I am starting a commentary and deep study of Hebrews. This effort is one best described as an amalgamation. I participate in a small group that meets every Tuesday morning at 6:30 am, and although most of the thoughts and meditations are mine, I am letting the group speak additional revelation and wisdom into these posts. I also lean heavily on past works and commentaries, and these will be cited as we progress.
This is the introduction. I cover some interesting points, but if you plan to work along with us, I suggest you do some research of your own and have your “Hebrews glasses” on when approaching the reading. We do one chapter a week, meet on Tuesday, and the posts will be made available sometime that week. Enjoy the ride if you choose to jump in! As a side note, we (our small group) just finished Exodus and this book is a parallel must-read to truly grasp the magnitude of Hebrews. If you haven’t read Exodus in a while, it would be to your benefit to read and study this book alongside the study in Hebrews. If you don’t have the time to do the background foundation found in Exodus, I will point you to parts along the way. I’m good like that…
The book of Hebrews is arguably one of the more controversial letters in the New Testament canon. In fact, the Eastern Church did not recognize the letter as from the hand of Paul and therefore rejected Hebrews as an inspired work. On the other hand, the western Church embraced Hebrews as inspired because of its parallel and potent Pauline theology. The first record of Hebrews being referred to is by I Clement in 95 AD. The authorship of Hebrews has never been resolved.
After researching the mystery of authorship, my personal opinion is that Apollos wrote the book of Hebrews. I am in pretty good company in this opinion, as Martin Luther shares my vote for Apollos. But a very good case can be made that Barnabas wrote this letter as well. I believe that every word in the Bible is inspired by the Holy Spirit, so in some ways it is unimportant to me in an apologetic, defensible sense. However, understanding the perspective of the author and the intended audience can breathe even more depth and richness into the letter. By simply reading Hebrews, one gets the sense of place, the gravity of the message, and the heart of the author. Regardless of its authorship, Hebrews assumes that the audience is Christian, that the audience is familiar with the Torah (more specifically the Septuagint), and that the audience is struggling against apostasy and persecution.
Parallels in Pauline theology and the book of Hebrews abound. There is no doubt whatsoever that the writer was a contemporary of Paul and familiar with the teachings of Paul. For example, you can compare Hebrews 1:1-4 with Colossians 1:15-17 referring to Christ’s creatorship and eternal nature, Hebrews 2:14-17 and Philippians 2:5-8 referring to Christ’s humiliation and setting aside His true nature to become a sacrifice, Hebrews 8:6 and 2 Corinthians 3:4-11 when explaining the gravity of the “new covenant”, and even reference to spiritual gifts (exclusively Pauline teaching) in Hebrews 2:4 and I Corinthians 12:11.
As far as when the letter was written, I am fairly confident that the letter was penned before 70 AD. My reasoning is this: the writer leans heavily on Jewish symbolism and the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem surely would have been an excellent addition to the author’s arguments for Christ’s ultimate priesthood.
Surely the writer would have alluded to the solidification of his argument by pointing to the destruction of the temple in 70 AD, but he does not. But even in this, we know that some epistles were written after the destruction of Jerusalem and they do not point to the Roman ransack of Jerusalem or the destruction of the temple either. For sure we know it was circulating as early as 95 AD because of Clement’s writing. One of the church fathers, Origen, says this about Hebrews:
“If I were to give my opinion, I should say that the thoughts are those of the apostle Paul, but the diction and phraseology are those of someone who remembered the apostle’s teachings and wrote down at his leisure what had been said by his teacher…But who wrote the letter—Well, God knows the truth.” (Origen according to Eusebius, Church History 6.25.13)
Probably the most significant historical aspect of this letter is to whom the letter is written. The most persuasive argument as to the intended audience for this letter points to the Christian Jews in Rome. The reason for this assertion is simple: the author is imploring the Christians to avoid apostasy and falling back into the legalism of Judaism. Similarly, the book of Galatians is written to warn of the Judaizers working hard to move the new church back to Jewish laws by combining them in an “unholy matrimony”. And the fact that Hebrews refers to persecution of the recipient, the audience had to be under persecution and pressure to yield to the status quo; within the range of accepted dates of authorship, that would put Rome as the hot-seat for persecution. But even considering the evidence, the verdict as to where the letter was originally intended is not conclusive. Regardless of the exact nature geographically of the audience, the main point the author is making is universal in its nature. All Christians past, present, and yet to come will face the enemy of apostasy and the impulse to lean on man-made doctrines and traditions and of even God-made traditions referring to the Law! Keeping the status quo and being “politically correct” is a horrific option as a Christian, as chapter 6 so harshly brings to light.
For example, when the writer says, “do not forsake the gathering of yourselves together”, he is presenting an ultimatum to the church. Today this verse is quoted as proof that we must attend church; the verse is wider and deeper than that! And we must understand this: to gather together in Rome (or any city, for that matter, persecuted for professing Christ as Messiah) was almost a suicide mission! Better, in the writer’s eyes, to gather and be put to death than to forsake the testimony of Christ. We take this verse for granted; that is folly when we understand the magnitude of the exhortation. These weren’t lukewarm Christians missing Sunday mornings because of a football game! These were Christians that desperately wanted to gather together and have fellowship, but feared for their lives and for the lives of their family.
In conclusion, Hebrews is an immense work in its scope of doctrine, reliance on Torah symbolism, and exhortation to truly grasp the magnitude of what it means to have a heavenly High Priest in Christ Jesus. You could sum up Hebrews, if you were so inclined, in one phrase: “Christ is better than, greater than, and far above any religion, including Judaism.” This sermon is designed to compare, contrast and finally conclude that Jesus as High Priest trumps the old covenant. This letter is highly spiritual in tone as well, making one think and contemplate things that are eternal in nature. For me, it is the open door to re-read the ancient texts in a new light. If one allows the Spirit to breathe life into them freely, this book takes on a texture all its own, yet connects the old and the new in a glorious tapestry of the divine.
Two things to keep close to your heart are number one, the text is telling us that the new covenant is better than the old covenant but not in a way that makes the old of no use, outdated, or unimportant. On the contrary, the old covenant was in essence giving birth to the new; without the old, there would be no new. Number two, the author makes quite clear that Jesus was God’s last word on the subject of sin. In other words, there is no atonement for sin but through Christ’s blood. End of story. If you can’t agree with the author of Hebrews on this one point, then you cannot hear the rest of the truths, and I mean this in a most loving way.
One aspect of Hebrews that just begs to be sipped like a fine wine is the way in which the author builds his case using the pre-Solomon temple model as opposed to the Temple of Solomon or even Herod’s Temple. There is great importance and added weight to this sermon-letter with the exclusive foundation of the first, moveable, Mosaic tabernacle. We will discuss this in more depth in the coming weeks.
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