Jesus is better.
The substance of something is so much better than a mere resemblance of it.
A version of this article originally appeared on 1517.
Even if you or I were to spend a thousand lifetimes poring over the words of the Book of Hebrews, we’d still never exhaust all of its riches. Hebrews, of course, is a New Testament book of immense depth, brimming with an array of weighty truths, forming an indispensable link between the biblical testaments. Without Hebrews, much of what we know and believe as Christians wouldn’t make a lick of sense since it is the gospel according to Hebrews which gives the good news of God’s salvation in Christ untold clarity and certainty. The writer of Hebrews does this essentially by shedding light on the varied Old Testament means and methods by which God’s people communed with God himself. In so doing, he intends to demonstrate and expound upon the simple premise that Jesus is better.
For thirteen chapters, the anonymous writer to the Hebrews takes his time explaining how Jesus, the Christ of God, is better than the prophets, better than the angels, better than Moses, better than Joshua, better than Aaron, better than all the priests. Its purpose, notes Arthur Pink, “was to instruct Jewish believers that Judaism had been superseded by Christianity” (11). And this is so precisely because he has established a “better covenant,” by which all sinners are saved “to the uttermost” (Heb. 7:22–25). This motif of Jesus being better, or superior, colors the entire discourse (Heb. 1:4; 7:19; 8:6; 9:23; 10:34; 11:40), serving both as the writer’s particular premise and as our principal paradigm for interpreting his words.
The prevalence of this theme has led some to suggest that Hebrews is, in fact, a sermon, or a collection of sermons, that was eventually gathered up and turned into a letter. The writer, or preacher, even acknowledges the exhortational tenor of his treatise near the benediction (Heb. 13:22). In any case, Hebrews is, without doubt, a very different specimen from the other New Testament epistles. There is never any mention of an author, neither are there any details as to who might have been the intended audience. This, as you might imagine, has resulted in a bevy of speculation and debate concerning both topics. Be that as it may, Hebrews 10:32–36 offers us, perhaps, the clearest indication as who the author (or preacher) was addressing.
But recall the former days when, after you were enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to reproach and affliction, and sometimes being partners with those so treated. For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one. Therefore do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised. (Heb. 10:32–36)
It is obvious from the text that these were Hebrew Christians who had endured, or were enduring, a furious amount of suffering and affliction on account of their faith in Christ, causing some among their ranks to turn away from the faith altogether. Under Roman emperor Nero, of course, the early church underwent an excruciating time of trial and persecution. In fact, during his tumultuous reign, Nero decreed that the Christian religion was a crime against the Roman state, punishable by death. With that sort of threat looming over the church, it’s not hard to imagine some in the church entertaining the notion to depart from Christ and revert back to Judaism.
Along with the risk of execution, exacerbating the church’s heartache was the death of the apostles Peter and Paul, both of whom were put to death by order of Nero (Peter, circa 65 A.D.; Paul, circa 67 A.D.). We might well imagine those within the nascent congregations of the early church feeling somewhat listless and uncertain as its most formative voices are brutally murdered. And as the hand of Rome increased the pressure to recant, those within the church surely felt paralyzed. “What do we do now? Where do we go from here?” It is to a church of converted Jews, in the heat of suffering, that the sermon of Hebrews is delivered. The purpose, of which, is to renew the church’s confidence in and assurance of what they had been given in Christ Jesus.
The question of “who authored Hebrews,” though, remains a mystery. Many have speculated who could have wrote this eloquent treatise, with a number of possibilities being suggested through the ages, including St. James (Jesus’s half-brother), St. John, St. Luke, Barnabas, and even Aquila and Priscilla. While those suggestions remain hazardous, at best, the most common assertion is that this is yet another letter from the apostle Paul. Church tradition has long upheld this claim, and there are textual clues which seem to support it, especially if you note how Hebrews ends with the simple benediction, “Grace be with all of you” (Heb. 13:25). This, of course, is the typical way Paul closes each of his epistles (Rom. 16:24; 1 Cor. 16:23; 2 Cor. 13:14; Gal. 6:18; Eph. 6:24; Phil. 4:23; Col. 4:18; 1 Thess. 5:28; 2 Thess. 3:18; 1 Tim. 6:21; 2 Tim. 4:22; Titus 3:15; Phlm. 1:25).
