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Teaching

Hebrews – Introduction

1.  ‘WHAT MORE SHALL I SAY?’ (11:32) – AUTHORSHIP

Although the author refers to himself several times in the letter (see also 13:19, 22-23) and was well known to those whom he addressed, he does not once record his name.  There was no agreement in the churches of the first three centuries about his identity.  In the churches of Egypt and Syria (the East), there was a tradition that Paul was the author, but the churches in Italy, France and Africa (the West), did not think that at all.  Even when Hebrews was included in the.list of recognized New Testament books in the fifth century, no agreement had been reached about its authorship.  That was still the case at the time of the sixteenth-century Reformation, and it is so today.

2. ‘THOSE FROM ITALY GREET YOU’ (13:24) – ADDRESSEES AND DATE

We are in a somewhat better position with regard to identifying the ‘you’ in this verse.  First, the letter has a title (‘To the Hebrews) as it is found in the earliest extant manuscripts.  It identifies those addressed as Jewish Christians, although’ the fact that the author everywhere quoted from the Greek Old Testament, points in the direction of Greek having been their first language.    This quotation with which this section begins tells us that greetings were being sent to them by Italian believers who were in the company of the writer.

A date before 70 AD is likely.  Heb 8: 13 makes clear that the old covenant was about to disappear, while 9:6-9, 10:1-2 and 13:10 speak of sacrifices still being offered.  It is easy to assume that those addressed were in Palestine because of the many references in the letter to Jewish ritual. In addition, we know from John and Acts that those Jews who were the first converts to Christianity suffered at the hands of their fellow-nationals. That would fit 10:32-34.

3. ‘BEAR WITH THIS WORD OF EXHORTATION’ (13:22) LITERARY CHARACTER AND CONTENT

The term, ‘word of exhortation’, in this verse is significant, because a number of exhortations have just preceded it in the chapter. Although we may refer to Hebrews as a ‘letter’, it is more accurate and helpful to think about it is as ‘a written word of exhortation’.  Hebrews is preaching via writing.

Exhortation is a means of helping people who are in real difficulty.  Why did the ‘Hebrews’ need help and how did the writer provide it?  The Greek word for ‘exhortation’ relates closely to the term ‘Paraclete’, which designates the Holy Spirit in his ministry to believers (John 14: 16).  We can ask:  What was the Holy Spirit saying in and through the letter?  By bringing God’s truth in Christ to believers and impressing it on their minds and hearts, the Holy Spirit expresses his care and imparts his strength.  Hebrews is an explicit and urgent exhortation from the Spirit of God.

i.  The Need for Exhortation

Certain terms are used to describe these Hebrew Christian’s past and present, and to explore their future.  The writer is trying to bring to notice the dissimilarity between their present condition and their past and to get them to think seriously about their future.  Some key ideas:

a.  ‘The Former Days – They had heard the good news of God’s ‘so great a salvation’ from those who had heard Christ.  They had seen miraculous signs, which confirmed the message (2:3-4).  They had confessed faith in Christ as their ‘Apostle and High Priest’ (3:1).  They had received light from above graciously given them (10:32).  They had also suffered for the gospel and helped others who were persecuted (10:32-34).  They had displayed brotherly love, brave faith, and confident hope in God (6:10) and in many way showed they could be called ‘holy brethren, partakers of a heavenly calling’ (3:1).

b.  ‘Today – But change had set in and they had declined.  They are referred to as sluggish (5:11-14).  They had stopped working out and become “fatbodies”.  There are many calls to action in the letter.  They are compared to a ship that is adrift (2:1).  They should have been teachers by now but had to retaught the basics (5:11-12).  Their teeth could not cut God’s solid truth and were back on an infant’s diet.  They had a poor attention span to the Word of God (5:11).  Confidence had waned (3:6, 14; 6:11; 10:23, 35-36).  The practices of other religions were a danger to them (13:9-10).  ‘Today’ – the day in which God is repeating his word and renewing his call to them – was a time in which they had become hard of hearing.  This was very serious.

c.  ‘The Day Drawing Near – A more critical day was approaching.  The ‘day of the Lord”, the day of Christ’s return, was approaching.  If they ought to have heeded the Word in the past, they ought to heed it ‘all the more’ (10:25) because on the Lord’s return, their response would reap everlasting consequences.  Perseverance would be rewarded but shrinking back would be punished (10:35-39).  Many encouragements to persevere abound:  ‘to pay closer attention’, ‘to hold fast’, ‘to be diligent’, ‘to draw near’, ‘to press on’, ‘to encourage one another’.  There are also severe dangers of:  ‘drifting’, ‘being hardened’, and most seriously ‘departing’, ‘drawing back’, and ‘sinning defiantly’.  Apostasy is irreversible.

