Psychologist Alfred Adler coined the term “superiority complex” in the early 1900s. Ironically, he believed the pathological behavior that made some people think too highly of themselves derived from one’s feelings of inferiority. His research showed that some people treat others with contempt, domineering them in a haughty manner to feel good about themselves. Psychoanalysts like Adler can make all of us look in the mirror and feel uncomfortable.
Some people in the first century might have thought Jesus of Nazareth needed psychological help because He claimed to be the Jewish Messiah. But nobody who has seriously tried to psychoanalyze Jesus without bias has ever concluded that He had a superiority complex. On the contrary, most people agree that the humble God-man came to serve, not to be served (Mark 10:45).
Emotionally healthy people will tell you that life is more about giving than taking, serving than being served. Moreover, the truly superior person is least likely to have a superiority complex and is more likely to humbly serve others. Perhaps the writer of Hebrews had this in mind when he argued for the superiority of Jesus Christ in all things.
The New Testament book of Hebrews begins the final road trip on the ultimate road trip through the Bible. Road Trip 8 travels through the General Epistles and Revelation. What contribution does Hebrews make to the New Testament canon of Scripture? Where is the Jesus juncture? How does Hebrews point us to the supremacy and sufficiency of Jesus Christ?
Let’s begin with an observation from Walter Martin, who quipped, “The book of Hebrews was written by a Hebrew to other Hebrews telling the Hebrews to stop acting like Hebrews.”[i] That is a fair summation of the book and might add a slight grin to our understanding. However, there is much more to Hebrews than Martin’s tongue-in-cheek view.[ii]
The primary audience the writer of Hebrews had in mind were the Jewish followers of Jesus, who were afraid to fully embrace Christianity by leaving Judaism. Intense persecution contributed to their fear and tendency to slip back into the comfortable rituals they knew best. However, the writer of Hebrews strongly encouraged them to continue in the grace of Jesus Christ. The same writer also warned another group about falling away from that which they never fully embraced. This audience had accepted the facts of Christianity intellectually, but they never experienced saving faith.
Understanding the different audiences keeps us from making wrong theological assumptions about, for example, eternal security and the assurance of one’s salvation. Considering Jesus’s parable about the farmer who scattered seeds that fell on different soils is helpful when reading Hebrews (Matthew 13:1-23).
Specifically, Hebrews contains five warning passages that must be carefully studied in light of the different parabolic soils. Think of these passages as road signs that read, “Warning: Dangerous Curve Ahead.”
- Hebrews 2:1-4 warns about drifting from the gospel message we heard and neglecting “such a great salvation.”
- Hebrews 3:7-4:13 warns about hardened hearts and the danger of unbelief.
- Hebrews 5:11-6:20 warns about apostasy, falling away from the truth.
- Hebrews 10:26-39 warns about trampling underfoot the Son of God, profaning His blood, and outraging the Spirit of grace.
- Hebrews 12:25-29 warns about refusing to hear God who is speaking to us.
Jesus, the Superior Person
The superiority of Jesus Christ and, thus, of Christianity carves through the book of Hebrews like water in a vast canyon, starting with the majestic words found in 1:1-4.
Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.
Without the customary greetings and salutations we read in Paul’s epistles, the writer of Hebrews immediately makes his case for the superiority of Jesus Christ. These opening verses are some of the grandest ascensions known in biblical literature about the person and nature of Jesus Christ. At the risk of mixing metaphors, they stand like a fourteener in Colorado alongside John 1:1-14 and Colossians 1:15-20.
After stating that Jesus Christ is superior to the Old Testament prophets, the writer quickly states that He is equally superior to the angels of heaven (1:4-2:18). Neither prophets nor angels are in the same category as Jesus, who creates and sustains the entire universe “by the word of his power.” He even sits “at the right hand of the Majesty on high,” which is something prophets and angels never get to do. For what it’s worth, this is where Christianity departs company from Islam, which views Jesus as merely a prophet, a little lower than Muhammad. Even Mormonism wrongly identifies Jesus as the spirit brother of Lucifer.
In 3:1-6, the writer of Hebrews makes another case for the superiority of Jesus; this time, Jesus is greater than Moses. “For Jesus has been counted worthy of more glory than Moses—as much more glory as the builder of a house has more honor than the house itself” (3:3). Then, attention turns to the rest God intended for His chosen people as they entered the Promised Land, suggesting Jesus is greater than Joshua, Moses’s successor (3:7-4:13).
From Joshua, we learned that the Promised Land is not heaven but a picture of abundance, victory, and rest in the Christian life. Not all who came out of Egypt entered the Promised Land, let alone took full possession of it. From this Old Testament story, the writer of Hebrews speaks of a “Sabbath rest for the people of God” and encourages believers to enter that superior experience through Jesus (4:8-11; Matthew 11:28). The next verses remind us that the Bible is more than a dry and dusty history text.
