The Force of the Epistle to the Hebrews

In Hebrews, the exposition of the epistle provides the momentum that application takes further. Allow me to use an analogy from the realm of geology. In the spring, mountainous snowcaps and glaciers melt providing an abundance of water for districts and sometimes whole countries. Rivers, waterfalls, and riverlets provide avenues whereby this water can reach various places, which themselves may be remote from the snowcaps and glaciers. The snowcap does not melt and land immediately in a little far-off hamlet. It is conducted along a certain path. If we apply this picture to the case of Hebrews, we could say that in exposition, doctrine is released from the watershed of truth; in application this same truth travels the rivers and streams, whereby it reaches the remote stretches of land. A magnificent waterfall, by contrast, may be glorious, but can leave a person simply in awe and otherwise unchanged; whereas a small riverlet brings the water from its source and brings it proximate. The epistle to the Hebrews functions like the latter. It is my contention that the author of Hebrews takes his doctrinal argument, which in and of itself is most powerful, and brings this power to bear specifically and concretely upon his hearers in masterful avenues of application, whereby in the end the whole field of his intended audience is impacted, for good or ill, with the force of the glorious doctrine of the supremacy of Christ.
The author to the Hebrews used three types of speech when applying his doctrines.
1. Inference: drawing a logical conclusion (E.g., “Therefore we ought to give the more earnest heed,” 2:1; “Let us therefore fear,” 4:1; “Let us therefore come boldly,” 4:16)
2. Interrogation: calling into question or raising the possibility of a certain case (E.g., “if we hold fast,” 3:6; “if we hold the beginning of our confidence,” 3:14)
3. Identification: denoting one or other value judgment as true (E.g., “We are persuaded better things of you,” 6:9; “ye are dull of hearing,” 5:11)
An Application Harnessing Attention
2:1-4: “Therefore we ought to give the more earnest heed to the things which we have heard, lest at any time we should let them slip.” Here the apostle focuses on “giving heed” to the gospel. He has proved from Scripture that Christ is infinitely greater than the angels. Consequently, greater attendance to the gospel of Christ is warranted, and greater punishment is to be anticipated if we neglect this great salvation.
There are a number of ways in which this application fits the exposition thus far.
1. Note how the apostle carries the comparative form that he used in his doctrinal exposition over into his application. The “so much better” of Christ in comparison with the angels (1:4) ought to induce an equally “greater” heed to the things we have heard.
2. Note how this initial application focuses on the audio aspect. The apostle puts stress on what we have “heard,” and the more earnest attendance that is warranted. This, of course, fits the primary mode of revelation he has been focused on, namely, that of the Word, and preaching. In fact, the author began his book with a reference to divine speech: “God spake” (see Heb. 1:1-3).
3. Note how this initial exhortation is suited to the particular case of the Hebrews. We later learn that they were “dull of hearing” (5:11). Thus the apostle first gives a sort of doctrinal trumpet blast in the first chapter. Then he pauses and lest any would fall back into the mode of dullness, he shows precisely how the eminence of this doctrine deserves and requires our utmost attendance.
This provides a model for preaching. There is no need to apologize for the attendance of hearers. The grand character and content of doctrine has an appellational character that harnesses attention. Preaching should not only sound out doctrine, but explicitly urge attendance to doctrine.
An Arresting Application
In chapter 3:12-13 we read: “Take heed, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief, in departing from the living God. But exhort one another daily, while it is called Today; lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin.”
These and the surrounding verses (3:7-4:13) are the second exhortatory section in the epistle, and a lengthy one at that. It comes at the conclusion of his first main point, concerning the superiority of Christ as person. At the end of 3:6, the apostle has raised the question, by way of a conditional clause, that puts into focus the whole question of participation in the work of Christ: “Whose house are we, if we hold fast the confidence and the rejoicing of the hope firm unto the end.” Having set forth the glorious person of Christ, the apostle shows the need for self-examination on the point of the attendance to the gospel.
