Introduction to Hebrews

First century Christians faced challenges and persecution from many sources, including Jewish ones. These Jewish problems confronted Christians in two ways. One, some Jewish converts to Christianity tried to bind on Gentiles the practice of circumcision and other elements of the Law of Moses as a means of salvation. This is the background of the book of Galatians. Second, there were devout Jews, still loyal to the Law of Moses, who persecuted their Jewish friends and neighbors who had been converted to Christ. They did this in an effort to bring those Jews back into full allegiance to the Law of Moses. This is the setting for the book of Hebrews.

AUTHOR/WRITER

The ultimate source of Hebrews is the Holy Spirit of God (2 Tim. 3:16-17; 1 Cor. 2:10-13; Eph. 3:3-5). It is not the purpose of this treatise to detail the evidence that supports that conclusion. But the evidence exists that will lead the objective student to conclude that Hebrews belongs in the Scriptures.

As to the identity of the human writer, the simple and accurate answer is that we do not know. While many believe that the apostle Paul wrote Hebrews, and that conclusion is not without evidence, there is also substantial evidence against Pauline authorship. Some have suggested Luke, Apollos, Barnabas, and others. Had God intended for us to know the name of the writer, he would have made sure that we did. It is enough for us to know that the book is inspired.

DATE

The writer used a lot of ink to prove the point that the Law of Moses and the Levitical system of sacrifices had fulfilled their purposes and been replaced by the Law of Christ, with Jesus now serving as High Priest. One of the most visible signs of that change came in AD 70 when the Roman armies attacked the city of Jerusalem and destroyed the temple (Matt. 24:1-35). Had that event already taken place by the time Hebrews was written, there is little doubt that the writer would have included a discussion of it. In addition, the language of the letter, specifically in 8:4 and 10:11, leaves the impression that priests were still offering daily sacrifices in the temple. These two points are the strongest lines of evidence that Hebrews was written prior to AD 70.

But how long before AD 70 was it? All we have from within the letter are vague statements regarding how long the recipients had been Christians. In 5:12, the writer affirms that enough time had elapsed since their conversion that they should have been more mature than they actually were. In 10:32, he encourages them to look back to “the former days” soon after their conversion when they patiently endured persecution. That’s not much material, but when coupled with external evidence, most scholars place the date of writing in 63-64 AD.

RECIPIENTS

The title, “To the Hebrews,” is on many early manuscripts and how the earliest uninspired writers refer to the book. The way the writer refers to the tabernacle, Levitical priesthood, and Jewish history seems to assume that the readers would have been familiar with those things. The emphasis, especially in chapters 8-10, on the superiority of the New Testament over the Old leaves the impression that the writer is trying to convince his readers to accept that superiority. All of those characteristics, added to the many exhortations in Hebrews to remain faithful to Jesus and not go back to the Law of Moses, leads us to the conclusion that the original recipients of the book were Jewish.

Regarding their spiritual condition at the time, they were Christians (1:3; 2:3; 3:14; 10:32), but not new Christians (5:12; 10:32). They were immature (5:12-14; 6:1-3). They had faced persecution in the past (10:32-34) and were facing it at the time the letter was written (12:4). Due to this persecution, they were on the threshold of complete apostasy (3:12-13; 6:10, 12; 12:12-13).

PURPOSE

The writer calls the book a “word of exhortation” (13:22). As stated above, Jewish Christians were facing persecution from their non-Christian, Jewish friends and neighbors. These Jews did not accept that Jesus was Messiah and wanted to eradicate his influence among their kinsmen. The Jewish Christians were weakening under the weight of this persecution (3:13; 5:12; 6:10, 12; 10:32-34; 12:12-13, 16; 13:5). Hebrews contains repeated warnings against apostasy (4:1, 11, 14; 6:11-12; 10:22-25; 12:1, 28; 13:22), perhaps best summarized in 3:12, “Take care, brethren, that there not be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart that falls away from the living God.”

