Hebrews

Introduction

Author

The author of the epistle does not mention his name. Many a supposition has been made as to who the author might have been: Paul, Luke, Barnabas (so says Tertullian), Apollos (so says Martin Luther), Silas or even Aquila and Priscilla have been suggested.

Most of the modern scientists refuse to accept Paul as the author because contents, structure and language of the epistle are not typical for him. And yet the old Alexandrian tradition ascribes this epistle to the apostle Paul. The fact that the author knew Timothy well (Heb 13:23) and that Peter who also wrote to Jewish Christians mentions an epistle of Paul to them (2 Pet 3:15) speak for the Alexandrian tradition. However the addressees of the epistle were Jewish Christians in Palestine whereas Peter wrote to the scattered strangers (1 Pet 1:1) who lived outside Palestine. If Paul was the author one reason for not mentioning his name might be that he was an apostle to the nations whereas Peter was an apostle to the Jews (Gal 2:7-8).

As a matter of fact the author of the epistle remains unknown. The Holy Spirit who inspired this epistle deliberately wanted to introduce the Lord Jesus only as apostle and high priest of our profession (Heb 3:1). The church father Origines (around 185 to 254 AD) appropriately wrote: Only God knows in truth who the author is.

Date

The opinions regarding the time of writing differ as much as they do in respect to the authorship of the epistle. It is certain though that a writing of Clement of Rome (around 95 AD) shows many references from the epistle to the Hebrews. From Hebrews itself we see that the Old Testament service of offerings in the temple was still in existence (Heb 9:6-7; 10:11). The temple and the city of Jerusalem were destroyed by the Roman general and later emperor Titus in the year 70 AD. Many who refuse Paul's authorship conclude for reason of Hebrews 2:3 and 13:7 that the epistle must not have been written for some time after the apostles' death. Saying this, they obviously overlook the fact that the apostle Paul himself did not belong to the apostles who had seen and heard the Lord Jesus during His ministry.

Audience, Occasion, and Background

The epistle starts off as a written sermon and closes in the form of an epistle. Neither author nor addressee is mentioned in it.

The title "to the Hebrews" only appears in the 2nd century with Clemens of Alexandria (around 150 - 215 AD). As there is no other name known for the epistle it probably goes back to a very old tradition. But who were these Hebrews, and where did they live?

"Hebrews" is a name for the Israelites and for the descendants of Abraham (cf Gen 14:13; Phil 3:5). And yet the epistle cannot have received its name for the fact only that there are so many references to the OT in it. The addressees must not only have been very familiar with the OT but they are also frequently addressed as originating from the people of Israel. To this fact such expressions as "the fathers", "the prophets" (Heb 1:1), "the elders" (Heb 11:2) would point. Also the mention of Moses, Joshua and Aaron, who all belonged to the chosen people of God, confirm the same.

The addressees however had come to the conclusion that God's way of salvation was not the divine service of the OT but faith in the Lord Jesus Christ (Heb 2:1-4; 3:1; 3:6; 4:1-2; 4:14-16; 6:1-3; 10:13-25). The apostle Paul calls such Christians "a remnant according to the election of grace" (Rom 11:1-5). These Christians however were partially in danger to withdraw from Christendom and to go back to Judaism because of the heavy outward pressure of persecution (Heb 6:4-8; 10:26-31). These were in particular people who had professed to be Christians but had no true faith in the Saviour Jesus Christ.

In contrast to "the scattered strangers" that are the converted Jews of the Diaspora (see 1 Pet 1:1) the addressees of the epistle to the Hebrews lived in Palestine (Heb 10:11; 10:34; cf Acts 8:1). They were taught, admonished and encouraged by this epistle.

Purpose and Message

This, in a word, was to instruct Jewish believers that Judaism had been superceded by Christianity. Unlike the Gentiles, who, for long centuries past, had lost all knowledge of the true God, and, in consequence, worshipped idols, the Jews had a Divine religion, and a Divinely-appointed place of worship. To be called upon to forsake these, which had been venerated by their fathers for over a thousand years, was to make a big demand upon them. It was natural that even those among them who had savingly believed on Christ should want to retain the forms and ceremonies amid which they had been brought up; the more so, seeing that the Temple still stood and the Levitical priesthood still functioned. An endeavor had been made to link Christianity on to Judaism, and as Acts 21:20 tells us there were many thousands of the early Jewish Christians who were "zealous of the law"—as the next verses clearly show, the ceremonial law.

