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The Death of the Cross Duncan Heaster  
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7-3 Hebrews: Breaking Of Bread Sermon


Sometimes it's best to present the end conclusion and then the evidence. I want to suggest that the letter to the Hebrews is actually a breaking of bread sermon first given by Paul to the Jerusalem ecclesia, against a background of Judaist pressure to return to the Law, and also bearing in mind some specific moral and doctrinal problems which were in the ecclesia. If you read it through out loud, the " letter" takes about 45 minutes. The last few verses seem to be 'tacked on' to turn it into a letter. Paul asks them to " suffer the word of exhortation" (Heb. 13:22), although, he says, it was a brief one. This would imply that usually " the word of exhortation" was a lot longer. Remember how Paul exhorted all night at Troas at the breaking of bread (Acts 20:7-9). We somehow don't like the idea of a brother 'going on' for an hour or two. Yet evidently in the first century (and the nineteenth for that matter) the brethren quite accepted this. If what is said is worthwhile and relevant, there is no harm in long sermons. It's only a function of our background that we lack the concentration required. As we've said before, we travel such long distances to be with our new brethren, we might as well feed them as much as possible.

There is evidence that the early breaking of bread service was based upon the Synagogue Sabbath service. Heb. 13:17,24 speak of " them that have the rule over you" , the language of the 'ruler of the synagogue' (cp. Lk. 8:49; 13:14; Acts 18:8). There were weekly portions of readings which were read, similar to our Bible Companion (1) and then expounded by the Rabbi and any others who would like to offer a " word of exhortation" (Acts 13:15). Acts 13:15 is the only other place apart from Heb. 13:22 that " the word of exhortation" occurs. It is clearly a synagogue phrase. It is possible that " suffer the word of exhortation" was also a Synagogue phrase, said at the end of the 'exhortation' on the Sabbath. This suggests that the whole of Hebrews was a " word of exhortation" at a Sabbath breaking of bread (probably this was the day the Jewish ecclesias met in Jerusalem), being a commentary on the readings for that week (perhaps the Melchizedek passages and parts of the Law), constantly bringing the point round to the death of the Lord Jesus. In this, Hebrews is an ideal sermon: it continually comes round to the work of Christ.

Hebrews is also a series of quotations and allusions (over half the sermon is comprised of these), interspersed with commentary and brief practical exhortation (e.g. to disfellowship false teachers, 12:15,16), all tied together around the theme of Christ's sacrifice and our response to it. Our sermons should be Bible based, after this same pattern. This is surely the way to construct sermons: re-reading verses from the chapters in the readings, commenting on them, bringing it all round to the work of Christ. A recurring theme of the Hebrews sermon is a reminding of the hearers of the reality of their future reward, made sure by Christ's work (4:9; 5:9; 6:10,19; 9:28; 10:34; 11:40; 12:10). This should surely be a theme embedded in our sermons: the personal Hope of the Kingdom, made sure for us by the work of Christ.

Obvious Relevance

So much in Hebrews is obviously relevant to the memorial meeting. The wine represents the blood of the new covenant. That new covenant is repeated in 8:10,11; and the word " covenant" occurs 14 times, and the parallel " testament" 7 times. The blood of the covenant is explicitly referred to in 7:22; 8:6; 9:1 and 13:20. 12:24-26 personifies that blood as a mighty voice speaking to us, manifesting the voice of God, capable of shaking Heaven and earth. This is truly the power of appeal behind a consideration of Christ's blood, as symbolised in the wine.

There are 22 references to " blood" , 4 to " body" , 8 to " sacrifice" i.e. the body of the animal, and 9 to " offering" , also a reference to the body of the animal. The breaking of bread is designed to remember the body and blood of our Lord's sacrifice. And this is exactly the theme of Hebrews. Yet at the same time as doing this, Paul was getting over his specific point to the Jerusalem ecclesia: the utter supremacy of Christ's sacrifice ought to obviate the need for any other theory of reconciliation to God. If only we could exhort like this: make the specific points we need to make under the umbrella of a sustained emphasis on the sacrifice of Christ.

Partakers Of Christ

1 Cor. 10:17,21 (probably an epistle known to the Jerusalem ecclesia) speaks of us being partakers of the one bread at the breaking of bread, partaking of the Lord's table there. The same word is used in Heb. 3:14 concerning being partakers of Christ, again suggesting that Hebrews was first spoken in a breaking of bread context. The same word occurs in Heb. 12:8: we are partakers of Christ's sufferings. We are Christ's partakers (AV " fellows" ; 1:9); Christ partakes of our nature (2:14). Yet we are only ultimately partakers of Christ if we hold fast the beginning of our confidence (3:14). All these ideas are brought together in our partaking of the emblems of Christ at the memorial meeting. In them, Paul is reasoning, we should see our partaking of Christ's sufferings as a response to His partaking of our nature, and thereby our partaking of the promised reward, the " heavenly calling" (3:1).

