Did you know that ancient history and archaeology has confirmed the existence of many people mentioned in the Bible? In an article in the Biblical Archaeology Review, Purdue University scholar Lawrence Mykytiuk presented documentary evidence of six New Testament religious figures1.
We have already documented the extrabiblical evidence for Jesus of Nazareth. Six other religious figures were mentioned in the writings of the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus.
To make a firm identification, one must interpret ancient writings outside the Bible by other such writings, not the Bible, and then make sure that: (1) sources are genuine, not forged or unreliable; (2) the time-and-place setting of the person in the ancient writing matches the setting of the person in the Bible; and (3) marks of an individual, such as name, father’s name, title, or work location, distinguish two different people from each other and avoid the impression they are one and the same.
This post has been sourced from the Biblical Archaeology Society.
Gamaliel the Elder
We’ll begin with the grandson of the great Jewish leader Hillel the Elder: Gamaliel the Elder, who makes a dramatic New Testament appearance in Acts 5:33-40. At that point in time, around 30 (or possibly 33) C.E., Jesus had already been crucified and, according to his followers, resurrected and ascended. After the Festival of Firstfruits, or Weeks (also called Pentecost), Peter had preached in Jerusalem, and large numbers of Jews had believed in Jesus. This result had aroused the opposition of priests and Sadducees, groups with whom Jesus had earlier come into conflict. They made Peter and John appear before the whole Jerusalem Sanhedrin, the full assembly of the elders of Israel. There they ordered these two not to proclaim or teach their message, but Peter and the other apostles repeatedly disobeyed the high priest’s orders. (The apostles were Jewish followers of Jesus, normally 12 in number, chosen and sent to spread his message.) Even when put in jail, the apostles escaped and resumed teaching in the Temple. (more…)
Did you watch the recent soccer World Cup? One of the close games was the semi-final between the Netherlands and Argentina which went to a penalty shoot-out. There was a great cheer when Sergio Romero stopped the first Dutch shot. Even more when he did it again. He was a hero for the Argentinians.
We all have heroes. We all admire someone and have desires that can influence our behavior. Today we are looking at the highlights of the first 10 chapters of the book of Hebrews where we see that, because Jesus is greater than all our heroes and all our desires, He’s the one to follow and live for.
We don’t know who wrote the book of Hebrews, but we do know that it was written to Jews. That’s why it’s called Hebrews. These Jewish Christians were being persecuted for their faith (Heb. 12:4-13). Other Jews usually persecute those who convert to Christianity. In this instance, Jewish Christians were being tempted to go back to their Jewish customs and maybe force Gentiles to follow them as well (Gal. 2:14). The book answers the question, while the Jews have their heroes and customs, what do Christians have?
Who were the heroes of a devout first century Jew? Their earliest ancestors Abraham, Isaac, Jacob (who was also named Israel) and Joseph (Acts 7:2-16; Heb. 11:8-22). Their leaders such as Moses (Acts 7:20-41; Heb. 11:24-28 and Joshua were also heroes. Their kings such as David and Solomon. Their priests, particularly the High Priest. And their prophets who conveyed messages from God.
They also revered the Mosaic Law given at Mt Sinai which governed their life and the temple in Jerusalem because that was where God lived on earth (Acts 7:44-47).
Hebrews shows that Jesus is better than all their heroes. It’s a bit like a song by Rod Boucher that went:
God is better than football
God is better than beer
God is better than cricket
God’s there all the year!
Greater than the prophets
The writer of Hebrews jumps straight into his topic: “In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days He has spoken to us by His Son” (Heb. 1:1-2).
The Old Testament was written by the prophets and the New by the apostles and their associates. The revelation of God’s truth is added progressively as we move from Genesis through to Revelation. What Jesus taught is summarized in the gospels. His teachings supersede those of the Old Testament prophets. While the prophets predicted the Messiah (Acts 10:43), Jesus was the Messiah. So of course He is greater than the prophets.
Seven more reasons are given for Christ being superior to the prophets, including Jesus made the universe and sustains it. He is the divine God. Through His death, our sins can be forgiven. And after His resurrection and ascension, He now sits on a place of honor and privilege at God’s right hand. None of these apply to the prophets.
Who are equivalent to prophets today? I think that scientists could be because they speak with authority. So an updated principle is that “Jesus is greater than the scientists”.
A British geneticist has published a book titled, “The Serpent’s Promise: The Bible Retold as Science”. He claims the Bible is out of date and that science is a better way to understand the universe than through its doctrine. So he gives the scientific version of parts of the Bible.
What do we do when experts and scientists ridicule the Bible? What about when they make statements that conflict with the Bible? Do we always believe them? Or are we skeptical?
Not only is Jesus greater than the prophets and scientists, He is also greater than the angels.
Greater than the angels
Straight after this, Hebrews says that Jesus is superior to the angels (Heb. 1:4). The Mosaic Law was given by angels (Acts 7:53; Gal. 3:19; Heb. 2:2). In the Old Testament, angels brought messages from God (Zech. 1:14-17) and protected God’s people (Dan. 6:22). Angels also told Mary and Joseph about Christ’s birth (Mt. 1:20-25; Lk. 2:26-38). That’s why the Jews revered angels.
