On the critical distinction between Moses and Jesus in Hebrews 3.
A version of this article originally appeared on 1517.
The simple premise that Jesus is better is the theme that’s on repeat through the book of Hebrews, as the writer effectively takes every memento from off the mantelpiece of Judaism, in order to examine it and demonstrate the all-surpassing greatness of Jesus Christ. The first two chapter surely ruffled some first century feathers, as the Hebrew writer takes aim at two of the most esteemed classes of religious authorities, that is, prophets and angels. Despite how cherished the ministries of the prophets and the angels were, though, they paled in comparison to the ministry of the Son, who didn’t just speak for God but is God in the flesh. The writer, though, isn’t through with ruffling feathers and stirring the pot, not by a long-shot. As chapter 3 begins, he sets his sights on another revered and celebrated figure of Jewish lore: Moses.
Therefore, holy brothers you who share in a heavenly calling, consider Jesus the apostle and high priest of our confession, who was faithful to him who appointed him, just as Moses also was faithful in all God’s house. For 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. 3:1–3)
We are, perhaps, not as impacted by these words as we should be; this distinction likely seems rather obvious to us. In the first century, though, that wasn’t so clear. There is, perhaps, no other historical figure with Judaism who is held in higher regard than Moses. Even more so than Abraham, the Jewish mind, heart, and life is nowhere better encapsulated than in the man of Moses. After all, who was it that flanked the Son in his transfigured glory? (Mark 9:2–8). It was Elijah and Moses. In many ways, Moses was the man of Jewish faith and practice. To speak ill of him was, in effect, a crime against Jewish nationalism and spirituality. And it’s to see why that was the case when you trace the trajectory of Moses’s life.
Nearly every part had an element of the divine in it: from his birth, to his call, to the exodus, the hand of God was unmistakably upon him. Accordingly, Israel looked to Moses as its leader, luminary, and captain, following him through all those wilderness wanderings. And even though they grumbled and griped constantly, whenever God was ready to smite his people into oblivion, it was Moses who intervened (Num. 14:11–20). On several occasions, Moses — much like Jesus centuries later — rises up to act as his people’s intercessor and mediator. We might very well say that Moses was the prototypical prophet, priest, king of God’s people. He was a servant of the Lord nonpareil (Deut. 34:10–12). And yet, even the great Moses, as great as he was, is inferior to Jesus. What the writer does in the opening verses of Hebrews 3 is hold both figures up, showcasing the significance and resonance of both Moses and Jesus, but concluding with the firm resolve to “consider Jesus” all the more. Not even Moses should rob Jesus of the glory he deserves (Heb. 3:3), even though that’s precisely what this church was tempted to do.
When this epistle was written, this Hebrew congregation was under massive pressure to renounce their faith in Jesus Christ or risk losing their head. Rome was okay with Christians, until they weren’t. When things went sideways politically and socially, it was the church that endured the brunt of Rome’s cruelty and vitriol, with those who confessed Christ’s preeminence having their fate left to the hungriness of lions. As the fires of persecution intensified, Christians, then, were presented with a choice: recant or die. Give up their faith in Jesus or forfeit their life. Many, in those days, opted for the former, saving their own skin. This, though, is why the Hebrew writer is so dead set that this church not abandon their confession. Rather, as he repeatedly says, his most earnest desire is that they “hold fast” (Heb. 3:6, 14; 4:14; 10:23). Which leads to two questions: (1) What were these believers abandoning the faith for? And (2) what were these believers called to “hold fast” to?
The answer to the second is fairly evident: “Therefore, holy brothers you who share in a heavenly calling, consider Jesus the apostle and high priest of our confession” (Heb. 3:1). These believers were to “hold fast” to none but Jesus. He was the One they were to “consider,” that is, “focus intensely on.” All of their concentration was to be given to him, “the apostle and high priest,” the sent one from God and the maker of peace with God. Jesus was the source of the truest confidence and surest hope (Heb. 3:6). “To ‘consider’ Christ means to behold Him,” notes Arthur Pink, “not simply by a passing glance or giving to Him an occasional thought, but by the heart being fully occupied with Him” (1:154). Consequently, he alone was to be the object of all their attention and affection. Why? The writer’s “therefore” provides the answer: “Because of everything I’ve just declared and discussed!” “Consider Jesus”: the Son of God who took on flesh for you, who willingly endured the “suffering of death” for you, that you might live.
All of that, perhaps, seems rather obvious to you — of course Jesus is better and worthy of more consideration than Moses. Why is this such a big deal? This brings to mind the other question posed previously: What were these believers embracing if they were abandoning Jesus? To what were they running in exchange for their faith? In short, they were running to Moses. Those who left “the confession” behind were taking up “Moses” instead; that is, they were taking up the law. Let me explain.
