Introduction to the
BOOK OF HEBREWS
Allow me to quote the first few verses of Hebrews.
1 God, having in the past spoken to the fathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, 2 has at the end of these days spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom also he made the worlds. 3 His Son is the radiance of his glory, the very image of his substance, and upholding all things by the word of his power, when he had by himself made purification for our sins, sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high; 4 having become so much better than the angels, as he has inherited a more excellent name than they have. 5 For to which of the angels did he say at any time,
“You are my Son.
Today have I become your father?”
The first thing I would like you to notice is that the author doesn’t identify himself, as was the letter writing tradition of that day. For instance, the Apostle Paul began his letter to the Philippian church as follows:
“Paul and Timothy, servants of Jesus Christ;
To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi….”
Some people in the early church thought that Paul wrote Hebrews, but Origen (184-253 A.D.) noticed that the vocabulary and style of Hebrews differ considerably from those of Paul’s letters. The fact that the author of Hebrews doesn’t identify himself is one obvious example of a stylistic difference.
The question, then, is who wrote this book. A number of names have been proposed: Barnabas, Apollos, Luke, Clement, Philip, Peter, and Silvanus are some of the names that have been proposed—but we can’t know for sure who the author was.
DATE AND PLACE:
This book doesn’t mention the destruction of Jerusalem, which took place in 70 A.D. That event would have been of special interest to Jewish readers. Therefore, we think that this book was written prior to 70 A.D.
The author says, “The Italians greet you” (13:24b), which suggests that he is writing from Rome.
THE PEOPLE TO WHOM THIS BOOK WRITTEN:
The author identified neither himself nor the people to whom he was writing. However, the content of the book, including the frequent references to the Hebrew Scriptures, makes it clear that he was writing to Jewish Christians who were sorely tempted to leave the Christian church and revert to Jewish worship.
There were a number of reasons why these Jewish Christians might have been tempted to return to Judaism:
• Families and friends surely pressured them. This could have taken many forms—expressions of disapproval, shunning, disinheritance, etc.
• They would have missed the elaborate rituals and furnishings of the Jewish Temple and the synagogues. Christians didn’t have church buildings in those days, but met in the homes of fellow-Christians. Compared to Jewish worship, Christian worship must have seemed spare—even poor.
• Those who had enjoyed special status in Judaism would miss the prestige and influence that they once enjoyed. Luke tells us that “a great company of the priests were obedient to the faith” (Acts 6:7). Whether they could have become Jewish priests again is open to question, but some would likely be tempted to do so if they thought that might be a possibility.
THE OLD AND NEW COVENANTS:
The author spends the first ten and a half chapters of this thirteen chapter book (1:1 – 10:18) emphasizing the superiority of Christ and the new covenant to Moses and the old covenant:
• “God, having in the past spoken to the fathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, has at the end of these days spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom also he made the worlds” (1:1-2).
• The Son is superior to angels (1:5 – 2:18).
• The Son is superior to Moses (3:1-6).
• Jesus is the great High Priest, not of the house of Aaron (like ordinary high priests), but of the order of Melchizedek, a priest forever (4:14 – 5:10; 6:19 – 10:18; see especially 5:5-6, which quotes Psalm 2:7 and 110:4).
• Unlike priests who died and would awake only to face judgment, Christ died bearing the sins of many people, and “will appear a second time, without sin, to those who are eagerly waiting for him for salvation” (9:28).
• The sacrifices of bulls and goats in the temple had to be offered continually, year by year, but Christ’s sacrifice of himself was a one-time sacrifice that will remain effective perpetually (10:1-18).
In one of the most oft-quoted verses of this book, the author says, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, proof of things not seen” (11:1). As examples of faithful people, he cites:
• Abel (11:4; Genesis 4:1-4).
• Enoch, who “was taken away, so that he wouldn’t see death, and he was not found, because God translated him. For he has had testimony given to him that before his translation he had been well pleasing to God” (11:5-6; Genesis 5:24).
• Noah (11:7; Genesis 6:9 – 8:22).
• Abraham (11:8-12, 17-19; Genesis 15; 21-22).
• Jacob (11:21; Genesis 48:1-15).
• Joseph (11:22; Genesis 50:22-25).
• Moses (11:23-28; Exodus 2:1-10; 12:31-51).
