Background of Hebrews
Author, Date, and Recipients
The author of Hebrews is unknown. He knew Timothy (Hebrews 13:23). He was not an eyewitness of Jesus (see Hebrews 2:1, 3). The letter was probably written before AD 70. Early manuscripts bear the title “To the Hebrews,” which reflects the ancient assumption that it was written to Jewish Christians as well as Gentile Christians who previously had been drawn to the Jewish religion. The author knew his readers and wanted to see them again (Hebrews 13:19).
Jesus Christ is greater than any angel, priest, or old covenant practice. Christians must not forsake the great salvation that Jesus has brought about. They must hold on by faith to the true rest found in Christ, and they must encourage others in the church to do the same.
Purpose, Occasion, and Background
Hebrews has two primary purposes: to encourage Christians to endure, and to warn them not to abandon their faith in Christ. These warning passages appear throughout the book (Hebrews 2:1–4; 3:7–4:13; 5:11–6:12; 10:19–39; 12:1–29). The author encourages faithfulness, love, and sound doctrine. He does so by carefully teaching the Old Testament in light of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ.
The author shows the superiority of Christ and his new covenant over angels, Moses, the Old Testament priesthood, and the Old Testament sacrificial system. These are so inferior to Christ that it is futile to return to them—or to go anywhere else. Rather, believers should hold fast to their faith, because that faith is grounded in the most superior revelation.
The background of such exhortations must have been the readers’ need to continue enduring amid persecution and the trials of life (e.g., ch. 12). They appear to have grown less attentive to Christian instruction (Hebrews 5:11–14), and some apparently have ceased regular attendance at their meetings (Hebrews 10:25). The author reminds them of their past faithfulness and love despite persecution (Hebrews 10:32–34).
Ultimately, the author’s words of encouragement and exhortation are rooted in his teaching about Jesus Christ. The Son of God became the heavenly high priest, who offered himself as a sacrifice once for all. Christ obtained salvation for all who approach him in faith (Hebrews 6:1; 11:6; compare 4:2), and such faith perseveres until it receives the promised eternal reward (Hebrews 6:12; 10:22, 38–39).
1. Jesus is fully God and fully man (Hebrews 1:1–14; 2:5–18).
2. Jesus, the Son of God, reveals God the Father. He is the creator and he sustains all creation (Hebrews 1:1–14).
3. Jesus is the eternal high priest. As a man, he sympathizes with human weaknesses, and he offered himself as the perfect sacrifice for sin (Hebrews 1:3; 2:10–18; 4:15–16; 9:11–10:19).
4. Jesus is superior to angels, to Moses, to the Mosaic covenant, to the earthly tabernacle, and to the priesthood (Hebrews 1:4–2:18; 3:1–6; 5:1–10; 7:1–10:18).
5. All humanity faces eternal judgment for sin (Hebrews 4:12–13; 9:27–28; 10:26–31).
6. Faith is necessary to please God and to participate in his eternal salvation. Faith requires confidence about the unseen realities of God and his promises. Such faith produces perseverance (Hebrews 6:1; 10:22, 38–39; 11:1–40).
7. Perseverance is necessary in the Christian life; believers are warned against a lack of endurance (Hebrews 2:1–4; 3:7–4:13; 10:19–39; 12:1–29).
8. God’s promises are trustworthy, including his promise of eternal salvation (Hebrews 6:13–20).
9. With the coming of Jesus Christ, the last days have begun. They will be completed when he returns (Hebrews 1:2; 9:9–28; 12:22–29).
I. Jesus Is Superior to Angelic Beings (1:1–2:18)
II. Jesus Is Superior to the Mosaic Law (3:1–10:18)
III. Call to Faith and Endurance (10:19–12:29)
IV. Concluding Encouragements and Remarks (13:1–25)
The Global Message of Hebrews
The message of Hebrews for the global church is that Jesus is better than every other thing believers are tempted to fall back into, such as their formers ways of sin, culturally comfortable patterns of thinking or living, or non-Christian ethical codes. In the midst of adversity, believers are to fix their eyes on Jesus, live by faith, and run the race that is marked out for them.
Hebrews and Redemptive History
The book of Hebrews displays a clear and profound awareness of redemptive history. Through its quotations from the Old Testament, interpretation of past events, and reflection upon saints of old such as Moses or Melchizedek, Hebrews presents rich teaching on the story of salvation that has culminated in Jesus Christ.