In addition to their natural prejudices, the temporal circumstances of the believing Jews became increasingly discouraging, yea, presented a sore temptation for them to abandon the profession of Christianity. We can scarcely realize the piercing sword which thus wounded their inmost heart. That by clinging to the Messiah they were to be severed from Messiah's people, was, indeed, a great and perplexing trial; that for the hope of Israel's glory they were banished from the place which God had chosen, and where the divine Presence was revealed, and the symbols and ordinances had been the joy and strength of their fathers; that they were to be no longer children of the covenant and of the house, but worse than Gentiles, excluded from the outer court, cut off from the commonwealth of Israel. This was indeed a sore and mysterious trial. Cleaving to the promises made unto their fathers, cherishing the hope in constant prayer that their nation would yet accept the Messiah, it was the severest test to which their faith could be put, when their loyalty to Jesus involved separation from all the sacred rights and privileges of Jerusalem.

Thus the need for an authoritative, lucid, and systematic setting forth of the real relation of Christianity to Judaism was a pressing one. Satan would not miss the opportunity of seeking to persuade these Hebrews that their faith in Jesus of Nazareth was a mistake, a delusion, a sin. Were they right, while the vast majority of their brethren, according to the flesh, among whom were almost all the respected members of the Sanhedrim and the priesthood, wrong? Had God prospered them since they had become followers of the crucified One? or, did not their temporal circumstances evidence that He was most displeased with them? Their situation was critical, and there was an urgent need that their faith should be strengthened, their understanding enlightened, and a fuller explanation be given them of Christianity in the light of the Old Testament. It was to meet this need that God, in His tender mercy, moved His servant to write this Epistle to them.

Characteristics

In several noticeable respects Hebrews differs from all the other Epistles of the New Testament. The name of the writer is omitted, there is no opening salutation, the ones to whom it was first specifically and locally sent are not mentioned. On the positive side we may note, that the typical teachings of the Old Testament are expounded here at greater length than elsewhere; the priesthood of Christ is opened up, fully, only in this Epistle; the warnings against apostasy are more frequent and more solemn, and the calls to steadfastness and perseverance are more emphatic and numerous than in any other New Testament book. All of these things are accounted for by the fleshly nationality of those addressed, and the circumstances they were then in. Unless we keep these features steadily in mind, not a little in this Epistle will necessarily remain obscure and dark. Much of the language used, the figures employed, the references made, are only intelligible in the light of the Old Testament Scriptures, on which Judaism was based. Except this be kept before us, such expressions as "purged our sins" (Heb 1:3), "there remaineth therefore a Sabbath-keeping to the people of God" (Heb 4:9), "leaving the principles of the doctrine of Christ, let us go on unto perfection" (Heb 6:1), "our bodies washed with pure water" (Heb 10:22), "we have an altar" (Heb 13:10), etc., will remain unintelligible.

The first time that Christ is referred to in this Epistle it is as seated at "the right hand of the Majesty on high" (Heb 1:3), for it is with a heavenly Christ that Christianity has to do: note the other reference in this Epistle to the same fact—Hebrews 1:13, 8:1, 10:12, 12:2. In perfect accord with Hebrews 1:3, which strikes the keynote of the Epistle, in addition to the heavenly Christ, reference is made to "the heavenly calling" (Heb 3:1), to "the heavenly gift" (Heb 6:4), to "heavenly things" (Heb 8:5), to "the heavenly Country" (Heb 11:16), to the "heavenly Jerusalem" (Heb 12:22), and to "the church of the Firstborn, whose names are written in Heaven" (Heb 12:23). This emphasis is easily understood when we remember that our Epistle is addressed to those whose inheritance, religious relationships, and hopes, had been all earthly.

In Hebrews 13:22 there is a striking word which defines the character of this Epistle: "And I beseech you, brethren, suffer the word of exhortation, for I have written a letter unto you in few words." Upon this verse Saphir has well said, "The central idea of the Epistle is the glory of the New Covenant, contrasted with and excelling the glory of the old covenant; and while this idea is developed in a systematic manner, yet the aim of the writer throughout is eminently and directly practical. Everywhere his object is exhortation. He never loses sight of the dangers and wants of his brethren. The application to conscience and life is never forgotten. It is rather a sermon than an exposition... In all his arguments, in every doctrine, in every illustration, the central aim of the Epistle is kept prominent—the exhortation to steadfastness."

What has just been said above accounts for what we find in Hebrews 11. Nowhere else in the Bible do we find such a lengthy and complete description of the life of faith. But here a whole chapter, the longest in the Epistle, is devoted to it. The reason for this is not far to seek. Brought up in a system with an elaborate ritual, whose worship was primarily a matter of outward symbols and ceremonies; tempted as few ever have been to walk by sight, there was a special and most pressing need for a clear and detailed analysis and description of what it means to "walk by faith." Inasmuch as "example is better than precept," better because more easily grasped and because making a more powerful appeal to the heart, the Holy Spirit saw well to develop this important theme by an appeal to the history of saints recorded in the Scriptures of the Hebrews.

