An Introduction to Hebrews, part 1

Today we’re going to start a new study, a study of the book of Hebrews.  As always, it is good to get some background information before we begin a verse-by-verse examination of the meaning of the text.  It is good to know who wrote it, to whom it was written, when it was written, from where it was written, the purpose for writing and some of the overall characteristics of the book.

Philip Edgcumbe Hughes opens the introduction to his magisterial commentary on Hebrews with some insights into this very enigmatic book:

If there is a widespread unfamiliarity with the Epistle to the Hebrews and its teaching, it is because so many adherents of the church have settled for an understanding and superficial association with the Christian faith.  Yet it was to arouse just such persons from the lethargic state of compromise and complacency into which they had sunk, and to incite them to persevere wholeheartedly in the Christian conflict, that this letter was originally written.  It is a tonic for the spiritually debilitated.… We neglect such a book to our own impoverishment.

The letter to the Hebrews isn’t casual bedside reading.  Dense and deep, complex and compelling, profound and practical–it requires mental focus and spiritual motivation to grasp its content and grapple with its application.  But the return on this big investment has benefits that pay off in eternal dividends.  (Charles R. Swindoll, Swindoll’s Living Insights: Hebrews, 3)

So who wrote this complex but compelling book?

The simple truth is, we don’t know.  When questioned about the authorship of Hebrews, the third-century theologian Origen said, “But who wrote the epistle, to be sure, only God knows.”   He was arguing that it wasn’t Paul.

And that was in A.D. 225 and we haven’t made much progress towards certainty since then.

Unlike most other books of the New Testament the author of this work does not state his name, though he assumes that the audience knows who he is (cf. 13:19, 22, 23).  The author clearly knew his recipients and longed to be reunited with them (Heb. 13:19). They had a mutual friend in Timothy (13:23).  We also know that he was a dynamic preacher, that he has an extremely knowledgeable understanding of the Old Testament in its current interpretation, that he was highly educated in Greek culture and language and that he was deeply committed to Jesus Christ and deeply concerned about the welfare of this spiritual community.

It has been suggested that Paul wrote Hebrews.  It has a Pauline flavor with literary and theological depth.  Not only this, but (1) the epistle closes in a typically Pauline fashion (13:25); (2) Timothy is associated with the author (13:23); (3) the macro-structure of the epistle is similar to Paul’s style (doctrinal, followed by practical portion); and (4) there are several strong hints both of Paul’s point of view and even his wording in this letter (especially when compared to Galatians).

However, Paul normally signs his letters.  Also, the Greek is actually better than Paul normally used (although he could have used a secretary).  The logical development is more tightly woven than Paul’s norm.  Also, Timothy’s imprisonment (Hebrews 13:23) simply does not seem able to fit within Paul’s lifetime, since he is mentioned repeatedly both in Acts and in Paul’s letters and always as a free man.

A candidate put forward by Tertullian and still a favorite of some modern writers was Barnabas.  Some arguments in favor are that (1) he was a Levite, therefore very familiar with and interested in the sacrificial system; (2) there is perhaps a word-play on his name in 13:22, the “word of consolation).  Remember that he was originally called “the son of consolation (Acts 4:36).  (3) Being from Cyprus may find expression in the Hellenistic thought patterns and polished Greek.  Also (4), Barnabas was a mediator being Jewish Christians and Paul in Acts 9, in which capacity the author seems to carry on.

Against this identification is the fact that the work is both anonymous and its authorship was so quickly forgotten.  Thus, Homer Kent says, “The fact that the name of the prominent Barnabas should have been so thoroughly lost from an epistle he actually wrote (when it was falsely attached to an apocryphal one) . . . argues against assigning the authorship to him” (The Epistle to the Hebrews: A Commentary, p. 21).

However, this argument would exclude all the other candidates which we shall now name.

Some think it was Apollos, who was certainly very educated, know the Scriptures well, was eloquent and knew Timothy.  But the most that can be said is that it is a plausible conjecture.

Several other names have been suggested which are much less likely, including Clement (who quotes from Hebrews, but takes an entirely different slant than this epistle in his letter to the Corinthians); (2) Luke (based on the similarities in the polished Greek style of Luke-Acts and Hebrews); (3) Priscilla (Harnack’s suggestion, due to the enigma of anonymity given she is female); (4) Silas (because he was an associate of Paul’s and perhaps functioned as the amanuensis of 1 Peter which bears some literary affinities with this work); (5) Philip (so William Ramsay thought); and the list goes on.

