Reading Time: 9 mins

Jesus is Better

Reading Time: 9 mins

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."

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 with 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 Its purpose, notes Arthur Pink, “was to instruct Jewish believers that Judaism had been superseded by Christianity” (11).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 superior colors the entire discourse, serving as both 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 to 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, 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 of departing from Christ and reverting back to Judaism. 

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 written 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 that 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 is the typical way Paul closes each of his epistles.

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.

A compelling argument, however, can be made that it was Apollos who wrote the book. This 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).

The gospel is the declaration that the sum and substance of God’s heart has interposed himself to rescue sinners from eternal ruin.

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 Christians 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. As we’ve already mentioned, the point 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 the splendor of that message subsumes even himself.

Indeed, this thought summarizes the opening verses of 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).

Here the writer says a number of crucial things conciscely. He begins by asserting that Jehovah God has spoken to man through “the prophets” since “long ago.” The God who created this world has not left it 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 his creatures would know him. In the former days, this was primarily carried out through prophets. Ministers especially chosen 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 the 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), and David (Acts 2:29–30), to name a few as the authoritative voices of God’s truth. It might be 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. This 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 he 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), so 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). 

You see, the gospel is the announcement that God himself has come to where we are so 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).

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 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). 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). 

Why is this such an important point to make? 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. 

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.

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 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.