Introduction to Hebrews

Unlike most of the books in the New Testament, the authorship of Hebrews is not attributed to anyone specific.  For about 1200 years, it was traditionally thought and widely accepted that the Apostle Paul wrote this book.  While there is no direct evident to contradict this thought, there are substantial differences in the writing style as well as many of the theological emphases that make it unlikely that Paul was the author.

What is made clear about authorship in this book is that it is a personal letter and that the original recipients were familiar with the author.  It is likely, then, that the author was a prominent church leader, like Barnabas or Apollos, or perhaps even a female author like Lydia, though the language in one section uses masculine pronouns to reference the author as “I.”  There is also language in the text that indicates that the author was not one of the Apostles, indicating that this person had not met Jesus personally during His ministry here on earth which makes him/her rather unique as far as writers in the New Testament go.

The letter itself is directed primarily toward Jewish converts to Christianity who would have been very familiar with the Old Testament, which the letter references a great deal.  It appears that the Jewish converts were being tempted to revert to Judaism or to apply Jewish principles to the Gospel, specifically regarding elements of the Law.

Hebrews’ theme is the absolute supremacy and sufficiency of Jesus Christ.  He is the mediator and the revealer of God’s grace and the ultimate revelation of God’s love and work, far above that of the prophets or any of the great Old Testament figures.  All of God’s promises are fulfilled in Jesus Christ as well as the Law and the Covenant.  Because of this, there can be no turning back to or continuation of the old system of laws.  All of it has been replaced by Jesus Christ, who becomes the “Great High Priest,” and the only way to the Father.

Day 351: Hebrews 1-4; Introduction to Hebrews

Today we make a transition out of the Pauline Epistles and into what is known as the “general epistles.”  These books, Hebrews – 2 Peter, and Jude, are books that are written not to a specific church or person, but rather to the general audience of the Church throughout the Roman empire as it continued to grow and address a variety of issues and subjects, which compliment Paul’s writings well.  Paul is not considered to be the author of any of the general epistles either.  Most of the authors’ names show up in the title, with the exception of the book of Hebrews, whose author is anonymous.

The book of Hebrews is the first and longest of the general epistles.  There has a been a great deal of debate throughout the years about the authorship of this book.  Dr. Robert VanVoorst, in his book Reading the New Testament, points out that there have been many suggestions as to who Hebrews was written by.  Some, though this is not generally accepted anymore, suggest that Paul wrote this book.  This has been largely dismissed due to the major grammatical and stylistic differences between the writing in Hebrews and that of the Pauline letters.  VanVoorst writes, “The first author to cite this epistle was Clement of Rome (around 96 C.E.), although he does not say who wrote it… From the Earliest times in church history, whenever Hebrews’ authorship was mentions there has been great dispute about it.  Tertullian (in the second century) was the first to suggest Barnabas as its author.  The Protestant reformer Martin Luther in the sixteenth was the first to suggest Apollos, and this is a common conclusion today.  Adolf von Harnack, the greatest church historian of the nineteenth century, proposed that Priscilla was the author, which if true would make Hebrews the only NT book to be written by a woman.  (This makes an intriguing explanation for Hebrews’ anonymity.)   All in All, the argument about authorship is full of conjectures.”

While the author may not be known, it is very clear that this letter is written to the Church in general, and especially to Jewish converts to Christianity that might have been backsliding into Judaism.  It could also be that Jewish pressure on the Christian Church was on the rise and this was a letter written by one of the leaders of the Church to encourage those who were facing persecution from the Jews.  Many people think this letter was written in the mid 60’s A.D. because of its many references to the Temple which was destroyed when the Romans put down a Jewish revolt in A.D. 70 and destroyed for the final time, the city of Jerusalem and the Temple.  However, it isn’t abnormal for those writing after A.D. 70 to write as if the Temple of God is still standing, something common because of the beliefs that the Jewish people held about the house of God and the deeper nature of God’s existence and presence.