OUTLINE

I. The Superiority of the Person of Christ (1:1 – 7:28)

A. Jesus is superior to angels (1:1 – 2:18)

B. Jesus is superior to Moses (3:1 – 4:16)

C. Jesus is superior to the Levitical priests (5:1 – 7:28)

II. The Superiority of the Law of Christ (8:1 – 10:39)

A. A change in priesthood necessitates a change in law (8:1-13)

B. The inferior tabernacle and sacrifices (9:1 – 10:18)

C. The superior sacrifice of Jesus (10:19-39)

III. The Superiority of Christian Living (11:1 – 13:25)

A. Faith defined, described, and illustrated (11:1-40)

B. Christians must endure (12:1-17)

C. Choose: Mount Sinai or Mount Zion (12:18-29)

D. Miscellaneous exhortations and final greetings (13:1-25)

Confidence in Prayer

It is an inexpressible delight to know that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, has invited us into his heavenly throne room. Though prayer is a marvelous gift from God to us, it is not always easy to do. For the reflective soul, the realization that he is actually coming into the presence of deity can cause uneasiness and trepidation (cf. Isa. 6:5).

Yet, it is comforting to know that God has made it possible for us to approach him in prayer confidently and boldly. “Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:16). “We have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus” (Heb. 10:19). “Let us draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith” (Heb. 10:22). This confidence is possible because of the divine help accessible to us when we pray.

Picturing the Work of Christ

The Holy Spirit sometimes powerfully conveyed ideas by choosing words that create mental pictures for the reader. The verbal portrait of what happens when Christians pray is thrilling.

Scripture affirms this amazing truth: Jesus lives to serve us. “He always lives to make intercession” for us (Heb. 7:25). He is our “advocate” (1 John 2:1). And he is not ashamed to call us his brothers and sisters (Heb. 2:11). He was willing to surrender certain privileges of his divine nature in order to personally identify with us (Heb. 2:9; 1 Tim. 2:5; 1 Cor. 15:28) – a concept we may never fully appreciate. And this Jesus ascended from earth to heaven “to appear in the presence of God for us” (Heb. 9:24). “In the presence of” translates a Greek phrase meaning “to (before) the face of God” (Alford 181).

Draw this picture in your mind: Jesus is often presented in the New Testament as being “seated” at the right hand of God (Eph. 1:20; Col. 3:1; Heb. 1:8, et al.) ruling over his kingdom. But when I need His mediation and advocacy in prayer, the writer of Hebrews changes that picture from Jesus being seated at the right hand of God to him standing before the face of God on my behalf – as if he has taken a place standing beside me as I “draw near to the throne of grace.”

Picturing the Work of the Spirit

In addition to the help that Jesus gives, the Holy Spirit is also actively assisting. “In the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words” (Rom. 8:26). In the Greek text, the word translated “helps” is a compound word in Greek, consisting of three important parts. The root word means “to take hold.” The two prefixes mean, respectively, “together with,” and “against; opposite; or, reciprocally” (Vincent 358; Earle 180-181; Robertson 376). Putting these three component parts together, Wuest explains the meaning this way,

The word speaks of the action of a person coming to another’s aid by taking hold over against that person, of the load he is carrying. The person helping does not take the entire load, but helps the other person in his endeavor (Wuest 140).

Draw this picture in your mind: you are on one end of a heavy weight and the Spirit of God is on the other end, and both of you lift it together. Amazing, isn’t it? When my human weakness manifests itself in not knowing how to express myself to God, the Holy Spirit, who knows my heart because he lives there (Gal. 4:6), steps up and takes the inexpressible groaning of my heart and communicates them to God for me. In that way he “helps” me lift the burden that I cannot lift by myself.

The Whole Picture

The complete picture is mind-blowing. When I prayerfully enter into the throne room of heaven, standing on one side of me (figuratively speaking, of course) is the Holy Spirit saying to the Father, “I have a special relationship with this man. He is struggling to express his innermost feelings and I am here to communicate what he cannot.” On the other side of me is Jesus saying, in essence, “I, too, have a special relationship with him, Father. I’m delighted to call him my brother, and I’m here as his supporter and advocate.” When you and I approach our Father in prayer, we do not do so alone. We are accompanied by Christ Jesus himself and God’s Holy Spirit, each fulfilling special roles of support just for us.

