3 Proofs and a Mystery
A look at the Old Testament’s critical importance to the apostle Paul and the writer of the book of Hebrews
When the apostle Paul’s epistles and the Epistle to the Hebrews were written in the 1st century AD, the only Holy Scriptures accepted in the synagogues and churches were the Hebrew Scriptures (Torah, Prophets, and Writings).
The canonization of the New Testament ended in the 4th century AD. Therefore, to prove that their unpopular instructions and conclusions, which the Jews considered heretical, agreed with God’s Word, Paul and the writer of Hebrews based every principle and conclusion on the Hebrew Scriptures.
Their Theological Challenges
Paul experienced a spiritual crisis after the risen Lord Jesus appeared to him on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:1–18). He realized all the teachings from the Jewish leaders—whom he considered spiritual authorities on the Law’s purpose and the identity of God and the Messiah—were wrong and led to destruction (Mt. 23:13–14).
After meeting with the Lord Jesus, Paul spent three years in Arabia, far from ill influence. He relearned the Law and correctly concluded that the Law’s purpose is to lead people to Jesus. Nevertheless, Paul and the author of Hebrews faced theological challenges in writing to Jewish people, particularly regarding the following issues:
→ Jesus’ divinity and messiahship
→ The Law’s purpose, which is not for salvation but, rather, for guidance and conviction
→ God’s imputed righteousness, which is based on faith in Jesus alone
→ The mystery of the church, where Jews and Gentiles alike serve God
→ God’s plan for Israel and the church
→ The role of saved Gentiles
→ The danger in deviating from Jesus
In his commentary on the book of Hebrews, Bible teacher David M. Levy wrote,
The revelation in the book of Hebrews provides insight into how to interpret many prophecies in the Hebrew Scriptures that were shrouded in mystery but are now unveiled through Jesus Christ. The book explains many of the cardinal doctrines of the Christian faith, giving believers a solid foundation on which to grow in Christ.1
Proving Jesus’ Deity
The hardest theological nut to crack with Jewish people is the divinity of Christ. Consequently, Paul opened his Epistle to the Romans with the equivalent of an explosion, declaring that the Jewish prophets knew the Good News of salvation came through the promised Son of God—Jesus. As Bible teacher Dr. Steven Lawson once told me, the Jewish gospel from the prophets is, in one word, Jesus.
Paul implied that the nation of Israel’s entire spiritual leadership failed to understand the Law and its purpose. To emphasize this fact, he opened all his letters by stating that Jesus is the Son of God, the Messiah.
In Romans 15:6–13, Paul emphasized Jesus’ deity and correctly interpreted Deuteronomy 32:43, which speaks of Jews and Gentiles saved by the Messiah praising God together: “Rejoice, O Gentiles, with His people” (v. 43; Rom. 15:10). Jewish rabbinical commentators misinterpreted the verse,2 so Paul quoted from the Septuagint (LXX), confirming that the Greek translation of this specific verse is indeed accurate and expresses God’s intent.
In 1 Corinthians 10:1–11, Paul warned the Corinthians that deviating from Jesus is akin to idolatry. Quoting Exodus 32:4, 6, and 19, he likened the Israelites who turned to idols to people who despise Jesus. Severe punishment awaits them, just as God punished with a plague the Israelites who worshiped the golden calf.
In 2 Corinthians 3, Paul used Moses as an example of a faithful servant of the Lord. Moses longed to see his people focus on God and not on man. When Moses descended from Mount Sinai, his face beamed (Ex. 34:33–35). Fearing the Israelites would think he deserved to be worshiped, he covered his face. Moses clearly understood that God’s gifts of righteousness and salvation are based exclusively on faith in God, who is Jesus.
Jesus, in fact, told the Jewish people, “If you believed Moses, you would believe Me; for he wrote about Me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe My words?” (Jn. 5:46–47).
In Ephesians 4:8, Paul quoted from Psalm 68:18, attributing the verse directly to Jesus to prove Jesus has authority to distribute gifts of service—a right belonging exclusively to God: “You have ascended on high, You have led captivity captive; You have received gifts among men, even from the rebellious, that the LORD God might dwell there.”
Thus, Paul taught that acceptable worship of God is worship that accepts Jesus as God and as the Messiah who atoned for our sins.
Proving the Law’s Purpose
Paul also used the Old Testament to prove the Law’s purpose is not for salvation but, rather, for guidance and conviction and that God imputes His righteousness to individuals based on faith in Jesus alone.
By calling Jesus “the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (Rom. 10:4), Paul taught that the salvation of all people—Jewish and Gentile—and their righteousness never has depended on their perfect observance of the commandments but on their faith in Jesus. Why? Because no one can keep all the Law’s commandments perfectly (3:10–18).
In Romans 3:10–18, Paul cited from Psalms 5:9–10; 10:7; 14:1–3; 36:1; 53:1–3; 140:3; and Isaiah 59:7–8. He also cited Deuteronomy 27:26 in Galatians 3:10: “For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who does not continue in all things which are written in the book of the law, to do them.’”
God determined that His righteousness would be dispensed to all people equally based on faith in Him. As evidence, Paul quoted Habakkuk 2:4 (“The just [righteous] shall live by his faith”) in Romans 1:17 and Galatians 3:11. Hence, people were justified (declared righteous by God) based on faith even in Temple times.
In Galatians 3:6, Paul cited Genesis 15:6 to make it clear that God’s righteousness has been bestowed by God’s grace based on faith since the days of creation. Before and after the giving of the Law, Jews and Gentiles were justified based on faith. (See also Numbers 21:4–9.)
So why did God give the Law? In Romans, Paul explained the Law is a ministry of condemnation, not salvation. In Galatians, Paul called the law “our tutor to bring us to Christ” (3:24). We no longer are subject to these symbolic commandments since Jesus established the New Covenant with His blood.
In Galatians 4:30, Paul quoted Genesis 21:10 and 12 to tell the Galatians emphatically that the commandments cannot coexist with faith and obedience to Jesus. Saved people cannot place the same value on both the expired commandments and the sacrifice of Messiah Jesus.
In Colossians 2:16–19, Paul used words Jewish people know well from the Law—the mitzvot (commandments) of food and drink, holidays, Rosh Chodesh (New Moon), and Shabbat (Sabbath)—calling these things “a shadow of things to come” (v. 17). “But the substance [literally, body],” Paul said, “is of Christ” (v. 17). Only the body (Jesus) saves, not the shadow (Law).
Because Jesus established the New Covenant in His blood, He alone deserves our obedience and submission. Just as Abraham removed Ishmael from Isaac, the son of promise, so, too, must we embrace and respect the freedom we received from Jesus—that is, to do only His will and not be enslaved to commandments and human traditions.
The message is clear: If you are ready to die in order to fulfill temporal commandments that cannot save you from eternal death, how much more should you love and surrender to Jesus, in whom is forgiveness of sin, victory over death, and eternal life?
Explaining the Mystery of the Church
Paul also went to the Hebrew Scriptures to explain the mystery of the church, where Jews and Gentiles both serve God.
In Romans 15:6–16, Paul quoted Deuteronomy 32:43 to teach that combined worship of saved Jews and Gentiles is Israel’s hope in the last days.
In 2 Corinthians 3:6, Paul said all the saved are servants of the New Covenant, which God promised the Jewish people in Jeremiah 31:31 and which is God’s plan for peace, future, and hope for the people of Israel (Jer. 29:11) and saved Gentiles. Again, Paul taught there is only one way of salvation for both Jews and Gentiles.
In Ephesians 2—3, Paul used the words circumcised and uncircumcised to indicate Jews and Gentiles respectively. At the end of chapter 2, he taught that all saved people are connected to one another and grow into a holy temple for Jehovah. He actually clarified the promise made in Isaiah 56:7: “For My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations.”
Proving Jesus’ Supremacy
The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews used the Jewish Scriptures to prove Jesus’ deity and supremacy and to warn against deviating from the faith.
Hebrews was written to Jewish believers in Jesus who were being persecuted for their faith. Many were cut off from their families and from fellowship in the synagogues and were socially and economically ostracized by their own people.3 The persecution was so severe that some Jewish believers doubted their faith and considered returning to rabbinic Judaism.
The author wanted to strengthen these believers and encourage them not to deviate from their faith in Jesus. So he explained Hebrew Scriptures that teach about Christ’s supremacy and divinity:
1. Jesus is God. He is higher than angels; and through Him, God the Father is fulfilling His promise to King David. Hebrews 1:5 cites Psalm 2:7 and 2 Samuel 7:14. Hebrews 1:7–8 cites Psalms 104:4 and 45:6–7 to prove Jesus is God. These verses were known to point to God, but the author revealed they actually speak of Jesus Himself.
2. Jesus is greater than Moses. Hebrews 3:7–11 cites Psalm 95:7–11. People who harden their hearts to Jesus will never enter the Lord’s eternal rest.
3. Jesus is greater than the earthly high priest because His priesthood is eternal. Hebrews 5:6 cites Psalm 110:4.
4. Jesus’ New Covenant is eternal and unconditional, making it greater than the covenant made at Mount Sinai. Hebrews 8:8–12 cites Jeremiah 31:31–34.
5. Jesus’ sacrifice is eternal, making it the greatest sacrifice of all. Hebrews 10:5–7 cites Psalm 40:6–8.
In Hebrews 11, the author tried to encourage believers by citing many Old Testament heroes of the faith who all suffered for their faith, yet never drifted from their beliefs.
The pinnacle of the book of Hebrews is 12:22–24:
But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly [in Hebrew, atseret] and church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven, to God the Judge of all, to the spirits of just men made perfect, to Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling that speaks better things than that of Abel.
Those who remain faithful to Jesus will be transported to the heavenly Zion and be in God’s presence forever. The author contrasted “Mount Zion” and “heavenly Jerusalem” with Mount Sinai and the fearful nation of Israel in the wilderness, when the Israelites did not dare meet with God (Ex. 19).4 The gathering is the last of the eight appointed times of the Lord mentioned in Leviticus 23 that symbolize the eternal state. On that day,5 our Lord Jesus called to the crowd and said, “He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water” (Jn. 7:38).
Paul and the author of Hebrews used the Old Testament to prove that Jesus is God and that He is the hope for Jews and Gentiles. No matter what our background, we must fix our hearts on Jesus as Lord and Savior because He alone atoned for our sins; and faith in Him alone is our only path to eternal life.
- David M. Levy, Hebrews, A Commentary (Bellmawr, NJ: The Friends of Israel Gospel Ministry, 2015), 9.
- Yohanan I. Stanfield, “The Song ‘Ha’azinu’ and its presence in Isaiah 1—39” (doctoral thesis, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 2012), 223–229. Rabbis say the verse describes Gentiles praising God for His work in His people Israel or praising Israel for its loyalty to God.
- John MacArthur, Hebrews, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary (Chicago, IL: Moody, 1983), xix.
- George H. Guthrie, “Hebrews,” The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1998), 417.
- “General assembly” is translated Atseret תרצע in both Hebrew versions of the New Testament, Delitsch, and the modern Hebrew version by the Bible Society in 2010. In John 7:14–39, Jesus went to the second feast, which is “Atseret,” the eighth day of Succoth (Tabernacles; Lev. 23:36). The eighth day is considered a separate feast.