The apostle even calls for “fear.” He writes: “Let us therefore fear” (4:1) of coming short of the promise, of being found without the faith which, by God’s grace, renders the gospel profitable. As glorious as the doctrine of Christ’s supremacy is, so devastating is the neglect or diminishment of it. Here the apostle shows how the doctrine of the supremacy of Christ’s person requires a singular allegiance to the person of Christ. If he were only one of many, no singular devotion could be required. Now that His person is manifest as the singularly unrivalled or unequaled One our devotion of Him should know no competition.
1. This devotion then must be a durative devotion. We are called to “hold the beginning of our confidence steadfast to the end” (3:14). If Christ were only one among many, we should alternate our devotion half –way or at some later time; now that is wholly unreasonable.
2. Our devotion to him must be a devotion with an ever-widening scope. Not only should our heart rise up in faith unto this supreme Christ; His supremacy warrants our mutual exhortation, lest any one be hardened. His supremacy calls for an ever-extending kingdom. Our devotion to him should spill over into a desire that others be wholly subject unto him.
3. We are told to exhort one another daily. It ought to be a devotion marked by an iterative exhortation. Christ’s supremacy demands our complete allegiance, our seeking the allegiance of others, and daily engagement in the act of mutual exhortation.
An Encouraging Application
In Hebrews 6: 9-12, we read: “But, beloved, we are persuaded better things of you, and things that accompany salvation, though we thus speak. For God is not unrighteous to forget your work and labour of love, which ye have shewed toward his name, in that ye have ministered to the saints, and do minister. And we desire that every one of you do shew the same diligence to the full assurance of hope unto the end: That ye be not slothful, but followers of them who through faith and patience inherit the promises.”
This application is in the middle section of the argument of the apostle concerning the superiority of the office of Christ. The apostle has seriously spoken to them of their dullness and the seriousness of the possibility of apostasy. As he did in 3:12-13, he faces them with their comparative deficiencies especially in light of Christ’s perfection. Christ as priest had been subject to all manner of temptation, but always without sin; the Hebrews had been tempted, and were in danger of lapsing. Christ had been made perfect, having learned obedience by the things he suffered (5:8-9). The Hebrews need to be told to “go on unto perfection” (6:1). Again we see how the apostle brings the doctrine of the supremacy of Christ to bear on the Hebrews. His perfection brings to light their imperfection; His perfection spurs them on to perfection; His perfection ought to be the source and impetus for their perfection. An eminently glorious Christ, made perfect through suffering, ought to induce his people as well as enable them to “go on to perfection.
The apostle uses the image of fruitfulness. “For the earth which drinketh in the rain that cometh oft upon it, and bringeth forth herbs meet for them by whom it is dressed, receiveth blessing from God” (6:7). By contrast, “that which beareth thorns and briers is rejected, and is nigh unto cursing; whose end is to be burned” (6:8).
Notice here how the apostle uses application to comfort. Having set forth a terrible scenario, he quickly seeks to speak words of consolation. Lest the tender consciences and minds of hearers be unduly frightened and they cast aside all confidence, he speaks consolingly. Notice how he phrases his consolation: “we are persuaded better things of you.” Interestingly he uses a comparative, a grammatical form, so favored by him in his expository section. The character of Christ being “better” (1:4) spills over into his people being “better.” He explains what this “better” this – “things that accompany salvation.” As salvation comes from Christ and is revealed in the gospel, it makes a person who possesses it graciously “better.” Again we see how his application builds upon his doctrine.
His comforting application has a basis, however. He points to the marks of grace. He mentions their work and labor of love which they showed to God’s name, their ministry to the saints, a ministry which has continued until now. His comforts are not thrown around without basis, for they would be no comforts. Neither are his comforts generalized and oblique. They have a particular reference. They are attached to the manifestation of the works of faith, the obedience of faith, the ministry of love, etc.
