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Solving Interpretive Challenges in the Book of Hebrews
A Brief Commentary

In our Introduction to the Book of the Hebrews, as with all the other Bible books, we typically include a chapter or section examining a few of the most common interpretation difficulties and challenges that often puzzle readers of the book.  In a few cases however, we encounter difficulties that require addition space to adequately examine the topic.  Such is the case with the Book of Hebrews, due to both quantity and complexity of the challenges.

Progress Note (May 2024):  Several related articles in the Table of Contents are still in progress and located on separate pages.  Links will be added as external pages are completed.

Table of Contents

Was Jesus Prefect or Made Perfect?  (Hebrews 2:10)

By far, the most common argument of skeptics against the perfectionism of Jesus is based on Hebrews 2:10.  The verse reads, In bringing many sons and daughters to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the pioneer of their salvation [Jesus] perfect through what he suffered.  Critics argue that, since Jesus had to be made perfect, he must not have been perfect before.  The critics err by not understanding the various uses and English translations of the Greek word for perfect (teleioo).  In the Amplified Bible, a translation that attempts to capture the various nuances of the original languages, we read For it was fitting for God [that is, an act worthy of His divine nature] that He, for whose sake are all things, and through whom are all things, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the author and founder of their salvation perfect through suffering [bringing to maturity the human experience necessary for Him to be perfectly equipped for His office as High Priest].

So, even though Jesus was already perfect, in the sense of being sinless (1Jn 3:5), in his humanity, he grew and fulfilled all the Father gave Him to do (Jn 17:4).

We examine these arguments in much greater detail in our article Why Jesus Had to be Perfect.

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Who Holds the Power of Death?  (Hebrews 2:14)

Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death (Heb 2:14-15)

But in the OT we read “See now that I myself am he! There is no god besides me.  I put to death and I bring to life, I have wounded and I will heal, and no one can deliver out of my hand” (Dt 32:29).

Thus, God alone has the ultimate power over death.  Only He can create life ex nihilo (out of nothing).  He also pre-determined the number of our days (Ps 90: 10-12)

Satan has temporary power of death over non-believers based on his successful temptation of Eve in the garden (Gen 3:1-7) which triggered God’s pre-announced judgment of death for disobedience (Gen 2:17; see also Rom. 5:12).  But for true believers, Satan’s power over death was broken by Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross.  When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ.  He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross.  And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross (Col 2:13-15).  The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.  But thanks be to God!  He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ (1Cor 15:16, see also Rom 6:23).  Thus, only Christ now holds the keys to death and hell as he re-assured the Apostle John, ...he placed his right hand on me and said: “Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last.  I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever!  And I hold the keys of death and Hades (Rev 1:17-18).

Finally, the Apostle Paul writes to Timothy:  He has saved us and called us to a holy life—not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace.  This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time, but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior, Christ Jesus, who has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel (2Tim 1:9-12).

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Did Jesus Face His Death Willingly or Reluctantly?  (Hebrews 5:7)

Hebrews 5:7 states that, During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with fervent cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission.  The verse has prompted many credits to charge that Jesus unwillingly faced His coming death.  This is easily refuted by other verses in Scripture.  In the Garden of Gethsemane, He prayed to the Father, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me.  Yet not as I will, but as you will” (Mt 26:39).  He then prayed a second time, “My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done (Mt 26:42).

This exchange clearly shows that Jesus did not eagerly face His impending death, which would be no surprise.  In His human weakness, but still not sinning (Heb 4:15), He certainly didn’t eagerly look forward to the most gruesome, torturous, agonizing death known to man.  Yet He willingly endured the beatings and the cross because it was the only way to pay our sin debt (Rm 6:23, Heb 2:14-15).

Many other scriptures also  fortify this conclusion.  We'll mention a few:

In John 12, Jesus declares his impending death to His disciples, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.  Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed.  But if it dies, it produces many seeds.  Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.  Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be.  My Father will honor the one who serves me.  Now my soul is troubled, and what shall I say?  ‘Father, save me from this hour’?  No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour.  Father, glorify your name!”  Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and will glorify it again” (Jn 12:23-28).

Matthew also records a similar explanation from Jesus.  From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.  Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said.  “This shall never happen to you!”  Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan!  You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns” (Mt 16:21-23).  Thus, Jesus rebuked Peter for attempting to prevent His death.

Similarly, in Matthew 26:47-54, we read of the betrayal and arrest of Jesus.  One of Jesus’ companions drew a sword to defend Him, but Jesus commanded him to put away his sword.  He then said to him, “Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?  But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?” (Mt 26:53-54).  Jesus had legions of angels (heaven’s soldiers) at His disposal, yet He refused to call for help.

John 10:17-18 leaves no doubt that Jesus faced death of His own free will.  The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.  I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again.  This command I received from my Father.”

Jesus also teaches his disciples that, Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends Jn 15:13.

Finally, we can note that his natural reaction to His impending death further indicates that Jesus was not isolated from facing the same fears and weaknesses that we typically face, yet unlike us, He never gave in to his fears.

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Was the Mosaic Law Perfect?  (Hebrews 7:19)

HEBREWS 7:19—Was the Mosaic Law Perfect?

