Tracing the Argument of Hebrews, Daniel Wallace

Daniel Wallace’s tracing of the argument of the book of Hebrews:

The epistle to the Hebrews, which is really a homily with some final epistolary material tacked on to the end, divides naturally into two parts.  First is the doctrinal section in which the author(s) detail(s) the theological basis for Christ’s superiority over the Old Testament (1:1–10:18).  Second is the pragmatic section in which the practical effects that Christ’s superiority should have in the believer’s life are enumerated (10:19–13:17).

Throughout the epistle, however, the writer(s) punctuate(s) the argument with warnings to the readers.  After all, this letter is not a mere piece of academia: it is written to a Jewish house-church which is in danger of defection from the gospel of grace. In many respects, then, these warnings are what the author(s) wish(es) to get to; they are his climax, application.  Because of the wording of these warnings, coupled with the author’s use of Galatians and our historical reconstruction, it seems evident that the warnings are not dealing with loss of reward (contra Zane Hodges in BKC), but are addressing the possibility of not obtaining a professed salvation.

The first section, the theological basis for Christ’s superiority (1:1–10:18), involves five parts.  First, Christ is seen as superior to the OT prophets (1:1-4) in that they were mere servants or spokesmen (1:1), while the quality of the mediator of God’s revelation has now stepped up to the level of sonship (1:2-4).

Second, Christ is superior to the angels (1:5–2:18).  The author transitions into the section on angels by showing that, as God’s Son (in contrast to the prophets), Christ “has obtained a more excellent name than [the angels]” (1:4). This is demonstrated by a catena of OT quotations (1:5-14).

At this point the author inserts his/their first warning passage (2:1-4), which addresses the superiority of the message of Christ over that of angels. In essence, the point is, “Don’t drift” (2:1).  Whoever rejects the proofs of the message of salvation (2:3-4) in favor of an inferior message of judgment mediated through angels (2:2) will, in fact, face even worse judgment than what was described by angels (2:3).

The argument about Christ’s superiority over angels is resumed in 2:5-18.  Christ is seen as superior to the angels by his humanity (as opposed to the view which the ascetic-Jewish heretics were teaching).  This is demonstrated by the scriptures which describe his exaltation over the angels (2:5-9), and it is even shown by the necessity of his suffering (2:10-18), for by this he brings us salvation.

Third, Christ is superior to Moses (3:1–4:13).  The author bridges the topic by showing how, by Christ’s humanity, he has become a sympathetic high priest (2:17-18).  But before he can get to a comparison with the high priest, Aaron, he must first deal with his brother, Moses.  The author, not wishing to alienate his audience, points out that Moses, like Christ, was faithful to God (3:1-2).  But unlike Christ, Moses was merely part of the house which Christ built (3:3-4), and a mere servant in the house while Christ was the Son over the house (3:5-6a).

This discussion about Moses leads naturally into the second warning based on Israel’s wilderness experience (3:6b–4:13).  The point essentially is, “Don’t defect.”  The author(s) is quite tactful here: only once, and only in a subtle way, does he implicate Moses in Israel’s unbelief in the wilderness (3:16).  The audience should draw its own conclusions as to who was more faithful!  Unlike the first warning—which dealt with Christ’s superiority to the angels’ message—this warning has to do with the nation’s failure to believe in God (3:6b-11).  The readers are urged to believe in the promise of God to give them the Sabbath rest which the nation never obtained (3:12–4:11).  What is at stake, however, is not an earthly, transient rest, but an eternal rest—rest from the works which are not based on faith.  This warning is concluded with a somber note about God’s piercing Word (4:12-13), illustrating the fact that though some may profess faith, God knows those who possess faith.

Fourth, Christ is superior to Aaron (4:14–7:28).  The transition from the cold steel of God’s Word (4:12) to Christ’s superiority over Aaron is made by way of a gentle reminder: whereas God’s word is sharp and harsh, cutting through the flesh to the intentions of the heart, Christ our high priest is sympathetic with the weaknesses of our flesh (4:14-16).  At this point the author(s) begin(s) what will become a characteristic motif throughout the book. Immediately after a strong warning section, he softens his tone so as to encourage the readers.  The point of this softening seems to be that he is not expecting an unwavering faith in order for salvation to take place (as such might be the misunderstanding from 4:12-13).  But he is expecting the readers to know in whom they should place their faith.

