Lesson 37: Jesus Christ: “The Author and Finisher of Our Faith”
Purpose: To remind class members that salvation comes through faith in Jesus Christ and obedience to his commandments.
Today we are discussing a few ideas from the New Testament writing, Hebrews.
There is a lot that we do not know about the background of this book – beginning with its author. The title in our Bibles says it is “The Epistle of Paul the Apostle.” Nowhere in the book, though, is there any biographical clue to its author – unlike the epistles we have been reading in the past few weeks, there are no references to previous visits that let us situate this book in one of Paul’s known missionary journeys. Timothy, one of Paul’s missionary companions, is referenced, but Paul himself is not. There was a question from very early times – as early as the 2nd century – as to who the author of Hebrews really was, and for various reasons almost no one today believes that Paul was its author; for one thing, there are clues in the book that it was written just before 70 A.D., when Paul was already dead. Bruce R. McConkie insisted that Paul was its author, based on the fact that Joseph Smith referred in passing to some of the teachings found in Hebrews with phrases like “as Paul said …” but that seems to me not to be an announcement of a definite revelation on the subject, but merely a conventional acceptance of the traditional attribution.
In the end, though, it doesn’t really matter if we know who wrote this book. Christians have always accepted it as authentic scripture. Latter-day prophets have taught from it. And in fact Hebrews has some ideas that have specific meaning to Latter-day Saints that are not really understood by the rest of the Christian world, which we’ll talk about today.
Notice that the heading is To the Hebrews (not “about” the Hebrews or “from” the Hebrews). First, who are the Hebrews? Why would the very Christian author of Hebrews be writing to a group of Jews? [The audience is apparently a group of Christians – probably at Rome, although we don’t even know that much for certain – who have a Jewish rather than Gentile background. Their Jewishness is so important to them that it has become a problem in their understanding of Jesus Christ, and Hebrews is written to them to clarify their understanding.] We can gather a few other details about them from clues in this book: They were converts who didn’t personally know Jesus, but were taught by those who had known him; they have been members of the Church for a substantial period of time; they have faced some mild persecution, with the expectation that worse is to come; and they are highly educated people, expected to be able to understand the sophisticated arguments made in Hebrews.
Except for the fact that few of us have probably been converts from Judaism, in what ways are we in this room like the audience for this book?
Let’s see, then, how well we can appreciate some of the teachings that were written for us as well as for a group of Jewish Christians two thousand years ago.
[Suggested lesson points:
1. Jesus Christ, the Only Begotten Son of Heaven Father, is our Savior.
2. The Melchizedek Priesthood is part of the fulness of the gospel.
3. The gospel of Jesus Christ is the new covenant between God and his children.
4. Those who exercise faith in Jesus Christ will inherit a place in the kingdom of God.
5. God will keep his promises.
6. “Whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth.”]
Let’s start by reading the first four verses of Hebrews 1:
1 God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets,
2 Hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things, by whom also he made the worlds;
3 Who being the brightness of his glory, and the express image of his person, and upholding all things by the word of his power, when he had by himself purged our sins, sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high;
4 Being made so much better than the angels, as he hath by inheritance obtained a more excellent name than they.
The author wants to remind us that Jesus was not merely a good man, not merely a wise teacher, not merely one more Jewish rabbi among many. In what ways do these introductory verses tell us that Jesus is so much more than that?
The author then goes into a long chain of evidence to show that Jesus is greater than anything or anyone else the people have ever known, and he does this by quoting extensively from the Old Testament. He says, in effect, “this is who the angels are, and Jesus is greater than they.” Then he goes one by one through a list of Jewish heroes from the Old Testament, noting that Jesus is greater than each of them.
Let’s read, for example, the opening verses of chapter 3:
1 Wherefore, holy brethren, partakers of the heavenly calling, consider the Apostle and High Priest of our profession, Christ Jesus;
2 Who was faithful to him that appointed him, as also Moses was faithful in all his house.
3 For this man was counted worthy of more glory than Moses, inasmuch as he who hath builded the house hath more honour than the house.
4 For every house is builded by some man; but he that built all things is God.
5 And Moses verily was faithful in all his house, as a servant, for a testimony of those things which were to be spoken after;
6 But Christ as a son over his own house; whose house are we, if we hold fast the confidence and the rejoicing of the hope firm unto the end.
Moses, of course, had a special prominence in the heritage of the Hebrews. But how is Jesus greater even than Moses?
Note especially that Moses’s faithfulness was a “testimony of those things which were to be spoken after.” What does that refer to? What is greater than a testimony, in this case? This says that we are of Christ’s house – how is being of the House of Christ greater even than being of the House of Israel? How do we become members of his household? what does v. 6 says is a necessary part of belonging to the household of Christ?
In other places in Hebrews, other personalities from Hebrew history are praised for their great faith and the things they accomplished through faith. For a summary of this, let’s turn to chapter 11.
I think perhaps we too often stop with the familiar words of v. 1:
1 Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.
But the rest of that chapter is filled with a list of Old Testament figures who, through their faith, followed God, established the covenant between God and Israel, and preserved the word and law of God up to the present day. Take a minute to scan through that chapter – whose names do you see, and why are they remembered with such reverence?
And even with all these, there are too many for the writer to name:
32 And what shall I more say? for the time would fail me to tell of Gedeon, and of Barak, and of Samson, and of Jephthae; of David also, and Samuel, and of the prophets:
33 Who through faith subdued kingdoms, wrought righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions,
34 Quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness were made strong, waxed valiant in fight, turned to flight the armies of the aliens.
