This is a quick draft of Sunday's sermon. Hopefully I'll eventually replace it with a more polished version.
It’s always interesting to me that so many people talk about having a relationship with Jesus. This is a relationship that’s often presented as the means of salvation: that we are saved by having a relationship with Jesus. Right? Have you heard that? Of course. But what kind of relationship with Jesus is the Bible actually talking about? I would think that would be a very important question.
Do we feel that way about Jesus? Are we amazed by him? Do we want to learn everything we can about him? Or is ours a relationship that has lost its spark? Is it a relationship of the past more than it is of the present?
I think this is what Jesus was talking about when he warned the church at Ephesus that it had left its first love, and that this was a dangerous thing (Rev. 2:4). Because when we get too far away from our first love of Jesus, the focus turns back to ourselves again and we become self-centered rather than God-centered. Our concerns return to earthly things rather than heavenly things. We begin to set our eyes on men again rather than on God.
But the love the Bible is talking about is not just an emotional feeling. It’s not a romantic love, though people often confuse it with romantic love. That’s because in English, just like in Chinese, there’s only one word for love. But the love of the Bible is a very specific type of love. It’s a serving love: agape love; not a romantic love, which is a completely different word in Greek. An agape relationship with Jesus is a relationship in which you want to serve him because he is God, and because he is so worthy of our service and our worship and our praise.
In fact, in the languages of the Bible, service and worship are the same exact word (avodah in Hebrew, latreuo in Greek). Worship is service and service is worship. Singing songs is not the only kind of worship. There are many kinds of worship and service of God. The true love of the Bible is a self-humbling love, a laying down of our lives type of love, and an exalting of Jesus. We are to lay aside our own interests and concerns and fill our lives with God and with the love he has for all people.
We can worship God and serve God in everything we do all day long, even in things we may not think specifically of as Christian: like in our daily work, even in our secular jobs (Col. 3:23). Because we can serve Jesus everywhere, and be a testimony for Jesus everywhere.
But the place we meet Jesus most clearly and directly is in the Bible. The Bible is where we can retrain our minds to think more like Jesus thinks. It’s where we shed our false ideas and replace them with God’s ideas: or at least that’s what should happen when we read the Bible. It’s where we get to know more purely and perfectly what Jesus is like and what’s important to him. And it’s where our spirits are awed by the majesty of God—or at least they should be if we’re reading with understanding.
In Hebrew thinking, study of the Bible is a form of worship. It’s a way of exalting God and building up the things of God in our lives. In fact, you could say that study of the Word of God is one of the highest forms of worship. Because it’s where we learn to discover the value and the worth of God in our world and in our lives. But this only happens if we let the Bible challenge us, and let it change our lives.
One of the books in the New Testament where we see most clearly the value of study as a form of worship is in the book of Hebrews. Because here, the Old Testament is used for deep and beautiful insights into the Word of God: insights into who Jesus is, and who he should be to us—beautiful life-changing insights into serving and worshipping God. Of course, this same process of revealing the truth of the Old Testament can be found all through the New Testament.
All the early Christians taught from the Old Testament, since that was the only Christian Bible for many years. But sometimes, today, when we read the New Testament, that deeper layer of meaning is hidden to our eyes. Why is that? In part, it’s because the New Testament, like the old rabbis, often just hints to verses in the Old Testament. A word or two was all that was needed to remind everyone of a particular passage. But unfortunately for us as Gentiles, these hints are easy to overlook, especially since we’re often not that familiar with the details of the Old Testament. And so over the years, Christians have often overlooked or minimized this important heritage.
This is why the book of Hebrews is so important. Its many quotes from the Old Testament are clear and direct: you can’t miss them. And because of this, it helps us understand many of the fascinating ways in which Jesus is found in the Old Testament that we might otherwise miss. These pictures of Jesus in the Old Testament are important, because they help us understand him better and appreciate him more in our lives. And since they are prophecies given hundreds of years before Jesus’ birth, they also help us to see the majesty and the incredibly precise accuracy of God’s plan in our world and in our lives.
So let’s turn to the book of Hebrews for a time of worship as we study God’s word! Amen?