If that does not give us confidence in prayer, what will?

References

Alford, Henry (1976), Alford’s Greek Testament: An Exegetical and Critical Commentary, Vol. 4 Part 1 (Grand Rapids: Guardian Press).

Earle, Ralph (1974, 1986), Word Meanings in the New Testament (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers).

Robertson, A.T. (1931), Word Pictures in the New Testament, Vol. 4 (Nashville: Broadman Press).

Vincent, Marvin R. (1888), Vincent’s Word Studies in the New Testament, Vol. 1 (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers).

Wuest, Kenneth (1973), Word Studies in the Greek New Testament, Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company).

The Lifter of My Head

King David had his share of heartaches, not the least of which was the time that Absalom, his son, stole the throne of Israel from him. As David fled Jerusalem to save his life from the murderous plans of his son, we read,

“And David went up the ascent of the Mount of Olives, and wept as he went, and his head was covered and he walked barefoot. Then all the people who were with him each covered his head and went up weeping as they went.”

2 Samuel 15:30

It was probably during this somber period that David wrote the third psalm, in which we read these words,

“But You, O Lord, are a shield about me, My glory, and the One who lifts my head.”

Psalm 3:3

Even though David’s enemies were “rising up” (3:1), he knew that God would “arise” to save him (3:7). Though his enemies claimed that there was “no deliverance” for the king (3:2), David knew that “salvation belongs to the Lord” (3:8). And even though tens of thousands of enemies may have been “round about” him (3:6), God was “a shield about” him (3:3).

Because David knew all of these things to be true, he was able to find confidence in the midst of conflict, peace in the midst of persecution, and tranquility in the midst of trouble. Though for a time he walked with downward head (2 Sam. 15:30), in time God lifted his head out of despair.

We will have our times of difficulty, no doubt (John 16:33). But if we can focus long and hard on the power and presence of God (Eph. 3:20), he can lift up our heads and provide us with the strength we need to carry on.

 

The Excellent Ones

“As for the saints in the land, they are the excellent ones, in whom is all my delight.”

Psalm 16:3, ESV

In the passage above, David revealed his love for his kinsmen. They were God’s people, which made them majestic and noble. That’s high praise for people who weren’t perfect. David’s fellow-Israelites made their share of mistakes. They had their flaws. They committed their sins. Yet, inspired of the Holy Spirit, David called them “excellent” – warts, blemishes, and all.

Does David’s complimentary language imply approval of sin? Hardly. Every adult who has ever received proper commendation, even commendation directly from God, has received it in spite of his or her sins (except Jesus, of course, who was sinless). David’s assessment of God’s people was a general statement intended to highlight their exalted status as God’s chosen ones.

God still has an exalted opinion of his people today, even though we are far from perfect. Christians are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession” (1 Pet. 2:9). “But the Lord takes pleasure in those who fear him, in those who hope in his steadfast love” (Psa. 147:11). God loves us so much that he calls us his children (1 John 3:1). Jesus is not ashamed to call us his brothers and sisters (Heb. 2:11).

But doesn’t God know we have weaknesses and flaws? Yes. Doesn’t he know that we mess up from time to time and sin? Yes. Doesn’t he know that we can’t be perfect no matter how hard we try? Yes. God doesn’t love perfect people only. He loves YOU (1 John 4:8, 19). He chose YOU (Eph. 1:4). He honored YOU (Heb. 2:6-8).

Doesn’t that make you want to serve him with all your heart?

How to Have a Successful Ministry

When Paul wrote about his brief work in Thessalonica, he affirmed that his time with them “was not in vain” (1 Thess. 2:1), meaning that his work was not devoid of results. It was not fruitless. What made it so? What are the components of a successful ministry? The first twelve verses of 1 Thessalonians 2 reveal the answer.

Preach the good news of Jesus, regardless of the consequences. Paul wrote, “We had the boldness in our God to speak to you the gospel of God amid much opposition” (1 Thess. 2:2). Though Paul and his company had faced mistreatment for preaching Jesus in Philippi, they preached the same message in Thessalonica with courage that God supplied. Satan does not want people to hear “Jesus Christ, and Him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2), and he will do whatever he can, including the employment of human opposition, to get our focus onto lesser things. We must preach the good news anyway.