Oral Style

The references to " let us" do this or that are all so appropriate to a verbal sermon, encouraging the listeners to respond to the work of Christ. " We see Jesus" (2:9), " Consider...Jesus" (3:1; 7:4; 12:3) would fit in well to the context of a sermon given with the emblems before the audience. " Concerning whom in our discourse..." (Heb. 5:11 Diaglott) would certainly fit in to an oral discourse. “And, so to say…" (Heb. 7:9 RV) is another example. “Saying above. Sacrifice and offering…" (Heb. 10:8 RV) sounds as if a scroll is being read and quotation made from passages “above" in the scroll. " Of the things which we have spoken (RV we are saying)this is the sum" (8:1) is language more appropriate to a transcript of an address than to a written composition. " As I may so say" (7:9) is another such example. " One in a certain place..." (2:6) is an odd way to write in a formal letter. Yet it fits in if this is a transcript of a sermon; it's the sort of thing you would say verbally when you know your audience can't turn up the passage. The word of exhortation contained in Hebrews was in " few words" (13:22); but this is a bad translation. Strong defines it as meaning " a short time, for a little while" (2) - i.e. Paul is saying 'It won't take long in terms of time to hear this, but consider the points carefully'. Note that the RV speaks of “suffer the exhortation", unlike AV “the word of exhortation" (Heb. 13:22). One almost gets the impression that Paul is speaking with great constraints on his time: " the cherubims...of which we cannot now speak particularly...what shall I more say? for the time is failing me, running out" (Heb. 9:5; 11:32 Gk.). These sort of comments would surely be irrelevant in a written letter. But as a transcript of a live sermon, they make perfect sense. M. R. Vincent in his Word Studies Of The NT observed in Hebrews " a rhythmical structure of sentences (with) sonorous compounds" , as if what is written had first been spoken.

" Let us offer the sacrifice of praise to God" (13:15) would be appropriate to communal praise at a memorial meeting. Likewise " Let us draw near...we draw nigh...let us come boldly before the throne of grace" (4:16; 7:19) is appropriate to the congregation coming before God in collective and private prayer, culminating in the 'drawing nigh' of taking the emblems (cp. the idea of 'coming to God' in 11:6). The emphasis on the power of Christ as a mediator (7:25; 9:24) would be appropriate in this context of rallying the congregation's faith in their prayers and confessions of sin. The encouragement to " exhort one another daily" (3:13; 10:25) takes on a special relevance if said at the breaking of bread; Paul would have been implying: 'Don't just listen to me exhorting you today, or a brother doing it once a week; you must all exhort each other, every day, not just on Shabbat!'.

Self Examination

There is another sustained theme in this sermon, in addition to all the stress on our Lord's sacrifice. It is the repeated warning as to the likelihood of apostasy (2:1-3; 3:12; 4:1; 6:4-8; 10:26-30,38; 12:15-17,25,27) and the possibility of abusing the blood of Christ (10:26-30)- exactly after the pattern of 1 Cor. 11:26-30, which explicitly makes this warning in the context of the breaking of bread. “Of how much sorer punishment, suppose ye [again, oral style], shall he be thought worthy, who hath...counted the blood of the unholy thing?" (Heb. 11:29) is almost allusive to 1 Cor. 11:29, warning of drinking damnation to oneself through an incorrect attitude to the memorial cup. This kind of emphasis in a 45 minute sermon wouldn't go down well in a Western church. Yet the more we consider the wonder of the work of Christ, the more we will be driven to consider our own weakness, and the need to " hold fast" our connection with it. This is why we should examine ourselves at the breaking of bread (1 Cor. 11:28). " Hold on" is another related theme (3:6,14; 4:14; 10:23). And here and there we find brief, specific practical warnings which were doubtless especially relevant to the initial audience. It's amazing that Paul got so much in 45 minutes. Yet this is what is possible. Note that all the exhortations in Hebrews, the comfort, the warnings, are all an outcome of a consideration of first principles, especially relating to the atonement. Thus Paul turns the fact that Christ is our representative round to teach the need for unity amongst us whom He represents (2:11).