One of the most fascinating chapters in Hebrews is the very first chapter. In just a few sentences, it quickly and beautifully exalts Jesus as the Son of God through an outpouring of quotes from the Old Testament. It begins in Heb. 1:1: “God, having spoken many times and in many ways to the fathers long ago by the prophets.” Here we see right away the importance of God’s voice speaking through the prophets to the Christian message.
Heb. 1:2: “in these last days has spoken to us by a Son, whom he made heir of all things, through whom he also made the ages (aeons);”
God spoke before by the prophets, now he speaks through his Son. This Son is the one through whom God “made the ages.” What does this mean? In many translations, it says “through whom he made the world.” (Chinese = all worlds) But the word used here, aeons, literally means ages: long periods of time. So how do you make an age before it begins? That seems to be the problem the translators are having here. But this is a good opportunity for us to expand our thinking according to the thinking of the Bible. What it means is that God created not just time and space, but he also created a plan for what would happen in them. That plan and the outworking of that plan is a series of ages in which different things have happened or are going to happen in the future. We can talk about the age of the Patriarchs: Noah and Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. We can talk about the age of David and Solomon. We can talk about the age of the New Testament and the Church Age. And we can talk about the Messianic Age that is yet to come. All of these ages and more were included in the plan that God made at the creation, a plan that is built into the creation itself.
But how did he do that? How did he build his plan for the ages into the creation? In our bodies, we have something called DNA. This is God’s plan for our lives. That DNA gives instructions for how our bodies will be when we are babies, how we will be when we are teenagers, how we will be when we are adults, and even how we will be when we are elderly. That plan, which governs all these different periods of time in our lives, is all right there at the moment we’re born.
In the same way, when God created the heavens and the earth, the “DNA” of the universe already held God’s eternal plan, which included his plan for all the ages that would be required to make that plan happen. Where was that DNA located? In the Word of God itself that created the universe and that continues to hold the universe together and energize the universe right now. And through that Word being communicated to us by the prophets and through God’s Son, we now have large pieces of God’s eternal plan right there in our Bibles, a plan that is making all things work together to accomplish God’s purposes.
That Word of God, revealed to us as God’s Son, is the “heir of all things,” Hebrews says. What does that mean? In Jewish thinking, this implies that Jesus is in the position of the firstborn son of God. In Jewish culture, the firstborn son is the son that inherits the double portion, which means he inherits twice as much as any other brothers. He would be the one to continue living in the family’s home and own the farm. So the firstborn was the most important heir. But since Jesus is the only natural Son of God, he is the heir of all things. But this expression also tells us that he is of the nature of God, since he is in the relationship of a son to God his Father. To inherit from God in this way, he must also be God.
Heb. 1:3: “who being the radiance of the glory (of God) and an exact representation of his being, and upholding all things by the word of his power, having accomplished the cleansing of sins, sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high (i.e. the Father),”
There’s an awful lot going on in that verse! The first part we’ve looked at before: “who being the radiance of the glory.” It’s a quote from—where, do you remember? Eze. 1:28. This is the verse that tells us that Jesus is the one sitting in the chariot of God who is God and speaks as God, yet who has the appearance of a man. This is what makes that chapter in Ezekiel so dangerous to the rabbis, because it is so clearly talking about Jesus as the Son of God. Jesus is the radiance of the glory of God: he is the shining out of the glory of God to us in a way that we can see with our eyes. And this shining out that we can see is an exact representation of who God is.
The Greek word used here is “character” which gives us the English word “character.” It was originally used of a die or mold used for making coins, and so refers to making an exact copy of something. Jesus is an exact representation of God to us. As he said to the disciples, “the one who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9b). But not only does Jesus represent God to us, as God he keeps the universe from crumbling into dust. As it says in Heb. 1:3b: “Upholding all things by the word of his power.”
