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In These Last Days: The Message of Hebrews.
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It was at church when he first saw her. He was running an errand, absorbed in his thoughts, when the sight hit him. The painting was a little less than two meters high and three meters wide, but the girl portrayed in it exerted a strange captivating force over the young man. Why could he not take his eyes off of her? What was it? After some reflection, he realized that it was her eyes. The painting portrayed only her face, and she was intently looking at something. But what, and why was she so absorbed in it? For a long time afterward, he couldn’t get the painting out of his head.
Several years later, the painter, Arnold Jiménez, revealed some of its secrets to him. The painting was made to attract viewers to her eyes, but the real secret was in her pupils. If you looked closely, you would find out that they reflected what she was looking at. Her eyes were fixed on Jesus on the cross.
The portrait of Jesus in the Letter to the Hebrews can exert a similar captivating force upon us. Jesus is described, first of all, as the Ruler of the universe, enthroned at God’s right hand. Innumerable angels celebrate Him, worship Him, and serve Him (Heb. 1:5-14, Heb. 12:22-24). He has won the right to rule because through His own death He has ensured the destruction of the devil (Heb. 2:14-16). Jesus is also the exalted High Priest. Sinless, and perfectly holy, He lives forever to minister in our behalf in the heavenly sanctuary (Heb. 7:26-8:5). He has won the right to do so because He offered Himself as a perfect, once-for-all sacrifice, effective for everyone and forever (Heb. 10:1-14). Jesus has also mediated a new covenant between God and His people that will stand forever (Heb. 8:6-13).
What captivates readers about the portrait of Jesus, however, is not simply what Jesus has done but who He is. He was born from a woman, as we were, and He has been tempted and ridiculed, as we have been. Yet, still, He sits at the center of power in the universe. When we gaze at the heavenly scene, with its diverse and fantastic celestial beings, our eyes are attracted to the One in the center of it all, who, amazingly enough, looks like us because He had become one of us. Jesus, our Brother, is there, in heaven, representing us, despite the shame of our sin and fallenness.
In the person of Jesus, three dimensions of the story of redemption intersect. The first is the local, personal dimension. For readers tired of the reproaches and hardships of Christian life (Heb. 10:32-34), Jesus is the Author and Perfecter of faith. They need to look to Him who also suffered from sinners (Heb. 12:1-4). The second is the corporate, national dimension. For the people of God, who are traveling toward God’s promised land, Jesus is the new Joshua. They need to follow His lead (Hebrews 3, 4, 11, 12). The third is the universal dimension. Jesus is the new Adam, the Son of Man in whom God’s purposes for humanity are fulfilled (Heb. 2:5-10, Heb. 12:22-28).
The portrait of Jesus, who captures the breadth and length and height and depth of God’s love for us, is our subject this quarter. And just as the image of Jesus in the eyes of the painting captured the young man’s gaze, may the image of Jesus as portrayed in Hebrews capture not just our gaze, but our love and admiration for, yes, Jesus, our Brother in heaven.
Félix H. Cortez is associate professor of New Testament Literature in the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University. He is married to Alma Gloria Alvarez and has two children, Hadid, a pastor in New Jersey, and Alma, an archaeology major at Andrews University.
Lesson 1 December 25-31
Read for This Week’s Study: Heb. 2:3, 4; 1 Pet. 4:14, 16; Heb. 13:1-9, 13; 1 Kings 19:1-18; Heb. 3:12-14; Numbers 13.
Memory Text: “For you have need of endurance, so that after you have done the will of God, you may receive the promise” (Hebrews 10:36, NKJV).
Have you ever imagined what it would be like to hear Jesus, or one of the apostles, preach? We possess written excerpts and summaries of some of their sermons, but these provide only a limited idea of what it was like to hear them. God, however, preserved in the Scriptures at least one complete sermon for us: Paul’s letter to the Hebrews.
Paul, the author of Hebrews, referred to his own work as a “word of exhortation” (Heb. 13:22). This expression was used to identify the sermon, both at the synagogue (Acts 13:15) and at Christian worship (1 Tim. 4:13). Thus, it has been argued that Hebrews is the earliest “complete Christian sermon” that we have. Hebrews was addressed to believers who accepted Jesus but then experienced difficulties. Some were publicly shamed and persecuted (Heb. 10:32-34). Others faced financial problems (Heb. 13:5, 6). Many were tired and had begun to question their faith (Heb. 3:12, 13). Can any of us today relate?
