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An Ancient Letter for Today's Church: Gareth Cockerill on Hebrews

Updated: Feb 10

This is a guest post by Dr. Gareth Lee Cockerill, Professor Emeritus of Wesley Biblical Seminary and author of the new book, Yesterday, Today, and Forever: Listening to Hebrews in the Twenty-First Century. Check it out on Amazon.

 

In her engaging book A Distant Mirror, author Barbara W. Tuchman invites us to view the reflection of our own times in the tumult of The Calamitous 14th Century.  She helps us to see the idealism, brutality, social unrest, and sense of foreboding and decline characteristic of our own age in the struggles of that far-off epoch that brought the Middle Ages to an end.


In like manner, when we read the ancient letter to the Hebrews, we can, if we know how to look, see our own twenty-first century struggles as the post-Christendom people of God. Our spiritual indifference, loss of confidence in the truth, sense of marginalization, and fear of persecution are not unlike the strains and difficulties faced by the little community of believers to whom this letter was addressed. The way in which the author of Hebrews speaks to their situation with compassion, pastoral insight, theological acumen, and profound biblical understanding has much to offer the people of God today. His message is about Jesus Christ, and is therefore relevant “yesterday, and today, and forever” (13:8 KJV).[1]


Let’s take a closer look at those long-ago people who received this sermon that we call the Letter to the Hebrews. Their commitment to Christ as the only means of salvation isolated them from both the Jewish community and the surrounding Roman world. The larger Jewish community rejected Christ as the fulfillment of the OT. The pluralistic Roman world was quite happy for them to worship any number of gods, but was intolerant of exclusive loyalty to Christ. Such loyalty was viewed as antisocial and subversive. It separated its practitioners from many civic, social, and business functions because they often involved the recognition of pagan deities. Soon the unbelieving world began to describe believers as “haters of humanity.” To the sophisticated the idea that God had revealed himself in a crucified human being was absurd.


Thus, the way of Christ had become difficult. We can almost hear those who received Hebrews say, “Did God speak of old to Moses and has he now spoken in his Son? Is Christ really God’s ultimate self-revelation? Is he really the only way of salvation? Wouldn’t our lives be easier if we abandoned our loyalty to Christ and either blended into the Jewish community or conformed to the tolerant lifestyle of the society around us?”





Their scenario seems disturbingly like what we face in our secular, God-excluding age. Their situation presages our “pluralistic” world that tolerates no absolutes. It describes our contemporary religious climate that approves of belief in “God” but is militantly hostile to the exclusive claims of Christ. Their world called them “antisocial,” ours calls us “intolerant.” Just as their world called them “haters of humanity,” so ours accuses us of “hate speech.”


Thus, by addressing the needs of his hearers, the pastor who wrote Hebrews addresses twenty-first century believers. His message is as relevant “today” as it was “yesterday.” It will be relevant “forever,” as long as the people of God are on their way to the heavenly city.


And what was the pastor-author of this letter’s answer? Through His obedient humanity the eternal Son of God has taken His seat at God’s right hand as the one and only “Source of eternal salvation” (5:9) and thus as God’s ultimate self-revelation. He fulfills all that God had been saying through the prophets during the long journer of God’s Old-Testament people. Thus, those who embrace Him are the true heirs of the faithful throughout history. He, and He alone, cleanses God’s people from sin so that they can enter the presence of God. He, and He alone enables them to persevere in obedience despite opposition until they enter the “Heavenly City.”



Let’s look at how the pastor who wrote Hebrews has arranged his letter to impress this message on the hearts and consciences of his hearers. Heb 1:1–2:18 is the foundation of this sermon. Through His incarnation and death for everyone the eternal Son of God has taken His seat at God’s right hand. By so doing He alone has provided cleansing from sin and opened the way for God’s many “sons and daughters” to enter the “glory” of God’s presence. After laying this foundation the pastor warns his hearers against following the example of the persistently disobedient generation that Moses led through the wilderness (3:1–4:13).


In the heart of his letter (4:14–5:25), the pastor shows how the “great salvation” described in 1:1–2:18 is the fulfillment of the Sinai covenant established by Moses (4:14–10:25). The Son’s human obedience climaxing in the cross is the all-sufficient Sacrifice that effectively cleanses from sin. By that sacrifice He was consecrated as the ultimate High Priest at God’s right hand ushering God’s people into the heavenly Holy of Holies. By that sacrifice He also bore the curse of Sinai upon sin. Thus, He became the Guarantor of a new and better covenant. Under this better covenant God’s law is written on the hearts of His people empowering them for persevering obedience. Thus Jesus, and Jesus alone, enables the perseverance of the people of God. He, and He alone has opened the way for them to enter the eternal “rest” and unshakeable kingdom prepared for them.


And so, the pastor urges his hearers not only to shun the faithless wilderness generation, but, through their “Great High Priest,” to join the faithful people of God throughout the ages (10:26–12:3) and persevere through suffering until they enter the God-designed eternal “rest” and unshakeable kingdom that awaits them (12:4–12:25).


The concluding chapter (13:1–25) invites us to affirm our reliance in the God who has made such provision for our salvation: We know the One who has said, “‘I will never leave you nor will I ever forsake you.” So let us confidently say, “The Lord is my Helper, I will not fear. What can a human being do to me?’” (13:5–6).


[1] These first two paragraphs are taken, with some adaptation, from Gareth Lee Cockerill, Yesterday, Today, and Forever: Listening to Hebrews in the Twenty-First Century (Cascade, 2022), xix.


 

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Love Gary Cockerell! A kind, wise, and loving man!

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