Have you ever wondered what keeps the universe going? If the universe is really billions and billions of years old, as the scientists claim, why hasn’t it run out of energy by now? Why are the stars and planets still going around? Why are the electrons still spinning around in their atoms? This last one is actually a difficult problem for the physicists. Why do those electrons still keep spinning around so fast? Shouldn’t they have slowed down by now? That’s a problem for which they have no solution. It’s led some to say that there must be some invisible force providing energy to the universe to keep it all going. Some are even willing to call this energy God. Well, it seems the Bible knew all about this a long time ago—and it’s got the answer right here.
Jesus, as the Word of God, is what keeps the universe humming along: “upholding all things by the word of his power.” He is also the one who has cleansed us from our sins by his death on the cross (“having accomplished the cleansing of sins”), as we talked about recently. And after that, in victory, he ascended into heaven and sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, that is, the Father (“sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high”).
Heb. 1:4: “having become as much better than the angels as the name he inherited is more excellent than theirs.”
This brings up the main theme of this chapter: the superiority of Jesus to the angels. In the early days, it wasn’t so clear exactly what Jesus’ position was in the spiritual universe. Some people actually worshipped angels, which includes those who worshipped the false gods, which according to the Bible are fallen angels. Some people thought Jesus was equal to the angels—some still do today (like the Jehovah’s Witnesses); or that he was an angelic being. But the writer of Hebrews wants us to know very clearly that Jesus is far above the angels. So what is the name mentioned here that Jesus inherited? An inheritance is something you get from your father, so this refers to his name, “the Son of God,” as we will see in the next verse. So which name is greater? Being an angel of God, which means a messenger of God, or the Son of God? Obviously the Son of God is a far greater name, and this alone shows us how much greater Jesus is than the angels.
Heb. 1:5: “For to which of the angels did he ever say, ‘You are my Son, today I have begotten you’? And again, ‘I will be a Father to him, and he will be a Son to me’?”
This is the beginning of that outpouring of Bible verses we see in Hebrews. Here there are two in one verse! Where does this first quote come from, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you”? Of course, it’s what God said over Jesus at his baptism. But why was that important? Where does it come from in the Old Testament? Psa. 2:7b. This is the chapter in the book of Psalms that describes the Son of God, mentioned here, as the Messiah (Psa. 2:2). Psalm 2 was very popular, so this verse was well known to people (Psa. 2:7). It’s what provided the proof that the Messiah was the Son of God, and that puts him far above the angels.
And what about the second quote in Hebrews 1:5b (“I will be a Father to him, and he will be a son to me”)? Where is that from?
2 Sam. 7:14a. This is the Messianic prophecy spoken over David by the prophet Nathan: the Davidic covenant made by God with King David.
Do you remember this section? (2 Sam. 7:12-13). Some say that this prophecy refers to Solomon, the son of David. But Solomon fell away from God in his old age. Solomon’s kingdom did not endure forever. So that’s why in the time of Jesus, the people were looking for a Davidic Messiah (“Hosanna to the Son of David”)—because the prophecy had not yet been fulfilled!
Here’s the next quote in Hebrews: Heb. 1:6: “But when he again brings the firstborn into the world, he says: ‘And let all the angels of God prostrate themselves (in worship) before him.’”
What is this talking about? It’s introduced by calling Jesus the firstborn. This is just another way to say that Jesus is the heir of God, as we saw already in vs. 2. But here it’s talking about when God will bring Jesus into the world “again”: in other words, the second coming. Where does this quote come from in the Bible?
Psa. 97:7. This is where it starts getting really interesting. Because Hebrews tells us that Psa. 97 is talking about the return of Jesus—that this is how it was understood in the earliest Church. Now that’s very exciting, because this is not a chapter that most people today think of as a prophetic chapter. So we’re going to get some new insight into the Bible. The version of the Bible that’s being quoted here is the Septuagint (the LXX), the Old Greek version of the Bible, which was the Old Testament for most of the early believers in Jesus.
In the Septuagint, there’s a very interesting title given to this psalm: “For David, when his land is established.” Now these titles were given to the Psalms many, many years after the Psalms were written, so this was long after the historical King David was dead. So then what David did they have in mind when they wrote this? In many of the prophets, David is used as a name of the Messiah. But was the land of Israel established under the control of Jesus when he came? Not at all. So this cannot be talking about the first coming of Messiah, when he was reviled and crucified, but the second coming of the Messiah, when his land will be established!