The apostle in a stirring sermon, however, challenged them (and, by extension, us) to persevere in faith in Jesus and to fix their eyes upon Jesus, now in the heavenly sanctuary.
Study this week’s lesson to prepare for Sabbath, January 1.
Sunday ↥ December 26
In order to understand the sermon and apply its message to ourselves, we need to understand the history of the congregation and their situation when they received the letter from the apostle.
Read Hebrews 2:3, 4. What was the experience of the audience of Hebrews when they were first converted?
This passage implies that the audience of Hebrews had not heard Jesus Himself preach; instead, they had received the gospel from other evangelists who had announced to them the news of “salvation.”
Paul also says that the evangelists had “confirmed” the message to them and that God Himself had born “witness both with signs and wonders” (NKJV). This means that God had provided experiential confirmation of the gospel by signs and other powerful deeds — among them the distribution of the “gifts of the Holy Spirit” (NKJV). The New Testament relates that signs such as miraculous healings, exorcisms, and the outpouring of spiritual gifts often accompanied the preaching of the gospel in new places.
At the beginning of the Christian church, God poured His Spirit upon the apostles in Jerusalem so that they were able to announce the gospel in languages previously unknown to them and to be able to perform miracles (Acts 2, 3). Philip performed similar wonders in Samaria (Acts 8), Peter in Joppa and Caesarea (Acts 9, 10), and Paul throughout his ministry in Asia Minor and Europe (Acts 13-28). These powerful deeds were experiential evidence that confirmed the message of “salvation” — the establishment of the kingdom of God and a salvation from condemnation and freedom from evil powers (Heb. 12:25-29).
The Spirit gave early Christian believers the conviction that their sins had been forgiven; thus, they were not fearful of judgment, and as a result their prayers were bold and confident, and their religious experience was joyful (Acts 2:37-47). The Spirit also delivered those who were enslaved to evil powers, which was compelling evidence of the superiority of the power of God over the forces of evil and revealed that the kingdom of God had been established in their lives.
What is the story of your conversion? In what ways have you been confirmed in your faith and belief in Jesus Christ as your Savior and Lord? Why is it good at times to remember how God first worked in your life to bring you to Him?
Monday ↥ December 27
When believers confessed their faith in Christ and joined the church, they set a boundary marker that distinguished them from the rest of society. Unfortunately, this became a source for conflict because it implicitly passed a negative judgment on their community and its values.
Read Hebrews 10:32-34 and Hebrews 13:3. What was the experience of the audience of Hebrews after their conversion?
It is very likely that the readers of Hebrews suffered verbally and physically at the hands of mobs stirred up by opponents (e.g., Acts 16:19-22, Acts 17:1-9). They were also imprisoned, and it is possible that they were beaten as well, because officials had the power of authorizing punishment and incarceration, often without following appropriate judicial norms, while they gathered evidence (e.g., Act 16:22, 23).
Read Hebrews 11:24-26 and 1 Peter 4:14, 16. How do the experiences of Moses and of the readers of 1 Peter help us understand why Christian believers were persecuted?
To “bear the reproach of Christ” simply meant to identify oneself with Christ and endure the shame and abuse that this association implied. Public animosity against Christians was the result of their distinctive religious commitments. People can get offended by religious practices that they don’t understand or by people whose lifestyle and morals could make others feel guilty or shamed. By the middle of the first century A.D., Tacitus considered Christians to be guilty of “hatred against mankind.” — Alfred J. Church and William J. Brodribb, trans., The Complete Works of Tacitus, (New York: The Modern Library, 1942) Annals 15.44.1. Whatever the exact reason for that charge, certainly false, many early Christians, such as the ones that Paul had written this letter to, were suffering for their faith.
Everyone, a Christian or not, suffers. What does it mean, however, to suffer for Christ’s sake? How much suffering that we face is for Christ’s sake, and how much is brought about by our own choices?
Tuesday ↥ December 28
The readers of Hebrews were successful in keeping their faith and commitment to Christ, despite rejection and persecution. The conflict, however, took a toll in the long run. They fought a good fight and came out victorious but also weary.
Read Hebrews 2:18; Hebrews 3:12, 13; Hebrews 4:15; Hebrews 10:25; Hebrews 12:3, 12, 13; and Hebrews 13:1-9, 13. What were some of the challenges the believers were facing?
