The Book of Hebrews and the End of the Age
By Timothy Miller
But Jesus, turning unto them said, Daughters of Jerusalem, weep not for me, but weep for yourselves, and for your children. Luke 23:28.
The purpose of the Book of Hebrews, the nature of the kingdom of God and its entrance into the world and whether or not God has a future plan for the non-Christian, Jewish people have all been topics of debate among theologians in recent years. These issues are all closely related and cannot be resolved without a careful reading of the Book of Hebrews in its historical context and an understanding of its background. In light of internal evidence, historical accounts, and other witnesses from scripture, I would argue that, as the Jewish age was drawing to a close, the Book of Hebrews was written as a final warning to professing Jewish Christians not to reject entrance into the kingdom of God by apostataizing from Christianity just before God's covenental wrath was to be violently poured out on the unregenerate, rebellious nation of Israel during the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD.
A clear, early reference to the nature of the coming of the kingdom which also provides backgound information regarding the era in which the Book of Hebrews was to be written can be found in the Book of Malachi. The prophecy presented by Malachi brought a number of charges against the nation of Israel concerning their relationship to God and a warning that the coming of their long-awaited Messiah will bring fiery judgement upon them.
"Behold, I send My messenger. And he will prepare the way before Me. And the Lord, whom you seek, will suddenly come to His temple, even the Messenger of the covenant, in whom you delight. Behold He is coming," says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of His coming? And who can stand when he appears? For He is like a refiner's fire and like launderer's soap. (Malachi 3:1,2 NKJV).
Malachi's prophecy warns the Jews that even though they delighted in the soon coming of the Lord, many would not be able to stand when he appears. His appearance would be "sudden" and he would come to "His temple" as a judge. J. Stuart Russell writes, "The temple was the center of the nation's life, the visible symbol of the covenant between God and His people; it was the spot where 'judgement must begin,' and which was to be overtaken with sudden destruction." 1
Malachi closes his short book with another prophecy of the coming of the Messiah and His forerunner which he ends with the words, "lest I come and strike the land with a curse" (Malachi 4:6b NKJV). The Jews would be given a period of time in which to repent of their rebellion against God, but their land would be stricken with a curse if they did not. Russell states, "The full import of this ominous declaration is not at once apparent. To the Hebrew mind it suggested the most terrible fate that could befall a city or a people. The 'curse' was the anathema, or cherim, which denoted that the person or thing on which the malediction was laid was given over to utter destruction."2 These passages from Malachi are a foretelling of the fall of Jersalem and the destruction of the temple, events which occurred shortly after the writing of the book of Hebrews.
John the baptist, Christ, and the apostle Paul also warned of impending wrath. John preached regarding the coming of the Messiah, "His winnowing fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clean out His threshing floor, and gather His wheat into the barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire" (Matthew 3:1 NKJV). Such a separation of "wheat" and "chaff" occurred with the destruction of Jerusalem. Those who were followers of Christ heeded His warnings to them (see Matthew 24:15,16) and fled just before the Roman army invaded, but the unbelievers were left to face the invasion without the covenental protection of the God they had rejected. The epistles of Paul contain illustrations of this distinction between the true spiritual Jew (ie the Christians) and false Jews. Examples of this distinction in Paul's writings can be found in the Book of Galatians.
The synoptic gospels are filled with Christ's warnings of the wrath to come. Probably the most well known of which is the olivet discourse of Matthew 24 and parallels which we cannot look at in detail here. However, Christ was very clear in His descriptions of how the present, unregenerate generation would end. This generation would hear and reject the teachings and miracles produced in the ministries of John the baptist, Christ Himself and also the apostles. Of the generation present at that time, Jesus advised, "on you may come all the righteous blood shed on the earth, from the blood of righteous Able to the blood of Zechariah, son of Berechiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. Assuredly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation" (Matthew 23:35,36 NKJV).
Internal evidence suggests the Book of Hebrews was written in part as a warning to its original audience just a short time before the fullfilment of these prophecies of judgement would occur. The Book of Hebrews contains some of the strongest worded warnings found in the New Testament outside of the synoptic gospels. These warnings contain an application to all readers throughout all ages but had a very real, pending application to its original audience. Hebrews 2:3 states, "how shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation, which was at the first began to be spoken by the Lord and was confirmed to us by those who heard Him" (NKJV). Clearly this passage applies to everyone who has ever lived, yet notice the author's use of terms such as "we" and "us". He also pinpoints his own generation by stating that they had heard the gospel through those who had heard Christ themselves. His warning here can certainly apply to the eternal torment awaiting in the hereafter for those who reject Christ in all ages, but history has provided us with a foretaste, a concrete example, of the wrath to come through an event that occurred during the lives of those the apostle was addressing. This event exemplified the reality of the wrath of God against those who stand in opposition to his kingdom.
The destruction of Jerusalem was so devastating and complete, Josephus, an ancient historian and eyewitness, records
Now, as soon as the army had no more people to slay or to plunder, because there remained none to be objects of their fury (for they would not have spared any, had there remained any other such work to be done) Ceasar gave orders that they should now demolish the entire city and temple....it was so thoroughly laid even with the ground by those that dug it up to the foundation, that there was left nothing to make those that came thither believe it had ever been inhabited. 3
Josephus records 97,000 jews were taken captive during the war with Rome (himself included) and 1.1 million were killed. The temple itself, the center and symbol of the nation of Israel's covenental relationship to God, was completely destroyed, despite Titus' orders to the contrary. Regarding this event, Kenneth Gentry Jr. states, "No later era witnesses any events that even approach the fundamental covenantal significance of this calamity. Such an analysis of the covenental and redemptive import of the collapse of the Jewish order is demanded by the nature of Christianity (cf. The Epistle to the Hebrews) and the nature of the final new covenant (cf. Luke 22:20; 1Cor. 11:25)." 4 As Christ had prophesied to the unfaithful nation of Israel, their house was left to them desolate and, as far as the temple is concerned, remains so to this day.
