Hebrews, Theology of
The theological epicenter of the Epistle to the Hebrews may be summed up in one word: Christology. No biblical document outside of the four Gospels focuses as totally and forcefully on the person and redemptive achievement of Jesus. Likely this factor more than any other secured its prominent place in the early church's canon of Scripture in spite of doubts concerning its apostolic origin in the West (Carthage and Rome) prior to the fourth century. Eastern Christendom appears to have regarded it as Pauline from the beginning.
The preface ( 1:1-3 ) sets the stage with a magnificent vignette of the divine Son exercising his universal headship. Amidst a variety of allusions to his deity, Jesus is declared to have fulfilled the three divinely ordained Old Testament offices of prophet, king, and priest. The prophetic element appears in verses 1-2, where he is declared to be the Son through whom God has spoken his ultimate redemptive word. Next, his universal kingly enthronement is depicted in the first part of verse 3: "he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven." This exalted position is the direct outcome of his priestly achievement: "After he had provided purification for sins." It is this priestly aspect of Jesus' person and ministry that takes center stage as the message of Hebrews unfolds.
For purposes of analysis the epistle may be divided into two major sections. In 1:1-10:18, the primary theme is the superiority of Christ as eternal high priest. He is declared ultimately superior to the most cherished institutions of the ancient Hebrew faith. He is superior to the word of God spoken through the prophets since he himself is God's ultimate redemptive word. He is superior to the angelic hosts because no angel can boast of being the Son of God, fully divine ( 1:4-14 ), and yet fully human ( 2:5-18 ). These two factors qualify him uniquely to be the faithful and perpetual sin-bearer of his people. On the basis of that same uniqueness of being, he is as superior to Moses the great lawgiver of Israel ( 3:1-6 ), as Creator is to the created. The spiritual rest from dead works offered by Jesus is superior to that temporal one represented in Moses and Joshua through the occupation of the promised land ( 4:1-11 ; esp. vv. 9-10). Beginning with chapter 5 the central theological concern of the epistle emerges: the eternal spiritual priesthood assumed by Jesus through offering up himself as the once-for-all sacrifice for sins. It is infinitely superior to the temporal earthly ministry exercised by Aaron and his descendants (4:14-5:11; 7:1-10:18).
Here the Christology of Hebrews reaches its loftiest peak as Jesus, the eternal high priest, enters the inner sanctum of the universe where he offers up his own body and blood in voluntary submission to God as a sacrifice for sins once, forever, in behalf of all humanity. He is both priest and victim, offerer and offering!
In 10:19-13:25 the christological emphasis shifts from formal argument to practical application. The theme now takes the form of an urgent call for the readers to place their trust unswervingly in the sufficiency of Jesus as eternal high priest ( 10:19-39 ), motivated by the supreme example of faith and endurance he demonstrated during the days of his flesh ( 12:1-4 ). He appears as the last, and by far the greatest of all, in the long line of heroes and heroines of faith summoned to the witness stand in the famous eleventh chapter. It is he, and he alone, upon whom the readers are summoned to focus their concentrated attention if they are to be successful in running the race of life. Four "warning" sections ( 2:1-4 ; 3:7-19 ; 4:11-13 ; 5:11-6:20) highlight the intense pastoral concern sustained throughout the entire epistle.
A second significant feature in the theology of Hebrews is its bibliology, reflected both in the Old Testament foundation that permeates its overall message and in the distinctive way the author applies it. First, the priestly and sacrificial cultus of Israel, as recorded in Exodus 24-40 and in the entire Book of Leviticus, provides the message with its primary background.
Second, the author's method of introducing quotations from Scripture demonstrates a high view of biblical authority. With only two exceptions ( 4:7 and 7:14 , where the human author is named) passages are cited in terms of their divine, otherwordly source:
"God says" ( 1:5 ; 4:3 ; 5:5-6 ; 7:21 Hebrews 21 ; 8:8 ; 12:26 ; 13:5 )
"Someone has testified" ( 2:6 )
"Jesus says" ( 2:12 ; 10:5 )
"The Holy Spirit says" ( 3:7 ; Hebrews 10:15 Hebrews 10:17 )
"It is declared" ( 7:17 )
Direct citation no source cited ( 10:37 )
"Word of encouragement" ( 12:5 )
"We may say with confidence" ( 13:6 )
Third, the message of Hebrews is structured around certain proof-texts that may be considered primary because of the pivotal function each appears to have in the unfolding argument of the epistle. To be sure, these represent numerically only a small fraction of its total saturation in Old Testament citations and allusions, but the other appear more or less incidental and may be subsumed under the rubric of the primary text under consideration. Ten in all, the substance of each may be summarized as follows:
1. The divinenature and appointment of the Son
2. The human nature and identification of the Son
3. Warning against spiritual regression ("Today enter his rest")
4. The eternal nature and office of the son
5. A new covenant providing the sanction for Jesus' priesthood and sacrifice
6. A willing self-offering marking the ultimate superiority of Jesus' redemptive achievement
7. Exhortation to persevere by remaining faithful
8. Exhortation to persevere under spiritual discipline
9. The final shaking of all things
10. Exhortation to be content
These texts provide a basis for consideration of the remaining theological features of Hebrews.
