The epistle to the Hebrews is a tribute to the incomparable Son of God and an encouragement to the author’s persecuted fellow believers. The author feared that his Christian readers were wavering in their endurance. The writer had a twofold approach. (1) He exalted Jesus Christ, who is addressed as both “God” and “the Son of Man,” and is thus the only one who can serve as mediator between God and humanity. (2) He exhorted his fellow Christians to “go on to maturity” and live “by faith.”
“During his earthly life, he offered prayers and appeals with loud cries and tears to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. Although he was the Son, he learned obedience from what he suffered” (5:7-8).
CIRCUMSTANCES OF WRITING
AUTHOR: The text of Hebrews does not identify its author. What we do know is that the author was a second-generation Christian, for he said he received the confirmed message of Christ from “those who heard” Jesus himself (2:3). Because Paul claimed his gospel was revealed directly by the Lord (1Co 15:8; Gl 1:12), it is doubtful that he was the author of Hebrews. The author was familiar with Timothy, but he referred to him as “our brother” (13:23), rather than as “my true son in the faith,” as Paul did (1Tm 1:2).
Scholars have proposed the following persons as authors: Luke, Clement of Rome, Barnabas, Apollos, Timothy, Philip, Peter, Silas, Jude, and Aristion. Ultimately it does not matter that the identity of the author is now lost. We should be satisfied with the fact that early Christians received the letter as inspired and authoritative Scripture and that its value for Christian discipleship is unquestioned.
BACKGROUND: The author of Hebrews knew his recipients well since he called them “brothers and sisters” (3:12; 7:5; 10:19; 13:22) and “dearly loved friends” (6:9). Like the writer, they were converts who had heard the gospel through the earliest followers of Christ (2:3). Scholars have speculated that those to whom the book was written were a breakaway group such as a house church that had separated from the main church. Another theory holds that the recipients were former Jewish priests who had converted to Christianity, and that they were considering a return to Judaism (at least in conformity to certain practices) in order to avoid persecution from fellow Jews. Another theory holds that the group was not necessarily Jewish since Gentile Christians also revered the Old Testament as Scripture.
Regarding when the book was written, it is clear that the fall of Jerusalem (AD 70) had not yet occurred. The destruction of the temple would have been mentioned if it had already occurred, for it would have strengthened the letter’s argument about Christ’s sacrifice spelling the end of the temple sacrificial system. The public persecution mentioned in 10:32-34 implies one of two possibilities for dating the book. We know that the Roman emperors Nero and Domitian persecuted Christians. Most likely Hebrews was written during the persecution under Nero (AD 64-68), perhaps just before the destruction of the temple.
MESSAGE AND PURPOSE
The author of Hebrews wanted to exalt Jesus Christ. A verbal indication of this desire is the consistent and repetitive use of the Greek word kreitton, which means “more excellent,” “superior,” or “better.” This word is the common thread that binds together the complex and subtle theological argumentation of the book. In comparison to everything else in the divine plan for creation and redemption, Jesus Christ is superior. The author described the superiority of the new covenant to the old covenant because he wanted his readers to remember that Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of the law and God’s promises in the Old Testament. In this light, readers should be careful about “recrucifying the Son of God and holding him up to contempt” (6:6). The author wanted to move these believers from their arrested state of development into a pattern of growth in their relationship with Jesus Christ.
CONTRIBUTION TO THE BIBLE
No other book in the New Testament ties together Old Testament history and practices with the life of Jesus Christ as thoroughly as the book of Hebrews. Just as Jesus Christ taught that the Old Testament was fulfilled in himself (Mt 5:17-18; Lk 24:27), so the author of Hebrews taught that the old covenant was brought to completion in the new covenant (7:20-8:13). Hebrews also shows that because the old covenant has been fulfilled in the new covenant, the new covenant is actually “better” (7:22). The new covenant was made superior by the ministry of Jesus Christ.
In concluding the book of Hebrews, the author wrote, “I urge you to receive this message of exhortation, for I have written to you briefly” (13:22). If the literary style of Hebrews indicates anything, it is that it is a written theological sermon. It is not so much a letter—although it certainly ends like one—because it has no opening subscription, as was the norm with ancient letters. Hebrews instead begins with an introductory essay about the superiority of Jesus Christ (1:1-4). However, its capacity to encounter the reader’s soul indicates it is more than just a literary essay. Indeed, it has a definite sermonic character since it expounds the Scriptures at length in order to challenge the reader to faith and faithfulness. The sustained development of a complex, holistic theology of covenant indicates that Hebrews is a written theological sermon that discloses the broad sweep of God’s grand redemptive plan for humanity.
I.The Superiority of the Son of God (1:1-2:18)
A.The exaltation of Jesus Christ (1:1-4)
B.The divine nature of the Son (1:5-14)
C.The human nature of the Son (2:1-18)
II.The Superiority of the Son’s Faithfulness (3:1-4:16)
A.The faithfulness of the Son (3:1-6)
B.A warning (3:7-19)
C.The way forward (4:1-16)
III.The Superiority of the Son’s Work (5:1-6:20)
A.The work of the Son (5:1-10)
B.The call to maturity (5:11-6:3)
C.The way forward (6:4-20)
IV.The Superiority of the Son’s Priesthood (7:1-10:39)
A.The superiority of his order (7:1-19)
B.The superiority of his covenant (7:20-8:13)
C.The superiority of his ministry (9:1-28)
D.The superiority of his sacrifice (10:1-18)
E.The way forward (10:19-39)
V.The Superiority of the Christian Faith (11:1-12:2)
A.The hall of heroes (11:1-40)
B.The way forward (12:1-2)
VI.The Superiority of the Father’s Way (12:3-29)
A.The work of God (12:3-13)
B.The way forward (12:14-29)
VII.The Superiority of the Christian Life in the Church (13:1-25)
A.The way forward (13:1-19)
B.A blessing from the author (13:20-25)
Abel offers a better sacrifice than Cain.
Abram moves from Haran to Canaan. 2091
Sarah conceives at age ninety. 2066
Abraham offers up Isaac in obedience to God’s command. 2046?
Isaac blesses Jacob and Esau. 1930?
Jacob blesses Joseph’s sons, Ephraim and Manasseh. 1859
Birth of Moses 1526
Exodus from Egypt and defeat of Pharaoh at the Red Sea 1446
God’s awesome manifestation and covenant with Israel at Sinai 1446
Tabernacle is built and dedicated. 1445
Israel wanders in the wilderness. 1445-1407
Rahab supports the conquest of Jericho. 1406
Deborah and Barak defeat the Canaanites. 1320?
1125 BC-AD 95
Samson 1120-1060 BC?
Samuel 1105-1025 BC?
David 1050-970 BC
Jesus’s death, resurrection, and ascension AD 33
Hebrews is first quoted by Clement of Rome in his letter to the Corinthians. AD 96