Hebrews: Introductory Matters
Lecture 19: Hebrews: Introductory Matters
This is the 19th lecture in the online series of lectures on New Testament Survey by Dr Thomas Schreiner. Recommended Reading includes: Article on Divorce and Remarriage – Craig Blomberg, Trinity Journal, 1990; The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross by Leon Morris; Are there Two Will in God by John Piper; Two views on Women in Ministry by James Beck and Craig Blomberg; Word Bible Commentary: Pastoral Epistles, Volume 46, by William D. Mounce and Recovering Biblical Manhood and Biblical Womanhood, by Wayne Gudem and John Piper (article by Vern Poythress entitled, ‘The Church as a Family’)
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We should think of Hebrews as a sermon. The warning passages are exhortations following theological teaching. It was probably not written by Paul. The book was written to Hebrew Christians to warn them against committing apostasy.
A. Genre: Epistolary Sermon
How should we think of Hebrews in terms of genre? It is really a sermon, an epistolary sermon with warning passages being exhortations. So you have the theology and then you have the sermons to the congregation. It isn’t just an abstract treatise, it not some kind of theological exposition of Christ’s priest hood or anything like that. It is designed to move these people to make a decision. Of course the Book of Hebrews has been very debated over in terms of authorship. Pauline authorship has been resisted in the western church, the Roman end of the church, but it was accepted by Clement of Alexandria and suggested by Origen. This was from Egypt and that portion of the church. Origen suggested a lot of things about Hebrews; he also suggested that Luke wrote up Paul’s work. Others hold this view today. Pauline authorship in history finally triumphed through Gerome and Augustan who wrote at the same time letters to each other over a period of time. Those are available today. Of course Gerome and Augustan were quite a bit later; we are talking about 400 AD. It really did help Hebrews get into the Canon of Scripture; their view of the letter. Still, I don’t think that the view of Hebrews as being written by Paul is convincing enough, a view held by fundamentalists. You will come across people who think that this is necessary for a high view of Scripture. There is an interesting overlap between those who think Paul wrote it and if you don’t think he did then they think you are a suspicious.
Arguments against Paul writing it; one, he doesn’t say that he wrote it. And of course we have thirteen letters which Paul acknowledges he wrote. So we have a lot of evidence that Paul would put his name on letters he wrote. The second reason is a little less significant: the style and vocabulary seems to be different from Paul, but of course it is very difficult to assess style and vocabulary as we discussed in regards to the Pastoral Epistles. The third argument is very important because in Hebrews 2:3, the author separates himself from the first generation of the Apostles. So it seems very hard to believe that Paul would do that because he was so insistent on his unique authoritative view of his apostleship. That he would separate himself from the apostles is hard to believe and the original witnesses. I also think it is significant that Hebrews was written to or from Rome and it is the western church that has doubted Paul’s authorship. There is evidence that Hebrews was written in the Roman part of the Empire. My argument is that they had a memory that Pauline didn’t compose it.
So who did write it then? It could have been Apollos and this is really an excellent guess, because Apollos is eloquent; the letter of Hebrews is beautifully written; so this is a very interesting guess about the authorship. Another interesting guess is that was Barnabas which also makes good sense. We know from Acts that Barnabas comes from a priestly family. And we know that there is a lot of interest in the priest hood in Hebrews. So Barnabas is another really good outstanding guess. Now today, some people are arguing again that it was written by Luke. I put the name David Allen here; he wrote his dissertation on this. So some people think that Luke wrote it and that is certainly a possibility. Then others argue that Pricilla wrote it but she hid the fact of her writing it because she was a woman. I think that this is doubtful because in Hebrews 10:32, the author uses the masculine to refer to himself. But if that were so then you would have to argue that she used the masculine because she was a woman. I just don’t think that this is likely. But I guess it is possible that she could have written it. Anything is possible, but it just seems fairly unlikely to me. But I agree with Origen, but who wrote Hebrews; well God only knows. But does it matter? I believe the church recognized that Hebrews was canonical Scripture. They didn’t make it canonical Scripture; that is a Catholic view. The church made certain things Scripture; no, the church recognized that Hebrews was inspired. But some of the reasoning they used was wrong. God in his providence worked through the Church to recognize Hebrews as Scripture, but not all the arguments they used were correct, especially their argument that it was written by Paul.