Daniel Wallace suggests a dual authorship.  The author consistently uses “we,” whereas Paul may start out using “we” but later revert to “I” before he gets halfway through his epistles.

He concludes:

In light of these data, we propose that this work was co-authored, though one writer was more prominent than the other.  The credentials of Barnabas and Apollos have always been the most impressive, though it is quite difficult to tell which one would be the leading spokesman.  This is answered largely by the question of audience—which in itself is disputed.  At this stage, our best guess is that Barnabas was the main author with Apollos as the assistant (https://bible.org/seriespage/19-hebrews-introduction-argument-and-outline#_ftnref11).

[All other quotes from Daniel Wallace are from this excellent source.]

When was Hebrews written?

The earliest possible date must surely be the death of Paul (summer of 64 A.D.), as can be inferred from 13:7 and 23.  Further, these are now second generation Christians (2:3).

The latest possibility is late in the first century because 1 Clement (an early Christian book) quote extensively from Hebrews.  Although this is normally dated around 96 A.D, but Robinson dates as early as 70 A.D.  Most New Testament scholarship opts from sometime between 64-95 A.D.

J. A. T. Robinson also points out that the entire sacrificial system is spoken of in the present tense through the book (cf. especially 5:1-4; 7:20, 23, 27, 28; 8:3, 4, 13; 9:6, 13; 10:2-3, 11).  Also, it is incredible that the author does not point out the destruction of the temple and the virtual end of the sacrificial practices with the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.

Again, Wallace concudes

Thus 65 CE seems to be the best date.  We can add further that the spring or summer of 65 is most probable, because in 13:23 the senior author indicates that he will come visit his audience, with Timothy at his side, “if he arrives soon.”  Travel would be quite difficult (overseas, virtually impossible) during the winter.

The congregation could have been around for some time.  Their understanding of faith and Jesus was second hand (Hebrews 2:3-4).  They had had some time to mature, but had not, according to Hebrews 5:12

For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food,

To where was this epistle written?  What is its destination?

Once again, we have to confess ignorance.  Somewhere in Palestine and Rome are the most popular suggestions.  But others have been made: Alexandria, Colossae, Ephesus, somewhere in Asia Minor, Cyrene, Antioch, Syria in general, Corinth, and Cyprus.  None of these places are for certain.

Wallace suggests it was written to a house-church in the Lycus Valley (near Colossae and Laodicea).  Wherever it was, they had been heavily influenced by Judaizers and had consequently split off from the main body of believers (cf. 10:25; 13:17). 

Who is the audience?

The audience most definitely would be ethnically Jewish.  Not only is the title “To the Hebrews” found as early as the middle of the second century, but “only those who were already convinced of the greatness of Judaism would see the point of the author’s attempts to show the supreme worth of Christianity by means of its superiority to Judaism.”

By way of contrast, the apostle Paul in his letter to the Galatians does not refer to the Galatians’ defection as a “regression” but as chasing after a “different” gospel, while Hebrews presupposes that the audience had come out of Judaism (cf. 13:13, etc.).  

The author uses concepts that were popular in Greek-speaking synagogues of the day.  They include the veneration of Moses as one having special access to God and angels as mediators of the Older covenant revelation.  He also has a tendency to quote from the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament.

Clearly, the audience is Jewish, many of whom had become Christians, but probably not all.  They had been attracted to Christianity, but were not committed.

The practices of Judaism, which they had known all their lives, held a tremendous attraction to them.  Life under the law, with its sacrificial system, was comfortable and predictable.  It was hard to make a clean and definite break, so they were always in danger of mixing the two.

Legalism is a handy default for all of us.  We would like to think that we had something to do with our salvation.

Why was this epistle written?

We call this the occasion and purpose of the letter.  The occasion is that some Judaizers were influencing some of the Jewish Christians to move back into Judaism, with its emphasis on law and sacrifice.

These Judaizers had almost certainly gained strength after the death of Paul and arrest of Timothy, for their influence, based as it was in Ephesus, had a powerful effect on all of Asia Minor. 

This church had already separated themselves from the main body of believers and were beginning to defect back into Judaism.  They appear to have grown less attentive to Christian instruction (5:11–14); and some apparently have ceased regular attendance at their meetings (10:25).  The pressure was on—not just from the Judaizers, but also from the reports from Rome about Nero’s pogrom against Christians.  The author reminded them of their past faithfulness and communal love even in the midst of persecution (10:32-34).

The purpose of this letter then was to warn Jewish Christians against apostasy back to Judaism.  The author argues throughout that Christ is better than any part of the Old Covenant, and illustrates the superiority of the New Covenant over the Old Covenant.

