Some Christians were in great need of encouragement. Yes, they should have been more spiritually mature by this time, but their resolve was wearing thin. They needed to be reminded of the superiority of what God had accomplished in Christ, and to stand firm. To this end the letter to the Hebrews was written.
The letter to the Hebrews is the nineteenth book in modern editions of the New Testament. At no point in the letter does the author identify himself or specific recipients of the letter; he is known to the letter’s recipients, sends greetings from Christians in Italy, and he planned to visit them with Timothy in the near future (Hebrews 13:23-24). For this reason many throughout time considered Paul as its author; his apostolic authority lent credence to the letter and explains its presence in the canon. Barnabas and Apollos are also viable candidates for authorship, but we cannot identify the author with any certainty. The letter is called “to the Hebrews” since its content suggests its recipients need reminding of the superiority of the new covenant to the old covenant, a message which Jewish Christians would need to hear. Perhaps these Jewish Christians lived in Judea and Jerusalem; perhaps the letter was designed to be distributed among all the Jewish Christians in the dispersion. The appeal to the message of the Apostles in the past tense in Hebrews 2:3-4, the present consideration of the Temple service in Hebrews 9:1-10, and the reference to Italy from someone traveling in Pauline circles in Hebrews 13:23-24 strongly suggest the letter was written in the 60s, although any date before 70 remains possible. The letter to the Hebrews was written to encourage Christian, most likely of a Jewish heritage, to grow in their faith and stand firm in it without reverting to Judaism.
The letter to the Hebrews has no standard epistolary opening: its author began with a powerful declaration of God having spoken first through the prophets now spoke through His Son, through whom He created the world, who manifests the image of His substance, and who upholds all things (Hebrews 1:1-3). Through appeals to many passages in the Old Testament the Hebrews author demonstrated Jesus’ superiority to the angels, recognizing the latter as spirits ministering for the sake of the saved (Hebrews 1:4-14). And so, if the Law, mediated by angels, had strong consequences, how much more for those who spurn the message of Jesus through the Apostles, whose message was affirmed abundantly through the work of the Spirit (Hebrews 2:1-4)? God has subjected the world underneath Jesus’ feet, who became man in order to be as an elder brother and save mankind as a merciful and faithful high priest (Hebrews 2:5-18). Moses was faithful in his work as a servant, but Jesus came as the faithful Son, thus worthy of more glory, and whose house Christians can become by faith and endurance (Hebrews 3:1-6). The Hebrews author then meditated on Psalm 95:1-11: believers must make sure none are falling away, deceived by sin, like the generation of Israel in the Wilderness (Hebrews 3:7-19). The weekly Sabbath is not the rest of Psalm 95:11; there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, the full rest from work as God took after the creation, and Christians must diligently seek to enter it; Christians must prove obedient, for the word of God is living and active, and no creature is hidden from God’s sight (Hebrews 4:1-13).
The core of the letter to the Hebrews featured discussions of Jesus as the high priest in the order of Melchizedek (Hebrews 4:14-10:31). The Hebrew author exhorted Christians to hold fast to their confession because of Jesus as their high priest, tempted in all points yet without sin (Hebrews 4:14-16). The Hebrews author explained the nature of the Aaronic high priesthood in the Old Testament, and identified Jesus as the high priest in the order of Melchizedek (Hebrews 5:1-10). As an aside the Hebrew author chastised the letter’s recipients as having not yet reached maturity despite their time in the faith; he would press on beyond the fundamental issues (Hebrews 5:11-6:3). Those who turn aside deeply endanger their salvation, but the Hebrews author remained convinced of better things regarding his audience; God swore by Himself to assure Abraham of salvation, and Christians have the assurance of Jesus the high priest in the order of Melchizedek (Hebrews 6:4-20). The Hebrews author then explained who Melchizedek is and how Jesus was a high priest like him, superior to the Aaronic and Levitical priesthoods (Hebrews 7:1-28 ; cf. Genesis 14:18-20). Jesus proved to be high priest by offering Himself once for all, a mediator of a new and better covenant under better promises, as prophesied by Jeremiah (Hebrews 1:1-13; cf. Jeremiah 31:31-34). The Hebrews author explains the nature of offering and atonement under the old covenant as the earthly copy of the heavenly reality, and then identified Jesus’ sacrifice as sanctifying that reality once for all; the blood of Jesus is superior to the blood of bulls and goats, and inaugurated the new covenant (Hebrews 9:1-10:18). On account of Jesus’ sacrifice Christians can boldly draw near to God in Christ, not wavering in confession and not forsaking the assembling of one another; those who turn aside after learning of the truth face severe consequences (Hebrews 10:19-31).
The Hebrew author worked diligently to encourage those receiving the letter (Hebrews 10:32-13:25). They must remember the sufferings they experienced earlier and maintain patience to receive the promise (Hebrews 10:32-39). He then spoke of the nature of faith and illustrated it through the trust of the men and women of old, the heroes of faith, who persisted in the promise despite difficulties in the present (Hebrews 11:1-38). They did not receive the promise; Christians have (Hebrews 11:39-40). Christians thus do well to look toward Jesus, run the race without becoming weary, endure the discipline of the Lord, pursue sanctification, watching out for the profane, come to Mount Zion, not Sinai, and not refuse God who speaks in Christ, for He is a consuming fire (Hebrews 12:1-19). Christians do well to serve God faithfully, loving each other, showing hospitality, remembering the disadvantaged, honoring marriage, finding contentment in what they have, following the pattern of those who taught them the truth, obeying their leaders, praying for them and the author (Hebrews 13:1-7, 15-19). Jesus remains unchanged; thus His people should not be led astray by false teachings, willing to bear Jesus’ reproach, seeking the Kingdom (Hebrews 13:8-14). Having prayed to God in Christ to grant his audience maturity to accomplish His will, the Hebrews author identified his purpose in exhorting them in a few words, spoke of Timothy’s release, indicated a desire to see them with him, gave greetings from all in Italy, and provided a standard epistolary conclusion (Hebrews 13:20-25).
We can only hope that the Hebrews author’s original audience found the letter as encouraging and insightful as their fellow Christians have ever since; the letter to the Hebrews provides a wealth of theological insights, exegetical constructions, and compelling exhortations which Christians can mine over and over again for profit and edification. May we hold fast to our confession, take solace in Jesus as our high priest, and live to glorify God!
Ethan R. Longhenry