Furthermore, Peter’s words in 2 Peter 3:14–17 are seen by some as an allusion to Paul’s authorship of Hebrews. In that letter, Peter is, of course, addressing Jewish (that is, Hebrew) Christians who had been scattered abroad during the Diaspora (1 Pet. 1:1; 2 Pet. 3:1). His remark about the letter “Paul also wrote,” one which was comprised of some things “that are hard to understand,” seems to coincide with the grand rhetoric on display throughout the book of Hebrews. Both H. A. Ironside (7–14) and Arthur Pink (18) follow the same line of reasoning in their respective commentaries. A compelling argument, however, can be made that it was actually Apollos who wrote the book. In fact, such is the position Martin Luther takes, suggesting in a sermon on 1 Corinthians somewhat casually that the book came from Apollos’s pen. In Luther’s 1522 preface to the book of Hebrews, he notes how the author seems to reveal that this gospel he is expounding upon was not received by him, like it was with the apostles, but was “attested” to him (Heb. 2:3), like many of the church’s disciples in subsequent generations (Luther, 6:476).
Lutheran pastor and New Testament scholar R. C. H. Lenski concurs with Luther’s logic, concluding, “The evidence we possess fully warrants the conclusion that Apollos wrote Hebrews to the body of Jewish Christians at Rome after the martyrdom of Paul and before the destruction of Jerusalem, between the years 67 and 70, probably in 68 or 69” (22). In an article entitled, “The Case for Apollos as the Author of Hebrews,” for Faith & Mission, George H. Guthrie, New Testament professor at Regent College, likewise asserts at length the efficacy of Apollos’s authorship of the book. Apollos is first introduced in Acts 18:24–28, where he is taken under the discipleship of Priscilla and Aquila to better understand the Scriptures. Eventually, he becomes a prominent voice for the early church (1 Cor. 1:12; 3:4–6, 22; Titus 3:13), especially known for his proclamations against Judaism, “showing by the Scriptures that the Christ was Jesus” (Acts 18:28). That his primary ministerial focus appears to address Hebrew Christian who were still enslaved to the old system of Jewish rites and rituals corresponds to the tenor of the Hebrew epistle.
In any case, we don’t know. We can only offer educated guesses. We must conclude with the early church father Origen, who conceded, “Who it was that really wrote the epistle [of Hebrews], God only knows” (225). And, ultimately, it doesn’t matter who wrote the book, as that point is largely irrelevant. The point, as we’ve already mentioned, is to demonstrate the manifold ways in which Jesus is superior to any other form of divine relationship or revelation. It appears, then, to be the author’s tremendous joy that even he himself is subsumed by the splendor of that message. Indeed, such is how we could summarize the opening verses to the book:
Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high. (Heb. 1:1–3)
The writer, here, says a number of crucial things in a very short amount of time. He begins by asserting that Jehovah God has been speaking to man through “the prophets” since “long ago.” The God who created this world has not left this world to its own devices. Instead, he speaks — and a God who speaks is a God who is involved, a God who cares. The bulk of the Old Testament Scriptures bears witness to that fact. Throughout those ancient narratives, we encounter a God who is predisposed to reveal himself at specific times and in various ways, in order that he would be known by his creatures. In the former days, this was primarily carried out through prophets. Ministers especially chose by Yahweh would receive a revelatory word from Yahweh that they would, then, declare for the purposes of convicting or comforting Yahweh’s people. And upon each new revelation, the world was given a fuller glimpse of who God is.
These prophetic revelations are, of course, the bedrock upon which Jewish religion is founded. For thousands of years, Jewish believers clung to this system of faith and practice as the means by which they communed with their Heavenly Father. They revered the prophetic ministries of Abraham (Gen. 20:7), Moses (Deut. 34:10), Elijah (1 Kings 18:1ff), David (Acts 2:29–30), et al, as the authoritative voices of God’s truth. It might easier to imagine, then, how scandalous it must’ve been to hear a new group of religious teachers suddenly claiming that there is some “new prophet” who makes all the others incredibly inferior. Such is what the apostles were professing when they began preaching the gospel of Christ alone. When Peter, for example, declares that it is Jesus’s name alone by which sinners are saved (Acts 4:11–12), he is not only expressing something inherently new, but he is also refuting countless centuries of long-held religious belief and tradition.
