THE EPISTLE TO THE HEBREWS
The Epistle to the Hebrews presents more enigma than does any other Epistle of the New Testament The origin of it and the destination of it are uncertain. We are not sure whether it is a treatise or an Epistle. It takes the Old Testament itself to prove the insufficiency of the Old Testament, and to show that the Old Testament economy is to vanish away. The form of doctrine which we find in it is intermediate between that of Paul and John, and this suggests questions as to authorship which are difficult to answer. Although it is written in the purest and most elegant Greek of any writing of the New Testament, it was written, not to Greek or Gentile Christians, but to Hebrews; and it appears before us, like that Melchisedec who makes so great a figure in the Epistle itself, " without father or mother, without beginning of days or end of years," yet shows forth the Lord Jesus Christ, and the glory of the new covenant in some aspects which are not elsewhere revealed. It is not necessary to the inspiration of a New Testament document that we should be able to tell the precise source or author of it; it is only necessary that it should come from God and should be adapted to the religious instruction of mankind. The history of its reception in the Christian church is itself very peculiar. It was a stormy history through which it passed. During the first century after it was written we do not know that
there was the least doubt as to its genuineness; but the two centuries that followed, in the Roman church and in the North African churches, were centuries in which its authenticity was very widely doubted; and it was only the investigation of Jerome in the fourth century, and the subsequent examination that was given it by Augustine, that led these distinguished church Fathers to the conclusion that it was of veritable canonical authority, and that finally led the Western church to unite with the Eastern church in accepting it; so that all doubt was removed and its canonical authority was settled for all time.
The doubts that arose, with regard to the genuineness and authority of the Epistle, circled around the question of its authorship; and this is the question which we must first discuss. Who was the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews? The superscription, " The Epistle of Paul to the Hebrews," is not a part of the Epistle at all. That title is of later authorship; we must set that aside just as if it were not, and must ask ourselves what the evidence is that it was the work of Paul or the work of some other. Origen, the great church Father, gives us a sentence like this, "Who wrote the Epistle to the Hebrews, God only knows "; and I suppose that we ourselves might take upon our lips that very same sentence to-day. One thing is now generally concluded by the great mass of commentators and interpreters, and that is that the apostle Paul did not write the Epistle to the Hebrews. It is not, in any proper sense, an Epistle of Paul.
There are two sorts of reasons upon which we base this conclusion. First, there are doctrinal reasons; and secondly, there are rhetorical reasons. The doctrinal reasons are these—that, in his discussion of the great question of human salvation, the author of the Epistle follows a method that is entirely different from that of the apostle Paul. If you will examine the Epistles of Paul, and his speeches in the Acts of the Apostles, you will find that Paul always begins with the state and condition of mankind, and from that state and condition of mankind rises to the divine remedy and the divine salvation. On the contrary, the method of the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews is to begin with the divine Saviour and his great work for human redemption, and to come thence to the consideration of man's needs and his method of appropriating the work of God. The author of this Epistle, moreover, regards the death of Christ as connected more immediately and prominently with the work of intercession than with the work of atonement. He sets Christ before us in his priestly intercession in heaven, rather than in his priestly atonement upon the earth. To the mind of the author, the cross of Christ is mainly an offering in the heavenly sanctuary. It is rather the basis of intercession there than the basis of atonement here.
When you come to the rhetorical characteristics of the Epistle, you find that, both in minute details and in its general character, the Epistle is very unlike the Epistles of the apostle Paul. These matters of style are very difficult to expound in popular discourse. One who is acquainted with the original Greek and who has read Paul's Epistles, and who has then read this Epistle with a view to its relation to those, will recognize the fact that, in style, this is entirely different from them.
There is nothing by which the style of a person can be judged so accurately and correctly as by his use of adverbs and conjunctions, those little connecting parts of speech upon which very little conscious attention is bestowed, yet which indicate the method of the author's thought, rise spontaneously to his lips, and flow spontaneously from his pen. The conjunctions and adverbs that are used in all the Epistles of Paul are very different from those which are used in the Epistle to the Hebrews; in fact, one conjunction that is used fifty times in this Epistle to the Hebrews you do not find even once in the Epistles of Paul.
There is a characteristic that is more evident and more easy to describe. I refer to the general rhetorical style. This is totally different from that of Paul's Epistles. The style of the Epistle to the Hebrews is flowing and fervid and rhetorical; while the style of the apostle Paul is predominantly dialectic. Paul is full of what we might call anacolutha—sentences that begin and do not end; but you have no such sentence in this Epistle to the Hebrews. The style of the apostle Paul is that of a man whose emotions frequently break through all common forms of speech, and show themselves superior to the outward methods of expression. It is like a mountain torrent. There are very few places where it flows on in a smooth and unbroken course; it is evermore dashing from point to point, breaking away from the even and steady method of address, and reveling in that which is sudden and unexpected. There is picturesqueness in it, and emotion frequently breaks through the natural forms of ordinary speech. The Epistle to the Hebrews is characterized by no such bursts, by no such breaks. It flows on steadily, like the course of a great river through an open plain.