While Hebrews makes many individual points relating to redemptive history, all this serves to make one basic point: Jesus is superior. Jesus is better than the prophets (Hebrews 1:1–2), better than the angels (Hebrews 1:5–14), better than Moses (Hebrews 3:1–19), better than the priests (Hebrews 4:14–5:10; 7:23–28), better than Melchizedek (Hebrews 6:19–7:19), and better than all previous sacrifices (Hebrews 9:11–14; 10:19). Through Jesus, God has brought about the longed-for new covenant (Hebrews 8:1–13; 9:15).
Hebrews therefore views all of history as falling into two broad eras. The first is the old age, which has been abolished with the coming of Christ. The second is the new age, which has dawned with the coming of Christ. Jesus Christ is the hinge, the turning point of all of human history. Those who have been ushered into the new age would therefore be foolish to turn back the clock and try to enter once more into the old age.
Universal Themes in Hebrews
Jesus and Suffering
Throughout Hebrews the author encourages his readers to stand fast in the midst of their troubles (e.g., Hebrews 10:32–33). He does so by connecting the suffering of his readers to the suffering of Christ. “Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted” (Hebrews 12:3). Jesus himself has experienced whatever suffering believers experience. “We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). The result of Jesus’ enduring all our weakness is that he is uniquely qualified to represent his people before God. Jesus “had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest” (Hebrews 2:17).
There is deep comfort for the church in what Hebrews says about Jesus and his suffering. We learn that our suffering, especially when it is due to our loyalty to Jesus, is not experienced alone. He himself has gone through it. Jesus draws near to his people who are in the darkness of adversity. He is the friend of sufferers. He knows what it is to be rejected (Hebrews 13:11–13). Suffering is not inherently good; it is a result of the fall and will one day be completely eradicated. But in the meantime, believers around the world take heart, knowing that whatever pain is upon them is a pain for which Jesus, our great high priest, cares deeply and which he himself has experienced. And it is a pain that can only work to produce greater glory for those who are united to Christ (Romans 8:17–18; 2 Corinthians 4:17–18).
The Danger of Apostasy
“Apostasy” means to fall away from faith in Christ. More than any other New Testament book, Hebrews addresses the danger of Christians failing to persevere by faith to the end (Hebrews 2:1–4; 3:7–4:13; 5:11–6:12; 10:19–39; 12:1–29). The writer describes faithful discipleship as a race that requires endurance (Hebrews 12:1). On the one hand, perseverance is not a self-generated effort that is wholly up to us, as a way of earning our final acceptance. Indeed, as much as Hebrews calls on believers to persevere, it comforts believers with the glorious truth that Jesus has offered the sacrifice that fully pays for our sins and guarantees our eternal acceptance (Hebrews 9:1–10:18). On the other hand, this book calls on Christians to live in a way that honors our Lord and Savior. We must endure (Hebrews 10:36). We must look to Jesus (Hebrews 12:1–2). This will require strenuous earnestness as we labor on toward the end of this race, imitating “those who through faith and patience inherit the promises” (Hebrews 6:11–12).
There is deep strengthening for the church today in this call to perseverance. The temptation to quit the Christian life is universal and must be resisted. Our call in the gospel is to fix our eyes on Christ, weathering the storms that threaten to sink us as we journey on through this fallen world. The specific forms of what will threaten our faith will vary culturally around the world. But the call to faith and the Christ whom we trust remain the same.
The Global Message of Hebrews for Today
Endless distractions bombard believers around the world today. The news media and volatile economies provide an endless stream of temptations to worry. The Internet and the array of devices through which to connect to it are more widely available than ever before. Potential wars and actual wars rage within nations and between nations. Natural disasters continue to remind us how fragile life is, despite the massive technological and medical advances of recent decades. And in the midst of this, we are dealing with the more immediate challenges of simply keeping our marriages and families together.
As twenty-first-century Christians, it can be difficult to “look to Jesus” (see Hebrews 12:2). And yet beneath every reason for discouragement or distraction, our great High Priest lives and stands, interceding for his brothers and sisters from every tribe and people and nation. He has experienced all our suffering and more. He knows our weakness. Let us run the race of faith. “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful” (Hebrews 10:23).