The book of Hebrews is a little more complex than what we have studied before. When Paul writes to churches or people, he is usually very clear in the context of the culture he addresses. Very little hermeneutical interpretation is necessary for the most part – you can get the general gist of what Paul says very easily in most cases. This book is really a comparison between what is old and what is new from a Jewish context and how Christ is in fact the answer to everything. We can get some of this in the Pauline letters, for example the Judaizers that Paul calls out in Galatians, but it is much more in-depth in Hebrews, and even gives theological reasons as to why these Judaizers are wrong.
The main theme as we will see in our study of these chapters is Jesus Christ Himself. This can be seen from the first four verses of the book:
God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world. And He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature, and upholds all things by the word of His power. When He had made purification of sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much better than the angels, as He has inherited a more excellent name than they.
Jesus Christ is fairly stated as God’s greatest and latest communication to us. The phrase “in many portions and in many ways” in English does not have the same kind of strength as the Greek. According to George Ladd, God is saying here that His former revelation to men was “fragmentary, coming in many pieces,” that is to say, God gave it deliberately in bits and pieces, not ever as a whole before Christ. Revelation of Himself in the Old Testament was what Ladd called “diverse,” and came in a multitude of ways like visions, dreams, theophanies, angelic appearances, prophets, or anything else I missed – not one of which was adequate in and of itself. Because of this, He saw fit to come Himself, in the person of His Son, to enter time and space, to reveal His very character in the person of His Son. “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.” (Col. 1:15) (And before you get all weird and cultish on me, this does NOT mean that Jesus was a created being. This is so He could take his place as number one, not the creation date of Jesus. That’s a very deliberate misunderstanding perpetrated by a guy named Charles Taze Russell, and He’s not alone in that heresy – it was originally attributed to a fellow named Arius, in part based on this verse. But it’s all just Arian heresy, the very first heresy the Church put down through an African (Egyptian) theologian named Athanasius. More on this as we study through the book.)
God made him “heir of all things,” meaning that it would all be His Son’s. And if you had any doubt that Jesus might be anything other than God, it says, “through whom also He made the world.” Wait, what? “Through whom He also made the world.” Where have we read that before? In John 1:1-3:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being.
God has revealed Himself to the world. He who created everything became human just like us. Paul tells us in his letter to the Colossians, “For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created through Him and for Him.” (1:16) And God is telling us that everything He has made belongs rightly to Christ. It says further in Hebrews that He is the “radiance” [or shining forth] “of His glory and the exact representation of His nature.” [emphasis mine] Jesus is God, brothers and sisters. There are no missteps, other translations or ways of looking at this for God. Jesus, His Son, created everything in existence, and He is GOD. And more, “He upholds things by the word of His power.” Paul in Colossians says it this way: “He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together.” He is the one with all the power in the universe, shining forth to reveal God in all His glory.
Why? Why would God do this? Why waste His time on all this? Well, it tells us that He had a plan for man, that had long ago in time broken fellowship with God. Perhaps you know the story. A certain snake in a certain garden told a certain woman (named Eve later) that God had NOT said…one thing led to another, and man disobeyed God, breaking fellowship with Him and incurring the punishments of death and hard work (and several other details we won’t go into). It also saddles all of humanity with the same problem – a nature given to sin that we can do nothing about. Theologians have called this “Radical Depravity.” Seen throughout the scriptures, it does not so much mean that the depravity itself is radical (for example we are not all serial killers though there are some and that’s bad), but rather the extent of the depravity as touching the human spirit. Everything we are is tainted by sin. And if you have trouble believing that, you must not be watching the nightly news. This is why God eventually selected a people and gave a law. Do these things, and you will be able to enter the Kingdom of God, is the hope behind the law. However, because of our own sin nature and radical depravity and inability to get out of that, none of us were capable of keeping it. So constant purification through blood sacrifice was needed (from the sacrifice of the animal to make the clothing for Adam and Eve and on down the line). To administer that purifying sacrifice is the job description of a priest, and that became Aaron (the brother of Moses) and his sons. The book of Hebrews compares that priesthood with the superior priesthood of Jesus Christ, and a whole lot besides. But enough about that.