Hebrews tells us that the readers continued to experience difficulties. Verbal and probably other kinds of attacks against their honor continued (Heb. 13:13). Some believers were still in prison (Heb. 13:3) — something that may have drained the church financially and psychologically. They were tired (Heb. 12:12, 13) and could easily “lose heart” (Heb. 12:3, NIV).
It is usual among persons and communities that after the thrill of victory passes, psychological and other kinds of defenses are relaxed, and they become more vulnerable to the counterattack of their enemies. The strength that a person or community mobilized to face an impending threat is more difficult to summon a second time.
Read 1 Kings 19:1-4. What happened to Elijah?
“But a reaction such as frequently follows high faith and glorious success was pressing upon Elijah. He feared that the reformation begun on Carmel might not be lasting; and depression seized him. He had been exalted to Pisgah’s top; now he was in the valley. While under the inspiration of the Almighty, he had stood the severest trial of faith; but in this time of discouragement, with Jezebel’s threat sounding in his ears, and Satan still apparently prevailing through the plotting of this wicked woman, he lost his hold on God. He had been exalted above measure, and the reaction was tremendous. Forgetting God, Elijah fled on and on, until he found himself in a dreary waste, alone.” — Ellen G. White, Prophets and Kings, pp. 161, 162.
Think about those times in which you failed in your Christian life and try to understand the circumstances and factors that contributed to the collapse. What could you have done differently?
Wednesday ↥ December 29
What did the apostle advise the readers to do in view of their situation? What can we learn from Hebrews for our own benefit? Let us analyze how God helped Elijah recover from his discouragement.
Read 1 Kings 19:5-18. What did God do to restore the faith of Elijah, His servant?
The story of God’s dealings with Elijah after Carmel is fascinating because it shows the tender care and wisdom with which God ministers to those who are under distress and who struggle to regain faith. God did several things for Elijah. First, He cared for his physical needs. He provided food and let him rest. Then, in the cave, He kindly reproved him — “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (NKJV) — and helped him gain a deeper understanding of how He works and fulfills His purposes. God was not in the wind, the earthquake, or the fire, but in a still small voice. Then, God gave Elijah a work to do and reassured him.
Read Hebrews 2:1, Hebrews 3:12-14, Hebrews 5:11-6:3, and Hebrews 10:19-25. What did Paul suggest that believers should do?
Throughout Hebrews we can find several instructions that the apostle gave the readers to help them recover their original strength and faith. One aspect that Paul emphasizes is to take care of the physical needs of their fellow believers. He suggests that they should practice hospitality and visit those in prison, which implied providing for their needs. The apostle exhorts the readers to be generous, remembering that God will not abandon them (Heb. 13:1-6). Paul also reproved them and encouraged them. He warned them not to gradually “drift away” (Heb. 2:1, ESV) and not to have “an evil heart of unbelief” (Heb. 3:12), and he encouraged them to grow in their understanding of the faith (Heb. 5:11-6:3). He also remarked about the importance of consistent attendance at church meetings (Heb. 10:25). In summary, he suggested that they press together, encourage one another, and stir up love and good works, but he also lifted up Jesus and His ministry in the heavenly sanctuary in their behalf (Heb. 8:1, 2; Heb. 12:1-4).
Thursday ↥ December 30
Read Hebrews 1:2; Hebrews 9:26-28; Hebrews 10:25, 36-38; and Hebrews 12:25-28. What point is Paul stressing here, particularly regarding time?
There is a very important element that the apostle emphasizes that adds urgency to his exhortation: the readers are living in the very “last days” (Heb. 1:2) and the promises are about to be fulfilled (Heb. 10:36-38). It is interesting, as we will see, that throughout the document Paul compares his audience with the desert generation that stood right before the border of Canaan, ready to enter into the Promised Land. He reminds them, “For yet a little while, and He who is coming will come and will not tarry” (Heb. 10:37, NKJV). And then he encourages them: “we are not of those who draw back to perdition, but of those who believe to the saving of the soul” (Heb. 10:39, NKJV). This last exhortation reminded the readers, and us, about the dangers that the people of God have historically experienced right before the fulfillment of the promises of God.
The book of Numbers talks about this very thing. The biblical record says that two times, right before entering the Promised Land, Israel suffered important defeats. The first time, recorded in Numbers 13 and 14, tells us about the doubts that several leaders spread through the congregation and caused the faith of Israel to fail. As a result, the congregation decided to appoint a new leader and return to Egypt, just at the moment when they were about to enter Canaan.