So let’s read through this psalm the way the early Church did:
Psa. 97:1: They understood this to be talking about the reign of Messiah in the Messianic kingdom when Jesus returns.
Psa. 97:3: “Fire will go before him and will set his enemies ablaze all around.”
In Hebrew, the verbs here can be understood either as present or future. Many translations today put them in the present tense. (Chinese = present?) But the Septuagint and the early Church translated and understood them as future. When will fire go before the Lord like this? The judgment that will come on the world when Jesus returns. This gives a completely different and very powerful meaning to this psalm!
Psa. 97:4: “His lightnings will light up the world; the earth will see and will writhe (in fear).”
Here, too, the Hebrew was understood to be talking about the future. When will this happen? The judgment at the return of Jesus, or what the book of Revelation calls the outpouring of the wrath of God.
Psa. 97:5: “Mountains will melt like wax before the LORD, before the Lord of all the earth.” Again, future.
Psa. 97:6: “The heavens will declare his righteousness and all the peoples will see his glory.” Again, future.
What is this talking about? The signs in the heavens that Jesus talked about! And who is the “glory” of God that all the peoples will see? Jesus—just like we saw in Heb. 1:3! All of this was understood to refer to the return of Jesus in the early church and in the book of Hebrews. So if the book of Hebrews understands that this psalm is talking about the return of Jesus (‘when he comes again’), how do you thing we should understand it? And here’s where the verse appears that Hebrews quotes:
Psa. 97:7: “All those serving idols will be ashamed, those glorying in worthless things; prostrate yourselves before him, all you gods.”
This, too, is talking about the time of Jesus’ return, just as Paul says in Philippians 2:10: “every knee will bend.”
So who are these gods that will bow before Jesus? These are the false gods, which the New Testament tells us are actually fallen angels. That’s why in the old Greek, and also in the book of Hebrews, this is translated angels: that all the angels will bow down before Jesus. If all the angels (which includes all the false gods) will bow down to Jesus, he is clearly superior to them all.
The next verse in Hebrews says: Heb. 1:7: “And to the angels he says, ‘The one making his messengers (his angels) spirits and his servants (or ministers) a flame of fire.’” Where does this quote come from? Psa. 104:4. This is in a psalm that celebrates the awesome wonder of God’s creation.
Psa. 104:2: “wrapping yourself with light as a cloak, stretching out the heavens (shamayim) like the cloth of a tent,”
Wrapping yourself with light...what is that talking about? The first day of the creation, when God said, let there be light. Then what happened on the second day? He made the expanse, the firmament, that separated the waters below (mayim) from the waters above (shamayim; Gen. 1:6,7). That’s what it’s talking about here in Psa. 104:2b: that he stretched out the heavens (shamayim) like the cloth of a tent.
What does that image mean? Tents in Bible days were made out of black goat’s hair cloth. This was a very loose fabric that allowed the tent to breathe a little. This left little spaces between the threads. The when the sun was shining, inside the tent you could see thousands of dots of light shining through, just the way it used to look in the night sky.
Psa. 104:3: “the one laying the beams of his upper rooms in the waters, the one making dark clouds his chariot, the one who goes about on the wings of the Spirit,”
This is still talking about the second day of the creation. Where are God’s upper rooms? In what waters? The waters over there = sha-mayim, the waters of the heavens. Dark clouds are his chariot: just like we saw in Ezekiel 1: the chariot of God. In it, he travels around on the wings of the Spirit.
This is another beautiful description of the Spirit of God as a bird, just like in Gen. 1:2. Do you remember when we talked about that? The Spirit “hovered” over the waters, a word used to describe the flight of a bird. The Hebrew word is merehephet, hovering or fluttering like a bird. This is also why the Spirit descended “like a dove” on Jesus at his baptism (Matt. 3:16): it’s the same image.
The next verse is the verse mentioned in Hebrews:
Psa. 104:4: “who makes his messengers (angels) spirits, his servants flaming fire.”