Who wrote Hebrews?
This is always important to understand, because these letters were not written in a vacuum, they had a cultural context. If we can know who wrote it, it can more easily be set into the proper cultural context and more easily be understood in meaning. The problem here is that the book itself never identifies its own author.
For many years (and even today there are proponents of this, I’ve met one or two), many influential bible teachers attributed the book to the Apostle Paul. Puritan Matthew Poole was of that opinion and wrote to that effect in his commentary. His argument was based on Paul’s Jewish heritage and familiarity he would have had with the subject matter. He also attempted to tie this to the belief of either contemporaries (and he acknowledged there were none) or early church fathers in their writings. He suggested that it was the belief of the church fathers, but I know of at least one that differed on the topic, so it casts doubt for me on Paul’s authorship when combined with other things like forensic analysis of the writing styles. I know I have made reference to this before, but the arguments were solely based on vocabulary regarding a forensic analysis of the pastoral epistles, I & II Timothy and Titus. I could discount such analysis there because I know for myself pastors use a different vocabulary when speaking amongst themselves than to the general public. Here, there are word differences as well, the choice of how words are used, and whatnot. Interestingly, it does not seem to fall into any of the other Apostles’ writing patterns either. So if it wasn’t Paul, it also wasn’t James, Jude, Peter, Mark, Luke, or John! Then who was it?
Some have even suggested it may have been Barnabas! This actually makes a little sense, but there is no real evidence for this conclusion. We have no samples of the writing of Barnabas with which to compare things, for one thing. There are a number of people (again I have met and spoken with them on this topic) that think this way, and if I’m being honest, I think it likely.
What do the writings of the church fathers say on it? Well, most don’t really say anything. Of the one who did, that being Origen, who I will stand beside on this point, he said, “No one knows.” Of course God knows, and He still inspired a servant of His to write it. I think this may be a symbol as to how important man is in the entire process – he isn’t. Got could have simply materialized the whole script on a scroll if He wanted. He didn’t do that. He used a nameless servant to write one of the greatest books of the New Testament. When you go to see the great paintings at the Louvre, do really want to see the brush?
Who was Hebrews written to?
Knowing the audience is also key in placing this into the correct cultural context. In this case, this is written to a group of Jewish converts that lived outside of Jerusalem. Just where in the theological literature is a bit of a grab bag. Some say it was in the east, some say it was in the west, and some say it was in Asia, and some say it was in mainland Europe, perhaps Rome…but no one actually seems to know. However, because of the subject matter and the comparing of the Old Covenant to the New Covenant, one can infer the Jewishness of the group. That is enough, because Jewish culture in that day (and in this from observing my own Hassidic friends) was fairly uniform. If they had some understanding of the Levitical priesthood, then they would clearly understand the comparisons made in the book itself.
Essentially then, there were three groups of people that the author was writing to: Jewish believers that had been saved and wanted to walk with the Lord but were wondering about the old traditions, Jews that had been intellectually convinced that Jesus was truly the Messiah but had not acted on it by committing themselves to following Him, and your basic unbelieving Jew, into which category I will place false teachers and Judaizers as well as your regular unbeliever. That makes this a great resource to preach the gospel to Jews, no? Let me flesh that out a bit.
First let’s look at little at the Hebrew Christians, or what I earlier called Jewish believers. This group would consist of true believers in the Lord Jesus Christ. These believers were born from above, and had come out of Judaism where they had been born and raised. Having become followers of Jesus, they were most often met with tremendous hostility from their own people. They would have been ostracized from their own families BY their own families, and suffered persecution and even martyrdom at the hands of not only their own people but gentiles as well. Not having the spiritual maturity to deal with it, they would have become discouraged, and lacked that full gospel confidence. This lack of trust in the Lord would have caused their thoughts to turn back toward what MacArthur calls the standards and patterns of Judaism. Perhaps they could not see all of the great benefit of so great salvation, or perhaps they had what seemed to be a common early church problem, Judaizers turning them toward these things instead of toward the Lord Jesus Christ. That’s why the Holy Spirit would have directed this letter to them.