Our own Doctor Kendrick has said very truly that the apostle Paul is rhetorical when he cannot help it; but the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews is always rhetorical, because he can never be anything else. This is the real difference between the rhetoric of the Epistle to the Hebrews and the Epistles of the apostle Paul. There is now almost universal consent among scholars that Paul was not the author of this Epistle. It is equally difficult to believe that the substance of the Epistle was furnished by Paul, but that the form of it was furnished by some helper of his as, for example, Luke or Timothy. It could not possibly be Timothy, because there is an allusion to Timothy as a third person in the Epistle itself. Luke has often been mentioned as one to whom Paul might have given the substance of the document, to be put into form by Luke himself. But there is such a unity in the Epistle, the thought and the expression are so welded together, and both of them are so independent and so unlike what we know of the apostle Paul, that it is impossible to believe the author of it a mere subordinate. The Epistle gives every evidence of an original writer, who drew his material mainly from his own soul, under the influence of the Spirit of God.
The most plausible hypothesis that has ever been advanced is that it was the work of Apollos. Luther first gave this suggestion to the world, and one of the strongest advocates of this authorship of the Epistle is our own Doctor Kendrick. In the commentary of Lange on the Epistle to the Hebrews, which Doctor Kendrick edited, you may find this view very admirably drawn out. If you remember what is said of the work and characteristics of Apollos in the Acts of the Apostles, you will see at once that there is great verisimilitude in this hypothesis. The author of this Epistle must certainly have been a Jew. Well, Apollos was a Jew. The author of this Epistle was a very learned man, and the Acts of the Apostles tells us that Apollos was a learned man. The author of this Epistle shows great familiarity with the works of Philo Judaeus, the Alexandrian, and he uses many phrases that are the same as those used by Philo. Now the Acts tells us that Apollos was a Jew of Alexandria. The author of this Epistle had a wonderful knowledge of Old Testament Scriptures; and the Acts of the Apostles tells us that Apollos was mighty in the Scriptures.
The author of this Epistle shows a wonderful power and skill in proving from the Old Testament the Mcssiahship of Christ, and the glory of the New Covenant; and the Acts of the Apostles tells us that this Apollos powerfully convinced the Jews, proving to them that Jesus is the Christ. Indeed, in the description of Apollos which the Acts gives us, we have packed together in a few verses the most remarkable characteristics of this Epistle, and all these characteristics are declared to be the characteristics of Apollos. So, if we are to settle down upon any single person mentioned in the New Testament as the author, we may settle down upon Apollos. Timothy is mentioned in the Epistle as one with whom the author had acquaintance and apparently had intercourse; and we know that Timothy, having been instructed by Paul, was Paul's messenger to Corinth. Since Apollos was in Corinth at the time, there is abundant reason to believe that Apollos and Timothy were intimately acquainted with each other. But leaving this matter of authorship, although I think the general consent of scholars is more and more fastening upon Apollos as the most probable author of the Epistle, let us pass on to ask to what persons this Epistle was addressed.
You may say it was addressed to the Hebrews. But who were the Hebrews, and where were the Hebrews? There were Hebrews, or Jews, scattered all through the Roman Empire. Was this Epistle to the Hebrews written to Jews who were thus scattered among the Gentiles? No, very decidedly not; for it is very plain, as you read the Epistle, that those to whom the Epistle is addressed constituted a Christian community by themselves. It is not to the multitude of churches, but to a number of Christians within a certain locality, that the Epistle is sent. This Jewish community, apparently, has no connection with Gentiles. There is no mention of Gentiles in the Epistle; no indication that the Jewish Christians to whom the Epistle was written were in any particular danger from Gentiles; no intimation that they were tempted by Gentiles, or had work to do with Gentiles. No, the persons to whom the Epistle is addressed are living quite apart from Gentile influence, and there is no such variety among them as there was in those churches to which Paul addressed most of his Epistles. Now there is no place in the Roman Empire at this time which so fits the circumstances and conditions which I have mentioned, as the city of Jerusalem and the region of Palestine around about it. That these Hebrews were in Jerusalem and in its vicinity is altogether the most plausible hypothesis.