For messengers, God uses the spirit beings we call angels today. For his servants, he uses flaming fire: the fire of his judgment, like with Sodom and Gomorrah, and the fire to come.
This mention of making angels, here in Psalm 104, is right in the middle of talking about the second day of creation. Remember Psa. 104:2b: “stretching out the heavens”? What this means is that we have here the answer to the age-old question, when did God make the angels? On the second day of the creation, the day that God created the heavens. This makes perfect sense. After all, who are those upper rooms for, if not for the angels? I thought for a while I was the first to discover this, but as it turns out, the rabbis already taught it long ago, using these same verses (Rabbi Jochanan). The angels were made on the same day that the heavens were made.
This matches Job 38:4-6 exactly. Now notice, here in Job, it’s talking about the creation of the earth. On what day did this happen? On what day was the earth created? The third day. That, Job says, is the day on which the angels shouted in joy: on the third day, during the creation of the earth (Job 38:7). Why didn’t they do it on the first day, when God created light, or on the second day, when he made the heavens? Because they weren’t made yet! They were only made on the second day, when they were created with the heavens.
What we’ve seen here in Psalm 104 is a description of the angels, the spiritual messengers of God. So how does this compare to what God says about his Son? Hebrews uses another quote:
Heb. 1:8-9: “But to the Son, 'Your throne, God, (is) for the age of the age (forever and ever), and the scepter of righteousness (is the) scepter of your kingdom. You have loved righteousness and hated lawlessness; because of this, God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness above your companions."
Most people when they read these verses don’t get it at all. What’s the message here? Why does he use this passage? Well, first of all, where is it from?
Psa. 45:6-7. This is another fantastic prophetic psalm. But again, like Psa. 104, it’s hidden to most people who read it today. So let’s take a closer look. Here again, we can be helped by the title that was given much later to the psalm. The Hebrew title is usually translated, “for the music director,” or something like that (Psa. 45:1). But the Septuagint interprets this to mean, “for the end,” in other words, for the endtimes. So this, too, was taken as an endtimes Messianic psalm by the early Church.
It begins: Psa. 45:1: “My heart is stirred up with a good word; I am telling my (literary) works to a king, my tongue is the pen of a skilled scribe.”
So the psalm is addressed to a king. But what king is that?
Psa. 45:2: “You are more beautiful than the sons of man/Adam; grace has been poured out with your lips, therefore God has blessed you forever.”
What kind of king is this that is more beautiful than human beings? This is certainly not describing an ordinary person. Soon after that comes the verse mentioned in Hebrews:
Psa. 45:6: “Your throne, God, is forever and ever; a scepter of righteousness is the scepter of your kingdom.”
Now wait a minute! A moment ago, the psalmist was talking to the king, this strangely beautiful king, who is more than human. But now, suddenly, he addresses this king as God! How can the king also be God?
Psa. 45:7: “You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness, therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness more than your companions.”
Whoah! Here he does it again. He’s speaking to one he calls “God,” but then he says, “your God has anointed you.” Who is the God of God that anointed God? This is one of those amazing places in the Bible where the plurality of God is clearly taught. There’s a God in heaven, and then there’s a God who is a righteous king on earth. And the God in heaven has anointed this God on earth with oil. Who can this be talking about? Well of course, it’s a beautiful description of the relationship of the Father God and God the Son, Jesus the Messiah. And as we saw, it’s a prophecy of Jesus’ reign on the earth as Messiah when he returns. No angel is ever spoken of this way in the Bible.
The next Bible quote in the book of Hebrews is Heb. 1:10-12: “And, ‘At the beginning, you, Lord, laid the foundation of the earth, and the heavens are the works of your hands; 11 they will perish, but you remain; and they all as a garment will become old, 12 and like a cloak you will roll them up, and as a garment they will be changed; but you are the same, and your years will not come to an end.’” What does this have to do with Jesus? Well, where are these verses from?
