THE LETTER TO THE HEBREWS.
From Comments and Notes Discussed in Bible Classes and Compiled by F. M. Perry, 1978 through 1998.
With many thanks to James Burton Coffman for his "Commentary on Hebrews" from which these notes have borrowed liberally.
The book (or letter) entitled Hebrews was written to Jewish Christians and its theme is the supremacy of Christ and Christianity over Judaism. The book attacks the primary problems encountered in converting Jews of the First Century to Christ.
Jews of the First Century were indoctrinated by their leaders to expect materialistic and secular fulfillments to the Old Testament prophecies. A Messiah who did not seek to set up the earthly kingdom, but who claimed to have triumphed spiritually even though he was killed by men, was a stumbling block to many Jews. Even when some of them had seen the light and had accepted the resurrected Christ as their savior, it was difficu1t for them to give up the ingrained traditions of the Judaism of their day. It was not easy for them to realize that Christ had completely fulfilled the covenant concluded by God through Moses and that a new covenant was then in effect.
It will be helpful for us as we study Hebrews to keep in mind a simple outline of the book which shows Christ' s supremacy in 7 main points:
1. Christ is better than angels. Hebrews 1:1 - 2:18
2. Christ is better than Moses. Hebrews 3:1 - 4:13
3. Christ is a better high priest. Hebrews 4:14 - 7:10
4. Christ is author of a better covenant. Hebrews 7:11 - 8:13.
5. Christ provides a better sacrifice. Hebrews 9:1 - 10:34.
6. Christ provides better blessings for his disciples. Hebrews 11:1-40.
7. Christ expects better service of His disciples. Hebrews 12:1 - 13:25
Authorship of Hebrews.
No one today knows for sure who wrote the book of Hebrews for the author does not identify himself by actual name anywhere in the text of the book. It seems very likely that the author purposely left his name off of the book, not to try to hide the authorship completely from his readers, but, at least, not to stress or to overly advertise his authorship. The Holy Spirit inspired message was the most important point of the book, not its human authorship. The original Hebrew Christian readers of the book surely knew who the author was. Some of the early readers might not have known who the author was at first reading, but it is inconceivable that they would not have inquired and have learned who the author was. The personal notes at the end of the book, concerning plans for the author to accompany Timothy in coming to see them (the original recipients), indicates that the author considered himself known to the original recipients.
However, the name of the author was never permanently attached to the book, and a qeneration or two later there began to be question about the author. Clement of Rome, who lived in 96 AD, is quoted as having commented about the authorship of Hebrews. He said Paul was the author and that Paul oriqinally wrote the book in the Hebrew languaqe. He said that Luke translated the book into Greek.
Thus, we see that some early christians believed that Paul wrote the book. However, when the Catholic church of Rome was first formed, the Pope, for some unknown reason, declared that the book was not written by Paul. However, later, at the end of the 4th Century, a Pope of the Catholic church reversed the declaration and said with equal positiveness that Paul was the author. The Catholic church to this day maintains that Paul was the author of Hebrews.
Until approximately the beginning of the 20th century, almost all scholars held that Paul was probably the author of Hebrews. In our 20th Century, however, a large number of scholars have come forward with the opinion that Paul could not have been the author. There is no agreement on who actually was the author, only a consensus among some that Paul was not the author. Possible authors other than Paul have been named as Barnabas, Silas, Luke, Clement, Apollos, Mark and others.
To me, the book of Hebrews seems almost surely to have been given to us through the pen of Paul. I acknowledge that we do not have proof. The Holy Spirit evidently wanted it to be presented as it is, without human signature, although obviously through the pen of a human like Paul.
Whatever one's view of the authorship of Hebrews, its place in the canon cannot be questioned. It was received from earliest New Testament times as a part of God's word. The very oldest versions of the New Testament invariably contain the book of Hebrews. Many of the ancient catalogs of the New Testament books (5 dating before AD 363) list the book of Hebrews. Clement of Rome who wrote about 96 AD, quoted extensively from Hebrews using whole sentences verbatim prefixed by the words, "It is written".
Internal evidence of the authority and Canonicity of Hebrews is overwhelming. There can be no doubt at all when one reads this book he is confronted with a communication from God. God's word has a unique quality of being inexhaustible. One can master completely in a short time the writings of mere men. But a lifetime of study of Holy Scriptures such as the book of Hebrews produces no such result. Instead, as one reads and reads again, additional light and more exalted understanding are the invariable result. This will
undoubtedly be the blessing that will accrue to you and me during our study as we read and re-read the book of Hebrews.
To obtain a blessing, read the entire book at one sitting. Then listen to a recording of someone else reading it. The book seems to have the qualities of an oration, a spoken sermon. It has climaxes and semi-climaxes. Its greatest climax seems to occur at chapter 12, verses 21 and 22.
