Hebrews Intro Pt. 1
Authorship, Recipients, and Why Hebrews Matters
In our next community group season, we will be studying Hebrews 11 together as a church. This is probably the most well-known chapter in the entire book of Hebrews. In it, we are reminded of many men and women from the Old Testament who demonstrated the kind of faith that we are called to have. There is great comfort and power in knowing that others have run the race before us and have remained faithful to the Lord when it was difficult, unpopular, and even dangerous.
But Hebrews 11 doesn’t exist in isolation. It’s part of a letter, written to a specific group of people in response to a specific situation. In order to get the most out of it, it is therefore necessary to be familiar with the rest of the letter, as well as the circumstances that occasioned its writing. This is the first of three blog posts which I will be writing in order to provide some help in this regard. Here, I will consider who wrote Hebrews, to whom it was written, and what its value is for us. The second post will be a summary of the flow of thought from chapters 1 through 10. The third will address the notoriously challenging warning passages in Hebrews.
Little is known about both the author and the original recipients of Hebrews. Only very general details can be inferred from the letter itself. We know, for example, that the author was male, based on a Greek masculine participle that he uses in 11:32 to refer to himself, and that he had an intimate pastoral relationship with the people to whom he wrote, as he was deeply concerned for their spiritual wellbeing. Also, in 2:3, he reveals that he received the gospel from “those who heard,” indicating that he is at least a second generation Christian and not himself one of the twelve apostles or Paul (cf. Gal 1:11–12). He is clearly very well-versed in the Scriptures, as Hebrews is second only to Revelation among the New Testament books with respect to how often it quotes the Old Testament. Hebrews also boasts the most sophisticated Greek in the entire New Testament, and its writer was familiar with the rhetorical techniques of his time. All these clues notwithstanding, the pool of well-educated, Scripture-saturated, pastorally-minded Christians who were associated with the apostles in the first century is simply too big for us to identify a plausible author with any reasonable degree of confidence. We should therefore be content to echo the sentiments of the third-century theologian Origen, who wrote, famously, “Who wrote the epistle, in truth God knows.”
Hebrews is also ambiguous regarding its original recipients. It is uncertain even if they were Jewish or Gentile believers, although the writer clearly expects them to be able to follow several detailed arguments based on events, persons, and institutions from the Old Testament. This in itself proves very little, since Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, and Galatians also draw heavily on the Hebrew Scriptures, even though they are addressed to predominantly Gentile churches. On the other hand, a number of Jewish Christians were certainly present in this congregation, which explains why the author gives so much attention to demonstrating Jesus’ superiority over a number of things that were important in Judaism.
Despite these ambiguities, the warnings, exhortations, and encouragements that are scattered throughout Hebrews reveal a community of people who were facing serious temptations to turn away from Christ. Some time had passed since the gospel had been preached to them, and they had experienced not only the initial opposition that we read about in the book of Acts, but also the wear and tear of years of feeling like social outcasts because they had embraced Jesus as their Lord and Savior. They had endured “struggles with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to reproach and affliction, and sometimes being partners with those so treated,” as well as “the plundering of [their] property” (10:32–34). In addition, warnings against having “evil, unbelieving hearts” (3:12), a “disobedience” reminiscent of the wilderness generation in Exodus and Numbers (Heb 4:6–7), “holding up [the Son of God] to contempt” (6:6), “neglecting to meet together” (10:25), and “sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth” (10:26) suggest that at least some of them were not merely struggling as persecuted victims, but as ones who had grown dangerously comfortable with sin in their lives. Note also the brief warning against sexual immorality in 13:4. All these factors combined remind us just how relevant the message of Hebrews is to Christians throughout the ages, including our own.
Why Hebrews Matters
“All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:16–17). The core reason why we read our Bibles is because God uses his Word to transform our minds and to teach us how to follow Christ. Scripture is the final authority for what we believe and for how we live, and in it we hear the voice of God himself. Aside from these very important general observations, there are unique contributions to the Christian faith made by each book of the Bible.
The essential purpose of Hebrews is to persuade its readers to remain steadfast in their commitment to Christ Jesus as Lord and Savior, despite persecution, temptation from sin, and weariness. It does this by demonstrating that Jesus is superior to any alternative religious system, especially first-century Judaism, which was apparently the primary option on the table for those among the original recipients who were in danger of leaving the faith. This presents an immediate challenge for the modern reader, who might ask, “How is Hebrews relevant to my life and my walk with Christ?” After all, none of us will ever be tempted to turn to Judaism, as it existed in the first century, since it no longer exists. In what way are the appeals of this letter applicable to us? In response, I offer the following suggestions:
- Treasuring Jesus Is the Answer to Temptation
The reasons why these Christians were being tempted to abandon Christ are the same ones we face. I have identified these as persecution, sin, and weariness. These were not good reasons to turn away from Jesus then, and neither are they today. Further, the pastoral instruction given in Hebrews to combat them remains true for us, namely, that our perseverance in our faith depends on what we think of Jesus. The power of any temptation rests in its ability to convince us that something else is more valuable than Christ. It follows that the most essential weapon against these temptations is for Jesus to be magnified in our hearts. When we find our satisfaction in him, we will not seek it in other things. One of the reasons Hebrews is so relevant is because it is a tour de force on the magnificence and sufficiency of Jesus, both in who he is and in what he has done for us.