Where was it written? Well, we don’t know for sure, but in 13:24, he says, ‘those who are from Italy send you greetings. This could be interpreted more than one way, but like others, I interpret it as sending it to Rome. There are others from Italy with the author sending their greetings back to Rome. So I believe that Hebrews was written to Rome. By the way, William Lanes very good commentary in the Word Book Series supports this. It is a two volume Greek commentary so it is a little bit difficult to read if you don’t know Greek. The only thing I want to mention is that Lane believes that you can lose your salvation. But still, it is really an outstanding commentary as a whole.
It is also very difficult to assign a date to Hebrews. We know that it is a second generation document; so it wasn’t written right away. But it is interesting that Clement first sites the book in 1st Clement and that book was written about the same time as Revelations, around 96 AD. 1st Clement is very pastoral and practical; if you want to look at some devotional reading that is encouraging and strengthening, you should read it. Timothy was still alive when the letter was written; we see this from verse 23. And fourthly and interestingly enough the present tense is used when Hebrews speaks of the Tabernacle ritual. Of course the temple was destroyed in AD 70; this argument isn’t determinative as he mainly talks about the Tabernacle yet not the temple. And furthermore, 1st Clement also uses the present tense for the temple ritual. We know that 1st Clement was written after AD 70. It seems to me after putting all these arguments together, Hebrews was written sometime in the 60s just before the destruction of the temple. It would have been good if the author would have been said something about the destruction of the temple. There is a lot of talk about sacrifices. We know that Jesus prophesized that the temple would be destroyed so it seems that this would have been mentioned.
E. Purpose of Hebrews
I think it is addressed to Jewish Christians and written to warn them against committing apostasy and thus warning them not to depart from the Christian faith. If they depart from the Christian faith, they will be damned. I think that is what it is all about; so don’t do it! Don’t turn back; if you do, you will be destroyed. Salvation was spoken or attested to us by those who heard him, but he doesn’t put himself into that category; he separates himself from those first apostles. I don’t think Paul would have done this. Paul would have said that it was him who wrote it. There have been so many guesses as to who wrote it and to whom it was written.
II. The High Priest Greater than Angels 1:1-2:18
A. Definitive Revelation in the Son, 1:1-4
In many parts and in many manners, God of old has spoken to the fathers and prophets and in the last of these days he has spoken to us by his Son. We could say that revelation was of old, he says in the Old Testament of the past. He spoke to the Fathers and by the prophets. Then he says in verse 2, in these last days and that is what we are in now. The last days have dawn with the coming of Jesus. He has spoken to us through the Son, not just the prophets. So there is a remarkable parallel and contrast here. He doesn’t say this but it is implied, ‘he has spoken definitively.’ He has spoken definitively and finally through the Son. This is the ultimate revelation and the notice that our canon is complete because there are no other saving events to occur except for what Hebrews itself tells us at the end of chapter 9; so there will be no new revelation? This verse is often used; this is the final revelation now. This is the fulfilment of what the Old Testament pointed to. The Old as in the Old Testament is good but it wasn’t complete. If you compare some of this to the Epistle of Barnabas which was rejected as Canon and rightly so as I don’t think the real Barnabas wrote it. But it really denigrates the Old Covenant. It basically says that the Jews made a mistake in accepting the Old Covenant from the beginning. But notice that Hebrews never says that. It never denigrates the Old Covenant but it simple says that it wasn’t complete. It points to something greater; greater than the prophets. We are very privileged as readers to live on the other side of the Cross in the history of salvation and to be living in the last days. So the Last Days have lasted now for two thousand years.