We find, by reading the Epistle, that these Hebrews were in special danger of being drawn away from their faith, because of their exclusion from the services of the temple. They were in the midst of persecution, and were tempted to apostatize from.the faith of Christ. This Epistle was written to warn them Of these temptations, and to urge them to be steadfast in their allegiance to Jesus.
These conditions are fulfilled in Jerusalem and in Palestine at a particular point of time in the New Testament history, and that leads us to the question when it was that the Epistle was written. Certain considerations lead us to believe that it cannot have been earlier than the year 60. .
In the first place, it is pretty clear that it was to a second generation of Christians that the Epistle was written. It is intimated in the Epistle that those who are addressed had not received the gospel at first hand from Christ. They were not persons who had been contemporary with Jesus; but they had received the word from those who had seen Jesus and had heard him. Therefore, the point of time when the Epistle is written must be twenty-five or thirty years after the death of the Saviour. Another generation had sprung up. Moreover, it is intimated that certain leaders of the church had suffered martyrdom for their faith; many of its members had suffered persecution by the spoiling of their goods; and they are still under reproach and exposed to danger. Now, if you remember, immediately after the death of Christ and the ascension of the Saviour, the disciples returned from Bethany to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were found continually in the temple. There was no objection or difficulty in the way of Christians, at that time, worshiping in the temple and having all the privileges that formerly belonged to them as Jews. In other words, at the first, Christians were thought to be only a sect or school of the Jews. They were not thrust out completely from the synagogue or from the temple. When we come on to the year 58, at Paul's last visit to Jerusalem, we find the beginning of a different state of things. We find prejudice aroused against Christians. We find hostility and opposition. A riot is instigated against Paul by the mere suspicion, the unjust suspicion, that he has brought a Gentile Christian into the court of the Jews belonging to the temple. That bitterness of spirit which had developed itself against Christians would lead us to expect, a little later in the history, precisely what we find in this Epistle to the Hebrews, namely, that there would be a disposition among the Jews to thrust Christians out altogether. It must be, therefore, after the year 58, it must be after the year 60, that this Epistle was written. It seems to me altogether probable that the date of this Epistle is as late as the year 67, just after the martyrdom of Paul at Rome, and just after Timothy had made that visit to Rome which Paul requested, and had shared his imprisonment, for we find in this Epistle that Timothy has just been set at liberty. If this supposition be true, it must be about the year 67 that
the Epistle was written; that is, just before the destruction of Jerusalem, which took place in the year 70. It could not have been later than that, because the temple is spoken of as still standing. The dates between which we must confine the writing of the Epistle are somewhere between the year 66 and the year 70; and if we must fix upon a definite year, the year 67 is as good as any we can fix upon.
The object of the Epistle I have already touched
upon. It was to warn the Hebrew Christians against
the danger of apostatizing from Christ. What was
this danger? Why, the danger arising from the
fact that, having been born and bred in Jerusalem or
its neighborhood, they had been accustomed to regard
the outward worship of the temple as essential to their
Christian faith. They had been accustomed to think
that the sacrifices that were offered day by day, being
of divine appointment, were to be perpetual, and that
those who were thrust out from the worship of the
sanctuary and from participation in these sacrificial
offerings were thrust out from God, and might lose
their hope of the Messianic salvation.
The Epistle endeavors to counteract all this, by showing these Hebrew Christians that the laws of the old dispensation were only a type of the new dispensation that was to come; that, as they had Christ in their hearts as their heavenly sacrifice and intercessor, they could now do away with the old sacrifices of the temple and with the old temple worship; and that they would be none the worse for the change. Christ is the same yesterday, to-day, and forever. Christ is the divine Saviour. If they have Christ they have all.
There are three main divisions of the doctrinal treatment, in which the author of the Epistle shows that the Old Testament system is only the type and the prophecy of the New. You remember how he opens his Epistle. The subject is stated in that first verse. "God," he says, "who at many times and in varied ways spoke unto the fathers by the prophets, hath, in these last days, spoken unto us by his Son." Then he goes on to describe him as being the effluence of the Father's glory, as being the express image of his person, as having purged our sins by his sacrifice, and as now sitting at the right hand, on the throne, of God; so, at the very beginning, he suggests that the new is better than the old, and that the old way is only the foreshadowing of the new. Now that the new has come, the substance has come, and the shadow may flee away. Then he proceeds to show that this Christ, this divine Redeemer, who has purged our sins and now sits in the heavenly sanctuary for us, is, first, superior to the angels, the mediators of the old covenant; secondly, is superior to Moses and Joshua, the leaders of the old economy; and, thirdly, is superior to Aaron, the great high priest of the Old Testament dispensation. Having shown that Christ is superior to all these mediators of the old covenant, he shows that the only personage in the Old Testament who can fitly set forth the glory and dignity of Christ is that strange and mysterious person, Melchisedec, who was both king and priest, and who sprang all of a sudden in the history, without any account of his ancestry or of what became of him, as a sort of type of the Lord Jesus Christ, the Saviour and Redeemer of the world.