- You Have Need of Endurance
Hebrews is notorious for its frightening warning passages (especially those in chapters 6 and 10). These passages will be the subject of an upcoming blog post, but it is worth mentioning them here, since they make such a valuable contribution to our understanding of true, biblical faith. The author perceives that at least some of his readers are in danger of abandoning their trust in Christ, and pens this letter, at least in part, as an effort to pull them back from the brink, walking a bold line between two unhealthy extremes. One the one hand, he writes against the “easy-believism” so prevalent in many contemporary Evangelical churches, which attempts to draw assurance of salvation from a single moment of decision, made at some point in the past, without reference to continued growth and progress in the faith. On the other hand, his repeated exhortations towards “confidence” (parrēsia,3:6; 4:16; 10:19, 35), “assurance” (hupostasis,3:14; 11:1), “certainty” (plērophoria,6:11; 10:22), and related concepts with reference to a Christian’s posture towards God should caution us against unhealthy doubt about our own salvation. We can have such assurance, provided we are “holding fast” to the hope we have in Christ (3:6, 14; 4:14; 6:11, 18; 10:23).
- All Scripture Is Profitable
The point I made above is that Hebrews equips us and helps us to grow by virtue of its own status as Scripture. The same is true of the rest of the Bible. Yet people often have a hard time figuring out how the Old and New Testaments fit together. Hebrews contributes greatly to a Christian understanding of the Old Testament because it makes use of it so extensively. To be sure, sometimes it takes a bit of thought to apprehend why the author says what he does about the passages he uses, but our efforts spent doing so have the potential to expand and enrich our understanding of how God has worked in history, and how this work is fulfilled in Christ. Hebrews sheds light on what it means for passages to be “messianic,” how themes such as rest and kingdom increase in significance as the biblical story moves forward, the various ways in which Jesus’ death fulfills and surpasses Old Testament ritual sacrifice, and how institutions such as the priesthood and the law anticipate Christ’s work. These are just a few examples of how familiarity with Hebrews enables us to draw strength and biblical wisdom from parts of the Bible that might otherwise go unnoticed.
- Hebrews and Other Faiths
While we are not tempted by first-century Judaism (even contemporary Judaism is different), many of the religious alternatives on offer today are wrong for similar reasons as those given in Hebrews. Just to name a few examples, Jehovah’s Witnesses teach that Jesus is an angel. Chapters 1 and 2 stand in contrast to this, and show that Jesus is far superior to all angels. In Islam, Allah is depicted as a just and righteous god who punishes humans for sin and yet forgives his followers (those who submit to Islam). This, however, creates an insuperable theological problem for Islam, since Allah’s justice is compromised by his forgiveness. By way of contrast, in reality, Jesus’ offering of himself on the cross provides the basis by which God maintains his justness, despite his forgiveness of sinners, providing true cleansing from sin and access to the Father. This is detailed in chapters 5–10. Third, Hebrews confronts religious pluralism, which condescendingly demands that all religious expressions be regarded as equally valid paths to God. Indeed, the very reason Hebrews was written was to remind us that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, and that no one comes to the Father except through him (John 14:6). More examples could be cited, but the point is that the truth and necessity of Jesus' intercession for us, as presented in Hebrews, serves as its own apologetic against all man-made religion.
Be sure to check back in a few days as we take the next step in preparing ourselves to study Hebrews!
The term is diēgoumenon, a present middle accusative masculine singular participle from diēgeomai, meaning, “to tell” or “to describe.”
Many early Christian communities believed Paul wrote this letter. This is evident, for example, in our earliest manuscript of Hebrews, P46, in which Hebrews follows Romans. Difficulties with this view were known even by those who affirmed it (e.g., Clement of Alexandria and Origen), and in the western churches it found little acceptance. The difference in both style and themes between Hebrews and Paul’s letters have led to a virtually unanimous rejection of Pauline authorship among scholars today.
This is evident from his use of rhetorical devices such as alliteration, antithesis, chiasm, inclusion, parallelism, catchword association, and “hook-words” (William L. Lane, Hebrews 1–8 [WBC 47a; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1991], lxxv–lxxx).
Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 6.25.14.
In its early years, the Christian church had been regarded as a branch of Judaism, worshiping the Jewish Messiah (the Christ) and meeting in synagogues and the temple. In fact, one of its earliest controversies was how uncircumcised Gentile converts could be regarded as fellow heirs of the promises to Abraham through simple faith in Christ, rather than through the observances outsiders traditionally went through in order to become Jewish proselytes (this is why controversies over circumcision are so prevalent in the New Testament). Christianity thus did not come under heavy persecution by the state as long as it enjoyed Rome’s recognition of Jewish customs, heritage, and, most importantly, their monotheism. As the two religions separated from one another, many of the protections Christianity enjoyed under the umbrella of Judaism were lost.
This statement has led many to conclude that the recipients of Hebrews had been among the Jews expelled from Rome by the emperor Claudius in AD 49, an event explicitly mentioned in Acts 18:2 and the Roman historian Suetonius in his Lives of the Caesars 25.4 (120 AD). Suetonius writes, “He expelled from Rome the Jews constantly making disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus.” That Chrestus is a misspelling of “Christ” is accepted by many scholars. Although a common Roman slave name, it is unattested among first-century Jews (H. J. Leon, The Jews of Ancient Rome [Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1960], 93–121), and early Christian writers frequently complained about this very misspelling of Jesus’ title (Justin, Apology 1.4; Tertullian, Apology 3; Lactantius, Divine Institutes4.7). This scenario envisions Claudius banishing various Jewish groups, especially Christians, from Rome, due to the social upheaval created there by the preaching of the gospel. Such banishment would have presented many difficulties for the Christians affected, including the seizure of any property left behind. This hypothesis, of course, depends on the fairly popular suggestion that Hebrews was written to the Roman church, which may find support in the mention of “those from Italy” in 13:24, as well as the use of Hebrews by Clement, the bishop of Rome, in his first letter to the Corinthian church, which was written towards the end of the first century.