ii.  The Content of the Exhortation

What the writer is exhorting is related to another use of the noun ‘day.’  He wants to make it clear they are living in ‘the last days’ (1:2).  The beginning of all things is marked by the creation and their end by the incarnation of Christ (9:26), which has taken place.  Christians are now living on the borders of eternity.  This is the ‘age to come’ (2:5).  The Messiah has come and ‘so great a salvation’ is available’.

It is a time of glorious privilege but a serious time too.  Unlike the old (Sinai) covenant, there is nothing temporary about the New Covenant.  It is unshakeable (12:27-28).  There will not be another.  To reject it after receiving it is worse than those who rejected the Mosaic Covenant.  There is no other sacrifice for sin (9:26) and no other way to escape the awesome judgment of God (2:3, 10:28-31).

Jesus the Christ who is ever ‘the same” is to be the focus of persevering trust.  The Apostle and High Priest par excellence has come (3:1).  Like Moses and Joshua (3:2, 4:8) he is sent by God, but he brings the rest which they could not give.  Like Aaron, but more like Melchizedek (5:1-10; 6:20-10:18), he rules because he actually deals with sin and its consequences.

There is a repeated logic in the use of the adjective ‘better’ (1:4; 7:19,22; 8:6; 9:23; 10:35; 11:16,35) with reference to a name, hope, covenant, promises, sacrifices, substance, country, and resurrection.  Christ brings something, in every way, better than the old, prepatory era could actually provide (11:40).

The last days are the era between the two comings of Christ (9:28).  By his first coming, he accomplished atonement and, in heaven, intercedes for those he lived and died for.  Through him is open entry into God’s presence (10:19); mercy and grace are available (4:16) and salvation ‘to the uttermost’ for those who draw near (7:25).  There is help to to keep look to him and to keep running the race (12:1-2) – to keep on believing as did those who came before in the faith.  There is therefore no excuse for not persevering.  He will not be ashamed of his pilgrim people nor will he forget and fail them.

4. GENERAL OUTLINE AND USES

‘Therefore … consider Jesus, the Apostle and High Priest of our confession’ (3:1), is the text of this written sermon.  It contains the three main themes of the letter:  Jesus as Apostle and as High Priest and the duty of confessing him in persevering faith.

But the sermon ‘text’ begins with the word ‘therefore’.  Like every good sermon, it has an introduction – the opening two chapters of the letter.  These deal with the self-revelation of God and with his restoration of the universe and mankind which sin had marred.  That is the background against which Jesus the Apostle and High Priest is to be considered.  In him God has spoken finally, and is ruling redemptively.

Finally, ‘our text’ calls for a response. It is twofold.  First, a consideration of Jesus is called for, and secondly, an ongoing confession of faith.

i.  OUTLINE

  • Chapters 1 and 2: The doctrinal setting – God revealed and Man restored
  • Chapter 3:1- 4:13: Jesus the Apostle – Superior to Moses and Joshua
  • Chapter 4:14-10:18: Jesus the High Priest – Superior to Aaron and Melchizedek
  • Chapter 10: 19-13:25: Hold fast to him and follow him – alone!

ii.  USES

While the content of this letter was relevant to those initially addressed, it also has a direct bearing on several pressure points in the life of the Christian and the church today.

a. In relation to the Bible, is the Old Testament as much the Word of God as the New?  Is it a ‘Christian’ book? If so, how can it be properly understood?

b. In relation to our multi-faith context, what is the relation between Judaism and Christianity?  Is the one as valid as the other?  If not, what about other religions in relation to Christianity?

c. In relation to the death of Jesus Christ, what is its meaning?  Is it essential or unimportant?  Can it be repeated in any sense?  Does it need to be?

d. In relation to faith, what is actually involved in believing?  Is it merely a decision of the intellect or the will or is it something more?  How important is persevering to the end?

e. In relation to the church, how important are the character of Christian worship, the preaching of the Word, praise and prayer, and how Christians care for one another?

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Taken from:  Jones, Hywel.  Let’s Study Hebrews.  Carlisle:  Banner of Truth, 2002.

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