Keep your motives pure. Paul’s preaching was not “from error or impurity or by way of deceit” (1 Thess. 2:3). He did not use “flattering speech” as a “pretext for greed” (2:5). Preachers should regularly look deep within themselves and genuinely assess their motivations. Why do we do what we do? What drives us? Is it the praise of others? Do we seek power and authority? Do we want to create a personal support base like Absalom did (2 Sam. 15:1-6)? Do we seek the failure of others so we can flourish (Phil. 1:15-17)? Improper motivations often lead to improper conduct.

Remember to whom you will answer. Paul preached “not as pleasing men, but God who examines our hearts” (1 Thess. 2:4). He did not “seek glory from men” (2:6). As a minister of the gospel, Paul understood that God had given him a sacred trust (2:4), and one day he would be called to account for how he handled it. We will stand before the same God to answer for how we have handled that same trust. It is not before the world or the church that we will stand and be judged, but God. Remembering that will keep us from altering the message to court the favor of others.

Be gentle. Paul wrote, “But we proved to be gentle among you, as a nursing mother tenderly cares for her own children” (1 Thess. 2:7). It appears that some preachers believe the path of bitterness, rancor, hostility, and vitriol to be the path to successful ministry. Paul chose a different path. He would later encourage Timothy to walk the path of gentleness, too. “The Lord’s bond-servant must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim. 2:24-25).

Establish close relationships with your church family. “Having so fond an affection for you, we were well-pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become very dear to us” (1 Thess. 2:8). Though Paul was not in Thessalonica very long (Acts 17:1-9), he did more while there than just impart information. He did more than give sermons. He gave himself. Today’s preacher must remember that even though his primary focus is the ministry of the word, he is not just a worker in a sermon factory. It is tragic for a preacher to spend years in one place and yet not become “very dear” to anyone.

Don’t be high-maintenance. Paul was very concerned that he not become “a burden to any of you” (1 Thess. 2:9). Contextually, the burden Paul wanted to avoid was financial. He worked “night and day” so that the church in Thessalonica would not have to support him and his companions monetarily. He did, however, receive financial support from the church in Philippi (Phil. 4:15-16) in addition to what he earned in other endeavors. But I want to make a different application. Preachers can be a burden to the church in other ways. Do we monopolize our elders’ time and discourage them by always complaining? Do we pout and sulk when we don’t get something that we ask for? Paul didn’t wan to be a burden to anyone, and neither should we.

Practice what you preach. Paul wrote, “You are witnesses, and so is God, how devoutly and uprightly and blamelessly we behaved toward you believers” (1 Thess. 2:10). Not only did Paul teach others to conduct themselves properly, he followed his own teaching. Few things can damage a man’s ministry than blatant hypocrisy. No preacher is perfect, and each of us will sin. The church understands that. But people can tell the difference between a man who stumbles because of weakness and a man who simply refuses to apply Bible teaching to himself.

Take your preaching seriously. The words Paul used in 1 Thessalonians 2:11 to describe his preaching convey that he approached his work with a proper sense of gravity. He wrote, “We were exhorting and encouraging and imploring each one of you.” While there is a place for the judicious use of humor, preachers are not comedians. We are engaged in a battle for the souls of men and women. It is a solemn duty to stand before the bride of Christ and speak for God (cf. James 3:1).

Preach practically. The goal of Paul’s “exhorting and encouraging and imploring” was “so that you would walk in a manner worthy of the God who calls you into His own kingdom and glory” (1 Thess. 2:12). For Paul, preaching was not just an opportunity to communicate information. He was preaching to change lives. Our sermons are not finished until they answer the questions, “So what?” and “Now what?” If we are not giving our listeners something that they can take home with them and use, we are hindering our own ministries.

Preacher, if you want to know whether or not your ministry is successful, see how it measures up to Paul’s work in Thessalonica. Because of the above characteristics, his efforts among them were “not in vain” (2:1). If we follow the same formula, perhaps God will grant us a fruitful ministry, too.