Throughout the New Testament, the high regard for Moses is on full display, nowhere better, perhaps, than in John chapters 5 and 9. In John 9, Jesus heals a man born blind, on the Sabbath no less, which leaves the Pharisees more than a little displeased. They summon the once-blind-now-seeing man to stand in front of them in an attempt to decipher his experience of the miracle Jesus has just effected. Their goal was to cajole this man into admitting that he had been healed by some other means than Jesus’s power. Notice:
They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?” And they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man we do not know where he comes from.” (John 9:26–29)
This scene is revelatory, as the Pharisees divulge who they’re really following — and it’s not God, it’s Moses. They are beholden to the words and doctrines of Moses above all else. Which, of course, is why when Jesus comes on the scene and, seemingly, overlooks the law of Moses at every turn, those law-addicted Pharisees were sent into a tizzy. They couldn’t wrap their heads around the fact that this hot-shot Teacher from the backwoods of Nazareth was acting so contrary to the teachings of their beloved luminary. John 5, likewise, brings this to bear in alarming degrees. Once again, Jesus has healed a man who was “blind, lame, and paralyzed” (John 5:4). Once again, this was done on the Sabbath, which got the Pharisees all worked up, leading to a confrontation between them and Jesus himself, where the Lord calls them out for their misplaced loyalty to Moses:
The Father who sent me has himself borne witness about me. His voice you have never heard his form you have never seen, and you do not have his word abiding in you, for you do not believe the one whom he has sent. You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life . . . Do not think that I will accuse you to the Father. There is one who accuses you: Moses, on whom you have set your hope. For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me. (John 5:37–40, 45–46)
The Pharisees, the leading religious leaders and experts of the day, reckoned themselves as the most righteous of all men. No one could rival them in religious fervor or fortitude. They rigorously pored over the words of Moses for insight, knowledge, and wisdom; for the most exact ordinances by which their lives, and others, were to be governed. As the “disciples of Moses,” the Pharisees were staunch in their belief that true religion — “eternal life” even — was found within “the law of Moses” itself. As such, their ministry was all about how human beings could work their way into a “right standing” with God, so long as they studied the right words and did the right things. For them, “being right” was merely a matter of “doing right”; and the only thing necessary for that was knowing the “right information.” But, as Jesus has just revealed, they were gravely mistaken. “You’ve missed the point!” he says. “Those Scriptures speak of me!”
All of Scripture, including that of Moses (Heb. 3:5; Luke 24:27; John 5:46), is not meant to be seen as a manual by which we work our way to heaven. Rather, as Luther puts it, all Scripture is pure Christ. All of Scripture, every last syllable of it, is meant to drive us to “consider Jesus,” the One who comes to “make us right” by gifting us his righteousness, no less than the righteousness of God (Rom. 1:16–17). By rejecting Jesus and clinging to Moses, the Pharisees had abandoned the founder and builder of their faith for just another man (Heb. 3:2–5). Moses, to be sure, was faithful in his role as a “servant in God’s house” (Num. 12:6–8). He fulfilled his calling as the one through whom God’s law was transmitted to God’s people. But, even still, he was just a servant in the household of God. He was a member of the family, not the builder of it. The “builder of the house” was God, who, as the writer says, is Jesus (Heb. 3:3–4).
Jesus is worthy of glory just as the builder and owner of a house is worthy of glory. However, what the Pharisees had done by calling themselves the “disciples of Moses” was akin to entering a giant mansion and giving all the credit for the splendor and beauty of that mansion to the butler. Imagine visiting the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina — the largest privately owned house in the United States — and witnessing the opulence and extravagance that’s apparent in every noon-and-cranny of that house, only to leave feeling more impressed by the butlers and busboys than by the builder, Mr. Biltmore himself. The Biltmore stands as a testimony to the lavishness, dare-I-say glory, of the Biltmore family, not the ability of the housemaids to keep a tidy room. This, in a way, gets to the heart of the turmoil that’s on display throughout Hebrews.
The church to which that epistle was written was present with a choice: revert to following the butler or resolve to glorify the builder; exchange Jesus for Moses and live, or cling to Jesus and die. And while that choice might seem readily apparent to you and I, it wasn’t so apparent to that congregation. Everyone, including Rome for the most part, was okay with folks following “the law of Moses.” For thousands of years, the Mosaic system of religious codes was, largely, a benefit to society and had generally not caused too much of a stir. What they were not okay with was the confession that Jesus is “both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36). Confessing that Jesus of Nazareth is the King of kings, the Lord of lords, and the only Savior who is able to usher sinners into a right standing before God was not a favorable or popular message, garnering increased persecution and hardship with each passing moment.