In Hebrews 7:19, the author states that “the law made nothing perfect”.  He goes on to say that a new covenant would not have been necessary “if there had been nothing wrong with that first covenant” (Heb 8:7).  He later writes, The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves.  For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship.  Otherwise, would they not have stopped being offered?  For the worshipers would have been cleansed once for all, and would no longer have felt guilty for their sins.  But those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins.  It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins (Heb 10:1-4).  Furthermore, he states that Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins.  But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, and since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool.  For by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy (Heb 10:11-14).

Yet in Psalms 19:7, David declares that “the law of the Lord is perfect”.  So who is actually correct, and is this a contradiction?  The short answers are that both the author of Hebrews and the psalmist are both correct, and when considering the context, there is no contradiction.

The Law was perfect based on its purposes.  The first purpose was to reveal the character of God, on which His commandments are based.  Based on His absolute righteousness, the Law thus shows by comparison that, in our sinful nature, we can never measure up to His perfect standards.  Thus, we are forced to seek another way of becoming (being credited with) righteousness, which drives us to our Lord and Savior for redemption. 

Other purposes of the Law were to restrain evil via the civil laws, and to provide moral guidance in living our everyday lives, but for our question, we are primarily concerned with the first purpose.

Thus, we see that, although the Law was limited in that it cannot save us, it is perfect in its intended purpose.

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Were OT sacrifices an Effective Atonement for Sins?  (Hebrews 10:11)

In Leviticus 17:11, Moses records God’s proclamation that “the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life.  Yet, the author of Hebrews writes, Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins (Heb 10:11), and it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins (Heb 10:4).

The apparent contradiction is easily explained by the intention of the temporary Old Covenant animal sacrifices versus that of the permanent New Covenant once-for-all sacrifice by Christ.  The OT sacrifices were intended to temporarily cover over sins until the first coming of Christ, who then sacrificed Himself as a perfect offering from a perfect High Priest to permanently take away the sins of the world (Jn 1:29).  This does not mean that everyone in the entire world will be saved, but only those who truly repent and believe in the Lord.

The Hebrew verb translated in Leviticus as atonement (kapar) can also be translated as to forgive, to expiate, or to reconcile.  The word generally conveys the idea of covering (Ex 32:30; Ezk 45:17; Dan 9:24), often in the sense of changing the object’s nature or appearance.  It can also be used to indicate the cancellation of a contract, such as in Isaiah 28:18 that reads, Your covenant with death will be annulled (kapar).

So the OT sacrifices were effective in their intention as a temporary covering of sins.  But now as true believers, due to the finished work of Jesus, we can confidently say with the Apostle Paul:

Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him!  For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!  Not only is this so, but we also boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation (Rm 5:9-11).

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Why wouldn’t God Accept Esau’s Repentance?  (Hebrews 12:16-17)

See that no one is sexually immoral, or is godless like Esau, who for a single meal sold his inheritance rights as the oldest son.  Afterward, as you know, when he wanted to inherit this blessing, he was rejected.  Even though he sought the blessing with tears, he could not change what he had done (Heb 12-16-17).

The background for Esau is found back in the Book of Genesis.  Esau was the firstborn son of Isaac, son of Abraham, which entitled him to a certain inheritance.  Yet, he gave up these privileges in exchange for a bowl of  stew (Gen 25:19-34).  Jacob, with the help of his mother Rebekah, then tricked Isaac into giving him the family blessing that Isaac had intended for Esau (Gen 27).  Esau then planned to kill his brother, but Rebekah sent Jacob to live with a relative in a foreign land (Gen 28-31).  Esau and Jacob appeared to reconcile years later upon Jacob’s return to Canaan and Esau to Edom (Gen 33). 

From a simple reading, it may first appear that Esau was sorrowful and he shed his tears over the lost blessing, that is the blessing and inheritance of the first born child.  Yet the inspired author of Hebrews warns us that “See that no one is sexually immoral, or is godless like Esau, who for a single meal sold his inheritance rights as the oldest son.  Afterward, as you know, when he wanted to inherit this blessing, he was rejected.  Even though he sought the blessing with tears, he could not change what he had done” (Heb 12:16-17).

Thus, it appears that Esau’s tears were tears of regret over losing his birthright, due to his own choices, and not genuine repentance over his wickedness.  He also never repented of his sexual immorality with his multiple foreign wives.  His lack of regard for his God-ordained birthright is further evidence.  On the other hand, although Jacob would certainly not be named “ethical person of the year”, he genuinely trusted God and valued the things of God.

Pastor John MacArthur once compared Esau with Judas, the disciple that betrayed Christ, and in his regret, finally committed suicide (Mt 27:1-10).  Both Judas and Esau expressed regret over their choices, but never actually repented.

The circumstances of Esau’s death is not recorded in the Scriptures, however, the Babylonian Talmud, an extra-biblical commentary by Jewish Rabbis, records that he was killed by a grandson of Jacob when Esau attempted to prevent the burial of Jacob in the cave in the field of Machpelah that his grandfather Abraham had purchased for the burial of Sarah and himself.  Jacob had made this last request on his deathbed (Gen 49:29-33).

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