experienced this in your own life?
  • What does the author mean that the word of God is alive and active? What word is he talking about? What implications does that have? How should that effect the way we live?
  • What “rest” do you think is promised to you? What does it look like? Feel like? When is it reached?
  • We often try to please God by trying to do the right thing, or feel guilty that we are not living up to his standards when we inevitably fail. How does the concept of “rest” play into this thinking? How does it make you think differently about your relationship with God and what he expects of you?
  • The author says we can “approach God’s throne of grace with confidence… in our time of need.” Do you feel you can do this freely? What hesitations do you have? How does Jesus give us confidence?

References

  1. Utley’s commentary
  2. Coffman’s commentary
  3. Deffinbaugh’s commentary
  4. Biblical Sabbath
  5. Constables’ commentary
  6. Barnes’ commentary
  7. Gill’s commentary
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Mark 2

Scripture: Mark 2:1-28

Overview:

  • Jesus heads back to Capernaum where he’s greeted like a rock star
  • The crowds are so crowdy that a couple of guys decide the only way to get their paralyzed friend in to see Jesus is to bust through the roof
  • The dudes bust open the roof and lower their buddy down
  • Jesus forgives his sins
  • Jesus knows that the teachers of the law are bugged by his offering the man absolution, so he calls them out on it by saying, “What’s easier, forgiveness or healing? Hmm?”
  • To emphasize that he’s awesome, and God, and has authority to forgive people, Jesus heals the paralytic and tells him to skedaddle
  • The people are amazed
  • Later Jesus runs across Levi, a tax collector (boo! hiss!) and tells him to follow him
  • Levi follows him, and throws a big party
  • At the party Jesus is seen hanging out with lots of unsavory people (like tax collectors (boo! hiss!)) and the Pharisees think this is a bad thing
  • Jesus retorts that in order for a doctor to do his job he must work among the sick (slam)
  • Later it is noticed that Jesus and his disciples don’t fast twice a week like the other holy people do
  • Jesus tells them that there’s no need to fast when there’s a party going on, like at a wedding
  • Jesus also tells them that trying to squeeze something new onto (or into) something old just doesn’t work
  • Then Jesus is harassed by the Pharisees for picking grain on the Sabbath (which was considered work–a big no, no)
  • Jesus reminds the Pharisees that they’re cool with the Old Testament story of when (nearly-king) David ate the bread dedicated only for the priests
  • “If it’s cool for David to do, then it’s cool for me, cause I’m cooler than David,” Jesus seems to say
  • Also, Jesus reminds them that their rules about the Sabbath aren’t God’s rules (oh, and that he’s God and gets to make the rules)

Historical Context:

Capernaum

Capernaum was a fishing village in the first century, located on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee. It had a population of about 1,500. Capernaum means “Nahum’s village” in Hebrew, but apparently there is no connection with the prophet named Nahum. (Wikipedia)

Capernaum was most likely the hometown of the apostles Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John, as well as the tax collector Matthew. According to Luke 7, it is also the place where a Roman Centurion asked Jesus to heal his servant. The text in Mark 2 implies that this is where Jesus lived (though Mark also makes sure to mention that Jesus was from Nazareth). Later in his ministry Jesus would make it clear that he did not own a home, so it is possible that he lived there by staying with his disciples (possibly Peter). Jesus would later curse Capernaum (as well as Bethsaida and Chorazin), saying “You will go down to Hades,” (Matthew 11:23) because of their lack of response to his teaching. (Wikipedia)

Archeological excavation of the town has shown that the layout was quite regular–large north-south main streets bordered by small cross-sectional streets. Given the coarse construction of the walls of the homes located there, there was typically no second story, and the roof would have been constructed of light wooden beams and thatch mixed with mud. With the type of construction seen in Capernaum, it would not have been difficult to raise the ceiling by the courtyard stairs and to remove a part to allow a bed to be brought down to where Jesus stood. (Wikipedia)

Son of Man

The Son of Man was a descriptive phrase from the Old Testament, and Jesus’ preferred designation of himself (used 13 times in Mark). Historically it was used in Ezekiel (2) and Psalms (8:4) as a substitute for “human being.” Later it was used in Daniel (7:13) in a context which implied both the humanity and deity of the person approaching the Ancient of Days and given an everlasting kingdom. (Bible.org)

Son of Man was not a common term in the first century for the messiah. Though Daniel 7 was commonly accepted as messianic, the term was not in popular usage. (France)

Read more about the Son of Man in the Introduction to Mark post.

