How Hebrews Informs Old Testament Interpretation
An important question every Christian should ask themselves is, “Am I letting the Bible’s interpretation of itself inform my interpretation of the Bible.” This is especially key regarding interpretation of the Old Testament, as its redemptive-historical setting is more removed from our own as compared to the New Testament. From limited personal experience, it appears many Christians don’t give much thought to discerning if there is a Biblically endorsed means of Old Testament interpretation. Rather, many contemporary Western Christians interpret it at “face value”, as if it was written to a 21st century Western mindset, without much regard for the Scripture's original audience and circumstances. I would submit that it is of prime importance to let Scripture’s interpretation of itself inform our own.
The question is then raised: Where does the Bible provide examples of its own interpretation? More notably, where does the Bible provide examples of how we’re to interpret the Old Testament? One of the most, if not the most, instructive sections of Scripture on this issue is the book of Hebrews. The book of Hebrews is rife with discussions of the Old Testament and subsequent interpretation. Undeniably, Hebrews contains multiple sections of exposition regarding New Covenant Christian living. However, our limited discussion and focus will be on sections of Hebrews where we can see how the book interprets the Old Testament. Put simply, we will see how Hebrews interprets the significance of Old Testament institutions, the significance of Old Testament figures, and its focus on Christ.
Hebrews provides insight into how the Bible interprets the significance of various Old Testament institutions. In addressing the Old Covenant sacrificial system, Hebrews states,
These preparations having thus been made, the priests go regularly into the first section, performing their ritual duties, but into the second only the high priest goes, and he but once a year, and not without taking blood, which he offers for himself and for the unintentional sins of the people. By this the Holy Spirit indicates that the way into the holy places is not yet opened as long as the first section is still standing (which is symbolic for the present age). According to this arrangement, gifts and sacrifices are offered that cannot perfect the conscience of the worshiper, but deal only with food and drink and various washings, regulations for the body imposed until the time of reformation. But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. – Hebrews 9:6-12
The Old Covenant sacrifices made by priests in the tabernacle (a tent) and subsequent temple could not “perfect the conscience” but rather dealt with external regulations. However, once Christ appeared as high priest, he entered through the “greater and more perfect tent” and secured eternal redemption for his people. Hebrews views the Old Covenant sacrifices made by priests as prefiguratory of the ultimate sacrifice to be made by our true high priest in the “more perfect tent”. The book goes on to further describes the tabernacle, which Hebrews 8:5 had already described as a copy of heavenly realities:
Thus it was necessary for the copies of the heavenly things to be purified with these rites, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these. For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the holy places every year with blood not his own, for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. – Hebrews 9:23-26
Whereas Old Covenant priest entered repeatedly into a copy of heavenly realities, Christ entered definitively into heaven itself with a better sacrifice – his own blood. Here we explicitly see again how the Old Covenant priests, sacrifices, and tabernacle were prefiguratory of our true high priest bringing his greater sacrifice into heaven itself. Further solidifying the anticipatory nature of the Old Covenant, Hebrews 10 states,
For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near. Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, since the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have any consciousness of sins? But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year. For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins…And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified. – Hebrews 10:1-4, 11-14
The Law and associated sacrifices are explicitly stated to be “a shadow of the good things to come” which can never “make perfect those who draw near”. Rather, the priests and sacrifices point us forward to Christ and his single sacrifice which effected the redemption of his people.
Hebrews also dives into specifically addressing the Old Covenant system of priests. Starting in chapter 5, Hebrews states,
And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him, being designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchizedek. – Hebrews 5:9-10
We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain, where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf, having become a high priest forever after the order of Melchizedek. For this Melchizedek, king of Salem, priest of the Most High God, met Abraham returning from the slaughter of the kings and blessed him, and to him Abraham apportioned a tenth part of everything. He is first, by translation of his name, king of righteousness, and then he is also king of Salem, that is, king of peace. He is without father or mother or genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but resembling the Son of God he continues a priest forever – Hebrews 6:19-7:3
Melchizedek is unique in that he appears early in the Biblical narrative as a priest-king. He was both a “priest of the Most High God” and “king of Salem”. In fact, Melchizedek points us forward to the greatest prophet-priest-king, Jesus Christ (see article “The Example of Melchizedek” or the sermon on Genesis 14:17-20). Unsurprisingly then, Jesus is described as a high priest, not after the Aaronic priesthood but after the order of Melchizedek. Hebrews 7 further states:
Now if perfection had been attainable through the Levitical priesthood (for under it the people received the law), what further need would there have been for another priest to arise after the order of Melchizedek, rather than one named after the order of Aaron? For when there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the law as well. – Hebrews 7:11-12
This makes Jesus the guarantor of a better covenant. The former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office, but he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever. Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them. For it was indeed fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens. He has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people, since he did this once for all when he offered up himself. – Hebrews 7:22-27
The shortcomings and prefiguratory nature of the Levitical and Aaronic priesthood is pointed out. Whereas those priests were many in number and offered repeated sacrifices, Jesus “holds his priesthood permanently” and offered one definitive sacrifice. Jesus effected a “change in the priesthood” by being a Melchizedekian priest rather than an Aaronic one. This brought with it a change in the law and inaugurated a better covenant. Implicit within the prefiguratory nature of the Old Covenant priesthood is that the Old Covenant itself was prefiguratory of the impending New Covenant.
