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Letter to the Hebrews

I. Authorship. The writer of Hebrews does not attach his name to his letter. First John is the only other letter in the NT to which a name is not attached. Because of this fact, there has been much discussion since the first century as to who wrote Hebrews.

Early Christians held various opinions. Those on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean and around Alexandria associated the book with Paul. Origen (a.d. 185-254) held that the thoughts of the book were Paul’s, but the language and composition were someone else’s. In North Africa, Tertullian (155-225) thought that Barnabas wrote Hebrews. Although the letter was first known in Rome and the West (I Clement, dated around 95, cites Hebrews frequently), for two hundred years Christians in Rome and the West were unanimous in their opinion that Paul did not write Hebrews. These early Christians did not say who wrote it.

Present-day Christians should hardly be dogmatic about an issue that from the very beginning of the church has been surrounded with uncertainty. A careful study of the letter in the Greek text discloses some important things about the author: (1) The letter has a polished Greek style, like that of a master rhetorician. The continuous use of this style is unlike Paul’s style: Paul frequently picked up a new stream of thought before he finished the one in which he was involved. (2) The vocabulary, figures of speech, and manner of argument show an Alexandrian and Philonic influence (Philo, 20 b.c. to a.d. 50 or 60). Paul, having come from Tarsus and having been educated in Jerusalem, did not have such a background. (3) Both Paul and the writer of Hebrews quote the OT frequently. But the way they introduce their quotations is quite different. Paul’s formulas—“just as it has been written” (nineteen times), “it has been written” (ten times), “the Scripture says” (six times), “the Scripture proclaims good tidings beforehand” (one time)—never occur in Hebrews. Paul’s manner of introducing quotations puts the reader’s attention on the content quoted. The writer of Hebrews, as an orator, puts the stress on the one who speaks. For him the Father, Christ, or the Holy Spirit is speaking.

Assuming Apollos to be the author, one can best date the letter a.d. 68-70.

Although we cannot be absolutely certain, it seems best to regard the original readers as being located somewhere in Italy. Many roads led to Rome. These believers may have been in one of the cities nearer or farther from the capital. Paul himself spent seven days with the brothers in Puteoli (Acts.28.13-Acts.28.14). They could have been in Rome or its suburbs. As the writer pens this letter, Timothy has departed from him and is absent (perfect tense)—very likely on some tour of churches. As soon as he appears (or if he comes soon), the writer and Timothy together will visit the readers (Heb.13.23).

III. Outline and Summary of Content—An outline shows the centrality of Jesus Christ in the Book of Hebrews.

I. Prologue: Course and Climax of Divine Revelation (1:1-3)

II. Preeminence of Christ Himself (1:4-4:13)

A. Superiority of Christ to Angels (1:4-14)

B. Warning: Peril of Indifference to These Truths (2:1-4)

C. Reason Christ Became Human (2:5-18)

D. Christ’s Position Is Greater Than That of Moses (3:1-6)

E. Warning: Unbelief Brings Temporal and Eternal Effects (3:7-4:13)

III. Priesthood of Jesus Christ (4:14-10:18)

A. Importance of His Priesthood for a Believer’s Conduct (4:14-16)

B. Qualifications of a High Priest (5:1-10)

C. Warning: Immaturity and Apostasy Are Conquered Only by Faith, Longsuffering, and Hope (5:11-6:20a)

D. Melchizedek’s Eternal Successor (6:20b-7:28)

E. Heavenly Sanctuary and New Covenant (8:1-13)

F. Priestly Service Under the Old Covenant and the New (9:1-28)

G. Inadequacy of the Sacrifices Under the Law Contrasted With the Efficacy and Finality of Christ’s Sacrifice (10:1-18)

IV. Perseverance of Christians (10:19-12:29)

A. Attitudes to Be Sought and Attitudes to Be Shunned (10:19-39)

B. Faith in Action—Illustrious Examples From the Past (11:1-40)

C. Incentives for Action in the Present Scene and in the Future Goal (12:1-29)

V. Postscript: Exhortations, Personal Concerns, Benediction (13:1-25)

Although God spoke to the fathers by the prophets, he has now spoken by his Son. In the prologue we see the distinctiveness of the Son. He is before history, in history, above history, the goal of history, and the agent who brings about a cleansing of people from sins committed in history. He shares the essence of Deity and radiates the glory of Deity. He is the supreme revelation of God (Heb.1.1-Heb.1.3).