B. The Son Greater then the Angels, 1:5-14
As far as the Son is concerned, he has been appointed the heir of all things. This is from Psalms 2; the Davidic king who will be the heir. Of course for the Jews, the Davidic king wasn’t necessarily God. This only happened when Thomas recognized Jesus for who he was. But, of course, he was more than just the Davidic king, he was the creator. Even with the word, Messiah; Jesus and Messiah are the same thing now. However, historically, not all Jews would have thought that way. He is the ‘outshining’ of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature. Thus, Jesus is the true wisdom of God, his very radiance. He is the very character of God’s being. He represents who God is. Everything that is God is reflected in Jesus uniquely. This part of the Scripture is one of the great Christological sections in the New Testament. We saw this in Colossians where it says that the whole universe is held together by Jesus. Whatever is happening in this world is happening in relationship to Jesus who is controlling it all. Jesus is holding the world together, bearing it up and sustaining it. And after all this, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs. Hebrews doesn’t specify he is redeemer and he is God but how can you separate the two. You notice that the author uses cleansing and purification for sins, going back to the temple sacrifices. Jesus was the supreme and final sacrifice in the cleansing of sin. We have Psalm 110 that rings through Hebrews, ‘The Lord says to my Lord: sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool. The Lord is at your right hand; he will shatter kings on the day of his wrath.’ Some people have argues that the whole of Hebrews was developed from Psalm 110. This of course rings true in Paul’s writing as well. So Psalm 110 introduces the whole book. The author is questioning them, so you want to go back to the Old Testament and Judaism? How can you? Look at what we have in Jesus, the Messiah sitting at the right hand of the Majesty on high!
Now he says that Jesus is superior to the angels because he has a better name than them. We know from chapter 2, because the angels are the mediators of the Mosaic Law. That is the issue; the Mosaic Covenant and that is what they want to go back to. The angels gave the Mosaic Law and so he argues that Jesus is better than angels. So now we have an in-depth exegesis happening. He never said to any of the angels that you are my Son, today I have begotten you? This is from Psalm 2. ‘Today, I have installed you as the Messianic king when I raised you from the dead.’ Psalm 2 is a Davidic Psalm. The same point is made in Acts 13. And 2nd Samuel 7 is where the Davidic covenant was established. ‘I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son.’ And when he brings the firstborn into the world, he says, ‘Let all God’s angels worship him.’ Here he calls Jesus the first born; in Colossians, Jesus is called the first born. This is a way of emphasizing his sovereignty by calling him the first born. All the angels of God are to worship him. In Judaism, you only worship God and so the angels also worship him. Jesus is not only the Messianic king, he is also divine. Psalm 104, He makes his angels winds, and his ministers a flame of fire. He is using the LXX here whereas the Masoretic text says it is through the winds which are his messengers and fire is his ministers. There are indications that God controls things on earth through his angels, even the weather. This goes against a western rationalistic worldview that there are invisible forces at play. But the Scriptures say that angels are involved with invisible forces of the world. Look at the Book of Revelation; God is ultimately in charge of the weather that we experience. It is easy for us to assume that the weather just operates by natural laws because of our ‘western world view.’ The ancients knew also how the weather operated but they also knew that there were supernatural beings involved. So God uses angels to carry out his will on earth. Angels are ministers and messengers.
Now in Psalm 45; this is a coronation Psalm of a king in the Old Testament. It says, ‘your throne, O God, is forever and forever.’ This is such a clear statement of deity of Christ. He goes on to say that the scepter of uprightness is the scepter of your kingdom. ‘You have loved righteousness and hated lawlessness; therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness beyond your companions.’ Thus we see that the angels are ministers. The Son is God is the Messianic king; they are the one and the same. He is the Messiah and he is God; inseparable. Now the writer looks at Psalm 102, ‘you, Lord, in the beginning laid the foundation of the earth.’ He is speaking of Jesus here as the creator and so, the heavens are the work of your hands. It is Jesus’ artistry. We see that things that are going on around in nature and the heavens as God’s handiwork, something that unbelievers just can’t see. But sadly in verse 11 it says that they will perish; that is to say, the physical world will perish but we will remain. He is saying the same thing three ways in verses 11 and 12. But you are the same and your years will not come to an end. You are the same; you are eternal for your years will have no end. I see this as an idea and explanation because in 11b and 12c it says that they will perish, but you will remain. Verses 10 through 12 are a series with the main point being that the created world wears out but Jesus will be eternal; he is God. The author closes this series by going back to Psalm 110 again, ‘sit at my right hand.’ Jesus is ruling and reigning at God’s right hand, now forever and forever as the God-Man.