Then the author goes on to speak of the great superiority of this new redemption and economy, this high priesthood of Jesus in heaven and his heavenly service, to anything that could possibly exist upon the earth, where the priesthood could continue only a little while by reason of death. Here we have One who is made priest, not after the law of a carnal commandment, but after the power of an endless life, and therefore, not for a day, nor for a few days, but forever and forever, living to make intercession for us. If he who is the one great Priest, of whom the Old Testament priests were only types, has come at last, why, the Old Testament priests may go, we need them no longer. Christ abides; he is the same, yesterday, today, and forever. Then the latter portion of the Epistle is a practical part, which draws the inference that, if these things be true, then the one duty of every Christian is to hold fast to Christ, and to let the Old Testament dispensation, with its types and its symbols, pass away into forgetfulness.
The beginning of this practical part is that long catalogue of the heroes of faith, those worthies of the Old Testament that had been true to God, in spite of all manner of temptation, persecution, and danger, and who furnish for us models for the faith of the New Testament. Since Jesus, our forerunner, has entered into the heavenly sanctuary, we are to follow him, running the race that is set before us, "looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who, for the joy that was set before him, endured the cross, despising the shame, and is now set down at the right hand of the throne of God." So the practical part of the Epistle succeeds and supplements the doctrinal part, and impresses its applications upon us.
Three things may be said with regard to this Epistle, all of which are points of general interest, aside from the general course of thought which I have mentioned. The first is this, that the Epistle to the Hebrews sets before us Jesus Christ as an absolute, unique, and divine High Priest, ordained to transact with God for us, as the one High Priest, of whom the Old Testament high priests were only the types and symbols. That is the first great thought of the Epistle to the Hebrews. We have such a High Priest who has entered into the heavenly sanctuary. Let us, therefore, go boldly to the throne of grace, that we may find mercy and grace to help us in our times of need. This High Priest is one with God, the brightness of the Father's glory and the express image of his person; but he is one with us also. No other passage of the New Testament presents to us the human side of our sympathizing High Priest as this does. He took upon himself our nature; was tempted in all points like as we are, yet without sin; and, for that reason, he is able to sympathize with us, and succor us when we are tempted. There is no more beautiful or pathetic passage than this in the whole Bible.
The second great lesson which the Epistle to the Hebrews teaches is that of the brotherly relation which the Lord Jesus Christ sustains to us. He is not only God, but also man; our elder brother is upon the throne; our elder brother is interceding for us in the heavenly sanctuary. Since this High Priest is both God and man, since there unites in him all that can make high-priesthood perfect, this high-priestly service is the final one. No greater revelation than this is ever to be expected from God; it is the last revelation of God to man; it is the most perfect disclosure of the love and justice of the King on high. Therefore, Christianity is not one of many revelations; it is not to be put side by side with Buddhism or Confucianism, as if there were only some good in it, just as there is some good in them; but Christianity is the one and only revelation, of which all these others are only faint foreshadowings. Here, in Christianity, we see brought to a focus all those scattered rays that shone dimly amid the darkness of the heathen world. All that is good in heathenism is found in Christianity, and infinitely more. Christianity is the one and final revelation of God to man.
So there follows the third and last great lesson. "See that ye refuse not him that speaketh "; for, if he that rejecteth the Old Testament dispensation did not escape, of what punishment shall he be thought worthy who has trodden under his feet the blood of the Son of God, and has put his Saviour to an open shame?
Nowhere in the whole New Testament do we find such solemn warnings against apostasy as we find here in the Epistle to the Hebrews. The apostle has set before us the exceeding glory of this new dispensation. He has shown us that it is an absolute, complete, and final thing, the last word that God has spoken or that God can speak to man. Let us be sure that we do not turn our backs upon him. Let us be sure that, having come to a knowledge of the truth, we do not turn away from it, and forget what we have learned, to the destruction of our souls. Let us accept the warning, let us go on in the Christian course. Leaving the principles of the doctrine of Christ, let us go on to perfection. In his warning against apostasy, the apostle does not mean us to understand that any that have once experienced the real grace of God shall ever be left to fall away to their own destruction. He says to these very persons: " Brethren, I am persuaded better things of you, even although we thus speak." Yet it is very needful for the perseverance of the saints that these warnings be given. Only by appreciating the greatness of our danger, and the necessity of our persevering in holiness, shall we be kept from falling away. Let us endure, therefore, to the end, in order that we may be saved.