Prelude to a Storm
Let’s now turn our attention a little deeper toward the letter of encouragement to the Hebrews in Rome. I have always looked at this letter in its theological setting as an apology for Christianity and our Lord Jesus Christ. But it is really more than that. It is a love letter written to a group or groups of Jewish believers who were scared—they needed to be encouraged that their faith in Christ, as opposed to Judaism and the repeated rituals, was not and never has been in vain. Jesus was in them and with them. He knew their fears having been through the same trials Himself. “For in that He Himself has suffered, being tempted, He is able to aid those who are tempted,” Hebrews 2:18. He was also approachable at any given moment.
“Seeing then that we have a great High Priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need,” Hebrews 4:14-16.
Throughout the letter several themes are evident but two of them stand out clearly; “Christ is superior …” and “do not slip away.” The first being a topic no less than nine times not including sub-topics. These include, but are not limited to, the superiority of Christ in the Revelation of God (Heb. 1:1-3), over the Angels (Heb. 1:4-2:18), over Moses (Heb. 3:1-6), over Aaron (Heb.4:14-5:10), over the Priesthood of Melchizedek (Heb. 7:1-28), through the New Covenant (Heb. 8:1-3), in the Priestly Service of the Messiah (Heb. 9:1-10), in the Messiah’s Sacrifice (Heb. 9:11-28), and over the Sufficiency of the Sacrifice (Heb. 10:1-18). The second theme is one of encouragement and exhortation to not drift away or lose confidence in Christ. This was delivered on multiple occasions (Heb. 2:3, 3:12-13, 14, 15, 4:11, 14; 5:11, 6:11-12; 10:23,36, 38-39; 12:1, 3, 7, 12-13, 25). Because of these themes, we can be very sure that the situation is uniquely applicable to Jewish believers and possibly Gentile Christians who had previously converted to Judaism before becoming Christian. Realistically, most Gentile converts to Christianity came out of polytheism and were not under the Mosaic Law or culturalized by the practice of the Old Testament system of worship therefore the “Christ is Superior” theme as opposed to Judaism would mean little to them.
But we must also keep in mind that the Superiority of Christ becomes especially relevant when we consider the reason it is so meticulously approached by the author. Like a piece of drift-wood, the recipients of the epistle were in danger of slipping away from what they had professed to be true; which in this case is Christ as their Lord and Savior. The author takes great pains to encourage them that such direction in reference to their eternal salvation is not in their best interest. However, the times were very tough. The new emperor in Rome was now Nero (54 A. D.) and any historian will tell you that this man was as ruthless as a modern Hitler where the sanctity of human life was concerned. What was about to ensue in Rome would be one of the most horrific nightmares any onlooker could experience in those days.
Note to consider:
When facing trial there always the temptation to run or hide—to find a place of solace to protect you from the storm. In Rome the storm was brewing and for the Hebrew Christians their faith was about to be tried on a level that they had never imagined. Could they stand? Would they stand? The author of the Epistle had a few words of encouragement that, if taken to heart, could give them the courage and the endurance to face the trying times …even if it meant death.
What had precipitated the massive persecutions unleashed on confessing believers in Christ was the Great Fire of Rome that occurred in 64 A.D., the year Nero came to power. Historians tell us that the people of Rome and many of his staffers believed he was responsible. Nero in response passed the buck and blamed the inferno on those unsettling and riotous Christians. But even more intriguing is the question of why they would be the recipients of such accusations. In the Dictionary of Early Christian Biography, the following is written,
During his early reign Christianity was unmolested and seems to have spread rapidly at Rome. No doubt it received a great impetus from the preaching of St. Paul during the two years after his arrival, probably early in 61. But before long a terrible storm was to burst on the infant church. On the night of July 16, 64, a fire broke out in the valley between the Palatine and the Aventine. That part of the city was crowded with humble dwellings and shops full of inflammable contents. The lower parts of the city became a sea of flame. For six days the fire raged till it reached the foot of the Esquiline, where it was stopped by pulling down a number of houses. Soon after a second fire broke out in the gardens of Tigellinus near the Pincian, and raged for three days in the N. parts of the city. Though the loss of life was less in the second fire, the destruction of temples and public buildings was more serious. By the two fires three of the 14 regions were utterly destroyed, four escaped entirely, in the remaining seven but few houses were left standing. Nero was at Antium when the fire broke out, and did not return to Rome till it had almost reached the vast edifice he had constructed to connect his palace on the Palatine with the gardens of Maecenas on the Esquiline.
The horrible suspicion that Nero himself was the author of the fire gained strength. This is asserted as a positive fact by Suetonius (c. 38), Dion (lxii. 16), and Pliny the Elder (xvii. 1), the last being a contemporary, but Tacitus alludes to it only as a prevalent rumour. Whether well founded or not, and whether, supposing it true, the emperor's motive was to clear away the crooked, narrow streets of the old town in order to rebuild it on a new and regular plan, or whether it was a freak of madness, need not be discussed here. At any rate Nero found it necessary to divert from himself the rage of the people and put the blame upon the Christians.2
Historians are clear in their agreement that Nero needed a scapegoat. It would fall to reason that those who seemed to bring most dissension because of the convicting message of the gospel would become the targets. Philip Schaff gives a little more detail in the following manner:
To divert from himself the general suspicion of incendiarism, and at the same time to furnish new entertainment for his diabolical cruelty, Nero wickedly cast the blame upon the hated Christians, who, meanwhile, especially since the public trial of Paul and his successful labors in Rome, had come to be distinguished from the Jews as a genus tertium, or as the most dangerous offshoot from that race. They were certainly despisers of the Roman gods and loyal subjects of a higher king than Caesar, and they were falsely suspected of secret crimes. The police and people, under the influence of the panic created by the awful calamity, were ready to believe the worst slanders, and demanded victims. What could be expected of the ignorant multitude, when even such cultivated Romans as Tacitus, Suetonius, and Pliny, stigmatized Christianity as a vulgar and pestiferous superstition. It appeared to them even worse than Judaism, which was at least an ancient national religion, while Christianity was novel, detached from any particular nationality, and aiming at universal dominion.
The exclusivity of Christianity with the message that “There is only one way to heaven--Christ,” John 14:6, came to be scorned in a society where everything was equated as existing because of the gods and for the gods. The Polytheism in contrast to Monotheism became a blessing and a curse to these early believers. Often during these years they were referred to as “Atheists” in the sense that they only held to one God instead of many. Because of this many scorned their presence.
The next installment will explore the terror in a deeper light, but for now let’s ponder just how much a relationship to Christ really means.
A case could be made that standing with Christ, when facing such terror, would depend on whether one loved his life on earth more that the one promised in eternity. Jesus said in Luke 9:58 “And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” In His typical way Jesus never beat around the bush when it came to commitment. His statement above simply relates that following Him would require a love that would be greater than the worth of our physical life. What He came to give was the greatest gift that mankind could ever be offered, eternal life. Not some manmade utopia or hopeful scheme, but real life. His resurrection insured that He was the one who had the keys. True believers must face the reality that our faith may place us in a position where we have to choose.
If you were in that position, how would you choose? Life that ends on earth with only eternal separation and judgment—or life that promises an eternal inheritance where there will be no more crying and no more tears?
If you have never genuinely repented and given your life into the hands of God, what holds you back? The clock continues to tick and you are never promised tomorrow. Won’t you trust Him now—today?
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