The second time, the Israelites got entangled with sensuality and false worship in Baal Peor (Numbers 24, 25). While Balaam was not able to bring a curse upon the Israelites, Satan used sexual temptations to lead Israel in false worship and sin, and to bring God’s displeasure upon them.
Paul warns the readers of Hebrews against both dangers. First, he exhorts them to hold fast to the confession of their faith and to fix their eyes upon Jesus (Heb. 4:14, Heb. 10:23, Heb. 12:1-4). Second, he exhorts them against immorality and covetousness (Heb. 13:4-6). Finally, he exhorts them to observe and obey their leaders (Heb. 13:7, 17).
Considering our understanding of the state of the dead — and that as soon as we close our eyes in death, the next thing we know is the Second Coming — why can we say that all people have lived in the “last days”?
Friday ↥ December 31
Further Thought: David A. deSilva explains clearly why the early Christians suffered persecution: “Christians adopted a lifestyle that … would have been considered antisocial and even subversive. Loyalty to the gods, expressed in pious attendance at sacrifices and the like, was viewed as a symbol for loyalty to the state, authorities, friends, and family. Worship of the deities was something of a symbol for one’s dedication to the relationships that kept society stable and prosperous. By abstaining from the former, Christians (like the Jews) were regarded with suspicion as potential violators of the laws and [as] subversive elements within the empire.” — Perseverance in Gratitude (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2000), p. 12.)
“For the disheartened there is a sure remedy — faith, prayer, work. Faith and activity will impart assurance and satisfaction that will increase day by day. Are you tempted to give way to feelings of anxious foreboding or utter despondency? In the darkest days, when appearances seem most forbidding, fear not. Have faith in God. He knows your need. He has all power. His infinite love and compassion never weary. Fear not that He will fail of fulfilling His promise. He is eternal truth. Never will He change the covenant He has made with those who love Him. And He will bestow upon His faithful servants the measure of efficiency that their need demands. The apostle Paul has testified: ‘He said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for My strength is made perfect in weakness. … Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong.’ 2 Corinthians 12:9, 10.” — Ellen G. White, Prophets and Kings, pp. 164, 165.
Marriage usually is a joyful time when families celebrate. But Khome and her husband, Eung, only suffered in their remote village in Laos.
Khome, who belongs to the Laven people group, was the daughter of a spiritual medium. She had been groomed from childhood to take her mother’s place. But she found the Lord and gave her life to Him against her mother’s will. Even worse, she married a Christian man from another people group. Everyone seemed to oppose their marriage — even the evil spirits.
One day, an evil spirit appeared to Khome and laughed at her. Khome quickly knelt down and prayed. Rising, she tried to walk to her Bible to read it. The Bible lay only a few steps away, but her feet felt so heavy that she could hardly move. Her feet seemed to be stuck in the ground. As she struggled to walk, she prayed, “God, protect me. God, protect me.” Finally, she reached the Bible and opened it. After reading a few passages, she prayed in the name of Jesus, and the evil spirit left.
The struggle with evil forces continued for years, but Khome and Eung worshiped God faithfully in their home. Their parents, siblings, and neighbors expressed open hatred for them. Someone reported them to the authorities on false charges of wrongdoing. When police officers arrived to detain the couple, they were met by mysterious, powerful figures in front of the house. The officers fled in fear. A second attempt to arrest the couple failed when the police officers were frightened away by the sight of two mysterious figures inside the house. Word spread that the couple had special supernatural guardians, and people began to respect them.
Meanwhile, the couple shared their faith with family and neighbors. They helped others at every opportunity and, although desperately poor themselves, assisted those who were even more impoverished. Slowly, people began to come to them for help. The sick and demon-possessed sought healing. One by one, people accepted God, and the couple’s home became a house church. Khome’s sister resisted the gospel for some time, but one night she saw a bright light shining in Khome’s house. The next day, she asked her sister how she had light when nobody in the village had electricity. Khome did not what to say. She had been asleep with her husband. The sister accepted Jesus.
Today, Eung and Khome are shining the light of God among the Laven people of Laos. Part of this quarter’s Thirteenth Sabbath Offering will help open an elementary school in the country. Please pray for the school project, Eung and Khome, and the precious people of Laos.
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