This past Sunday I preached Hebrews 10:19-31 as part of a 27 week series going passage by passage through the book of Hebrews. Hebrews is one of my favorite books in the Bible and I have been wanting to teach through it for years, but never felt the timing was right until this past spring. It’s funny—I’ve had quite a few fellow pastors tell me, “Man, Hebrews is hard to understand.” I smile. “No it’s not. It’s really quite simple.” Now I don’t mean that to be prideful…I fully admit that certain parts of Hebrews take a while to wrestle with and at the end of that match, you still come out not quite sure if you have your interpretation right. Take 6:4-8, for example. For us Baptists who like to come to the text with the presupposition that one cannot truly lose their salvation, it sure does sound like apostasy is a real and to-be-feared sin.
Nonetheless, I think the central message of Hebrews is quite straightforward. Take whatever you wish…angels, the prophets, Moses, Abraham, the Law, the priests, etc.—Jesus is vastly superior to them all. After all, he is the one who offered himself as a perfect sacrifice to bring us eternal salvation.
But one of the things I love best about Hebrews is that any consideration of it forces us to grapple with the idea of how the Old and New Testament relate together. The conclusion it presents is that Jesus completes the story…he fulfills the offices, the law, the sacrifices, etc., and ultimately brings about a New Covenant that replaces and stands eternally better than the Old Covenant through Moses (or: the Law). In fact, Hebrews stands as one of the main reasons I am neither dispensational nor covenantal.
Under the terminology of “biblical theology” many scholars have attempted to identify a center point to the Bible—that key idea that brings the entirety of Scripture together in a unified story. In his own work, James Hamilton of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary identifies several views of a biblical center including God’s self-revelation, holiness, steadfast love, sovereignty, kingdom, election, covenants, and Hamilton’s own proposal, God’s glory in salvation through judgment (also the title of his recent book).[i]
In my own wrestling with Hebrews, I too sought to define a center point for my congregation—a point that I think is verified through the whole of the New Testament. Smarter men than me have undertaken volumes to address the idea of a center. I’m going to attempt to briefly define and defend it in the few remaining words of a blog post. This should be fun…
So what is this center?
I go back to Genesis 12 (and ideas repeated in Genesis 15, 17, et al.). I understand the center point to the Bible as God brings glory to himself by fulfilling the promises to Abraham through Jesus. We are introduced to these promises when God chose Abram, a descendant of Shem and a man originally from Ur of the Chaldeans who went to live in Haran. Genesis 12:1-3 states:
Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
Now, simply put, here is how I see the rest of Scripture relating to this point: Genesis 1-11 sets the stage…creation, fall, an opening promise to crush the serpent, the enemy. It tells the story of how mankind started with a single man and woman, who through a single act of disobedience brought sin, corruption, and death to their progeny and the world. It tells how sin became so corrosive that God nearly wiped the slate clean, but rescued from judgment a mere 8 people who gave rise to many nations and persons, including Abraham. In laying the foundation, we find the reason why such a choosing and calling out of an individual was needed. God intended a work of redemption to reverse the curse—to bring a blessing to “all the families of the earth,” yet it would come through the unfolding of history and not an immediate event.
The books of the Law and History unfold this story through Abraham’s descendents. They show how God upended certain cultural norms and expectations (such as the inheritance passing to the firstborn) to bring about a child and a people of promise. A people who initially seemed to fulfill the promises to Abraham, but were shown to be corrupt thus all but a remnant stood ultimately rejected. The poetical books offer wisdom for this seeming people of promise to live according to God’s standards, but also wrestle with the hopes and failures of the people in truly answering God’s words. The prophets call further judgment upon sin and sinner, including the people and nations that were birthed through Abraham’s descendents. Yet they also give hope that one greater is coming who will truly bring about everything God declared. When we come to the New Testament, we find the surprising Savior-King, a child of Abraham and of David—a child of promise who brings completion and an end of the curse to the true descendants of Abraham, a people of faith from all nations. This child also points to a further future hope where the promises find eternal fulfillment.
So what were these promises? God gave three to Abraham: a land, an offspring (nation), and a blessing.
Very quickly in the biblical revelation we begin to see the outworking of the offspring and land. By the end of Genesis we have 12 patriarchs and their descendants going to live in the land of Egypt, just as God told Abraham they would since the sin of the people in the land of promise was not yet complete (15:12-16). In Exodus the people had become enslaved yet God powerfully delivered them from the Egyptians and led them into the wilderness where he made a promise, “If you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine” (19:5). This promise included possession of the land and the promise of great blessings but stood contingent upon the people’s obedience to the Covenant—the Law (see also Deuteronomy 28).