AD 64 or 65 is a reasonable estimate of the time of the writing of the book. Timothy is mentioned in the book which places the book near the end of Paul's ministry. The fact that the destruction of Jerusalem, which occurred in AD 70, is not mentioned in the book, seems to place the writing prior to AD 70. The book refers extensively to the religious system of the Jews, especially to the services of the Temple and the Tabernacle, leaving the definite impression that Jews were still practicing those services in the Temple at the time of writing. They were no longer practiced after AD 70 for in that year the Temple was destroyed never to be rebuilt again.
However, the writing could not have been very long before AD 70 for there are definite references in Hebrews to the fact that Jewish Christians had already had time to become mature Christians. "For when by reason of the time, ye ought to be teachers ... " (Heb. 5:12). And a great amount of persecution had already occurred. "After ye were enlightened, ye endured a great conflict of sufferings ... reproaches, afflictions, ... were in bonds and took joyfully the spoi1ing of your possessions." (Heb. 10:32-34). Thus sufficient time had elapsed since the gospel was first preached for great persecutions to arise, and also sufficient time for some Jewish Christians to have become willing to give it all up and return to Judaism. "Cast not away, therefore, your boldness which hath great recompense of reward." (Heb. 10:35). These evidences seem to place the writing of the book in the 5 or 6 year period preceding the destruction of Jerusalem.
Purpose and Destination.
The purpose of Hebrews is evident in the book itself. The Christians addressed by the book were of Jewish
ancestry and associations - converts from Judaism - and in danger of falling away from the faith. They
had to endure the arrogance and scorn of the fe1low countrymen, men like Saul, who had at one time
ravaged the church, "entering house after house and dragging off men and women. ..put them in prison."
It is probable that many non-Christian Jews were on the offensive trying to re-enlist the Jewish Christians in Judaism again. James Burton Coffman in his "Commentary on Hebrews" says, "After all Judaism had indeed been founded by God Himself. The glorious services of the Temple reached back for a thousand year or more; the Old Covenant had been ordained in the hands of angels; the Temple itself was one of the wonders of the world; and its high priest was a powerful and respected figure in the social and political arena of those days." It was all founded on sacred scripture which was in the custody of the Jews. All these things exerted influence on the Jewish Christians. Traditional Judaism with its outward show and its accepted social life was contrasted with faith in Christ, faith built upon and stressing only the eternal values, being spiritual, other-worldly, humble, meek, and lowly. But human nature made traditional Judaism very attractive.
But, it is the purpose of Hebrews to show that the supremacy of the eternal truths exemplified by Christ is total. The book advocates the supremacy of Christ on every page, analyzing, illustrating, and proving beyond all question the essence of the eternal values which the Law of Moses only typified. One by one the attributes of the old system are contrasted with the anti-types in the New Covenant, and the superiority of the new is proved.
In the words of a commentator, Barmby: "Its main purport is to show, from the Old Testament Scriptures themselves, that the Mosaic dispensation was from the first only preparatory and prophetic of a higher one to come which was entirely to supersede it, and that Christ had come as the only true High Priest for all mankind, the true fulfillment of all ancient ritual and prophecy, the satisfaction of all human needs, to renounce whom would be to renounce salvation."
It seems clear from reading Hebrews that it was sent to a specific church at a specific location. Timothy was to go with the author to visit the Christians at that location. (Heb. 13:23). The Jewish Christians at that place were enduring certain trials and tribulations, and there were even more severe trials looming ahead. What more logical conclusion could be advanced than that the book was written to the church at Jerusalem? However, there is no proof.
The book of Hebrews stresses the various rituals and sacrifices of the Temple worship. It was only in Jerusalem that the Temple worship was practiced and well known. Also, only in Palestine and Jerusalem was there a strong enough Jewish element to really be effective in bringing pressure upon Jewish Christians to abandon Christianity. The Roman persecution had not started as yet, and there was a great deal of religious freedom in the world outside of Palestine. It was only in Palestine that a real persecution had started against Christians, and that only because of the religious bigotry of the Jewish leaders.
Also, it was only the people of Jerusalem who had a ready familiarity with many of the things written in Hebrews, such as the burning of the bodies of the sacrificed animals "outside the gate" and "outside the camp". No explanation is offered of the reference to the Jewish sacrifices on the Day of Atonement. It is presumed that the original recipients of the book would understand. It was only in Jerusalem that this took place and was a well known practice.
We should remember, however, that the message of Hebrews is timeless and eternal. It undoubtedly is directed by God to any Christians down through the years who feel the enticement to a spectacular, externally oriented religion like that of Judaism. Many of the problems of Christianity today are strikingly similar to those of the Jewish Christians addressed in Hebrews. Christendom today has erected great cathedrals and houses of worship and has taught that God can be contacted in them much as he was contacted through His presence in the Most Holy Place of the Jewish Temple. There are established rituals in the churches based on centuries of tradition which to the natural human mind are beautiful and spectacular and seductive, drawing people away from the outward simplicity that is in Christ. There are priests of modern traditional Christianity who are socially excellent, politically powerful, and highly talented in administration and organization. They reign over whole segments of so-called Christianity today much as the Jewish priests reigned over Judaism in the first century. This sort of Christianity is no more acceptable to God today than was that sort of human traditional Judaism in the time of Christ. The believer who seeks to maintain the basic simplicity of the New Testament faith is subjected to the same kinds of pressures and influences, and in some cases, the same kind of persecutions as the Hebrews to whom this book was first written.