Hebrews also describes the prefiguratory nature of the Israelites entering the promised land. Hebrews 4 states,
“For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken of another day later on. So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God's rest has also rested from his works as God did from his.” – Hebrews 4:8-10
Here, the rest associated with Joshua guiding the Israelites into the promised land is identified as prefiguratory of a greater Sabbath rest yet to come. A rest that we see finally manifested in the New Heaven and New Earth. I hope this limited discussion of how Hebrews interprets Old Testament institutions has proven insightful.
In addition to Old Testament institutions, Hebrews also interprets the significance of Old Testament figures. One notable figure is Moses. Hebrews 3 states,
Therefore, holy brothers, you who share in a heavenly calling, consider Jesus, the apostle and high priest of our confession, who was faithful to him who appointed him, just as Moses also was faithful in all God's house. For Jesus has been counted worthy of more glory than Moses—as much more glory as the builder of a house has more honor than the house itself. (For every house is built by someone, but the builder of all things is God.) Now Moses was faithful in all God's house as a servant, to testify to the things that were to be spoken later, but Christ is faithful over God's house as a son. And we are his house if indeed we hold fast our confidence and our boasting in our hope. – Hebrews 3:1-6
It is worth remembering the significance of Moses to the early Jewish Christians. Moses was the means by which the Pentateuch had been delivered to the Israelites and was a faithful priest-prophet to the Israelites, mediating between the Israelites and God and delivering God’s decrees to them. This Moses, renown in the eyes of the Jews and many early Christians, was a mere faithful servant in God’s house in comparison to Christ who is faithful as a Son. Moses points us forward to Christ, who was the ultimate priest-prophet to God’s people. Jesus was himself the final and greatest means of God prophetically revealing himself (discussed below) and was the greatest priest who offered the definitive sacrifice (discussed above). It is amazing to see how even notable Old Testament characters such as Moses served to point us to Christ.
Finally, it is worth appreciating Hebrews’ consuming focus on Christ in the midst of discussions on the Old Testament. Hebrews 1 states,
"Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high" – Hebrews 1:1-3
The supremacy of Christ is displayed over and against the prophetic means of the Old Covenant. Jesus is the greatest and final prophet who is the very “radiance of the glory of God” and facsimile of God’s nature – God himself. The presence of prophets throughout the Old Testament served to drive us forward in anticipation of the greatest prophet and greatest revelatory act of God – the revelation of God himself through Jesus Christ. Finally, Hebrews 11 – the great hall of faith chapter which describes amazing acts of faith displayed by Old Testament individuals – ends with stating,
And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets— who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received back their dead by resurrection. Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated— of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth. And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect. Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. – Hebrews 11:32-12:3
This ending to the great hall of faith chapter is absolutely astounding! Many Christians who don’t understand the Bible’s mandate to preach Christ from all of Scripture often resort to moralizing the Old Testament. That is, they take various Old Testament stories and characters and aim to emulate good character qualities and characteristics while avoiding bad ones. Nowhere in Scripture are we told to do that! In fact, the above text from Hebrews may be one of the strongest passive rebukes of such tendencies. Following the lengthy expose of the achievements of many great Old Testament characters, this would have been a perfect spot to extol readers to emulate these individuals. Rather, we are told that since we are “surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses” (the Old Testament individuals just mentioned), we are to “run the race…looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith…Consider him…that you may not grow weary or fainthearted”. Despite the achievements and blessings God bestowed on many Old Testament saints, our focus is not to be on them. Instead, our focus is to be squarely on Jesus Christ. Hebrews’ emphasis on the primacy of Christ and the necessity of focusing on him resonates beautifully with Scriptures’ testimony that all Scripture is ultimately about Christ and that he should be proclaimed from all Scripture.
The question must again be raised; are you letting the Bible’s interpretation of itself inform your interpretation of the Bible? Does the way you interpret the Old Testament line up with how Scripture interprets the Old Testament? As we have seen quite explicitly, Hebrews continually and faithfully interprets Old Testament institutions, events, and figures in light of Christ. Additionally, the book contains such a rich and explicit focus on Christ in the midst of Scriptural exposition which resonates beautifully with the Bible’s mandates of Christ-centered interpretation and preaching. Are you letting the Bible’s interpretation of itself inform your interpretation of the Bible? My friends, we must strive to do so and encourage others unto the same!