This Word of Exhortation : Introduction to Hebrews

by Keith Sharp

Author

The author of the book of Hebrews chose not to identify himself. From the second century until the Protestant Reformation the overwhelming consensus of opinion was that Paul was its author. Since Martin Luther tentatively concluded that Apollos wrote Hebrews, scholars have increasingly agreed with his assessment. References to chains, Timothy, and prison seem to point to the apostle (10:34; 13:23). But scholars appeal to the elegant, polished Greek of Hebrews in contrast with the rough Greek of Paul’s known letters as evidence that the evangelist known for being “eloquent” and “mighty in the Scriptures” (Acts 18:24) penned Hebrews. I accept the fact the author chose to be anonymous.

Audience

The very earliest Greek manuscripts of Hebrews still in existence contain on the outside of the scroll “To Hebrews” (in Greek of course). This term can be used of Jews who spoke Aramaic, the language of Palestine in the first century, and followed Jewish customs (Acts 6:1), or it can be used of Jews in distinction to Gentiles (Philippians 3:5). Here it seems to be used in the latter sense.

It is apparent from the text of the book that it was written to a community of Jews who had been Christians for years. There is no mention in Hebrews of idolatry, eating things sacrificed to idols, or other Gentile issues Paul dealt with in First Corinthians. According to the author, Christ became a man in order to help “the seed of Abraham” (2:16). Hebrews is the sole New Testament book which designates Christ as our High Priest, doing so twelve times (2:17; 3:1; 4:14,15; 5:5,10; 6:20; 7:26; 8:1,3; 9:11; 10:21). In fact, the high priesthood of Christ is a dominant theme of Hebrews (4:14 – 5:10; 7:1 – 8:5). Extended and detailed argumentation is made concerning Moses (3:1-6), the history of national Israel (3:7 – 4:13), the Old Covenant (8:6-13), the tabernacle (9:1-5), the service of the Jewish priests (9:6-11), and the animal sacrifices of the Law (9:6 – 10:17). The writer exhorts them to leave the camp of Israel (13:12-13).

The audience had heard the testimony of those who were witnesses of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, i.e., apostles (2:3; cf. Acts 1:1-8; 10:39-41). They had been Christians for a lengthy time but had failed to grow (5:12-14). But they had been diligent in ministering to the saints (6:10). They had endured persecution (10:32-33), but none of them had died for their faith (12:4).

There were serious symptoms of their lack of spiritual growth. They were ignorant of the meat of the word (5:12-14) and some neglected the public assemblies of the church (Hebrews 10:24-25).

Thus, they were in grave danger of being led astray by false teaching (13:9) and falling away from Christ (3:12-15; 4:1,11,14; 6:4-8; 10:35). The consequences would be terrible indeed (10:26-31).

Thus, the letter was written to Jews who had been Christians for years, had failed to grow in knowledge as they should, and were in danger of leaving Christ and returning to Judaism.

Purpose

The letter is a “word of exhortation” (13:22), the Jewish phrase used to designate and describe the address a Jewish male could make before a synagogue audience (Acts 13:15). The inspired author wrote to believing Jews for the purpose of persuading them to remain faithful to Christ. His repeated plea is “Hold fast” (3:6,14; 4:14; 10:23).

Date

The recipients of the letter had been believers for a rather long time (5:12; 10:32), and the first generation of their leaders (apostles, evangelists, elders) had died (13:7; cf. New American Standard Bible, English Standard Version). The Temple in Jerusalem was still standing, and sacrifices were still being offered there (8:4; 10:11; 13:10-11), but soon were to cease (8:13), and the day of the destruction of the Temple was approaching (10:24-25,37). If Paul wrote the letter, it was shortly before his release from prison in Rome (13:23), which would make it about the same date as the apostle’s short letter to Philemon (Philemon 1:1,22). Hebrews was probably written about A.D. 63-64.

From Where Written

It seems to have been written from Rome (13:23-24).

Plan

The inspired writer first advances an argument proving the superiority of Christ over Judaism, then follows the argumentation with an exhortation to remain faithful to Christ. He uses the word “better” thirteen times, primarily to describe the relationship of Christ to the things of the Old Covenant (1:4; 6:9; 7:7,19,22; 8:6 [twice]; 9:23; 10:34; 11:16.35,40; 12:24) and describes Christ as “more excellent” twice (1:4; 8:6). Whereas the things pertaining to the Old Covenant were “ready to vanish away” (8:13), in regard to Christ there is “eternal salvation” (5:9), “eternal judgment” (6:2), “eternal redemption” (9:12), “the eternal Spirit” (9:14), and “the eternal inheritance” (9:15). Only through Christ can we “draw near to God” (7:18-19; 10:19-22). Christ “has obtained a more excellent ministry, inasmuch as He is also Mediator of a better covenant, which was established on better promises” (8:6). He also employs the phrase “let us” thirteen times in exhortations following and based on the arguments (4:1,11,14,16; 6:1; 10:22,23, 24; 12:1 [twice],28; 13:13,15).

Outline

  1. The More Excellent Christ – 1:1 – 10:18
    1. Better than Angels as Spokesman for God and Savior of Mankind – 1:1 – 2:18
    2. Better than Moses as Builder of God’s House – 3:1 – 4:13
    3. Better than Aaron as High Priest – 4:14 – 8:5
    4. Mediator of a Better Covenant – 8:6 – 10:18
  2. Therefore, Let Us Hold Fast – 10:19 – 13:17
  3. Conclusion – 13:18-25

Use

Hebrews has the most detailed study in Scripture of the divine and human natures of Jesus Christ (chapters 1 – 2). It is replete with warnings of the danger of falling away from Christ along with reasons to remain faithful and how to do so. It has the lengthiest discussion of the relationship of the Old Covenant to Christ. And it has the fullest and easiest to understand and apply discussion of the nature of saving faith.

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