After the first generation rejected God and therefore died in the wilderness, the second generation marched into the Promised Land. Of this, Joshua 21:43-45 states:
Thus the Lord gave to Israel all the land that he swore to give to their fathers. And they took possession of it, and they settled there. And the Lord gave them rest on every side just as he had sworn to their fathers. Not one of all their enemies had withstood them, for the Lord had given all their enemies into their hands. Not one word of all the good promises that the Lord had made to the house of Israel had failed; all came to pass.
This seems like a good ending, but it was only the beginning of a great tragedy. Now dwelling within the land of promise, we come to Judges and find the people did not remain faithful. They began a cycle of disobedience followed by obedience followed by further disobedience. Eventually the disobedience won out. Instead of blessings, the curses came upon the nations of Israel and Judah (a split kingdom/nation being itself a mark of rebellion). God even spoke prophetically through the names of Hosea’s children No Mercy and Not My People, showing he would not have mercy and would completely reject those who nonetheless still stood as physical offspring of Abraham. Eventually both kingdoms fell into exile in another land, the ultimate sign of rejection and ultimate punishment for disobedience.
Yet through this all, God still spoke of hope. Many times he promised to bless and restore the people. But he also indicated the promises were no longer just about a land in the Middle East and a nation physically descended from Abraham. Of the land, God promised to his own Son, “Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession” (Psalm 2:8). And of the people he promised, “It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be lifted up above the hills; and all the nations shall flow to it, and may people shall come, and say: ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord…that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths’” (Isaiah 2:2-3).
Coming to the New Testament, we find Jesus Christ, “the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Matthew 1:1), an immediate idea of sonship meant to draw our minds back to the promises to both Abraham and David (of an eternal throne and King to rule over the people upon it). This is the Son who will “save his people from their sins” (1:21), thus bringing the ultimate blessing, a true reversal of the curse. Jesus taught, “I have not come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5:17), and, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me” (John 5:37).
When it comes to the children of Abraham, Jesus said to a group of Jews boasting in Abraham as their father, “You are of your father the devil” (John 8:44); an idea that John the Baptizer had warned of when he spoke to the crowds, “Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham” (Luke 3:8). In a reference to the inclusion of the Gentiles, John the Apostle wrote that “God so loved the world” (3:16), in the same book that Jesus said, “I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd” (John 10:17). After his death and resurrection, Jesus commanded his followers to go into all the nations and make disciples—thus taking the promises to both Jew and Gentile (Matthew 28:18-20).
In explaining these truths, Paul told the church in Rome that God had always intended to save people from among the Jews and Gentiles (9:22-26), and that the Gentile inclusion made them part of the same olive tree as Israel (11:13-24, a different metaphor but the same idea as Jesus’ one flock with one shepherd). And why is all this so? “For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring…this means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring” (9:6-8). And it is through faith that we become children of the promise and of Abraham, whether Jew or Gentile (circumcised or uncircumcised—4:9-17).
In Galatians 3, Paul went into further explanation. Quoting from Genesis about the promises: “Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, ‘And to offsprings,’ referring to many, but referring to one, ‘And to your offspring,’ who is Christ” (3:16). Not only is Christ the offspring ultimately promised in Genesis to bring about a great nation, but he is also the end of the Law (3:17-26) and again the one who makes us, Jew or Gentile, Abraham’s offspring—or the nation that comes from him. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise” (3:28-29).
Ultimately at the end of the story there is a New Heaven and a New Earth, and a New Jerusalem which brings them together. The earth, like promised in Habakkuk 2:14 is finally filled with the Glory of the Lord, as the water covers the sea. The fullness of the land belongs to Jesus and his people and is forever both a blessing and blessed.
Three promises were made to Abraham: of land, of offspring/a nation, and of blessing. In Christ comes the blessing of eternal salvation and the reversal of the curse, a blessing that extends to all the peoples of the earth (all persons who believe no matter the tribe, tongue, or nation) and a blessing that will one day fully envelop creation. In Christ the true offspring comes the nation, a people of faith saved from sin and saved into eternal life and the promises. And in Christ comes the land—not just a small strip, but an entire world populated with people who follow and honor Jesus as King. And through it all, God’s glory shines magnificently.
So what then, do I believe is the central idea of the Bible? God glorifies himself by fulfilling the promises to Abraham through Jesus.
[i] James M. Hamilton, Jr. God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment (Crossway, 2010), pg 51.