Introduction to Hebrews

Jimmy JoHebrews, SermonsLeave a Comment

Today we are beginning a new series, working our way through the book of Hebrews.  Now Hebrews is a book that I’ve been thinking about doing for a little while now, but the main reason we’re doing it now is because it was actually requested/suggested by a couple of people in our “Questions from the Community” series.  Therefore, we are going to spend the next while in a study of Hebrews. 

Now I don’t always do this when we begin a new book study, but what I thought we would do today is an introduction, partly because Hebrews isn’t quite as straightforward as some of the other books we’ve looked at.  In other words, I thought it might be helpful to identify and possibly address some of the questions or uncertainties that arise from the book, and set the stage for how we’re going to approach it. 

Therefore, what we’re going to look at today – all in very brief – are the form, the author, the audience, and the purpose (that is, the reason for, or the main themes or topics) of the book of Hebrews.  (And there are, of course, other things that are important for an introductory consideration of the book, but we will confine our discussion to these). 

So first of all, the Form.  Generally speaking, it seems agreed that Hebrews is a letter, that is an epistle.  However, this isn’t quite so straightforward.  Upon reading Hebrews, and especially upon reading Hebrews with the assumption that it is an epistle, you will immediately notice that it lacks the usual salutation that we see for example in Paul’s letters.  Paul usually begins with by identifying himself and greeting his recipients.  For example, if we remember 1 Corinthians, Paul begins that epistle like this: 

1 Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes,

To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be his holy people, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ—their Lord and ours:

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

1 Corinthians 1: 1-3

These usual elements are completely missing from Hebrews.  Hebrews, begins like this: 

1 In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven. So he became as much superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is superior to theirs.

Hebrews 1: 1-4

However, Hebrews does very much end like an epistle.  We see final exhortations very similar to what we see in other NT epistles.  So in Hebrews, we read: 

20 Now may the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, 21 equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.

22 Brothers and sisters, I urge you to bear with my word of exhortation, for in fact I have written to you quite briefly.

23 I want you to know that our brother Timothy has been released. If he arrives soon, I will come with him to see you.

24 Greet all your leaders and all the Lord’s people. Those from Italy send you their greetings.

25 Grace be with you all.

Hebrews 13: 20-25

So the end of Hebrews shares a similar closing formula as we see elsewhere.  But further, it also demonstrates, as does the rest of the book, a very personal author to recipient character that makes it evident that the author had a personal relationship with the recipients. 

Having said that, many have also pointed out that Hebrews has a very hortatory (that is, exhortation) quality to it.  This has led many to classify Hebrews as not (or not just) an epistle, but as a sermon (or homily) or collection of sermons.  Though there is very much a personal quality to Hebrews, this is at times over-shadowed by its teaching, correcting, and encouraging qualities. 

Now with that said, we turn to the author.  Traditionally, the book of (or letter to the) Hebrews has been attributed to the apostle Paul.  However, even from the earliest Christian witness, this has been recognized to be doubtful or problematic.  That is, it is far from clear that Paul did indeed write Hebrews.  There are a number of reasons for both points of view.  For example, those who deny Pauline authorship usually point to the lack of salutation typical in Paul’s letters, the difference in Greek language, and the difference in theology.  Those who support Pauline authorship point out that Pauline attribution is quite early (though not universal) and to the reference to Timothy at the end of the book (which we looked at briefly), for example.  Most, if not all, however, argue that determining the author of Hebrews is not necessary, and recognize that its apostolic authority is agreed upon, regardless of the author. 

Now inasmuch as we can’t be sure who the author is, we likewise cannot be sure who the audience was.  The title “To the Hebrews” was likely a later attribution (that is, it was attached to the letter later on).  But even then, we can’t be sure who the “Hebrews” is referring to.  Again, much about the letter does seem to indicate a personal relationship between the author and the recipients.  Which is to say, it seems like the letter isn’t just a general theological treatise, but rather is to a particular people dealing with particular issues.  However, we don’t know some of those particulars about to whom specifically the letter is written.  Nevertheless, we can know some things about the audience or recipients. 

Firstly, it is evident that the audience is definitely Christian.  Hebrews 6:1-3, for example, indicates that the readers are at least saved: 

1 Therefore let us move beyond the elementary teachings about Christ and be taken forward to maturity, not laying again the foundation of repentance from acts that lead to death, and of faith in God, instruction about cleansing rites, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. And God permitting, we will do so.

Hebrews 6: 1-3

However, we don’t know from this passage whether they are new Christians or whether they are simply “immature” Christians.  Another possibility is also, of course, that the writer is exaggerating for the sake of emphasis. 

What is also pretty evident is that the audience is fairly familiar with the scriptures (that is, the Old Testament scriptures).  By the same token, they seem to be fairly familiar with the Levitical practices of the Old Testament.  For this reason, it has been speculated that the audience for the book were Jewish Christians – hence the title, “To the Hebrews.” 

However, this doesn’t require that they be Jewish Christians – new 1st century Christians from a Gentile background would also likely be taught in or from the Old Testament scriptures.  That is, even Gentile Christians would have been schooled in the story of God’s redemptive work that is contained in the Old Testament.  It may simply be that they were good students. 

Now some other things that we can know about the audience also speak to the purpose of the letter.  Specifically, what I mean is that there are various elements in the book that indicate that the readers are facing suffering or testing. 

 Hebrews 2: 18 – Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.

Hebrews 4: 16 – Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.

Hebrews 10: 32-34 – 32 Remember those earlier days after you had received the light, when you endured in a great conflict full of suffering. 33 Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution; at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated. 34 You suffered along with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions.

Further, the author emphasizes the need to remain faithful or to endure.  Now there’s an extent to which, of course, this is in response to the suffering.  However, there is also an extent to which this is merely the outworking of maturing in faith.  In the well-known passage in chapter 5, the author tells the readers: 

12 In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! 13 Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. 14 But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.

Hebrews 5: 12-14

In other words, Hebrews encourages the readers not to remain in infancy, but rather to dig deeper into their understanding towards a mature faith – a mature life in Christ. 

And this brings us to what is probably the main motif throughout the letter – that is, the supremacy of Jesus Christ.  The author works this out in various ways, demonstrating how Jesus is superior to angels, superior to Moses, superior to the line of Aaronic High Priests.  But the point being, because Jesus has surpassed all that has come before in salvation history, we can have full confidence in the salvation that is accomplished in Him.  Now of course, that was a very brief introduction to the letter.  I hope that as we dig deeper into this over the course of the next several months, that we will be able to go deeper into why the author is so passionate about all this, specifically, about the supremacy of Christ, and what this means for our walk in Him.  As usual, I encourage you to read through the letter (preferably in one sitting) at least a few times.  But mostly, I pray that the Holy Spirit will enlighten each of us as we seek to know Christ more and glorify Him in our lives.

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