The priesthood of Aaron is first mentioned (5:1-5), followed by scriptural proof (based especially on Psalm 110) for the priesthood of Christ (5:6-10) after the order of Melchizedek (5:6, 10)—proof which is necessary since Jesus Christ was not from the tribe of Levi.

The third warning then commences (5:11–6:8): “Don’t degenerate.”  Dealing with such subtle typology may be too much for the readers, for they are still immature in the faith (5:11-14).  They are to move forward in their spiritual growth (6:1-3) if the seed of salvation is ever to take root.  In light of the tremendous exposure they have had to the truths of salvation, it had better take root—or else they are in danger of apostasy (6:4-8).  In this passage the author may well be thinking of the parable of the sower (6:7-8) in which good works (productivity) are the evidence of genuine faith (6:7; cf. 5:14; 6:10).  Further, he may have in mind someone such as Judas who would clearly fit his description in 6:4-6.  If any of his readers, who had been in such a growing congregation and had seen the evidence of God’s Spirit working in their lives (6:4-5), fall away, they “crucify afresh the Son of God” (6:6), making it impossible for them to obtain the salvation which they had professed.

Again, as in 4:14-16, the author(s) softens his tone after a strong warning section.  In 6:9-20 he reminds them of the promises of God, and points out his confidence that they are among the productive seed (6:9-10).

The discussion about the Aaronic priesthood is then resumed with an elaboration on the order of Melchizedek (7:1-28).  Not only was Melchizedek greater than Abraham—and by implication, all his descendants including the tribe of Levi (7:1-10), but his priestly order is greater than the Aaronic order (7:11-28), by virtue of the fact that its necessity was predicted while the levitical order was in effect (7:11, 17).  Its superiority is seen in various other ways: it involves one priest while the levitical priesthood involved many, since death prevented them from continuing (7:23-24); and this new order involves a single, perfect sacrifice, while the old order involved daily sacrifices (7:26-27).

Fifth, Christ’s ministry is superior to the old covenant ministry (8:1–10:18).  The transition between the Aaronic priesthood and the discussion of the covenants is hinted at in 7:12: “When there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the Law as well.”  Christ’s ministry is seen to be superior to the old covenant ministry in three ways: in its covenant, in its sanctuary, and in its sacrifice.

After a brief introduction of all three aspects (8:1-6), the author begins by contrasting the old covenant with the new (8:7-13).  The inadequacy of the old covenant is demonstrated by scripture (8:7-9), and likewise the adequacy of the new covenant is so demonstrated (8:10-13).  In essence the new covenant involves knowing God internally because of the indwelling Spirit rather than having a revelation of God’s will externally.  The implications of these are two: (1) believers are now organically united to God in the body of Christ and (2) the eschaton has dawned and the kingdom has been inaugurated in the first coming of Christ—two implications which the author(s) will pick up on in the “practical” section (cf. 12:28; 13:3, etc.).

Then, the two sanctuaries are contrasted (9:1-12), in terms of imperfection vs. perfection and original pattern vs. replica (9:11; cf. v. 24).

This portion of the epistle concludes with contrasting the old sacrifice with the new (9:13–10:18).  Though both sacrifices required blood (9:13-22), Christ’s sacrifice is better because it has purified the original, heavenly sanctuary (9:23-28), and it was done once for all (10:1-18).

Having completed the theological section of the epistle with a strong note on the sufficiency and substitutionary nature of Christ’s death, the author(s) now turns to the pragmatic effects that Christ’s superiority should have in the believer’s life.  This section includes four exhortations, with a warning and the great “Hall of Faith” chapter wedged in between.

First, the readers are exhorted to completely enter the new sanctuary (10:9-31).  The idiom is not necessarily meant to indicate that all the readers were unbelievers; rather their faith needed strengthening (10:19-22).

Nevertheless, not all were genuine believers: hence, a fourth warning section (10:26-31) comes on the heels of this exhortation.  In essence, the point is “Don’t despise.”  This one sounds very much like the one in 6:4-8, though this time the point is not related to the sown seed of the gospel, but specifically to profaning the blood of Christ (10:29).  In the context of the new covenant community the author speaks of such a person as already “sanctified” (10:29): this should be compared with the covenant community of the OT in which some were not believers, yet were set apart as a peculiar people by virtue of the sacrificial system (10:26-28).  It is clear that the man in the new covenant community is not necessarily saved: note such phrases as “fearful prospect of judgment,” “a fury of fire which will consume the adversaries,” (10:27), “worse punishment” (than physical death), “outraged the Spirit of grace” (10:29), capped off by “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (10:31).