Daniel Wallace suggests that the author is perhaps employing the book of Galatians, but refining Paul’s statements about the law as an intentional vindication of Paul’s interpretation of Christianity, what Christianity is.  These Jewish Christians needed to know that this is true Christianity.

The theme of the book is “the absolute supremacy of Christ—a supremacy which allows no challenge, whether from human or angelic beings” (Philip Hughes, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, p. 2).

John MacArthur summarizes the book of Hebrews with this theme (adapted): “Ours is the High Priest of high priests, and He is now seated.  His work is done, completely finished for all time and for us.  All we must do is rest in his finished work.”

What kind of literature is it?

I’ve been referring to this book as an epistle, but it is actually a sermon turned into a letter.

The book is without an introduction or other early indications that it is a letter. Yet the final verses do pass on greetings and blessings (13:23–25), and the author speaks of having “written to you” (13:22). 

The author identifies his work as “a word of exhortation” (13:22). The careful rhetorical progression of the book, along with its frequent practical exhortations, has led many to consider it a single sermon. Perhaps Hebrews is best understood as a sermonic letter.

Hebrews frequently encourages the audience to endure and warns them five specific times against leaving Christ (2:1–4; 3:7–4:13; 5:11–6:12; 10:19–39; 12:1–29).

These warning passages are interspersed throughout the book and have noticeable structural similarities (esp. in terms of exhortation and threatened consequence).

Around these passages the argument of the book progresses carefully. Moreover, these specific exhortations themselves flow out of the surrounding material.  Thus, the book is unified in both structure and intent.

The warning passages exhort church participants to remain faithful, to continue to trust in Jesus Christ alone.  The more expository sections of the epistle show the superiority of Christ and his new covenant work to angels, Moses, the tabernacle priesthood, and the sacrificial system.  The implication is that these are so much more inferior to Christ that it is futile to return to them (or to go anywhere else).  Thus, the book encourages the church to hold fast to its faith, because that faith is grounded in the most superior revelation.

The key themes in Hebrews are…

1. Jesus is fully God and fully man.1:1–14; 2:5–18
2. Jesus as Son of God reveals God the Father, is the agent of creation, and sustains all creation.1:1–14
3. Jesus serves as the eternal high priest, who as a man sympathizes with human weaknesses, and yet who offered himself as the perfect sacrifice for sin.1:3; 2:10–18; 4:15–16; 9:11–10:19
4. Jesus is superior to angels, to Moses and the Mosaic covenant, and to the earthly tabernacle and its priesthood.1:4–2:18; 3:1–6; 5:1–10; 7:1–10:18
5. All humanity faces eternal judgment for sin.4:12–13; 9:27–28; 10:26–31
6. Faith is necessary to please God and to participate in his eternal salvation promises. Faith requires conviction about the unseen realities of God and his promises. Such faith produces perseverance.4:2–3; 6:1, 12; 10:22, 38–39; 11:1–40
7. Perseverance is necessary in the Christian life, and thus church participants are warned against a lack of endurance.2:1–4; 3:7–4:13; 5:11–6:12; 10:19–39; 12:1–29
8. God’s promises are trustworthy, including his promise of eternal salvation.6:13–20
9. With the advent of Jesus Christ, the last days have begun, though they await consummation at his return.1:2; 2:5; 4:9–11; 9:9–28; 12:22–29
This chart is from the ESV Study Bible

This book is written by a church leader who is eager to help his people maintain their commitment to Jesus Christ in the face of opposing arguments and persecution.    The question faces us today.  Will we remain true to Jesus Christ when others contend that we don’t have to?  Will we remain true to Jesus Christ when it costs us something, maybe even our lives?

The introduction to Hebrews challenges us as the point of seeing the powerful life and ministry tool offered in sound theology.  That is what this author gives his congregation.  Right theology, orthodoxy, laws an important foundation for a Christian life robustly lived.  A neglect of theology, on the other hand, has detrimental effects on the church and individual Christian lives.

Published by

Lamar Austin

I've graduated from Citadel Bible College in Ozark, Arkansas, with a B. A. Then got my M. Div. and Th. M. at Capital Bible Seminary in Lanham, MD. I finished with a D. Min. degree from Dallas Theological Seminary, but keep on learning. I pastored at Chinese Christian Church of Greater Washington, D. C., was on staff at East Evangelical Free Church in Wichita, KS, tried to plant an EFC in Little Rock, before moving back home to Mena, where I now pastor my home church, Grace Bible Church

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