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Relevant Biblical Passages: Heb. 1:1-2; 2:3; 4:15; 10:22-23

Jesus and the Book of Hebrews. The Probe Study guide for this quarter focuses on Jesus and the Book of Hebrews, and that is the title for the first lesson. Since Probe follows the standard adult Sabbath School Lesson plan used in Seventh-day Adventist Churches around the world, it can be instructive to ask why a particular book or theme has been selected for the world church to study and discuss. What follows is a brief “unofficial” explanation as to why the book of Hebrews has been selected for this quarter’s lessons.

First, Hebrews, more than any other book in the Bible, speaks with passion and clarity about the superiority of Jesus over all God’s previous revelations: Jesus is the better way. Period. Now Jesus is terribly important for all Christians. There would be no Christian church without him. And he is even more precious to those who believe he is coming again to take his people home with him.

But for Seventh-day Adventists, a more specific group among those who await his return, there is another reason why the Book of Hebrews is of crucial importance and that has to do with a dominant theme in Hebrews, namely, that Jesus is our high priest in a heavenly sanctuary, a better priest in a better sanctuary. Adventism, you see, was born out of a “Great Disappointment” experience in which “sanctuary” played a key role. Although the Seventh-day Adventist Church was not formally organized until1863, the crucial “sanctuary” date came almost twenty years earlier, on October 22, 1844. That was the date on which thousands of devout Christians believed Jesus would return to take his people home with him. They waited eagerly all day long and on into the night. Finally, at midnight they realized that their hopes had been crushed. Hiram Edson (1806-1882), one of the early founders of Adventism who had lived through that Disappointment, described the experience this way: “Our fondest hopes and expectations were blasted, and such a spirit of weeping came over us as I never experienced before…. We wept and wept, till the day dawn.”

The biblical passage which had caught their attention, sparked their interest, and nurtured their hopes was Daniel 8:14. In the Bible used by the vast majority of these “disappointed” believers, the King James Version, the verse reads: “Unto two thousand and three hundred days; then shall the sanctuary be cleansed.” The chapter in which the verse appears declares that this “sanctuary” message applies to the “time of the end” (Dan. 8:17, cf. 8:19) and these devout believers were convinced that the end had come. Yet the Jerusalem sanctuary, the only one Daniel would have known about, had been destroyed in 70 CE (CE = Common Era [AD]). Somehow overlooking pointed New Testament passages which bluntly state that no one on earth can know the day or the hour of Jesus’ return (e.g. Matt. 24:36, 42, 44, 50; 25:13; cf. 1 Thess. 5:1-3), these eager and hopeful people became convinced that the sanctuary to be cleansed was the earth itself.

After the Disappointment, those who were convinced that God had been leading them, went back to Scripture and “discovered” the reality of a “heavenly” sanctuary and Jesus’ ministry there on our behalf. Other conservative Christians who take the Bible seriously as the standard for truth, look for the fulfillment of the “sanctuary” promises in connection with a restored earthly sanctuary, to be built on site of the present Moslem mosque in Jerusalem, the Dome of the Rock. That is the perspective represented by the “Left Behind” books and film, the perspective of modern dispensationalist Christians.

Most Adventists, however, along with many other Christians, believe that the Jewish people as a nation, and thus a restored earthly sanctuary, are not part of God’s plan for the future. The future belongs to those who accept Jesus Christ, whether they are Jew or Gentile. As the Apostle Paul puts it in Galatians 3:29: “If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise” (NRSV).

Since Daniel 8 talks about the “cleansing” of a sanctuary at the end of time, and since Adventists believe that the only “sanctuary” left at the end of time is the heavenly sanctuary, it is easy to see how the book of Hebrews can become very important to Adventists. The book talks much about Jesus and much about Jesus’ role in the heavenly sanctuary.

But to be very honest now about the present context in which this discussion is taking place, significant questions have been raised about the Adventist interpretation of Daniel 8 and about the use of the Book of Hebrews to support the Adventist sanctuary doctrine which is rooted in Daniel 8. The questions involve biblical exegesis and are linked with Christian experience. The author of this study guide (Alden Thompson), is convinced that believers are almost always driven by experiential factors in the way they interpret and apply Scripture. Thus, throughout the discussions of Hebrews in this Probe series, questions of biblical interpretation will be linked with Christian experience. Though the balance will vary from discussion to discussion, there will be three focal points:

    1. Old Testament context. The author of Hebrews drew much of his material from his Bible – the “Old Testament,” as Christians now call it. But he was constantly recasting that OT material in the light of his knowledge of Jesus, seeking to make his point clear that Jesus is the better way. Christians easily forget that the book of Hebrews is in the New Testament, not the Old.
    2. New Testament context. Careful contextual reading of both testaments is the only way to discover just how “creative” Hebrews is in its use of the Old Testament. But grasping the truth of Hebrews depends not as much on our understanding the sources from which he drew as it does on our understanding of how he used those sources for his special purposes.
    3. Modern applications. Just as the author of Hebrews was “creative” in his use of the OT, so Adventists have been “creative” in drawing on Hebrews in support of Adventism. The task for Christians today is to creatively draw on all previous sources to make the book of Hebrews come alive now. The challenge is significant in a time when any kind of animal or human sacrifice is viewed with suspicion and when reading has fallen out of favor. Today, few are interested in the kind of detailed study of Scripture which was so important for the author of Hebrews.

Discussion questions:

    1. What is the point of the book of Hebrews? And does that point come clear even if one can’t understand all the detailed arguments which the author presents in the book?
    2. What does the book of Hebrews tell us about the importance of context when we read Scripture? Can we be as “creative” in our use of Hebrews as he was in his use of the Old Testament?
    3. What drives the modern academic desire to read “in context”? What “evils” can contextual reading guard against? What new “evils” can be generated by a heightened interest in contextual exegesis?
    4. Who was the author of Hebrews? How did Paul’s name become attached to it? Does knowing who the author was make any difference in our understanding the book?
    5. Who were the original recipients of the book of Hebrews? How can we draw meaning from a letter which is not written to us in our condition?
    6. How does the author’s interest in “salvation” relate to those living in a modern secular society?

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