The writer of Hebrews, in effect, says the same thing when asserts, “But in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world” (Heb. 1:2). The church, he affirms, has been given a new word from on high, from God himself — only this word wasn’t conveyed through some human prophet but through God’s only Son. He is not like those other prophets of old who spoke on behalf of Yahweh. He is Yahweh. He is the true and better Prophet of God (Deut. 18:18–19), the conclusive revelatory word of God to man. Whenever Christ speaks, therefore, it is the heart of God that is speaking, indeed, that is revealed. “Having spoken in the person of his Son,” R. C. H. Lenski comments, “we have the ultimate Word and revelation of God” (33). And that Word, which “in these last days” God has declared to us, is none other than the Word of God himself. That is, the Word of God who is the Son of God, who is God “manifested in the flesh” (1 Tim. 3:16), in order that he might “save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21). This new Word is the same Word that was there from the beginning (John 1:1–2; 1 John 1:1), only now this Word is enfleshed (John 1:14).
The gospel, you see, is the announcement that God himself has come to where we are in order that he might bring us to where he is. He assumes flesh and bone in the person of Jesus to atone for the sins of our flesh. After which he returns to his rightful place in glory to “sit down at the right hand of Majesty on high” (Heb. 1:3). And he sits because his work is finished. The world’s need for an atoning sacrifice is supplied in the Christ of God, whose “once-for-all” death on the cross offers a world full of sinners “salvation to the uttermost.” Indeed, our salvation is complete and concrete because it was no mere man who bled out and died on the cross. No, it was the incarnate God himself. The same One who “created the world” and who, even still, “upholds the universe by the word of his power,” made himself a part of the world in order that he might “reconcile the world to himself” (2 Cor. 5:19).
As the writer to the Hebrews affirms, what makes the Christian gospel so much better is that we are no longer dealing with “types and shadows” (Heb. 8:5; 10:1; Col. 2:16–17). All the old systems of religion and ritual were but the foreshadowings of what God would one day do in Christ. But now, Christ has come. The substance has arrived. And the substance of something is so much better than a mere resemblance of it. The gospel is the declaration that the sum and substance of God’s heart has interposed himself to rescue sinners from eternal ruin. That’s who Jesus is: he is the skin-and-bone version of what God said of himself, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exod. 34:6). “All that God is, in His nature and character,” comments Arthur Pink, “is expressed and manifested, absolutely and perfectly, by the incarnate Son” (1:35). “With the Lord Jesus as set before us in the Gospels,” H. A. Ironside agrees, “we learn what God is in all His fulness” (30).
Why is this such an important point to make? Well, recently Ligonier Ministries and LifeWay Research published their comprehensive State of Theology report for 2022, which offers a glimpse at the current state of affairs in theology and religion and spirituality across a smorgasbord of backgrounds and demographics and denominations. This endeavor, they say, is an undertaking that attempts to measure “the theological temperature of the United States to help Christians better understand today’s culture and to equip the church with better insights for discipleship.” Needless, to say, if the 2022 findings are any indication, America’s “theological temperature” is verging on hypothermic! Case in point: in response to Statement 7 — “Jesus was a great teacher, but he was not God” — Ligonier and LifeWay found that 43% of evangelicals agreed with those words, which is significantly increased over 2020’s 30% in the same category.
It should be alarming to you, as it is to me, that we’re verging on half of the evangelical sector in the United States stating matter-of-factly that they disagree with this most basic and fundamental tenet of all Christian doctrine. Jesus makes it plain, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). He did not “resemble” God. He was not “like God.” He is God. As the writer to the Hebrews puts it, “He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Heb. 1:3). “In him,” Paul similarly affirms, “the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” (Col. 2:9). Jesus is God in the form of flesh and blood. Without this confession, the entire Christian faith collapses.
If Jesus is not God, there is no “once-for-all” death by which all sin is atoned. There is no resurrection. There is no salvation. There is no hope. If Jesus lied about who he was, “we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Cor. 15:19). Our faith is predicated on the triumphant fact that God has not merely “told” us where our salvation lies, but has himself manifested as our Savior, so that he himself might work out our salvation by his own death on the cross. The gospel of Christ, then, is so much better and vastly superior to any previous revelation of God’s heart because it is not some other person communicating that heart to us. Rather, it is God himself who comes in the person of Jesus to show us what has been in God’s heart all along.
George H. Guthrie, “The Case for Apollos as the Author of Hebrews,” Faith & Mission 18:2 (2001), 41–56.
H. A. Ironside, Hebrews, James, and Peter (Neptune, NJ: Loizeaux Bros., 1985).
R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of Hebrews (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg, 1961).
Martin Luther, Works: The Philadelphia Edition, Vols. 1–6 (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1932).
Origen, quoted in Eusebius, An Ecclesiastical History to the Year 324 of the Christian Era, translated by C. F. Cruse (London: Samuel Bagster, 1838).
Arthur W. Pink, An Exposition of Hebrews, Vols. 1–2 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1963).