Second, there are those that are were perhaps intellectually convinced of the Messiahship of Jesus, but had not followed through for some reason. What does that mean? Well, I once read a gospel tract with the provocative title of “Missing Heaven by 18 Inches.” The distance between the brain and the heart is about 18 inches, interestingly. Anyone can give mental assent to an idea without actually investing. We do this in politics every election. During my life, and just speaking about federal politics in Canada, in my adult life, I have voted for at least 3 political parties of very different flavours. But for whatever reason, these individuals are like King Agrippa speaking with Paul – only almost persuaded. The writer of Hebrews recognizes that there may be those among that number that may need some more persuading, and includes things that will help persuade them. We’ll talk more about that as we go through the book.
Finally, like in most churches, you will find classic non-believers. God forbid you find them in the Pulpit, but I’ve seen it – and I’ve seen so-called professors teach heresy to pastoral students (I was one of the pastoral students). There are people that are investigating for the first time, there are people that are interested, you will find your share of false teachers in most congregations (cults come from somewhere). What I find about this group is that the ones who are playing tourist come and go, but the false teachers stay. Hint – they’re after they sheep. Stay awake, shepherd. And sometimes, they imitate your sheep, so be discerning. I can’t give you more hint than that, each one has their own banter, but you can bet they’re self-centered. These people need either the gospel, or a real shepherd to warn them off from the flock – or on rare occasions to take them down and put them out. Stay awake for that. These folks are sneaky and often come in packs. And remember – love your enemies – you never know who God might save.
With all of that said, the main theme of the book of Hebrews is the superiority of Christ and His New Covenant over the Old Covenant and, well, pretty much everything else. There ae a series of comparisons made that are worth mentioning. The first of those is between the old and new covenants, and like good Baptists, we are covenantal in our theology, not dispensational (although there are discernable dispensational things that can leak through at times. But please put your charts away, they’re broken beyond repair. And look, I come from 18 years among the Plymouth Brethren – I understand dispensationalism. I just don’t think that’s where the whole truth is. I like some things about the Scofield reference bible too, but old C. I. wasn’t right about everything, and none of us are, honestly.
On the other hand, George Ladd, in his Theology of the New Testament says that the theological basis of Hebrews is much debated. The reason, he says, and I agree, is that there is a dual dualism in the book of Hebrews. It comes in the real dualism of above and below, and the eschatological dualism of present age and world to come (already and not yet is one way we have already considered this).And this is the way those dualistic comparisons will always run here – it is a direct comparison between the earthly and heavenly or of this present age or the coming kingdom. I will try to point this kind of thing out as we go through the chapters. The comparisons that I saw this time are below/above, old/new, earthly/heavenly, already/not yet, and past/future. None of these are particularly more than broadly descriptive, so we will consider them as we go through the book.
Much of the book will absorb us in considering the old in comparison to the new, and how the new came through Christ and is better, in the following ways I identified on this read-through:
1:4 Christ is better than the angels
3:6 Christ is better than a servant
4:8 A better day
4:9, 10 A better rest
4:15, 6:20 A better high priest
5:10 A better priesthood
6:9 Better things concerning you
7:19 A better hope
7:22, 8:6 A better covenant
8:6 Better promises
9:23 A better sacrifice
11:16 A better country
11:40 A better something
12:24 Better sprinkled blood
12:28 A better kingdom
13:14 A better city
That above list is likely NOT exhaustive, and we will talk about each of these things when we get there.
It is safe to say here that what the New Covenant gives is a better everything. This kind of contrast is seen throughout the book, and it is meant to be a strong presentation to the three people groups we spoke of earlier. To the believers, it reinforces their weakened faith so they may stand in the power of Christ and follow Him. To those intellectually there but needing to commit to the gospel with their lives, it is a strong encouragement – and a stern warning not to turn back. To the unbelievers, it is a strong gospel presentation that has the truth on full display in such a way as to make a compelling case to people about Christ’s saving call to them. To that special class of unbeliever called false teacher, it is pure poison. It is the word of a shepherd to stave off the wolves.
I trust that is enough to whet your appetite to join us as we study through Hebrews, beginning next week with Chapter 1.