The Divine Nature and Appointment of the Son. In establishing Jesus' superiority to the angelic hosts his deity is clearly affirmed ( 1:1-4 ). Beginning with 1:5 and running like a thread through the rest of the chapter a whole string of direct Old Testament citations is marshaled as evidence. This is the most obvious demonstration of the author's commitment to proof-texting anywhere in the epistle.
The Human Nature and Identification of the Son. Jesus' superiority to angels also provides the ground for affirming the completeness of his humanity ( 2:5-18 ). "But we see Jesus" (v. 9) is the pivotal clause. Jesus, the "son of man, " has become the messianic representative of humankind as a whole. As the sinless son of God, his total involvement in the human predicament, especially in suffering and death, has destroyed the devil and his morbid agenda for our race. This involvement, moreover, identifies him unashamedly with us as "brothers, " and qualifies him to be our "merciful and faithful high priest" (v. 17).
Warning Against Spiritual Regression. The author of Hebrews is critically concerned for the spiritual survival of his readers and offers a poignant glimpse into the epistle's teaching on the Christian life, which may be summed up in the word "perseverance."
The call to enter into rest is not referring to heaven, but to the spiritual rest of one who is walking by faith, in full fellowship with Jesus. Faith in Hebrews is viewed primarily in terms of pilgrimage a long trek over the path of life with the distant shore in view ( Hebrews 11:13-16 Hebrews 11:39-40 ). Perseverance, of which Jesus presents the supreme example, ( 5:7-9 ; 12:1-4 ), is demonstrated through "holding on" to our assurance firm to the end ( Hebrews 3:6 Hebrews 3:14 ).
The words of the psalmist make it clear that the rest is available yet today ( 4:7-11 ). Entry into the promised land under Joshua cannot have exhausted its application. Securing it is worthy of the most concentrated effort (v. 11).
The Eternal Nature and Office of the Son. In 5:5-6, the author transacts a subtle shift in proof-texting from Psalm 2:7, on Jesus' divine sonship to Psalm 110:4 in order to highlight the central theme of the epistle: the eternal nature of Jesus' priesthood. Like the Aaronic priests he holds his office by divine decree ( 5:4-5a ), but in contrast to them his appointment derives from an entirely different covenant basis ( 7:11-14 ), which declares him to be a priest forever ( 7:15-22 ). Hence the superiority of his office: he always lives to intercede in behalf of his people (v. 25). But this can only occur through his ministry of reconciling holy God and sinful humanity. Jesus is both priest and victim (v. 27). The stage is now set for another distinctive motif in Hebrews: its theology of atonement (8:1-10:18).
A New Covenant. The author's penchant for proof-texting is magnified in chapter 8, where five of the thirteen verses encompass a direct citation of the new covenant passage from Jeremiah 31:31-34. Verse 6 contains the interpretive key by summarizing the earlier argument of 7:11-14. Jesus' ministry as eternal high priest includes a mediatorial role that guarantees a better covenant based on better promises (cf. 7:22 , where this thought is first introduced ).
This new covenant involves a direct heart relationship between God and his people. Under its conditions the badge of identity for each person is the very relationship itself: all shall know me from the least of them to the greatest. Its guarantee is the superior sacrifice made by Jesus himself, the eternal high priest, not by the offering up of the blood of animals ( 9:11-15 ; 10:1-4 ). Instead of a temporary covering for sin it provides for each believer "a purifying of the conscience to serve the living God, " from a heart motivated totally by confidence in the unconditional nature of his redemptive love.