" Take heed, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief" (3:12) is very relevant to a call for self-examination in the presence of the emblems. " Let us" boldly ask for forgiveness (4:16) could be read in this context too. The reminder that Christ examines us, that we are naked and opened in His sight, would have encouraged them to be open with him in their self-examination (4:12). Paul reminds them of their initial conversion (3:6,14; 6:11; 10:22,32), in the same way as the Passover was intended to provoke national and personal self-examination, looking back to their spiritual beginnings at the Red Sea (cp. baptism). He encourages them with a reminder that Christ is such a powerful priest that He can really cleanse our conscience (9:14; 10:2,22); the blood of the new covenant can destroy an evil conscience (10:22 cp. 9:20). Therefore, Paul reasons, with this clear conscience, " let us draw near" - to the emblems, to the reality of our relationship with God. Again we see a marked emphasis on the need for self-examination at the breaking of bread.

Having created this background of self-examination, Paul is able to more easily hand out explicit rebuke; e.g. " Ye are dull of hearing" (5:11-14; 12:5). Yet at the same time Paul expressed a very confident view of his audience; e.g. " We are persuaded better things of you" (6:9; 10:38,39). This is an important aspect of exhortation; to convey to the brethren and sisters the fact that we genuinely respect them as brethren and sisters in the Lord Jesus, with the sure Hope and possibility of salvation.

There is an emphasis on the good works which a true understanding of the first principles should bring (4:11; 9:14; 10:24; 12:28). This is exactly in harmony with the idea presented above: that exposition of first principle doctrine is the basis for practical exposition. This emphasis on the need for works in response to the doctrines of the atonement could suggest that Paul expected the congregation to make resolves at the breaking of bread concerning their future behaviour. Maybe this is behind his appeal for them to appreciate that Christ offers our works to God as the priests did the sacrifices in the past (5:1; 8:3,4; 9:9).

Personal Relevance

The Hebrews sermon is shot through with internal connections; just as our preaching sessions should constantly refer back to each other. Paul is trying to get the brethren and sisters to see that if they respond to his exhortations as they should, they will be connected in spirit with the faithful heroes of the Old Testament; they will become connected with " the spirits of just men made perfect" (12:23). Thus Noah was moved with fear, Paul says (11:7), just as we should be (4:1); Sarah " judged him faithful who had promised" (11:11), just as we should (10:23); as Moses bore the reproach of Christ (11:26), so should we (13:13). The breaking of bread is the equivalent of the Passover under the Old Covenant; therefore 11:28 highlights how Moses kept the Passover in faith as to the power of the sprinkled blood of the lamb. The implication is that if we take the wine with a similar faith in Christ's blood, we will come become united with the spirit of Moses.

There are many of these inter-connections within Hebrews. Our " afflictions" (10:32) uses the same word translated " suffering" in the context of Christ's sufferings (2:9,10); we are to " endure" (10:32) as Christ " endured" the shame of the cross (12:2,3 same word). Through these inter-connections, Paul is trying to make the sufferings of Christ relevant to them. We may never hope to achieve as much as Paul did in those 45 minutes. But the principles remain for us to try to copy. Therefore we should try not to offer unconnected comments on the readings, we should seek to tie them together under the umbrella of the work of the Lord Jesus, we should relate His sufferings to those of our brethren and sisters, we should seek to inspire them with the fact that they are fellowshipping the hope of the faithful recorded in the Bible records.

A Pattern For Us
The sermon to the Hebrews becomes more significant for us as we consider its likely background. In his book The Jewish War, Josephus explains in detail how the Jews in Palestine revolted against the Romans in AD66-70. Initially, everything went well for them. The Romans were defeated at the foot of the temple mount, the legions of Cestius Gallus were defeated, and the Jewish zealots attributed these successes to God’s rewarding of their loyalty to the Law. They purified and rededicated the temple, and appointed a High Priest who was not a collaborator with Rome. The zealots spoke of the liberation of Israel in strong religious terms; there was a great wave of enthusiasm for the Law. It seems that Hebrew Christians were caught up in this revival, and of course all Jews were expected to take up arms and fight. The exhortation to the Hebrews therefore stressed the passing of the Mosaic Law, the need to rally around Christ as the true altar and the only true, pure High Priest (Heb. 4:14; 10:19-25; 13:10). There was the command to move outside the camp of Israel, i.e. Jerusalem (Heb. 13:13). And the institutions of the temple, which the Jewish nationalists were so glorifying, are shown to be of no value compared to the blood of Christ. The references to the temptations of Jesus (Heb. 2:17,18; 4:15) may be references back to the wilderness temptations, where He faced the same choice that the Jewish Christians had- to opt for a Kingdom here and now, throwing off the Roman yoke; or to hold fast our faith in the Kingdom which is surely to come. The speaker / writer to the Hebrew Christians doesn’t specifically tackle the issues affecting them in bald terms. He instead sets a masterful example of how we should approach issues and weaknesses which need our comment. He adopts a Christ-centred and Biblical approach, demonstrating that he is exactly aware of the issues which face them, and reasoning from unshakeable principles towards specific applications of them.