A Directing Application
Hebrews 10:19-25 is a very telling passage in terms of the applications in the epistle to the Hebrews: Having, therefroe, brethren, boldness to enter into the holiest by the blood of Jesus. By a new and living way, which he hath consecrated for us, through the veil, that is to say, his flesh; And having an high priest over the house of God; Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience, and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the profession of our faith without wavering; (for he is faithful that promised;) And let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works; not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the mann of some is; but exhorting one another; and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching.”
This is the basic turning point of the epistle from exposition to application. The text divides itself into three indicatives and three imperatives. Together they combine to circumscribe the life of believers under Christ the Highpriest. First the apostle gives the rich privileges at the base of this call. Secondly, he enumerates the comprehensive aspects of this call.
Three privileges:
a. Free access into the Holiest. They have the right to enter the sanctuary;
b. A consecrated way by blood through the veil. They have the means to enter the sanctuary, namely, by the blood of Jesus (see 3:6; 4:16), and by a new and living way, which Christ has opened through veil (his flesh) (see 9:8);
c. A great Priest: They have the householder (3:1-6) and High Priest (3:1; 8:1).
Three calls:
1. To approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith. The manner the apostle specifies is with i) true heart; and ii) full assurance: “firm, unwavering trust”; and with the supplementary motives of i) hearts sprinkled; ii) bodies washed;
2. To hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering. The supplementary motive the apostle appends is that He is faithful who has promised;
3. To mind how to provoke one another to love and good deeds. The supplementary motive is not to neglect to meet together, but encourage each other in light of the approaching day.
This passage is most clear in terms of the relationship of exposition and application. In the three indicatives the apostle summarizes his exposition, especially in chapters 8-10. He takes it altogether under the three key concepts of access, a consecrated way, and a great Priest. These three concepts show the great accomplishment of Christ’s highpriestly work. They mark the highest privileges possible for anyone anywhere. Here the torrent of the apostle’s argument reaches a bottleneck that makes the water run even faster. It brings us to the pinnacle of a Christian’s inheritance – Christ seated that the right hand in the holy of Holies in heaven, access for the believer to the throne, a consecrated way to the throne, and a great Priest on the throne.
Yet, the apostle does not stop here. He brings these realities to bear on his hearers by calling for an approach in faith, a steadfastness in hope; and a mutual provocation unto love. The three privileges together grant impetus to the three responsibilities together.
Christ is at the right hand. His people are priests. Christian believers have temple privileges, as well as temple responsibilities; these are far more exalted than those of any ceremonial rituals. While the Old Testament ceremonies were restrictive, believers have access; the Old Testament tabernacle had a veil; believers have a bloody way. The Old Testament church had a priest in the house of God; believers have a great Priest over the house of God. We have responsibilities of washing and sprinkling associated with faith, as well as custodial (holding fast the confession of our hope) and diaconal duties (provoking one another to love and good deeds). This is our temple religion.
The application aims here to direct. It seeks to induce a disposition and action that mirrors that doctrine set forth. This is the third function of application in the letter to the Hebrews.
The applications of the letter to the Hebrews seek to bring the doctrine down to the persons in their varied and real circumstances. They conduct its truth through the avenues of harnessing attention, discovery, comfort, and direction. These categories appear most suitable to bring the truth to bear on the people.
Secondly, the application mirrors the specifics components of the doctrines set forth. They are not generic, but specific. Survey the following schema:
Exposition: Superiority of Application
1:5-4:13: Christ’s Person Do not neglect / consider / take heed
4:14-7:28: Christ’s Office Let us hold fast / go on / show diligence
8:1-10:18: Christ’s Ministration Draw near / hold fast / provoke each other
The first uses terminology related to our person; the second terminology related to our calling; the third related to our life as priests unto God. The apostle seeks to woo the whole person to the whole Christ. Since there can be nothing lacking in the Christ – what is lacking must be ascribed to the Christian, which he must find ever more in Christ.