The Jews thought that Jesus was only a man and therefore He was inferior to the angels (Ps. 8:5; Heb. 2:7). But Hebrews says that Jesus is superior to angels in two ways: as Son of God (Heb. 1:4-14) and as Son of Man (Heb. 2:5-18).
As Son of God, Jesus has a close relationship with God the Father. That’s what this metaphor means. But God never addressed an angel as His Son. The angels praised God at His birth (Lk. 2:13-14) and will worship Christ when He returns to rule over the earth (Heb. 1:6). Another contrast is that Jesus rules while angels serve. Jesus is in a position of honor and power at God’s right hand, while angels serve God’s people (Heb. 11:13-14).
Hebrews stresses “It is not to angels He has subject the world to come” (Heb. 2:5). According to Psalm 8, mankind was to have dominion over the earth, not the angels (Ps. 8:6-8). But this dominion was lost when Adam sinned. Hebrews reminds us “Yet at present we do not see everything subject to them” (Heb. 2:8). This is illustrated by the fact that some people are still killed by animals. But there is hope because he writes, “But we do see Jesus … now crowned with glory and honor”. As Son of Man, in a coming day, Jesus will rule over the earth and restore mankind’s dominion over the rest of God’s creation on earth.
Then Hebrews describes how the effects of the fall into sin are reversed. Jesus became a human being and offered His perfect life as a sacrifice for our sin. It notes that Jesus became a man, not an angel and Jesus saved people, not angels (Heb. 2:16-17). So even as a man, Jesus was greater than the angels. He did what they couldn’t do.
Who are equivalent to angels today? I think that those into dreams and visions, meditation and the new age could be because they involve spiritual experiences and the mystical. So an updated principle is that “Jesus is greater than those promoting spiritual experiences”.
How do we respond when someone claims that John the Baptist was the reincarnation of Elijah? Or if they blame demons for all their ailments and misfortunes? What if they always seek to know God’s will through dreams and visions?
Not only is Jesus greater than the angels and those promoting spiritual experiences, He is also greater than Moses and Joshua.
Greater than Moses and Joshua
Moses was one of Israel’s greatest national heroes. He led them out of slavery in Egypt and received their law at Mt Sinai.
Next we are told. “Fix your thoughts on Jesus” (Heb. 3:1). He is our Apostle and High Priest. These are figures of speech. An apostle is sent – Jesus was sent to earth by God the Father. Whereas a high priest entered God’s presence to make atonement for the people of God (Heb. 2:17). So Jesus represents God to us and also represents us before God. He is a mediator or go-between.
Then there is another figure of speech – “God’s house” means God’s people – it is explained later as “we are His house” (Heb. 3:6). Moses was a faithful servant in all God’s house, which means that he served the Israelites (Heb. 3:5). But Jesus Christ was the builder of the house and He was God (Heb. 3:3-4. He was also faithful as the Son over God’s house (Heb. 3:6). Being a Son means that He is equal with God. So Jesus is greater than Moses.
Joshua took over from Moses and led the Israelites into Canaan, which was to be a land of rest for them. But most of them died before they reached Canaan and those that entered didn’t find that rest (Heb. 3:1-19). Instead there was conflict in Canaan, and sin, sickness, sorrow, suffering and death. While Joshua was unable to provide rest, it is available through Jesus Christ – “we who believed enter that rest” (Heb. 4:3). So Jesus is greater than Joshua.
Who are equivalent to Moses and Joshua today? I think that Presidents, Prime Ministers, kings and queens could be because they lead nations. So an updated principle is that “Jesus is greater than the leaders of nations”.
What if someone believes that a certain politician is superhuman and can solve all our problems? If they praise them and put them on a pedestal?
Not only is Jesus greater than Moses and Joshua and the leaders of nations, He is also greater than the Jewish high priests.
Greater than the Jewish high priests
Next Jesus is called “a great high priest” (Heb. 4:14). We have already said that He represents us to God like a high priest did for the Jews. His priesthood was greater than the Jewish one because it was like that of Melchizedek in the Old Testament (Gen. 14:18-20; Heb. 7:1-3). Melchizedek was king of Salem (now called Jerusalem) in the time of Abraham. His priesthood was similar to Jesus’ priesthood because it didn’t depend on his genealogy (he was not a descendant of Aaron like in the Jewish priesthood) and his priesthood continues forever (it didn’t end when he died like in the Jewish priesthood).
Three reasons are given to show that the priesthood of Melchizedek and Jesus is greater than that of Aaron:
- The first involves tithes and blessings (Heb. 7:4-10). Abraham paid Melchizedek a tithe of 10%. The one who collects a tithe has a greater position than the one who pays it. Melchizedek blessed Abraham. The one who blesses has a greater position than the one who is blessed.