The Final Appeal

All good sermons have a strong final appeal and focus on the sacrifice of Christ. Heb. 12:23 appears grammatically and structurally to be a climax: "Ye are come unto... the general assembly and church of the firstborn". It is possible to understand this 'general assembly' as a reference to the combined ecclesia present at the breaking of bread. Indeed the Orthodox churches use this verse in this sense in their eucharist liturgy, rendering it "the festival of the firstborn" (3). Chapter 13 contains a series of brief practical exhortations just before the final appeal to home in on the body and blood of our Lord. 13:10 then goes on to compare us to the priests eating the sacrifice on the altar; a picture so appropriate to partaking the emblems at the memorial meeting. 13:11-15 is surely a fitting climax to the sermon, as the audience prepared to take the emblems: " The bodies of those beasts...Jesus also, that He might sanctify the people with his own blood, suffered...let us go forth therefore unto Him, bearing his Him therefore let us offer the sacrifice of praise to God continually (not just at this meeting)" . Notice the emphasis on the body and blood of Christ, and an appeal for our response in praise rather than further self-examination. The whole sermon started with God (the very first word in 1:1), and ends with God; reflecting the fact that Christ's work is a manifestation of God, and is intended to bring us to the Father, and eternally reconcile us with Him.

Indeed, a fair case can be made that most of the NT epistles are in fact based upon sermons read out at the breaking of bread service. Given that most Christians would have been illiterate, the memorial meeting would have been the logical time and place to read out the latest letter from Paul or Peter, in any case (Col. 4:16; 1 Thess. 5:27). Consider how Paul writes to the Corinthians in 1 Cor. 5:3-5 as if he is present with them at their memorial meeting [" ye being gathered together..." ]. Many of the endings and greetings of the letters have some reference to the memorial meeting. The commands to pray and kiss each other which conclude some of the letters must be compared to the information we find in Justin Martyr's description of the early communion meetings: " When we have ceased from prayer, we salute one another with a kiss. There is then brought to the president bread and a cup of wine" (Apology I, 65). The strange ending of 1 Corinthians 16:20-24 is an obvious allusion to the passage in the Didache, describing the words spoken at the breaking of bread meetings in the first century: " If any man loveth not the Lord, let him be anathema. Maranatha...Amen" . According to the Didache, the president at the memorial meeting said: " If any man is holy, let him come; if any be not, let him repent. Maranatha. Amen" . Indeed, it is possible that the book of Revelation is a series of prophecies initially given at ecclesial gatherings. The whole book is punctuated by passages of liturgy and worship (4).


The evidence provided here that ‘Hebrews’ was a sermon at the breaking of bread is to me quite strong. As we've said, in an oral culture of illiterate converts, it is to be expected that the majority of Paul or Peter’s letters would’ve been read aloud to the assembled congregations when they gathered for worship. There is reference to a “holy kiss” at the end of some of the letters (Rom. 16:16; 1 Cor. 16:20; 2 Cor. 13:12; 1 Thess. 5:26; 1 Pet. 5:14). This was understood by Justin, Tertullian and Hippolytus to be a signal to the hearers that now the sermon had ended, and they were to kiss each other and begin partaking of the Lord’s supper (5). Whether that’s the case or not, there’s some major homework here for the enthusiast- to study each of the New Testament letters as a sermon appropriate to the breaking of bread service.


(1) See Joe Hill, 'An Ancient Bible Companion', Tidings, series 1994/5.

(2) The only other times this construction occurs is in Heb. 2:7,9, where we read that Christ was for " a little while" (RV mg.) lower than Angels.

(3) Christos Yannaras, The Freedom Of Morality (New York: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1996) p. 107.

(4) This idea is developed further in Oscar Cullmann, Early Christian Worship (London: SCM, 1953) .

(5) References provided in Martin Hengel, Studies In The Gospel Of Mark (London: SCM, 1985) p. 176.