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.
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.
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of ink to prove the point that the Law of Moses and the Levitical system of sacrifices had fulfilled their purposes and been replaced by the Law of Christ, with Jesus now serving as High Priest.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.
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).
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.”
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)