A Willing Self-Offering. Jesus too was motivated by a heart totally committed to accomplishing the will of his Father. This is the essence of the proof-text from Psalm 40:6-8. The Old Testament clearly recognizes the potential detachment with which sacrifices might be made ( 1 Sam 15:22-23 ; Psalm 51:16-17 ; Hosea 6:6 ). It has always been the case that the heart attitude validates any offering in the sight of God. Jesus as God's appointed high priest offers the ideal sacrifice as he surrenders his will to the will of his Father in offering up himself. This ultimate level of self-giving by a perfect, once-for-all sacrifice underscores Jesus as the guarantee of a better covenant. Repetition of the Jeremiah covenant passage in 10:16-18 is of great significance here. The believer is provided with optimum assurance of salvation: a conscience purified from the tyranny of dead works, released to serve the living God.
Exhortation to Persevere by Remaining Faithful. Biblical faith is more than a cognitive abstraction; it has the notion of concrete action most accurately conveyed by the adverbial idea of "faithfulness." This sense is reinforced in Hebrews probably more than anywhere else in the New Testament. In the second half of chapter 10 the exhortations "let us draw near" (v. 22), "let us hold unswervingly" (v. 23), and "let us consider" (v. 24), followed by such key words as "confidence" (v. 35) and "persevere" (v. 36) serve as poignant illustrations. The author, in applying the Habakkuk proof-text (vv. 37-38) views faith in terms of persevering to salvation (v. 39). Finally, from the broader perspective, God's gallery of heroes and heroines in chapter 11, culminating with Jesus as the supreme example of faith and endurance ( 12:1-4 ) is followed by a call to be disciplined by grace in the remainder of the epistle. This reaffirms that faith in Hebrews is viewed primarily in terms of pilgrimage.
Exhortation to Persevere under Spiritual Discipline. It is Jesus, more than the Old Testament heroes of chapter 11, to whom we are to fix our eyes on for our example of what it means to persevere ( 12:1-4 ). As he submitted to the discipline of his Father's will, which was ultimately the cross, so must we.
The appeal to scriptural authority is cited from Proverbs 3:11-12. The pain of applying physical exercise and therapy to impaired limbs provides a striking analogy to the spiritual impairment handicapping the readers (vv. 11-13). Focus on the possibility of their coming up short on grace (v. 16) highlights the sad but all too common tragedy in the spiritual realm of a dull, complacent spirit. Apparently the readers were being forced out of their perceived comfort zone in Judaism. They, like we, must risk all to experience the total sufficiency of Jesus, their eternal high priest for this life and the next.
The Final Shaking of All Things. Chapter 12 concludes on a somber eschatological note (vv. 18-29), with the reminder that God has spoken his ultimate word in Jesus, through the sprinkling of the blood he offered up as the mediator of the new covenant (v. 24). There is a strong affirmation here of the words of Jesus ( Matt 24:35 ), that though heaven and earth pass away, "my words will never pass away."
It was on this very theme that the epistle opened. God, who first spoke to his people through various ways and means in former times, has in these last days spoken to us in a Son ( 1:1-2 ). Here the contrast is between the fiery blackness of earthly Mount Sinai on the one hand, and the radiant glory of the heavenly Jerusalem on the other. As his voice shook the earth in the former setting, his final word will shake all things ( Hag 2:6 ). The dissolution of the physical universe will make way for the eternal order to appear in all of its glorious permanence.
The exhortation "let us be thankful" (v. 28) occurs again as a reminder that there is no way for mortals to render God acceptable service except through grace ( Rom 12:1 ). Only through grace can we lay hold of his eternal kingdom.
Exhortation to Be Content. Hebrews 13 conveys the image of a practical postscript. That a group of people under the particular pressures suggested by this letter should be challenged to be content is understandable. They were apparently of some affluence ( 10:32-34 Hebrews 32-34 ) and their earthly way of life was clearly in jeopardy. To be coveteous of more favorable, secure circumstances would have been only too natural.
As earlier in the letter, so here the call is to focus on the sufficiency of Jesus our eternal high priest (vv. 8-15). True contentment comes from being anchored to the promises of God. If we have the assurance that he, the eternal One, will never leave or forsake us, we are insulated against the fear of man.
Such a posture can only result from a heart that is established by grace rather than on external ritual. God's unconditional acceptance of us by virtue of the priestly achievement of Jesus has been the primary point of contact for the author throughout the epistle in seeking to motivate the readers to accept their high privilege and responsibility of persevering to the end.
Leonard S. Walmark
Bibliography. G. L. Archer, Jr., The Epistle to the Hebrews: A Study Manual; F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews; T. Hewitt, The Epistle to the Hebrews: An Introduction and Commentary; W. L. Lane, Call to Commitment: Responding to the Message of Hebrews; B. F. Westcott, The Epistle to the Hebrews: The Greek Text with Notes and Essays.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Hebrews, Theology of'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".