For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account. 4:12-13
The written word of God and the Living Logos (John 1:1-14) are never in contradiction. Together, they powerfully give life, deliver warnings, expose the inner motives of the human heart, and hold us accountable. Better to let the Bible psychoanalyze us than someone like Alfred Adler.
Jesus, the Superior High Priest
Next, the writer of Hebrews presents Jesus as the superior high priest who is greater than Aaron (4:14-8:13). He begins with these summarizing and encouraging words.
Since then 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 is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. 4:14-16
Unlike Aaron, Jesus was not a Levite. However, He qualified for the office of high priest forever “after the order of Melchizedek” (5:6, 10, 6:20, 7:11, 17). Who is Melchizedek, and why is his priesthood better than Aaron’s? After warning about apostasy in 5:11-6:20, the writer explains the person and origin of Melchizedek in 7:1-10, followed by a comparison of Jesus and this mysterious high priest in the Old Testament with a strange name (7:11-28).
Melchizedek was the king of Salem, which later became Jerusalem. After Abraham defeated Chedorlaomer, king of Elam, and other kings in the Valley of Siddim near the Dead Sea (Genesis 14), the “priest of the Most High God” blessed Abraham. Then, Abraham gave Melchizedek a tithe (tenth) of the spoils of war as an act of worship. Adding to Melchizedek’s mystery, the Bible says, “He is without father or mother or genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but resembling the Son of God he continues a priest forever” (7:3). That makes Melchizedek an Old Testament type of Christ or a preincarnate appearance of Him.
Like Melchizedek, the Levitical priesthood was a shadow (8:5, 10:1) of the true substance, which is found in Jesus Christ, who is “the guarantor of a better covenant” (7:22) and its mediator (8:6). The new covenant, which Old Testament prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel predicted, replaced the old covenant because the Mosaic Law fulfilled its purpose in pointing us to Christ (8:6-13).
The Superior Works of Jesus
The writer goes on to remind his Jewish audience how the Old Testament tent of meeting constructed by Moses in the wilderness served as a foreshadowing of the superior works of Jesus Christ, who fulfilled the moral and sacrificial aspects of the Mosaic Law. The sacred objects and activities of the tabernacle pictured how sinful human beings can enter the holy presence of God and experience an audience with the Almighty (9:1-10).
God was doing much more in the wilderness than even Moses understood at the time. The writer explains how “through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) [Jesus] entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption” (9:11-12). The point is this: Jesus voluntarily offered Himself as a sinless sacrifice, and “by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified” (9:1-10:18).
Chapter 10 ends with a theological “lettuce patch” that gives us “confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus” (10:19). Read 10:21-25 slowly and carefully, paying attention to the thrice-repeated phrase “let us.”
And since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.
The Superior Walk of Faith
Chapter 11 begins with a definition of faith, which the writer of Hebrews warned about discarding in 10:19-39. “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (11:1). In other words, believing is seeing, not the other way around. Known as the Hebrews Hall of Faith, the rest of the chapter illustrates a robust belief in unseen things through many profiles of courageous faith. Each summation of the life of faith encourages believers, Jews and Gentiles, to “run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith” (12:1-3).
This magnificent New Testament book ends with practical ways to embrace the superior walk of faith, including an encouragement to endure the discipline of the Lord and “not grow weary or fainthearted” (12:3-11). Strive for peace, holiness, and grace. Avoid bitterness and sexual immorality (12:12-17). Live for the “kingdom that cannot be shaken” (12:18-29).
Chapter 13 begins with instructions about continuing in brotherly love, remembering prisoners, honoring marriage, keeping our lives “free from the love of money,” and obeying spiritual leaders, especially “those who spoke to you the word of God” (13:1-19). Then, the chapter and book end with one of the best benedictions in Holy Scripture (13:20-21), followed by final greetings (13:22-25).
None of what we read in the book of Hebrews should create a superiority complex in us. However, Hebrews should leave us with the distinct impression that Jesus Christ is truly superior, without comparison, and worthy of our earnest pursuit.
[ii] Much debate surrounds the authorship of Hebrews, with some attributing it to the Apostle Paul. However, after vigorous arguments for and against Pauline authorship, the writer of Hebrews remains ambiguous. Weaker arguments for authorship include Luke, Apollos, Barnabas, Silas, Phillip, or Aquilla and Priscilla. A third-century theologian named Origen said, “Who was it that really wrote the epistle to the Hebrews, God only knows.”