The removal of the Jewish temple was absolutely necessary to relieve the stress on the first century Christians from persecution from the Jews. J. Stuart Russell writes, "the annihilation of the Jewish nationality therefore removed the most formidable antagonist of the gospel and brought rest and relief to suffering Christians." 5 It is ironic that the prime example of martyrdom under Jewish persecution was reported as teaching the destruction of the temple. When Stephen, one of the first deacons of the early church, began his ministry, the Synagogue of the Freedmen "set up false witnesses who said, "This man does not cease to speak blasphemous words against this holy place and the law; for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs which Moses delivered to us" (Acts 6:13f). Stephen was later stoned to death by an angry mob who rejected his preaching of the gospel.
The readers of the Book of Hebrews, probably residents of Jerusalem themselves, were not ignorant of these promises from the Lord that the wheat and the chaff would be separated. But with the passing of the years and the increase of persecution, they had lost the expectancy of it occurring in their own lifetime, and, in their complacency, were about to run the risk of being caught up in the judgement themselves, hence the urgency of the Epistle to the Hebrews. The attitude of these Christans was far from that of the earlier church members who were even selling their soon-to-be-worthless lots of land in the Jerusalm area and distributing the profits out of brotherly love to those of the church in need. The writer of Hebrews delivers an exhortation filled with warnings of the consequences of rejecting
Christ or of failing to grow to maturity in Christ.
The basic argument of the Book of Hebrews is an appeal by the apostle for his readers to fully embrace the kingdom of God and not to give in to pressure from the Jews and turn back to Judaism. The author shows the superiority of Christ and that nothing is lacking or inferior in the New Covenant when compared to the old. The kingdom of God finds its fulfillent in Christ and there is nothing to turn back to other than the shadow of what is now fulfilled. There was a brief overlap of the two covenants during this generation as exemplified in Paul's willingnes to accomodate his Jewish Christian brothers by taking a vow and entering the temple and his minstry in the synagogues. But this period was coming to a close. The author states, "In that He says 'A new covenant,' He has made the first obsolete. Now what
is becoming obsolete and growing is ready to vanish away" (Hebrews 8:13 NKJV). John Brown states, "in a very few years it did expire, with the flames which consumed the holy city and the holier temple--vanished into a vapour and invisibility."6 The shadow of the new covenant was exemplified by the Levitical priesthood and the temple. These were the centers of the Jewish economy and were soon to be divinely removed.
A concern of the author is that his readers not "vanish away" with the old covenant. It is clear from many passages in Hebrews that the book was written before the destruction of the temple. in several verses the Levitical priesthood is referred to in the present tense as if their work had not yet been interrupted (eg 5:1-5; 7:21; 7:27: 8:3f; 8:13; 9:6,9,13,25; 10:1-3;10:8,11; 13:10). He rebukes his original readers by telling them, "though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the first principles of the oracles of God" (6:12 NKJV). Their complacency was putting them in a dangerous position. He encourages them to grow to maturity and "show the same diligence to the full assurance of hope until the end, that you do not become sluggish, but imitate those who through faith and patience inherit the promises" (6:11,12 NKJV). Considering that the original readers probably resided in the Jerusalem area, these verses had a particularly practical application for them in light of the soon coming Roman invasion. For those who had not fully embraced the kingdom of God or were having second thoughts, the author warned
For if we sin willfully after we have received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a certain fearful expectation of judgment, and fiery indignation which will devour the adversaries. Anyone who has rejected Moses' law dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. Of how much worse punishment, do you suppose, will he be thought worthy who has trampled the Son of God underfoot, counted the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified a common thing, and insulted the Spirit of grace?...It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God (10:26-29,31 NKJV).
His readers had indeed received the knowledge of the truth. For nearly forty years the inhabitants of Jerusalem had been exposed to the preaching of the gospel. Yet the author warns them of becoming like those who had received the blessings of God for forty years in the wilderness and still rebelled through unbelief and perished without entering into canaan. Once again, at the end of this forty year period, God's wrath was about to come upn those who were in rebellion. The apostle warns, "Beware, bretheren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief in departing from the living God," and, "Let us therefore be diligent to enter that rest, lest anyone fall according to the same example of disobedience" (3:12; 4:11 NKJV). Once again we see that the readers were in danger through their complacency of falling into the same fate awaiting those who had rejected the gospel.
By way of conclusion I would say that the coming of the kingdom of God was preceded with the warnings of Malachi and John the baptist of judgement on those of the Jewish economy who did not repent. The messages of Christ also warned of judgement upon the very generation hearing Him. After a 40 year period in which the Jews heard the preaching of the gospel through the apostles, the wheat and the chaff were about to be separated in a tangible way. By persecuting the church, the Jews had aligned themselves against God. It was in this era that the Book of Hebrews was written to stir the church to maturity and warn the unbeliever that, for those who have rejected Christ, there is no place left in the kingdom of God.
Gentry, Kenneth L., Jr. Before Jersalem Fell: Dating the Book of Revelation: An Exegetical and Historical Argument for a Pre-A.D. 70 Composition. Tyler, Tex.: Institute for Christian Economics, 1989, p 143.
- 5. Russell, The Parousia, p. 163.
- 6. Brown, John. Hebrews. Reprint ed. Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1994, p. 374.
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