Second, the readers are exhorted to endure persecution (10:32-39), especially in the light of the promises of God (10:36).  This is followed by yet another word of comfort to the readers regarding the previous warning: “we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and keep their souls” (10:39).

Third, having just argued that the readers should endure as they had in the past (“recall the former days when, after you were enlightened, you endured” [10:32]), the readers are reminded of others who have endured—and kept the faith (cf. 10:39).  Chapter 11 has often been called “The Hall of Faith”—and with good reason.  For in this chapter the author(s) show(s) how God’s people in the past had endured hardship, pain, and death—and yet their faith kept them going.  There is a subtle polemic in this chapter against the inability of the Law to help in this task: no one of the OT saints is commended for his faithfulness to the Law.  That this is part of the author’s purpose can be seen by the fact that, as he marches through chronologically, the bulk of his illustrations are about pre-Law individuals (pre-patriarchs in 11:4-7; Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in 11:8-22).  In fact, when he discusses Moses (11:23-29), his faith is seen up until the time of the Passover (11:28) and the crossing of the Red Sea (11:29), though nothing  is said about him after the giving of the Law.  In the space of two verses (11:30-31) the author(s) then addresses the faith of the Israelites when Jericho fell (11:30), and Rahab’s faith which helped the event to take place (11:31).  Thus, even though the period of the Law is dealt with, the author produces no example of anyone demonstrating faith in relation to the Law.

The chapter is then hurriedly concluded with the mere mention of names, mostly of prophets and warriors (11:32-33), followed by the sufferings they anonymously faced (11:34-39).  What is conspicuous by its absence is any mention of an OT priest, Ezra, or other person known for his law-keeping abilities.  The author has done a masterfully subtle job of getting his audience to focus on examples of faith entirely apart from obedience to the Law, obviously antithetical to the heretical teaching which they were considering.

Fourth, the readers are exhorted to endure the chastening hand of God (12:1-29).  This exhortation is similar to the one in 10:32-39, but now it is more specifically in light of the fatherhood of God (12:7-11).  A transition is made from the “great cloud of witnesses” of chapter 11 to the supreme example of the Son’s faithfulness in his suffering, that our faith might be perfected (12:1-4).  Just as Christ is God’s Son, so are believers (12:5)—that is to say, because he is a Son, so are they; hence, God will deal with them as a Father does his own children (12:5-11).  In the midst of the severe warnings comes this note of encouragement: even though the readers are suffering, since they are sons they are saved.  This discipline from God is a proof that they are indeed sons (12:8)—in fact, unless they are disciplined they will not grow in grace (12:12-17).  Such growth is essential evidence that they will obtain heaven as their eternal home (12:14).

The fifth warning of the book comes on the heels of this note on chastening.  In essence, it is “Don’t deny.”  The author implores the readers not to deny God by refusing to heed his voice (12:18-29).  Once again, as with previous warnings (2:1-4; 10:26-29), the author argues a minor ad maior: from the minimal punishment (physical death) for disobedience in the OT to the maximal punishment for disobedience now (eternal hell).  He contrasts Mount Sinai with Mount Zion (12:18-24), showing that the awesome power of God shakes mountains, but it cannot shake the kingdom in which true believers dwell (12:28).  The warning is concluded with the somber note that “our God is a consuming fire” (12:29).

Fifth, the readers are exhorted in very pragmatic areas with respect to the community of believers (13:1-17).  They are instructed not only to show love for one another (13:1-6), but also respect for the leadership of the church (13:7-17).  No doubt such respect was overdue since these Jewish Christians had gone off on their own and were being led away by the heresy of the Judaizers (13:9-15).  They are consequently encouraged to get back into the fold (rather than separate in their own house church) and provide for the leaders’ needs, as a Christian sacrifice which is pleasing to God (13:15-16).  Finally, the author gets blunt: “obey the church leaders” (13:17), and with this he ends the body of his epistle.

Concluding instructions which formally turn this exquisite homily into an epistle, are given to the readers (13:18-25).

Daniel Wallace has excellent introductions to each book of the New Testament at  Check them out and be blessed.

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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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