Hebrews – Week 1: Introduction

Author

The author of Hebrews has always been a mystery. From very early times the letter has been attributed to Paul. This is mainly because of the ending in 13:18-19, 22-25 sounds very much like Paul’s usual endings to his letters. The reference to Timothy as helper and the fact that the author seems to have been in prison in Italy supports this idea.

Another interesting point is that all Paul’s letters are identified by the recipients, whereas the other new writings are all identified by the author.

However, when you start reading the letter, it gives no clue that Paul might be the author. It starts in a different way, and contains nothing of the usual greetings characteristic of Paul’s letters. The contents of the letter does not sound like Paul, and does not contain anything that we are used to in the other letters of Paul. While Paul often goes to great length to explain concepts, the author of Hebrews seem to be impatient (5:11, 8:1, 9:5, 11:32).

Because of these difficulties, there have been many candidates for the authorship of the letter to the Hebrews: Luke, written by Paul in Hebrew and translated into Greek by Luke, Mark, Barnabas, Silas, Apollos, Priscilla and/or Aquila, Titus – but in the end the third-century writer Origen wrote that “who wrote the epistle, in truth knows.”

The notion of an anonymous letter should not be that strange if we remember that all the Gospels as well as 1 John are anonymous, with the authorship only added as a heading later.

The closest that we can come to the authorship of the letter to the Hebrews is to speculate that it was probably written by a follower of Paul. At the end of the day, “it is undeniably an impressive document, strong enough to stand on its own within the New Testament. Over the centuries, the church has been content to let it do just that” (CBC, 310).

Date

Because the authorship is uncertain, the date is also uncertain. If it was in fact a close follower of Paul who wrote the letter, it must have been written between 60-80AD and with Clement of Rome quoting the document in the last decade of the first century, it could not have been later than that.

The date of the letter is important with reference to the destruction of the temple in AD70. Much reference is made to the sacrificial system, yet, there is no mention of the temple itself in the letter.

The Holy Place or Most Holy Place is always referred to in the context of the Tabernacle, which of course has not been in existence for many centuries at the time this letter was written.

Given the many references to the replacement of and the temporary nature of the temple/tabernacle, it is likely that the letter was written shortly after the destruction of the Temple in AD70 with a view to help the Jewish Christian community cope with the idea/concept of Jesus as the permanent High Priest and perfect, once for all time, sacrifice for sin.

Audience

As much as the author of Hebrews is a mystery, so is the audience. Except for the ambiguous (in Greek) reference to Italy in 13:24, we have no idea as to the location of the author or the audience.

What we do know about these Christians is that they must have been Christian Jews. There are many references in the letter that points to a “better way” or “far greater” or better things” or “better hope”, “promises”, “covenant” and so forth. This all indicates a Jewish point of reference.

There were a few laws that were very basic to the Jewish way of life: Circumcision, the food laws and observance of the Sabbath. It is interesting that the letter does not address these in any great detail (with the exception of passing references to food laws in 9:10 and 13:9). It is also interesting to note that even Paul did not seem to have any problem with the Jewish Christians continuing these practices and even he himself followed them. His concern was that these practices should not be imposed on gentile Christians and of course that salvation cannot be earned through observance of the law (as no one is able to).

Because many of the teachings in the letter focuses on practices that are neither distinctive of Christianity or Judaism (6:1-2), many believe that the audience may have been gentiles who came to faith first as gentile converts to Judaism.

What we can learn from the contents of the letter is that (1) the audience were believers that have been believers for some time. This is seen by the many references to the “early days” and “terrible sufferings” (in e.g. 10:32). As existing believers they are now facing new challenges in their faith. (2) We can see this in the many parts where the believers are continued to remain faithful and not fall back into either sin or abandon the Christian faith by returning to Jewish practices relying on observance of these for salvation.

Major themes

Christology

The letter introduces Christ as supreme over all beings. He is depicted as the supreme high priest and the better sacrifice. He is also distinctly emphasised as the God-Man – both fully divine as God and fully man (2:17).

The law

This seems to be identified through the angels. However, in addition to this, the whole sacrificial system is described in detail and it is shown that Christ’s once and for all sacrifice on the cross is much better and effective for salvation of believers.

Warnings

Another major theme is warning against backsliding, rejecting the Son and returning to an earlier life.

Moral exhortation

The final major theme is an exhortation to moral living.

Theological concerns

Jesus as Redeemer

Jesus death on the cross was not that of a passive victim, but rather of a victorious Messiah. He was active in offering himself as the ultimate sacrifice – both the priest and the offering.

The end of the priesthood

Because of what Jesus did on the cross, there is no more need for a human priesthood, a temple, or animal sacrifices. This is replaced by praise to God and doing good works (13:15-16).

The divinity and humanity of Jesus

As we have seen above under Christology, a major theological concern is that of the divinity and humanity of Christ

The Christian life

“Faith” in Hebrews is “faithfulness” in living out your Christian life. You persistently continue the journey in a faithful manner. This is a journey with an end in mind – an eternal rest.

Outline

In preparation for this study, it is important to read the letter as a whole. It was originally intended as a sermon that was written down, with the intention of being read aloud in public. It will take about 40 minutes to read the whole letter as a sermon. This will give you a good understanding and background to the major themes and where each fit into the larger context of the letter (or sermon) as these are studied individually in sections.

Week 2 – Introducing the Son (1:1-4)

Week 3 – Jesus, Angels and Humanity (1:5-2:18)

Week 4 – Exhortation to faithfulness A (3:1-4:13)

Week 5 – Jesus as High Priest A (4:14-5:10)

Week 6 – Jesus as High Priest B (5:11-7:28)

Week 7 – Sanctuary and sacrifice (8:1-10:18)

Week 8 – Exhortation to faithfulness B (10:19-11:40)

Week 9 – Exhortation to faithfulness C (11:1-13:21)

Week 10 – Conclusion (13:22-25)

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