• The Israelites who passed through the Red Sea (11:29; Exodus 14).
• The Israelites who marched around Jericho seven times (11:30; Joshua 6:1-21).
• Rahab, the harlot who helped the Israelite spies (11:31; Joshua 2:1-21; 6:22-25).
• Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, and the prophets (11:32).
• “Women (who) received their dead by resurrection” (11:35a).
• “Others (who) were tortured, not accepting their deliverance, that they might obtain a better resurrection” (11:35b)
• Others who suffered mocking, scourging, imprisonment, stoning, being sawn apart, being tempted, and being slain with the sword—and those who suffered destitution, affliction, and ill treatment (11:36-37).
ENTREATIES AND WARNINGS:
The author goes on to say:
“Therefore let us also, seeing we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses,
lay aside every weight and the sin which so easily entangles us,
and let us run with patience the race that is set before us,
looking to Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith,
who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising its shame,
and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (12:1-2).
He also called his readers to remember Jesus, “who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising its shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (12:2).
Quoting Proverbs 3:11-12, the author reminds those who are suffering that the Lord chastens those whom he loves, “and scourges every son whom he receives” (12:6). Just as we pay respect to our earthly father who disciplines us, so we must also pay respect to our Heavenly Father when he disciplines us. Otherwise, we become “illegitimate, and not children” (12:8). We must remember that, though chastening might be grievous now, “yet afterward it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been exercised thereby” (12:11).
He entreated his readers not to become like Esau, “who sold his birthright for one meal.” When Esau later recognized the error of that decision, it was too late to effect a remedy (12:16-17). The author warns, “if they didn’t escape when they refused (Jesus) who warned on the earth, how much more will we not escape who turn away from him who warns from heaven” (12:25).
LIVES PLEASING TO GOD (13:1-19):
The author entreated his readers to observe the following so that their lives might be pleasing to God:
• “Let brotherly love continue” (13:1).
• “Show hospitality to strangers (13:2).
• Remember those in prison and those suffering ill treatment (13:3).
• Honor marriage and avoid adultery (13:4).
• Do not love money. Be content with what you have (13:5-6).
• Remember your leaders and to emulate their faith” (13:7; see also 13:17).
• “Don’t be carried away by…strange teachings (13:9).
• “Offer up a sacrifice of praise to God continually” (13:15).
• Do good and share, “for with such sacrifices God is well pleased (13:15).
• “Obey your leaders and submit to them” (13:17; see also 13:7).
• “Pray for us, …that I may be restored to you sooner” (13:18-19).
BENEDICTION AND FINAL EXHORTATION (13:20-25)
The author offers his benediction—that God might make his readers “complete in every good work to do his will” (13:20-21).
He encourages them to heed his exhortations, which he has expressed briefly (13:22).
He tells them that Timothy has been freed, which might make it possible for the author to visit them (13:23)
He asks them to greet their leaders “and all the saints” (13:24a).
He says, “The Italians greet you” (13:24b), which suggests that he is writing from Rome.
He closes by saying, “Grace be with you all. Amen” (13:25).
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Barclay, William, Daily Study Bible: Hebrews (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 1976)
Bruce, F.F. The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Epistle to the Hebrews(Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1990)
Cockerill, Gareth Lee, The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Epistle to the Hebrews (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2012)
Craddock, Fred, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. 12 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998)
Evans, Louis H., Jr., The Preacher’s Commentary: Hebrews (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1985)
Gench, Frances Taylor, Westminster Bible Commentary: Hebrews and James, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996)
Guthrie, Donald, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries: Hebrews, Vol. 15 (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1983)
Lane, William L., Word Biblical Commentary: Hebrews 9-13, Vol. 47b (Dallas: Word Books, 1991)
Long, Thomas G., Interpretation: Hebrews (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1997)
MacArthur, John, Jr., The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Hebrews (Chicago: The Moody Bible Institute of Chicago, 1983)
McKnight, Edgar V., Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary: Hebrew-James (Macon, Georgia: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, Inc., 2004)
O’Brien, Peter T., Pillar New Testament Commentary: The Letter to the Hebrews (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2009)
Pfitzner, Victor C., Abingdon New Testament Commentaries: Hebrews (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1997)
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Copyright 2015, Richard Niell Donovan