Key Themes

Faith: Throughout Scripture faith means more than trust in Jesus for personal safety. This is the central point, but we must take care that we understand it in a true and deep manner. Faith, as the apostle explains in the Epistle to the Corinthians, is looking at the things which are not seen and temporal: it is preferring spiritual and eternal realities to the things of time, sense, and sin; it is leaning on God and realizing His Word; it is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. Thus every doctrine and illustration of this Epistle goes straight to the heart and conscience, appeals to life, addresses itself to faith. It is one continued and sustained fervent and intense appeal to cleave to Jesus, the High Priest; to the substantial, true, and real worship. A most urgent and loving exhortation to be steadfast, patient, hopeful, in the presence of God, in the love and sympathy of the Lord Jesus, in the fellowship of the great cloud of witnesses.

Warnings against apostacy: Throughout this Epistle there are repeated warnings against apostasy. The most solemn and searching exhortations against the danger of falling away to be found anywhere in Holy Writ were given to these, Hebrews 2:1-3, most of chapters 3 and 4, Hebrews 6:4-6, 10:26-29, 12:15-17. The disappointing of the hopes the Hebrews had cherished, the persecutions they were then enduring, and the Divine judgment which was on the very eve of falling on Jerusalem in AD 70 made them imperative.

Outline and Structure

I. The Superiority of Christ (1:1-3:6)
II. Maturity and Holding Fast (3:7-6:20)
III. Our Great High Priest (7:1-10:18)
IV. Faith: Examples and Exhortation (10:19-12:3)
V. Concluding Exhortations (12:4-13:25)

I. The Superiority of Christ (1:1-3:6)
A. Introduction (1:1-4)
B. The Son Greater than the Angels (1:5-14)
C. Pay Attention: Great Salvation (2:1-4)
D. Everything in Subjection to Him (2:5-9)
E. Perfected Salvation through Him (2:10-18)
F. High Priest and Apostle (3:1-6)
II. Maturity and Holding Fast (3:7-6:20)
A. Take Heed lest you Fall (3:7-12)
B. The Deceitfulness of Sin (3:12-19)
C. Enter into His Rest (4:1-11)
D. God's Living and Active Word (4:12-13)
E. Hold Fast and Draw Near (4:14-16)
F. Our High Priest and Salvation (5:1-10)
G. Moving on to Maturity (5:11-6:3)
H. Apostacy: Crucifying Him Again (6:4-8)
I. Full Assurance and Faith (6:9-12)
J. Sure and Steadfast Anchor (6:13-20)
III. Our Great High Priest (7:1-10:18)
A. Melchizedek and Abraham (7:1-10)
B. A Better Hope (7:11-19)
C. A Greater High Priest (7:20-28)
D. A More Excellent Ministry (8:1-6)
E. A New Covenant (8:7-13)
F. The Earthly Sanctuary (9:1-10)
G. Redemption by Christ's Blood (9:11-14)
H. Covenant: Established by Death (9:15-22)
I. Sacrifice: Once for All Time (9:23-28)
J. Sacrifices: Reminder of Sin (10:1-10)
K. Christ High and Lifted Up (10:11-18)
IV. Faith: Examples and Exhortation (10:19-12:3)
A. How Should We Then Live (10:19-25)
B. Judgment: Vengeance is Mine (10:26-31)
C. Endurance: In a Little While (10:32-39)
D. Faith: Assurance and Conviction (11:1-3)
E. Faith: Justifying and Pleasing (11:4-7)
F. Faith: Looking Forward (11:8-12)
G. Faith: Seeking a Homeland (11:13-16)
H. Faith: Passed Down (11:17-22)
I. Faith: Exodus to Promised Land (11:23-31)
J. Faith: Overcoming the World (11:32-40)
K. Faith: Looking to Jesus (12:1-3)
V. Concluding Exhortations (12:4-13:25)
A. Disciplined and Holy (12:4-17)
B. Mount Zion: Heavenly City (12:18-24)
C. Unshakeable Kingdom (12:25-29)
D. Hospitality and Holy Living (13:1-7)
E. Same Yesterday, Today, Forever (13:8-14)
F. Sacrifice of Praise (13:15-19)
G. Doxology (13:20-21)
H. Conclusion (13:22-25)

Resources

Commentaries

John Calvin, Commentary on Hebrews.

John Owen, Exposition of Hebrews.

Sermons

John Piper, Desiring God.