So we have these different paragraphs; verses 5-6 is one, 7-9 is the next one, 10-12 and 13 -14. These are different from other passages we have seen because he is presenting a series of proof texts in context to vindicate the greatness of Jesus. In this series, all the positions make that point that Jesus is greater than the angels. All four of these paragraphs say the same thing: Jesus is greater than the angels, but they say it in different ways.
C. Warning, 2:1-4
Because Jesus is so great, therefore we must take close attention to what we have heard least we drift away. All that great theology is intended for verse 1 ‘don’t slowly drift away from Jesus.’ This word is use also as applying to a boat drifting away over the water.’ Don’t do it because Jesus is so great. Don’t go back to the Old Covenant mediated by angels. For if the message declared by angels is valid and every transgression or disobedience received a just retribution, how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? It was declared at first by the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard. If the law punished those who neglected following the law, then how shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation? So his argument is that if people were punished under the Old Covenant, then those who reject the new revelation they will be punished also because there is a greater responsibility in rejecting God’s word. This was declared by the Lord Jesus himself. God bore witness by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit. So don’t forsake this Gospel. This is his first warning. We will see many other warning passages but this is the first one. Every warning passage has to be interpreted in light of all the others; this is a fundamental thesis that you need to understand. So we just can’t isolate one of them. When we look at Hebrews 6, it helps us to look at Hebrews 2 and vice versa; when we look at Hebrews 2 which helps us to look at Hebrews 6 and 10 and 12 and 3 and 4. You need to keep this in your mind as we proceed in this study of Hebrews.
The author of Hebrews really knows the Old Testament, yet you need to remember they didn’t have chapters and verses like we do today. So now the author refers back to Psalm 8 for the verses from 6-8. ‘What is man that you are mindful of him, or the son of man, that you care for him? You made him for a little while lower than the angels; you have crowned him with glory and honor, putting everything in subjection under his feet.’ Psalm 8 is a creation Psalm looking back to creation and reflecting on that creation. What are human beings in light of this? They are the crown of creation because God intended that they rule the world for him. For the author of Hebrews does something here by saying that this Psalm is about Jesus. Yet in its historical context we would have said that it wasn’t about Jesus, per say. The author of Hebrews is reading Psalm 8 in light of the whole Biblical story, the whole flow of redemptive history. And we know that within this redemptive history, there has been a fall. The world isn’t what it should be and Humans beings have not ruled the world for God the way they were made to do. We have literally made a mess of it! But, there was one person who lived perfectly and who fulfilled the call of Psalm 8 and that is Jesus. So this Psalm has to point to Jesus because there has only been one human being who has lived the way God had intended the way they should have lived and that is Jesus. Thus all things are going to be subjected to him, he says in this verse. But we don’t yet see all things being subject to Jesus because the world isn’t all fixed yet. But, here is his argument in chapter 2. It is great that Jesus is reigning but what about us?
D. The Coming World Subjected to the Son, 2:5-18
We are the Lord’s brothers and sisters and we reign with him and through him because of his death on the Cross, because of his suffering. So the author cites these Old Testament references that say that we are his brothers and sisters. We share flesh and blood with him. We are part of the same family. Therefore, we also come under the blessing of Psalm 8 because of Jesus and only through Jesus. This promise was never given to angels. The promise that the world would be ruled was given to human beings, not angels. The author is very clear about this. Heaven will be a place where we rule with Jesus forever. Whatever that means, it is going to be exciting and even astounding. Notice verse 16, God isn’t concerned with angels but he is concerned with the seed of Abraham. Theologically, I find this very interesting. We who believe in Jesus are not just the seed of Adam but the seed of Abraham and of the promise. But the other point is that Jesus had to suffer and die and thus defeat Satan in order for this to be ours. In Chapter 1 we see that Jesus is God and in chapter 2 Jesus is also the suffering Messiah. The Christology of Hebrews 1 and 2 is rich in discerning what God has done for us in Jesus. Jesus is fully human dying on the Cross for us. Thus we see Hebrews and no wonder that Hebrews went into the Canon; it is so inspired; it is God’s word and the Christology is unbelievable. The depth of it is again, astounding.