And yet, the author says, despite all these men and women did, despite all they accomplished through faith, despite all their good works before God, there is still more.
39 And these all, having obtained a good report through faith, received not the promise:
40 God having provided some better thing for us, that they without us should not be made perfect.
“God having provided some better thing for us” – better than Noah’s faith saving his family, better than Abraham receiving the covenant, better than Moses delivering the children of Israel, better than the achievements of all the Israelite kings and heroes! What is that better thing?
Why is Christ that “better thing”? Why was who he was, and what he did, better than all that went before?
In some ways, Hebrews speaks to Latter-day Saints in a way that it cannot speak to any other Christians of our day. That is because one of the central figures in Hebrews, one around whom the author builds the most important part of his argument for Christ’s greatness, is someone the world does not understand. God the father, speaking of Jesus Christ, said:
Hebrews 5:6 –
6 As he saith also in another place, Thou art a priest for ever after the order of Melchisedec.
One prominent commentator whom I consulted this week wrote:
One problem may be that those first ten chapters deal with subjects that seem arcane to contemporary readers: Jewish sacrifices, purification rituals, the priesthood. Indeed, a major focus is on an obscure biblical character, Melchizedek, who makes but a cameo appearance in Old Testament history. What does this have to do with us? [MAP]
Melchizedek was not really a very important personage in the history of Israel. He met Abraham once, collected his tariff, and went his way. [ANCHOR]
Now it’s true that we don’t know a whole lot more about the biography of Melchizedek. But through latter-day scripture, we do know more of his mission and his accomplishments than the world at large.
And now, my brethren, I would that ye should humble yourselves before God, and bring forth fruit meet for repentance, that ye may also enter into that rest. Yea, humble yourselves even as the people in the days of Melchizedek, who was also a high priest after this same order which I have spoken, who also took upon him the high priesthood forever. And it was this same Melchizedek to whom Abraham paid tithes; yea, even our father Abraham paid tithes of one-tenth part of all he possessed. Now these ordinances were given after this manner, that thereby the people might look forward on the Son of God, it being a type of his order, or it being his order, and this that they might look forward to him for a remission of their sins, that they might enter into the rest of the Lord. Now this Melchizedek was a king over the land of Salem; and his people had waxed strong in iniquity and abomination; yea, they had all gone astray; they were full of all manner of wickedness; But Melchizedek having exercised mighty faith, and received the office of the high priesthood according to the holy order of God, did preach repentance unto his people. And behold, they did repent; and melchizedek did establish peace in the land in his days; therefore he was called the prince of peace, for he was the king of Salem; and he did reign under his father.
Doctrine and Covenants 107:1-4
There are, in the church, two priesthoods, namely, the Melchizedek and Aaronic, including the Levitical Priesthood. Why the first is called the Melchizedek Priesthood is because Melchizedek was such a great high priest. Before his day it was called the Holy Priesthood, after the Order of the Son of God. But out of respect or reverence to the name of the Supreme Being, to avoid the too frequent repetition of his name, they, the church, in ancient days, called that priesthood after Melchizedek, or the Melchizedek Priesthood.
In Hebrews chapter 7, the author introduces Melchizedek, noting that he was so great that even Abraham acknowledged him as superior, by paying his tithes to Melchizedek. And through that action, according to the author, all of Abraham’s descendants, including the Levites who held the Levitical or Aaronic priesthood, acknowledged Melchizedek and his priesthood as being superior. His priesthood – the Melchizedek priesthood – was completely independent of the Levitical priesthood. Jesus Christ, the author says, came from the kingly tribe of Judah, not the priestly tribe of Levi, so Jesus does not owe his priesthood authority to Levi – his is independent and superior.
What do we know about the differences between the Aaronic or Levitical priesthood, and the priesthood borne by Melchizedek and Jesus, that is beyond what the rest of the Christian world understands?
Doctrine and Covenants 107:
18 The power and authority of the higher, or Melchizedek Priesthood, is to hold the keys of all the spiritual blessings of the church –
19 To have the privilege of receiving the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, to have the heavens opened unto them, to commune with the general assembly and church of the Firstborn, and to enjoy the communion and presence of God the Father, and Jesus the mediator of the new covenant.
20 The power and authority of the lesser, or Aaronic Priesthood, is to hold the keys of the ministering of angels, and to administer in outward ordinances, the letter of the gospel, the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins, agreeable to the covenants and commandments.
The sacrifice that Jesus made of himself was as much greater than the Levite sacrifices as his priesthood was greater than theirs, says the author of Hebrews. Those animal sacrifices were only a “figure” – a “shadow” – a symbol of the greater sacrifice that Christ would make. Let’s read in Hebrews chapter 10:
11 And every priest standeth daily ministering and offering oftentimes the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins:
12 But this man, after he had offered one sacrifice for sins for ever, sat down on the right hand of God;
13 From henceforth expecting till his enemies be made his footstool.
14 For by one offering he hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified.
In what ways, then, either those outlined in these verses or your wider understanding, is the sacrifice of Jesus Christ different from, greater than, the sacrifices offered under the Law of Moses?
1 Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us,
2 Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God.
After summoning his cloud of witnesses – the angels, and so many Old Testament personages – the author of Hebrews asks us to turn from them, to turn from the teachings and expectations and laws of the past and look to Jesus, whom he calls “the author and finisher of our faith.”
From what we have discussed today, how is Jesus the “author of our faith”?
How is he also “the finisher of our faith”?