Before we start our study of the Hebrew letter itself, it is well that we be reminded of certain other basic facts about our Lord Jesus that many Christians do not fully understand. Jesus was a Jew. He was born into Judaism and lived out His life on earth as a practicing Jew. He did not establish Christianity during His lifetime on earth. He made reference in His preaching and teaching to the coming Christian church, His coming Kingdom, but it was not until He was killed, buried, raised from the dead, and exalted again in Heaven from whence He came that there was a basis for the establishment of His Kingdom, the church. The point is, Jesus as a human on earth was a Jew and He practiced Judaism, not Christianity. In fact, Jesus was the only Jew who ever lived Judaism perfectly. Although Jesus was constantly in conflict with the traditional Jewish practices and with the leaders of Judaism, it was He who practiced Judaism correctly and all the other Jews were faulty in their practice. In Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, Jesus was speaking to Jews and He was teaching them the eternal truths behind Judaism. The Sermon on the Mount told those Jews who heard Jesus that day what Judaism really should have been.
When Jesus spoke with authority to the Jews and said, "But I say to you," Be was speaking as a Jew who exemplified the very essence of God's religion for His chosen people, the Jews. Jesus' message to the Jews was "Back to God and back to the Bible." Jesus was God's Son who was to become the perfect sacrifice for the sins of the world, but while He lived on the earth He was God's own Apostle to the Jews. He was God's Apostle to prepare the Jews for the coming fulfillment of Judaism, the Kingdom of Heaven, the church of Christ. So Jesus' message to the Jews was that they must get back to the truths of the Old Testament Bible and become more understanding of true Judaism in order to be ready for the momentous occasion of its fulfil1ment. Such an Apostle was needed because traditional human Judaism had completely lost the essence of God's true Judaism. Jesus' teachings were always in sharp conflict with traditional Judaism just as His New Testament teachings through His apostles is in sharp conflict with much of traditional Christianity today.
Those Jews who listened to Jesus and understood and repented and were baptized for the remission of their sins (as John the Baptist and Jesus Himself taught) were then ready for the fulfillment of Judaism and the coming of Christianity. Those Jews who were so prepared by casting off human creeds and traditions and going back to God's Word and God's original intentions for them, were quick to become Christians after Pentecost. I think one could correctly say that the only Jews continuing to practice true Judaism after that Pentecost just after the resurrection of Jesus were those who became Christians. God caused Judaism to become Christianity. Christianity is fulfilled Judaism. Those of the Jewish nation who continued to practice traditional Judaism after Pentecost were not Jews in God's sight at all. In fact, the only true Israelites (or Jews) all along were those who had understood and practiced the eternal spiritual principles later reiterated by Jesus in His Sermon on the Mount. Thus Paul said, "They are not all Israel who are descended from Israel," (Rom. 9:6). "But Israel, pursuing a law of righteousness, did not arrive at that law. Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as though it were by works." (Rom. 9:31-32). "For not knowing about God's righteousness, and seeking to establish their own, they did not subject themselves to the righteousness of God." (Rom. 10:3).
This is what was wrong with the traditional Judaism of the first Century, during the time when Christ was on earth portraying the righteousness of God, and also during the time of the early church when the book of Hebrews was being written. The Jews, by and large, were pursuing their own righteousness and this prevented them from recognizing God's righteousness in Christianity, God's true fulfillment of Judaism.
Satan's most useful temptation, starting with Adam and Eve, has been the offering to men of social, political, and economic gain in this present world in exchange for faith in God's spiritual values. The Jews of Jesus' day had established a Judaism stressing social, political, and economic values of the present world rather then faith in God's eternal spiritual values that Jesus stressed in His Sermon on the Mount. Jewish Christians (the Hebrews to whom this book was written) had been converted from their sinful ways. But, being only a minority of the Jewish nation, they were scorned and discriminated against by other Jews who had not been converted. The social, political, and economic pressures were terrible to bear and too much for some of the Hebrew Christians. Their persecution by their own kindred occurred first in history before Gentile Christians felt persecution. Thus, we see the great problem that the book of Hebrews seeks to solve.
The central thesis of the Book of Hebrews is that the spiritual is real and the eternal spiritual truths are better than their worldly material counterparts; the old limited material rituals and laws of Judaism were intended to lead the Jews to an improved understanding of the eternal spiritual things of God which are better. New spiritual Christianity, the fulfillment of Judaism, is better than the old material way of life which was only a shadow of the substance of things to come with Christianity.