Tax Collectors

Tax collectors were reviled by the Jews of Jesus’ day because of their greed and collaboration with the Roman occupiers. Tax collectors amassed personal wealth by demanding tax payments in excess of what Rome levied and keeping the difference. (Wikipedia)

Levi, who would later be called Matthew, may have collected taxes from the Hebrew people for Herod Antipas rather than the Romans. Capernaum would have had caravans passing through it on their way to Egypt or Damascus and because Levi is identified as working at a booth (or taking a toll) versus collecting a “tribute,” (i.e. a Roman tax), he may have been working for the native government. Thus, Matthew’s employer might well have been Herod Antipas. Traditionally Matthew is seen as a collector of Roman taxes. (Coffman)

Pharisees

Pharisees were one of the three main religious groups of the time of Jesus (alongside the Sadducees and Essenes). According to the first century Jewish historian, Josephus (himself a Pharisee), they appear to be a group of at least 6,000, forming a powerful counterweight to Herod’s authority.  (Turton)

Josephus claimed that Pharisees received the backing and goodwill of the common people, apparently in contrast to the more elite Sadducees. Pharisees claimed Mosaic authority for their interpretation of Jewish Laws, while Sadducees represented the authority of the priestly privileges and prerogatives established since the days of Solomon, when Zadok, their ancestor, officiated as High Priest. (Wikipedia)

Their name means “one who is separated.” It may refer to their separation from Gentiles, sources of ritual impurity or from irreligious Jews. One of their core beliefs was that all Jews should observe the purity laws (which applied to Temple service) outside the Temple.  The Pharisees promoted a form of Judaism that decentralized the Temple and applied Jewish law to everyday activities in order to sanctify the ordinary world. This was a more participatory form of Judaism, in which rituals were not monopolized by an inherited priesthood but rather could be performed by all adult Jews individually or collectively. Among Pharisees, leaders were not determined by birth but by scholarly achievement. In general, the Pharisees emphasized a commitment to social justice, belief in the brotherhood of mankind, and a faith in the redemption of the Jewish nation and, ultimately, humanity. Moreover, they believed that these ends would be achieved through halakha (“the walk, or how to walk”), a corpus of laws derived from a close reading of sacred texts. This belief entailed both a commitment to relate religion to ordinary concerns and daily life, and a commitment to study and scholarly debate. (Wikipedia)

After the fall of the Temple in 70 A.D., the Pharisaic outlook evolved into Rabbinic Judaism.

David and the consecrated bread

Jesus references a story about David (before he became king) from 1 Samuel 21 in which David ate some bread reserved only for priests, and did so on the Sabbath. However there are differences in Mark’s retelling of Jesus’ words and those in 1 Samuel, namely that Abiathar was not the high priest during that time, nor is it explicit that the event took place on a Saturday.

Abiathar was the high priest when David was king. His father Ahimelech would’ve been the high priest when David ate the showbread. (Coffman) However, it is possible that Mark references Abiathar because he was much better known than his father. (Barnes)

Also, through there is no explicit reference in 1 Samuel of David eating the bread on the Sabbath, it is implicit in the fact that the priest talks about the removal and replacement of bread, which happens during the Sabbath. (Coffman)

Regardless of the possible discrepancies, the implication of the text is less about the rights of Jesus to work on the Sabbath (picking grain being considered work), as his comparison of himself to David and his ability to override tradition. Jesus is claiming to have the authority to re-write the rules and declaring that he should be given the same respect as as the soon-to-be king, David.

Observations:

  • By assuming God’s role in offering the paralytic man forgiveness,  Jesus is threatening the Jewish perception that God is “one” (Deut. 6:4). He is either asserting that he is a god or that he is equal to God.
  • Note the contrast of Jesus previous desire to keep his healing events quiet/secret (chapter 1), yet with the healing of the paralytic man he seems to deliberately invite public debate/controversy over his identity.
  • In Greek, the term paralytic is a compound of “to loose” and “along side.” The man may have possibly been a stroke victim, paralyzed on one side. (Bible.org)
  • The story of the wineskins contrasts the radical perspective Jesus is bringing to belief in a Messiah and its incompatibility with the current religious, nationalistic paradigm.
  • The application of the story of the un-shrunk cloth demonstrates that Jesus did not intend to mend the current (old) religious notions but introduce something entirely new. Jesus’ new teachings were not intended to be subordinated to and synchronized with such things as Jewish fasts, ceremonies and ordinances.  (Coffman)

Discussion:

  • Note the pattern in the last two chapters of sin and forgiveness, exclusion and inclusion, uncleanliness and cleanliness. Mark shows Jesus persistently encountering outsiders and bringing them inside.  What are the implications of these stories to Mark’s original audience? What are the implications for us?
  • The desperation of the paralyzed man’s to get him in front of Jesus for healing is inspiring. Note how they disregarded convention and caused controversy in their quest. How do you think the owner of the home reacted to his roof being destroyed? Who paid for the repairs? Why do you think this didn’t matter to those seeking Jesus’ healing touch? How desperately do we seek to get in front of Jesus now? How desperately do we seek Jesus to get our friends in front of Jesus?
  • Though the paralyzed man’s friends undoubtedly brought him to be healed, do you think they would’ve been satisfied if all Jesus did was forgive the man of his sins? To Jesus this seemed to be the greater act and the most important thing to be done. Is it to us? Are we satisfied with Jesus simply forgiving us?
  • Jesus tells his critics that a doctor’s work is among the sick. Who are the “sick” in our generation? Who should we be associating with that the upright, holy people would look down on us for hanging out with?

References: