An Exposition of Hebrews
by A. W. Pink
The Establishing of Christianity
The Divine incarnation was not some sudden, isolated, and unexpected event. The advent of our blessed Lord, and with it the dawn of Christianity, marked a climax and consummation. The world was prepared through long processes for the coming of the One and the preaching of the other: from Eden to Bethlehem the centuries were preparing for the appearing of Immanuel. As the processes of creation fitted the earth for man to live upon it, so all history paved the way for the birth of the God-man. The Holy Scriptures focused the Divine preparation in one race, yet all peoples shared in the process: outside of the elect nation God was at work, and all streams converged to a single center. The march of events was both slow and complicated, yet eventually the stage was fully set and a suitable background made for the appearing of the promised Savior.
"When the fullness of time was come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman" (Gal. 4:4). This signifies much more than that the time appointed by the Father had now arrived when He would put an end to the Mosaic economy and replace the shadows and types by the substance and Antitype. It denoted that conditions were peculiarly suitable for the introduction of a new and enlarged dispensation, that everything was now ripe for the execution of God’s great purpose. All the foundations had been laid. The long night of preparation had now run its course. The chrysalis was ready to burst its bonds; the fields were white unto the harvest; the olive tree was ready for the grafting of other branches into it (Rom. 11). The "fullness of time" intimates both ripeness of opportunity and consummation of need. The advent of God’s Son to this earth and the proclamation of the Gospel far and wide, not only introduced a new era, it also marked the climax of the old.
In its relation to the immediate context this expression, "the fullness of time," signifies that the Church on earth had been prepared for the coming of God’s Son by having now outgrown the conditions of her childhood and minority, making her feel the irksomeness of the bonds upon her and to long for the liberty of maturity. The legal economy was merely a "schoolmaster unto Christ," and it had now served its purpose. The old economy had decayed and waxed old, and was "ready to vanish away" (Heb. 8:13). Aged Simeon was a representative of that godly remnant who were "waiting for the Consolation of Israel," for there was a Divinely prepared company that then "looked for redemption in Jerusalem" (Luke 2:25, 38). The favored Nation as a whole had lost its liberty, being under the yoke of the Romans, and seemed on the point of relinquishing its mission; the need for the fulfillment of the Messianic prophecies was real and pressing.
There was a remarkable combination of circumstances tending to prepare the world for the Gospel, and a fearful climax in the world’s need of redemption. The break up of old heathen faiths and the passing away of the prejudices of antiquity, disposed men for a new revelation which was spiritual, humane, non-provincial. The utter failure of Pagan religion from immorality, and of Pagan philosophy from its impotency to cure that immorality and the miseries it entailed, called loudly for some new Faith, which should be both sure and powerful. The century immediately preceding our Lord’s advent was probably the most remarkable in all history. Everything was in a state of transition; old things were passing away; the fruit of the ancient order was rotting upon the tree, though without yielding the seeds of a new order. There were strange rumors afloat of coming relief, and singular hopes stirred the hearts of men that some Great One was about to appear and renovate the world.
"The fullness of time was come." First, the world had reached its climacteric of sin. History has given a faithful record of the terrible moral conditions which obtained among men in the century that immediately preceded our Lord’s advent. At Rome, which was then the metropolis of the world, the Court of Caesar was steeped in luxury and licentiousness. To provide amusement for his senators six hundred gladiators fought a hand to hand conflict in the public theater. Not to be outdone, Pompey turned five hundred lions into the arena to engage an equal number of his braves, and "delicate ladies" sat applauding and gloating over the blood that flowed. Children were the property of the state, to be disposed of as was deemed best for the public interests. The aged and infirm were banished to an island in the Tiber. Marriage was wholly a matter of sensual caprice; divorce was so frequent, it was customary for women to count them by the number of rings worn on their fingers. About two thirds of the entire civilized world were slaves, their masters having absolute power over them.
Conditions in Greece were even worse. Sensual indulgence and every species of cruelty were carried to the highest pitch. Gluttony was an art. Fornication was indulged without restraint. Parents were at liberty to expose their children to perish from cold and hunger or to be eaten up by wild beasts, such exposure being practiced frequently, and passed without punishment or censure. Wars were carried on with the utmost ferocity: if any of the vanquished escaped death, slavery of the most abject kind was the only prospect before them; and in consequence, death was considered preferable to capture. "The dark places of the earth were filled with the habitations of cruelty" (Ps. 74:20). The world had reached its climacteric of sin, and this provided a dark background from which could shine forth the Light. Oftentimes a disease cannot be treated until it "comes to a head." In view of the above conditions, the world was ready for the appearing of the great Physician.
"The fullness of time was come." The world had reached its consummation of want. It had been predicted of old that the Messiah should be "the Desire of all nations:" to this end there must be a complete exposure of the failure of all human plans for deliverance. This time had arrived when Christ was born. Never before had the abject misery and need of humanity been so apparent and so extensive. Philosophy had lost its power to satisfy men, and the old religions were dead. The Greeks and Romans stood at the head of the nations at the time our Lord appeared on earth, and the religious state of those peoples in that age is too well known to require any lengthy description of it. Polytheism and Pantheism were the popular concepts: innumerable deities were worshipped, and to those gods were attributed the most abominable characteristics. Human sacrifices were frequently offered upon their altars.
Judaism was also fully ripe for the accomplishment of Messianic prophecy. Sadduceeism had leavened the ruling classes and affected the nation with rationalism and skepticism. Phariseeism, which represented the ideas and ideals of the popular party, was too often only formal and hypocritical, and at best was cold and hard, "binding heavy burdens" and laying on men’s shoulders a load which they refused to touch with their fingers (Matthew 23:4). The nation was under the government of Rome, and was thoroughly discouraged. Was there, then, no eye to pity, no arm to save? Was God unmindful of the tragic condition of mankind? No, blessed be His name, the "fullness of time was come:" a platform was then ready on which the glories of Divine grace might be exhibited, and now arose "the Sun of righteousness with healing in His wings" (Mal. 4:2).
"The fullness of time was come." The needed preparations were completed, and the high-water mark was reached. Side by side with the preliminary movements in Israel, Divine providence had also been at work in heathendom, making ready the world for the dawn of Christianity. Political conditions were singularly favorable for the coming of the Gospel. Most of the then known earth was within the bounds of the Roman empire. Everywhere the Romans went good roads were made, along which went the soldier, and after him the merchant and scholar. In a short time commercial intercourse fused various peoples. Previously, old national distinctions had bound up religious prejudices, each country having its own gods, and any attempt to foist a foreign religion upon a nation was bitterly resented. But national barriers were now broken down by Roman prowess and international intercourse, and religious exclusiveness was greatly weakened. All of this facilitated the task of the missionaries of the Cross. The Roman roads became highways for the evangelists, and Roman law afforded them protection.
Parallel with the growth of the Roman empire was the spread of Grecian culture. The Grecian tongue was the one most extensively used as the language of learning: all educated people were supposed to understand it. This was a most suitable medium by which the Christian messengers could speak to a great multitude of peoples, without enduring the tedious delay of learning new languages. In Syria, Egypt, Phrygia, and Italy, as well as Greece and Asia Minor, the heralds of Christ could make themselves understood everywhere by using the common tongue employed by all teachers of that day. Moreover this language was so delicately modulated as to surpass all other forms of speech in its capacity for expressing new ideas. It was therefore exactly what was needed for the setting forth of a new revelation to the world at large.
It was the same with Judaism. Now had arrived the time for the fulfillment of its mission: the giving to the world of the O.T. Scriptures, and the realization of the Hope which they presented. Judaism was to give birth to Christianity: out of the old soil the new order was to spring. The position of the Jews at that time wonderfully facilitated the spread of the Gospel, for they were already dispersed abroad everywhere. In the days of Augustus there were forty thousand Jews at Rome, and by the time of Tiberius double that number. The Jewish synagogues furnished a means of communication between Christian gospelers and the heathen world. A synagogue was to be found in almost every town throughout the Roman empire, and to it the evangelists first went; and thus a suitable language was provided for communicating with all peoples, and centers of work were to be found in every city.
In such a striking conjunction of favorable providences we cannot but behold and admire the controlling hand of Him who worketh all things after the counsel of His own will. They served to greatly lessen the severe shock which the displacing of the old order of things and the introduction of the new order was bound to bring, for the claims of Christ are of a very radical nature and His demands revolutionizing. Even so, the establishing of Christianity is spoken of as a shaking of "not the earth only, but also heaven" (verse 26): though such language be figurative, nevertheless it refers to that which was intensely real and drastic. Our assertion that the last clause of verse 26 is not to be understood in a material sense (as is now widely supposed), calls for some further expository remarks thereon, particularly concerning its setting here, its original, and its connection.
At verse 25 the apostle began an exhortation which was based upon what had been pointed out in verses 18-24, and which he re-enforces by additional considerations. The exhortation consists of a call to hear and heed God’s message to us through Christ. God is the Author of Old and New Testaments alike: in the former He spoke through Moses and the prophets; in the latter by the Son, His final Spokesman. The manifestation which God made in Christ and the message He has given us through Him, completes the revelation of His will. This final message was declared neither by man nor angel, but by the only begotten Son. Then let us beware of treating such a revelation in a manner ill-fitting its high character. The superior dignity of the Messenger and the supreme importance of His message must ensure severer punishment to those who despise and reject Him.
The urgency of this call for us to hear Christ is intimated by pointing out that since those who had disregarded God’s message through Moses escaped not, a far worse punishment must be the portion of those who turn a deaf ear unto Him speaking through the Son (verse 25). The superiority of God’s revelation by the Son to the message given through Moses was evidenced by the phenomena which attended each, and the different effects which followed their appearing: the Voice "from heaven" (by Christ) produced proportionately greater results than did the Voice which spake by Moses, "on earth." The Voice through each produced a "shaking," but that through the latter was far more extensive than that through the former (verse 26). In proof of this declaration the apostle quoted and commented upon a striking prediction found in Haggai, the pertinency and scope of which we would now consider. For a better understanding thereof we will turn to its original setting.
In chapter 1 Haggai rebukes the indifference of the Jewish remnant (who had returned to Palestine from the Babylonish captivity) for their neglect to rebuild God’s house. This stirred them up to proceed therewith. In chapter 2 the prophet comforts them. The rebuilding of the temple had then proceeded far enough for it to be made manifest that in its outward glory it was far inferior to Solomon’s. A great lamentation ensued, and the prophet asks, "Who is left among you that saw this house in her first glory? and how do ye see it now? is it not in your eyes in comparison of it as nothing?" (Heb. 2:3). The people greatly feared that Jehovah had deserted them, and to re-assure them Haggai declared, "Yet now be strong, O Zerubbabel, saith the Lord; and be strong, O Joshua, son of Josedech, the high priest; and be strong all ye people of the land, saith the Lord, and work: for I am with you, saith the Lord of hosts: according to the word that I covenanted with you when ye came out of Egypt, so My Spirit remaineth among you: fear ye not" (Heb. 2:4, 5); and then it was that he set before them the grand hope of the Messiah’s appearing.
"For thus saith the Lord of hosts, Yet once, it is a little while and I will shake the heavens, and the earth, and the sea, and the dry land; And I will shake all nations, and the Desire of all nations shall come: and I will fill this house with glory, saith the Lord of hosts. The silver is Mine, and the gold is Mine, saith the Lord of hosts. The glory of this latter house shall be greater than of the former, saith the Lord of hosts: and in this place will I give peace, saith the Lord of hosts" (Hag. 2:6-9). Here was a message of comfort to the sorrowing remnant of the prophet’s day, and from it the apostle quotes in Hebrews 12.
The first thing we would note in the above prediction is the statement "a little while and I will shake," which makes it evident that the "shaking" did not look forward to the final and universal convulsion of nature at the end of time; rather was the reference to that which preceded and was connected with the establishing of Christianity, which was comparatively an impending event in Haggai’s day. Second, the "shaking" was not to occur in the material world, but in the political and religious realms, as is clear from the closing verses of this very chapter. "I will shake the heavens, and the earth" (verse 21) is at once defined as "and I will overthrow the throne of kingdoms, and I will destroy the strength of the kingdoms of the heathen" (verse 22)—this commenced shortly afterwards, for the axe lay at the root of the Persian empire. Third, there was the express promise that the glory of the temple built in Haggai’s day should exceed that of Solomon’s.
That third item needs to be very carefully weighed by us, for it is of great importance. This was the chief point of comfort in Haggai’s prediction. His fellows were deeply distressed (see Ezra 3:12) at the comparative meanness of the house of God which they were erecting, but he assures them it should yet possess a glory that far excelled that of Solomon’s. That greater glory was not a material one, but a spiritual: it was expressly said to be the coming to it of "the Desire of all nations." It was by the appearing of the Messiah that the real "glory" would accrue unto the second temple, and that must be while it still stood! Haggai’s temple was enlarged and beautified by Herod three hundred years later, but the original structure was never destroyed, so that it continued one and the same "house;" and to it Christ came! The "little while," then, of Haggai 2:6 was parallel with the "suddenly" of Malachi 3:1.
The fourth and last thing was "and in this place will I give peace, saith the Lord of hosts" (Heb. 2:9). That also was spiritual: referring to the peace which Christ should make "through the blood of His cross" (Col. 1:20) between God and His people, and the amity which should be established between believing Jews and believing Gentiles (see Ephesians 2:14-16) in the same worship of God. This was the principal work of Christ: to put away sin (which was the cause of enmity and strife) and to bring in peace. Finally, the manner in which all this was to be effected was by a great "shaking," not only in the midst of Israel, but also among the Gentiles. Observe carefully the "yet once" of Haggai 2:6: there had been a great "shaking" when the first covenant was instituted, but there would be a still greater at the establishing of the new covenant. Thus the "yet once" signifies, first, once more; and secondly, once for all—finally.
Now from the above prophecy of Haggai Paul quotes in Hebrews 12:26. The apostle’s object was a double one: to supply additional proof for the superiority of Christianity over Judaism, and to give further point to the exhortation he had made in verse 25. Evidence is here given from the O.T. to show that the voice of God speaking by Christ had produced far greater effects than His word had through Moses. The contrasts, then, between the old and new covenants, and the excelling of the latter over the former, may be summed up thus: the one was connected with Sinai, the other brings us unto Sion (verses 18-24); the one was inaugurated by Moses, the other by the Son; the one was God speaking "on earth," the other "from heaven;" the one "shook the earth," the other "heaven" itself (verse 26); the one is "removed" the other "remains" (verse 27); therefore, HEAR the Son!
How far astray, then, are those commentators who suppose that Haggai’s prophecy refers to the final judgment at the last day, when the whole fabric of nature shall shake and be removed! First, such a terrifying event was altogether alien to the scope of Haggai’s purpose, which was to comfort his sorrowing brethren. Second, such a prediction had been entirely irrevelant to the apostle’s scope, for he was comparing not the giving of the law with the Day of Judgment, but the giving of the law with the promulgation of the Gospel by Christ Himself; for his whole design was to exhibit the preeminence of the Evangelical economy. Third, nor would such dreadful doom be designated a "promise" (Heb. 12:26). Fourth, the apostle clearly intimated that Haggai’s prophecy was now fulfilled (verse 28). Finally, there is no reason whatever why we should regard the shaking of heaven and earth here as a literal one: it was spiritual things of which the apostle was discoursing—such as issue in that unshakable kingdom which believers receive in this world.
Let us admire the striking appropriateness of Haggai’s prophecy to the purpose the apostle then had in hand. Haggai’s prediction concerned the person and appearing of Christ: "The Desire of all nations shall come." There it was announced that God would do greater works than He had performed in the days of Moses (Hag. 2:5-7). God shook Egypt before He gave the law, He shook Sinai at the giving of it, He shook the surrounding nations (especially in Canaan) just after it. But in "a little while" He would do greater things. The prophet’s design was to fix the eyes of the Jews upon the first advent of Christ, which was their great expectation, and to assure them that their temple would then possess a glory far excelling that of Solomon’s. Meanwhile, God would overthrow "the throne of kingdoms and destroy the strength of the heathen" (verse 22), as the forerunning signs of Christ’s advent during the short season which intervened before His appearing.
How pertinent and well-suited, then, was Haggai’s prophecy to the subject Paul was developing! That prediction had been fulfilled: Christ had come and made good its terms: conclusive proof of this is found in the changing of the verb—the prophet’s "I will shake" being altered to "I shake," for the apostle regarded the "shaking" as present and not future. A "promise" had been given that a greater work of Divine power, grace and glory should be wrought at the appearing of the Messiah than what took place in connection with the exodus from Egypt and the giving of the law, and this was now accomplished. How clearly and how forcibly did this demonstrate the pre-eminency of the new covenant above the old: so far as the glory of the second temple excelled that of the first was Christianity superior to Judaism! Finally, how well did this "shaking" of heaven intimate the permamency and finality of Christianity, for the shaking was in order that the unshakable might abide (verse 27).
It now remains for us to weigh the comment which the apostle made upon this citation from Haggai: "And this word, Yet once more, signifieth the removing of those things that are shaken, as of things that are made, that those things which cannot be shaken may remain" (verse 27). Incidentally, let it be pointed out that here we have a helpful illustration of the province and task of the teacher: in expounding God’s Word he not only compares passage with passage and defines the meaning of its terms, but he also indicates what legitimate inferences and conclusions may be drawn, what its statements imply as well as directly affirm. This is exactly what the apostle does here: he argues that the word "once" (used by the prophet) not only signified "once more," but that it also denoted the setting aside of the order of things previously existing.
There is a fullness in the words of Holy Writ which can only be discovered by prolonged meditation and careful analysis. The prophecy of Haggai had said nothing expressly about the "removing" of anything, yet what was not stated explicitly was contained therein implicitly. The apostle insists that a "removing" was implied in the terms of Haggai’s prediction. The very fact that God had "shaken" the Mosaic economy to its very foundations—the preaching and miracles of Christ (and later by His apostles) had caused thousands to leave it, the Lord’s denunciation of the religion leaders and His exposure of their hypocrisy had undermined the confidence of the masses, while the rending of the temple veil by a Divine hand had clearly and solemnly signified the end of the Levitical system—was plain intimation that He was on the eve of setting the whole aside, and that, for the purpose of setting up something better in its place; what that something is, we must leave for our next chapter.
N.B. Had some of our twentieth century Christians been present they would have taken issue with the apostle and said, "Paul, you are taking undue liberties with the Word of God, which we cannot consent to. The Holy Spirit through Haggai spoke of a "shaking," whereas you change it to "removing." Had the apostle replied, "I am simply pointing out what the prophet’s language clearly implies, drawing an obvious inference from his statement." The rejoinder would be, "We do not need to do any reasoning upon the Word. Moreover, any simple soul can see that shaking and removing are very different things, and had the prophet meant the latter he would have said so, and not used the former." An expositor of Scripture often encounters such quibbling today: it is worse than ignorance, for it deceives not a few into supposing that such slavish adherence to the letter of Scripture (being occupied with its sound, instead of seeking its sense) is honoring the same.