Therefore, what had believing in Jesus gotten this church? What had confessing that Jesus is the true Son of God, the Christ, done for them so far? Nothing more than bring more and more suffering into their lives. Thus, when presented with the option to forfeit their faith and revert to religious practices that didn’t mean jeopardizing their existence or forging ahead with confessing and considering Jesus alone, the choice becomes muddied. The burden of the Hebrew writer, though, is clear: exhibit the incomparable greatness of Christ over anything and everything else. Nothing and no one can hold a candle to what Jesus offers, not even Moses. To abandon Jesus for Moses means to forfeit everything.
Moses, you see, was never meant to be a receiver of glory, just as the butler of the Biltmore was never meant to receive the attention. Rather, he was meant to serve as a forerunner or precursor to the One who is “the radiance of the glory of God” in bodily form, Jesus Christ (Heb. 1:3). As obvious as that might sound, at first, distinguishing between Moses and Jesus remains, perhaps, one of the most essential quandaries within the Protestant church. The allure of Moses, of the law, is very much alive and well. Notwithstanding your denominational proclivity, there exists an abiding temptation to trade our discipleship with Jesus for discipleship under Moses; and that’s because we are all attracted to the idea that we can work our way to glory. The natural inclination of the human heart is that we can be our own saviors. All we need is the right information in order to stimulate the right behavior in order to have a “right standing” with God, right? Wrong!
There are far too many preachers across these United States who are preaching sermons that result in more “disciples of Moses” than they would ever care to admit. It’s the sort of preaching that makes your problem of sin “solvable” by you and what you can do. Churchgoers are being conditioned and encouraged to scour the Bible for spiritual tidbits and insights all about how we can better ourselves and our lives by “doing more,” “trying harder,” and “being better.” The wisdom of much modern pulpiteering is nothing more than the “gospel of fixing” — fixing marriages and fixing relationships and fixing parenting and fixing our devotional life and fixing sinful habits, etc. — as if that’s all we need to have a right standing with God. If that’s what we think, like the Pharisees, we’ve missed it. “If we are merely wayward,” Michael Horton notes in Christless Christianity, “we only need direction; merely sick we need medicine; merely weak we need strength. Radical grace, on the other hand, answers to radical sinfulness — not simply to moral mistakes, lack of zeal, or spiritual lethargy, but to the condition that the Bible defines as nothing less than condemned, ‘children of wrath,’ ‘dead in trespasses and sins’” (61–62).
While we might be given to think that way, all that really does is make our problem of sin incredibly small, which, likewise, makes the salvation that Jesus offers small, too. You minimize the gospel when you downplay how bad you are. The Scriptures reveal that our truest, deepest problem is the blunt fact that we are “dead in trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1). “The way in which we are brought unto the Lord Jesus Christ,” writes Adolph Saphir, an eighteenth century Jewish Presbyterian missionary, “and united with Him is not by building, but by believing” (Pink, 1:158). You see:
You don’t need a crutch to help you walk better; you need a defibrillator to bring you back to life.
You don’t need more instructions to help you behave better; you need to be born again.
You don’t need right information; you need resurrection.
Who offers that? “Consider Jesus.” Nothing more or less than Jesus. “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17). Where Moses revealed God’s heart through the word of the law, Jesus reveals God’s heart through the word of the gospel, and that’s the word that reconciles and redeems wayward sinners to God the Father. The church’s confidence, that in which we boast (Heb. 3:6), is the objective truth that the Christ of God, Jesus of Nazareth, has made atonement for us by living and dying in unyielding faithfulness on the cross, thereby securing our hope of glory and righteousness and sanctification (1 Cor. 1:30–31). Our faith is even more certain than what Moses’s, for while he “wrote of Christ” (John 5:46) and testified “to the things that were to be spoken later” (Heb. 3:5), we have Christ himself, through the Word and the Spirit.
The law of Moses was never meant to be used as a means of salvation, as way of “being right.” Rather, the law of Moses was meant to expose how utterly incapable we are of keeping it, which drives us to our knees, in order that we might cry out, like Paul, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” To which the gospel says, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” Although we could never in a million lifetimes live rightly enough to work our way into a right standing with God, there is One who has lived rightly for you, and his offer of righteousness, of life in his house, will never be rescinded.
Michael Horton, Christless Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of the American Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2008).
Arthur W. Pink, An Exposition of Hebrews, Vols. 1–2 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1963).
Wonderful commentary on the true focus of the Bible and that is Jesus Christ!
I wonder if this is why the Judahite Jews are preaching the Noahide Laws globally since they see a common ancestor in Noah with all world religions?