From Psa. 102:25-26. That this psalm concerns the end of time is stated directly in the psalm itself: Psa. 102:18: “Let this be written for the last generation, and a people to be created will praise the LORD.” We’ve talked briefly before about this amazing last generation: a generation made up of all generations. And that language is used right here in this psalm, too:
Psa. 102:24: “I say, ‘My God, do not make me go up in the midst of my days; your years are with a generation of generations.’” (In Chinese: the ages of infinity[?])
Jesus appearing as the glory of God is also here:
Psa. 102:16: “For the LORD will build up Zion; he will appear in his glory.”
This verse, too, is understood as future in the Septuagint (the Hebrew can go either way). Do you recognize that key word, “glory.” Jesus is the glory of God that will appear in the endtimes. And the Messianic Kingdom is also mentioned:
Psa. 102:22: "At the gathering of the peoples together, and the kingdoms, to serve the LORD.”
Then it talks about what will happen after Jesus’ return: that the heavens will perish, but he and his servants will continue forever (Psa. 102:28). Here’s that DNA of the universe again, already speaking forth the things that will be in the future.
Hebrews 1 continues with one last quote: Heb. 1:13: “But to which of the angels did he ever say, ‘Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet’”?
Where is this from? Psalm 110:1, one of the favorite verses of Jesus. Jesus liked to focus on the first part of this verse: “A (prophetic) declaration of the LORD to my Lord.” Jesus accepted that this was a psalm of David, as it says in the psalm’s title, “a psalm of David.” But if David wrote this psalm, who was it, in addition to God, that he was addressing as Lord?—for there are two lords mentioned here. The common understanding about this verse was that the first Lord is God and the second Lord is the Messiah. But if the Messiah is David’s descendant, as everyone believed and as the Bible teaches, how can David call him Lord? Do you call your child or your grandchild “Sir”? No of course not. The elder should get more respect. But yet David calls the Messiah “Lord”? How can that be? Only if the Messiah is superior to David, which implies that the Messiah is more than an ordinary man. This verse hints to the fact that the Messiah is God. God never spoke this way to any angel. Instead, angels are servants of God’s people, as it says in vs. 14:
Heb. 1:14: “Are they not all ministering spirits sent out for ministry on behalf of those (who are) about to inherit salvation?”
The angels are sent out by God on our behalf, in other words, the angels serve us. This implies that we are greater than they are. So if we are greater than the angels, how much greater than that is the Son of God! The Son of God is exalted far above any human being, and therefore above every angel, too.
Hebrews 1 is such an awesome chapter in giving us insight into the Jewish Roots of our faith. It lets us see clearly the reasoning process that underlies the whole of the New Testament. Everything, every word, every phrase, comes from God’s revelation in the Old Testament, and is made clear for us in the New. But here in Hebrews, it’s easier for us to see. It’s that DNA of God that stretches back to the creation and forward to the end of time: and every little piece fits perfectly together.
But the book of Hebrews is not finished: it’s just getting warmed up. Another time, God willing, we’ll see why it was so important to clarify where Jesus stood in relationship to the angels.
Do you feel like you’ve spent a little time in worshipful study today? Do you feel like you’ve been brought a little closer to the mind of God? I think it’s just amazing how all these tiny parts of the Bible match up so perfectly together, even though they were written in different generations by different people, some of them even living in different countries. If God is so concerned about the tiny details in the Bible, that gives us some insight into his character. He’s an expert on the details. This is what Jesus was trying to tell us when he said that God knows the number of hairs on your head.
Nothing is overlooked by God. He knows every tiny detail of what’s going on in your life. And he’s always available to us to help us with those details. There’s no part of your life that’s too big or small for God to be in it. That doesn’t mean that everything in life always goes the way we want it to. But it’s going the way he wants it. And it’s much better to get in line with God’s program than to fight against it. Because his will is going to be done. Period. There’s no getting around it. His will is built right into the universe around us. Fortunately, being a wonderful Father, he also sends us times of refreshing and encouragement despite the difficulties of life. He really does answer prayer, even though sometimes he says no, or not yet. But even that kind of answer is for our good in the long run.
What area of life do you need God in today? He’s already there, waiting for you to call on him, waiting for you to see him in the midst of all the details of life. Let’s pray...