A jingle that I had drummed into me as a schoolboy ran, “Good, better, best; never let it rest; until your good is better and your better best.” For quite a while this helped me deal with a tendency to settle for mediocrity instead of pursuing excellence, a useful lesson for someone who preferred a ball of any shape to a book. But what it referred to as “the best” always seemed elusive.
By contrast, the author of Hebrews assures Jews who have become Christians that what they have, now that the Messiah has come, is “the best,” even though he calls it “better.” This is because he is comparing the only two covenants God made with his people corporately. The first was with the nation of Israel at Sinai, which pointed toward the second covenant’one made with those who believe that Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ of God. The first was intentionally defective, but the second is perfect and therefore irreplaceable and unsurpassable.
The letter begins impressively and instructively. The first two chapters focus on God’s revelation and redemption. They declare the “Son” to be “so much better” than Old Testament prophets and angels, because he inaugurates “the world to come” (2:5) by his prophetic word and priestly atonement and he reigns in it by divine appointment. This is the era of the “last days,” which is the fulfilment of the “times past” (KJV) and is “the end of the ages” (10:26). It is eternity begun.
This epistle is a written sermon, a “word of exhortation” (13:22). Psalm 110 could be regarded as its text because it is cited four times. The sermon’s aim is to encourage believers in Christ to persevere through the wilderness of the world to their heavenly homeland. The author reminds them of that “better thing” (11:39) that is theirs (see his uses of the verb have in 4:14; 6:19; 8:1; 10:19-22, 34; 13:10-14), and reinforces that reminder with warnings against “departing from the living God” (3:7-4:13; 6:4-6; 10:26-31). Believers have all they need in Jesus Christ and should hold on to the end, come what may.
The Hebrews are urged to “consider Jesus” whom they have confessed to be “Apostle and High Priest” (3:1). These ministries were foreshadowed by Moses, Joshua, and Aaron and his descendants. As an apostle, or God’s sent one, Jesus builds the house on the ground where Moses served, and he actually provides the Sabbath rest of which Moses and Joshua spoke. Although so many of their contemporaries were neither “stones” in that building nor could they enter the Promised Land because of unbelief, believers in Jesus are “holy brothers and partakers of a heavenly calling.” They “have entered into rest,” so they must (and can) press on to the goal of the final Sabbath rest. Even if they falter, they should not fear God’s searching word, because they have a “great high priest” who intercedes for them with a sympathy that matches his supremacy, providing “grace to help in time of need” (4:14-16).
The addition of “great” to the designation “high priest” amounts to a superlative, and Jesus’ excellence is shown over against the dignity of Aaron and his descendants. Appointed by God, as was Aaron’Psalm 2:7 is quoted as proof ‘his high priesthood was patterned “after the order of Melchizedek,” and by his perfect obedience in living and dying he became “the cause” (procuring means) of the eternal (heavenly and endless) salvation that could be typified only by the provisions and performance of Old Testament ritual.
Further consideration of the correspondence between Jesus and Melchizedek is postponed by the writer, because he knows his “congregation” will not be able to benefit from it. He therefore deals pastorally with what hinders them from doing so. He points out that they have become “dull of hearing,” which means not using their minds enough and being casual in their conduct. This is dangerous. Familiarity with primary truths has already been lost, and the specter of renouncing faith’s foundation itself cannot be totally excluded. But as brotherly love is still evident among them, there is the prospect that they will apply themselves more strenuously to understand and practice the truth, and by so doing, mature in faith as did Abraham. There is hope of this, because God will be faithful to them and to his promise and oath.
When the parallel between Jesus and Melchizedek comes under examination, it is Abraham, and not Aaron, who provides the standard of measurement. Abraham is greater than Aaron, but Melchizedek is greater still. He blessed Abraham who paid him tithes of the spoil gained from the triumph over the kings of Canaan. Being omitted from every genealogy in Genesis, Melchizedek depicts the eternality of Jesus as God’s king-priest, which is underlined by a divine oath, whereas succession through death characterized Aaron and his descendants. This contrast is in keeping with the transitory nature of old covenant provisions, because they are but “the shadow of the good things to come” and not their “substance.” In and of themselves, they could not cleanse the sinner’s conscience, but the “better ministry” (8:1-6) of a “better covenant” (8:7-14) in “a greater sanctuary” (9:1-12) on the basis of “a better sacrifice” (9:13-28) could. All of these heavenly realities are the consequence of the self-offering of Jesus in death by the aid of the Holy Spirit and in his willing obedience to his Father’s will and law (9:14; 10:7-10).
Given this certainty and finality, the final phase of this sermon calls for unswerving and corporate appropriation of new covenant promises and precepts. Such believing and obedient responses will demonstrate that the Hebrews have a place in the gallery of the “cloud of witnesses” and in the heavenly city that God has planned and built for his people in both eras. What Old Testament saints did through faith in life and death with a view to the coming glory of the Messianic era will be exemplified in and by them as they “run with endurance the race set before them, looking to Jesus” (12:1). They too will be among those “of whom God is not ashamed to be called their God” (11:16) and “of whom the world was not worthy” (11:38).
The first recipients of this doctrinal and devotional address had been taught by those who had heard the Lord himself. But they had gone to their rest and reward, and a “second generation” had arisen with its well-known challenges and weaknesses. But “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever” (13:8). Departure from what is “better,” which is what they have been taught, can therefore only be for the worse’eternal loss in this case. A “better possession” belongs to them, and so they are to live by faith. They have been brought into a kingdom that is unshakeable, and so they are to serve God acceptably in the home (family) and in the church. Reproach for the name and truth of Christ, as they make their way to the heavenly Zion, is an honor. There will be nothing better than what they have. It is the best, and what will come when Jesus returns is only more of the same’but it will be much more!