Though it is fun to know the context in which the letter is written, it is the content which is significantly more important and to which we turn now and for the next couple of days.  In some ways, Hebrews could be seen as an exposition on the speech that Stephen gave in Acts 7, when he was before the counsel of Jewish religious leaders in Jerusalem.  Remember how he walked through the story of the people of Israel and God’s faithfulness, how it all led up to God’s salvation in Jesus Christ, their Messiah?  Well, we see a great deal reference to the Jewish religious systems here in the book of Hebrews as the writer references God’s work in the past and how it points to Jesus as the Messiah and then continues on into what that means for the believers, the Church, and the world.

You can see this general trend even in the beginning chapters of this book, our reading for today.  The author begins by making the point that God isn’t doing something new here, He has always been speaking through various means.  Whether Abraham, Isaiah, Moses, David, or any of the priests that Israel had, God used them to reveal Himself.  Yet now “in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.  He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.”  It is not as though God is doing something different here, He continues to speak and reveal Himself, the truest revelation of which comes in the form of Jesus Christ, God’s Son, the Word made Flesh.

We see also that the author is making tons of references to Old Testament Scriptures and again, to Jewish religious systems.  He talks about the high priests, the prophets, Israel’s rejection of God, Joshua, Moses, and Abraham in the first four chapters.  Obviously, whoever was writing this was very acquainted with the Scriptures.  In many ways, one of the messages of the book of Hebrews is the understanding that we can’t fully know or understand Jesus without understanding all that God had been doing in redemptive history to work up to His coming.  As we have said time and time again, the who religious cult of Judaism and the sacrificial rites, the religious structures, the providence of God in their lives, and even the giving of the law all point towards this greater event in the coming of the Messiah.

Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience.  For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.  And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.

Day 280: Matthew 5-7; The Sermon on the Mount

Matthew is home to what many would consider the most popular Gospel passages of the four.  Apart from chapters 1 and possible 3 of John and the second chapter of Luke, the section of Matthew known as the Sermon on the mount is likely one of the most used passages of the Gospels.  The actual passages though, Matthew 5 – 7 are more likely a conglomeration of a majority of the teachings of Jesus brought together by Matthew.  Whether or not Jesus actually sat down and taught all of this in one sitting is indeed debatable, however that debate largely misses the point of what Jesus is teaching here.  As we look through this passage and look into the context in which He delivers this, or these messages, we see that Jesus is openly challenging much of the religious teaching of the day and showing the people the true intent of the Law and the many commandments that were given to the people of Israel at Mount Sinai.

Many people have said that Jesus came to turn the Law on its head, to show the true way of God.  However, even Jesus Himself challenges that statement in chapter 5.  He says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.  For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.

So, if Jesus isn’t challenging the Law, what is he challenging?  Well, this is where context comes in.  Over the course of the history of Israel, and especially after the time of the exile, the Jewish religious leaders developed a system of laws to help protect the Law, like putting a fence around your fence so that you can be doubly sure that no one gets into a forbidden yard.  In doing this, the Jewish religious leaders wanted to make extra sure that the people of God did not transgress the Law once again thus causing the Lord to pass Judgment upon them.  However, what this really did was place the emphasis on an impossible standard of moral living for its own sake rather than living a life of gratitude, honor, praise, and worship to God.  It is into this context and understanding of the Law that Jesus speaks, rehashing what God truly meant when the Law was given.

Does this remind you of anything?  For me is screams “SHEMA!!!”  Why do I say this?  Well… because as Jesus will point out in Matthew 22, this really is the essence of the Law and if we read it with the words of Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and Leveticus 19:18 in mind, the teachings of Jesus here make sense.  What we are called to is not a set of laws and regulations for moral living, but to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves.  Jesus even mentions this in chapter 5:43-48 as well.  Out of these things flow naturally all that which Christ teaches about here and God calls us to in our everyday living.  The challenge is also given to us in the Church today.  For a very long time we have equated Christianity with knowing rightly and living rightly.  While these two are indeed important for the life of believers, they are not an end in themselves, but part of the natural overflow of the life of faith lived out in loving God and loving neighbor.  Indeed all of the law and prophets hang on those two commands.