The writer’s first main task is to make clear the preeminence of Christ (Heb.1.4-Heb.4.13). He is superior to angels. They assist those who will be heirs of salvation. Christ, by virtue of who he is, of God’s appointment, and of what he has done, stands exalted far above them. It would be tragic to be careless of the great salvation that he proclaimed. He will achieve for man the promise that all things will be in harmonious subjection to man. He can do this because he is fully man and has provided the expiation for sins. He is superior to Moses, for Moses was a servant among the people of God, while Christ is a Son over the people of God. It would be tragic to cease trusting him. Unbelief kept one entire generation of Israelites from Canaan. Christians are warned of such unbelief. Faith is emphasized as well as zeal to enter into the eternal rest of God. Both the Gospel of God and God himself scrutinize people.

The second major emphasis in the letter falls on the priesthood of Christ (Heb.4.14-Heb.10.18). Qualifications, conditions, and experiences of the Aaronic priesthood are listed in comparison to Christ as a priest. Before further developing this theme, the writer warns his readers of their unpreparedness for advanced teaching. Only earnest diligence in things of God will bring them out of immaturity. Christ as a priest, like Melchizedek, is superior to the Levitical priesthood because his life is indestructible. He is both priest and sacrifice. His priesthood is eternal. His sanctuary is in heaven and his blood establishes the validity of the New Covenant, which is also an eternal covenant. His one offering on behalf of sins is final; i.e., it is for all time. Likewise he has made perfect for all time those who are in the process of being sanctified.

The last main section of Hebrews deals with the response of Christians (Heb.10.19-Heb.12.29). Perseverance on the part of Christians springs out of fellowship with God, activity for God, faith in God, and a consciousness of what lies ahead.

In concluding the letter the writer puts stress on the Cross as the Christian altar and the resurrection of the Shepherd of the sheep as the basis for God’s action. Such redemptive- historical events move the believer to action (Heb.13.1-Heb.13.25).

IV. Teaching. Although more space is devoted to Christ, the letter has fully developed teaching about God the Father.

Much is said about Christ. He is fully God and fully man. He is active in creation. The atonement of Christ, as both priest and sacrificial victim, is developed in detail. In the role of a priest, he is a leader and guide. He also is the revealer of God. Great depth is achieved in all of these teachings about Christ’s person and work.

Very little is said about the Holy Spirit in Hebrews. The Spirit is mentioned only seven times—three times in reference to the inspiration of the OT, once in regard to the work of Christ, once in regard to the apostate’s rejection of Christianity, and twice in regard to the believer.

The old and new covenants are compared and reasons for the superiority of the new or eternal covenant are given.

The doctrine of sin in Hebrews focuses attention on unbelief and the failure to go on with God to the eternal city.

Shadow and reality are carefully contrasted. Heaven is the scene of reality. Earth is concerned with both shadow and reality. Christ is the bridge between the temporary and the eternal.

The people of God are looked on as migrating from a transitory setting to an abiding city. This migration involves God’s Word; the matter of testing, discipline, or punishment; faithfulness; and God’s activity in sanctifying or making holy. The Christian life is developed in the framework of this heavenly pilgrimage.

Eschatology or last things involves the obtaining of eternal rest, a final shaking of heaven and earth, the personal return of Christ, and glory belonging to God for ever and ever.

Bibliography: B. F. Westcott, The Epistle to the Hebrews, 1892 (on the Greek text); F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews (NIC), 1964; H. W. Montefiore, The Epistle to the Hebrews (HNTC), 1964; P. E. Hughes, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, 1977; D. Guthrie, The Letter to the Hebrews (TNTC), 1983.——ABM