- Second, there has been a change in the priesthood (Heb. 7:11-19). The eternal priesthood of Jesus has replaced the temporary priesthood of Aaron. But the Jewish priesthood was established by the Mosaic Law. This means that the law has also changed. Because of Jesus, both the Jewish priesthood and their law have been replaced. When Jesus died this was signified by the tearing apart from top to bottom of the curtain to the Most Holy Place in the temple. (Mt. 27:51; Mk. 15:38; Lk. 23:45).
- Third, the priesthood of Melchizedek and Jesus is perpetual and permanent (Heb. 7:23-28). Jesus lives forever, whereas the Jewish high priests were replaced when they died. Also Jesus is “holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens”. He didn’t need to offer sacrifices for His own sins because he was sinless. Also, “He offered Himself”, not an animal.
So the Jewish priesthood was superseded by a divine eternal priesthood.
Who are equivalent to the high priests today? I think that archbishops and popes could be because they are religious leaders. So an updated principle is that “Jesus is greater than the religious leaders”.
What if someone believes that a certain religious leader is always right and can solve all our problems? If they put them on a pedestal?
Not only is Jesus greater than the Jewish high priests and the religious leaders, He also offered a greater sacrifice.
His sacrifice is greater than the Jewish sacrifices
We now come to the writer’s main point – “Now the main point of what we are saying is this: We do have such a high priest, who sat down at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven” (Heb. 8:1). Here’s his answer to the Jews who say ‘We have the temple, the priests, the offerings, and the ceremonies; but you Christians have nothing like this’. His response is ‘We have such a high priest’ who sits at the right hand of God in heaven! Our high priest is in heaven close to God! He is greater than all your Jewish high priests. We have Jesus Christ. What you have is “a copy and shadow of what is in heaven” (Heb. 8:5). You have the model, we have the full-scale. You have a photo or illustration or copy or shadow or silhouette, we have the real thing (Heb. 8:3; 9:23).
Christ’s ministry as a high priest was superior to that of a Jewish high priest because He worked under a superior covenant (Heb. 8:6). The new covenant, which superseded the old Mosaic covenant has “better promises” because they are unconditional, not conditional on obedience like the old covenant (Heb. 7:22; 8:6b-13). “God found fault with the people” because they were unable to obey the Law of Moses. So it was replaced with the new covenant which depended on God alone. He said:
- “I will put my laws in their minds”
- “I will be their God, and they will be my people”
- “I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more”
This makes the old covenant and its priests and animal sacrifices obsolete (Heb. 8:13).
Since the writer is going to contrast the offerings of Christ and Judaism, he selects the most important offering – the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur; Lev. 16) (Heb. 9:7). This is the most important day in the Jewish calendar. On this day the high priest sacrificed an animal to pay for his sins and the sins of the people. He entered the Most Holy place of the temple and sprinkled blood on the mercy seat of the ark. But Jesus put away sins, not merely covered them. And He gave believers a clear conscience, not an annual reminder of sins (Heb. 9:14, 26, 28; 10:3). This shows that Christ’s ministry is greater than that of the Jewish high priest on the Day of Atonement.
But Jesus was not only the high priest, He was also the sacrifice. He was a “better sacrifice” (Heb. 9:23) because He offered Himself as a sacrifice, instead of animals (Heb. 9:25-26). One sacrifice was sufficient – it was “once for all” (Heb. 7:27; 10:10), not again and again (Heb. 9:25). It gave “eternal redemption” (Heb. 9:12). Fortunately the Old Testament system of sacrifices has now been superseded by Christ’s sacrifice (Heb. 10:8-10).
The New Covenant is an unconditional agreement of grace which God will make with the Israelites when the Lord Jesus sets up His kingdom on earth (Jer. 31:33-34). Today Christians enjoy some of the blessings of the New Covenant but its complete fulfilment waits until Israel is restored and redeemed nationally.
What is equivalent to Jewish sacrifices today? I think that good works could be because that is how people generally think they will get to heaven. So an updated principle is that “Jesus’ sacrifice is greater that our good works”.
We get requests to support charities and the needy. Some do volunteer community service. How do we rate such good works against spreading the good news about Christ’s sacrifice?
Lessons for us
Are we tempted like the Jewish Christians to go back to our old heroes? To those who occupied us before we changed to follow the Lord. Those which are popular and followed by the majority.
We have seen that Jesus is greater than all the Jewish heroes like the prophets, angels, Moses and Joshua, and the priests. He is also greater than all our heroes whoever they may be including scientists, those promoting spiritual experiences, and the leaders of nations and religions. Likewise Jesus’ sacrifice is greater than the Jewish sacrifices and our good works.
What about our desires for money and what it can buy? Our desires for recognition, success and popularity? And our desires for recreation, entertainment, leisure and pleasure? Are we placing these temptations above living for Jesus? How do we use our time? How do we spend our money?
Because Jesus is greater than all our heroes and all our desires, He’s the greatest of all. So let’s follow and live for Him.
Written, July 2014
Also see the next article in this series:
Keep on running – Heb. Ch 10-12
Also see summary of the book of Hebrews:
Never give up!