Pastor David B. Curtis


An Introduction to Hebrews

Delivered 01/16/2000

If you found a letter not your own, and you were determined to see that this letter arrived at it's rightful destination, what would you do? You would first look on the envelope for the name to whom it is addressed, unfortunately, there is no such name. You would then look for an address, but again unfortunately, there is no return address. So you look for a postmark with maybe a city and a date, but there is none. As you look at the envelope, all you see is the stamp. You don't know to whom it is sent, you don't know where it is being sent, you don't know by whom it has been sent. You don't even know when the letter was sent. Your only hope now would be to open the letter and hope it had an introductory greeting as do most letters. Something to the effect of "Dear Mr. Jones, " but there is no greeting. So you turn to the end of the letter hoping for a closing salutation, something like, "Sincerely or With love, Mike." But there is nothing. So, without a clue as to, by whom, to whom, when, where, or for what reason this letter has been written, you begin to read its contents hoping for some answers. This is what is popularly called the book of Hebrews.

Who wrote this book? We don't know. To whom was it written? We don't know. From where was it written? We don't know. Why are we studying this book? I don't know. Just kidding! That I do know. We are studying it because it is part of the Word of God and is, therefore, profitable to us in four areas:

2 Timothy 3:16-17 (NKJV) All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.

This book is unlike any other in the New Testament. Difficulties abound, but the profundity of its thought gives it a significant place in the New Testament. Philip E. Hughes says this about the book of Hebrews:

If there is a widespread unfamiliarity with the Epistle to the Hebrews and its teaching, it is because so many adherents of the church have settled for an undemanding and superficial association with the Christian faith. Yet, it was to arouse just such persons from the lethargic state of compromise and complacency into which they had sunk, and to incite them to persevere wholeheartedly in the Christian conflict, that this letter was originally written. It is a tonic for the spiritually debilitated. We neglect this book to our own impoverishment.

Although we are left without explicit answers to a number of questions, we are not wholly in ignorance. We can read this letter and learn many things about the author himself and the place from where he writes. We can also learn several facts about those to whom this epistle is written. We can examine its style and language and compare it to other letters. We can learn much from careful evaluation.

Who wrote this letter?

There has been much debate concerning the authorship of Hebrews because the letter itself does not indicate who the author is. Perhaps the most common conjecture through the centuries has been that the apostle Paul is the author. The Chester Beatty Papyrus, numbered P46 and dated prior to 200AD, contains a collection of Paul's epistles and includes Hebrews among them. Those holding to Pauline authorship suggest that Paul omitted his name because he, the apostle to the Gentiles, was writing to the Jews who would have likely dismissed the letter if they had known the source. The stylistic differences from Paul's other letters is attributed to his writing in Hebrew to the Hebrews with the letter being translated into Greek by Luke.

In modern times, few accept the idea that a Lukan translation of Paul's letter would account for all the stylistic differences in vocabulary, sentence building, and imagery. About the only thing some commentators are certain of is that the author is not Paul.

Others have suggested that Clement of Rome was the author, but this is not widely accepted because Clement's other writings show that his theology differs widely from the author of Hebrews. In addition, none of his other writings show such "creative contributions to Christian theology" as does Hebrews.

Barnabas is also thought by some to be the author. This would give the letter of Hebrews a close affiliation with Paul as Barnabas was Paul's missionary companion, and this would explain the letter's resemblance to Paul's theology. Barnabas was a Levite and would have been acquainted with the levitical system which is a major theme in Hebrews.

Martin Luther denied Pauline authorship and attributed the letter to Apollos on the grounds that the author says the message "was confirmed to us by those who heard." Since Paul was one of "those who heard," it follows that he would not have written this. Apollos was close to Paul and this would account for the similarities with Paul's writings. He was a native of Alexandria (Acts 18:24) and this would account for the Alexandrian coloring. He was known to be eloquent, and this would correspond to the advanced style of Hebrews. There are several reasons why Apollos could have written Hebrews and none to argue against it, except that early tradition does not support it.

Others have been suggested such as Priscilla, Philip, Silas, and Epaphras, but these are all conjecture, and it is evident that we must admit that there is not enough evidence to know for sure who wrote Hebrews.

There are many guesses as to who wrote it, and no one candidate stands out clearly. My guess, if you are interested, is that Barnabas wrote it. In the second century, Tertullian said that he did. And according to the book of Galatians, Barnabas did have an experience in Antioch in which the Jews were being pressured to return to Judaism and to reject unity with the Gentiles. These are the very issues at stake in Hebrews. We do know that Barnabas knew about these tensions because he failed in some of the same areas early in his Christian walk. Also, in the book there is a long description of the Levitical priesthood, and Barnabas was a Levite. And he was a self-effacing man, the kind of man that might easily have kept himself in the background even in his own book. So, for those and perhaps other reasons, Barnabas is a good candidate. But there are others equally as good.

I don't think we can improve on the words of Origen's conclusion as to the authorship of Hebrews, "Who wrote the Epistle, God only knows the truth."

Most of the letters of the New Testament name the author in the document itself, but the writer of Hebrews did not do this. One commentator speculated that he did not give his name because he wanted to strongly emphasize the speech of God. We will read quotations from the Psalms, the law, and the prophets introduced with the phrase "God said." Thus, his clear and present concern is that we hear these words as coming from the Lord. It may have been for this reason that the human instrument left his own name off the pages of the document.

Whoever the writer was, he sees one thing very clearly, that Jesus Christ is the total answer to every human need. No book of the New Testament focuses upon Christ like the book of Hebrews. It is the clearest and most systematic presentation of the availability and adequacy of Jesus Christ in the whole of the Bible. It presents Christianity as the perfect and final religion, simply because the incomparable person and work of Jesus Christ permits men free and unrestricted access to God.

When was this letter written?

The date of the writing of this letter is widely accepted as about A.D. 65. We might have to guess as to who the author of this epistle is, but we can be fairly certain of the date. The date can be established at around A.D. 65 based on several factors; 1.Because there is no mention of the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple, it seems logical to conclude that it was written before 70 AD. After all, if the purpose of the letter is to show the end of the Mosaic law, the destruction of the temple would make a stronger argument and surely would have been mentioned in the letter. In addition, temple rituals are referred to in the present tense. The temple worship was still being observed.

Hebrews 9:6-10 (NKJV) Now when these things had been thus prepared, the priests always went into the first part of the tabernacle, performing the services. 7 But into the second part the high priest went alone once a year, not without blood, which he offered for himself and for the people's sins committed in ignorance; 8 the Holy Spirit indicating this, that the way into the Holiest of All was not yet made manifest while the first tabernacle was still standing. 9 It was symbolic for the present time in which both gifts and sacrifices are offered which cannot make him who performed the service perfect in regard to the conscience; 10 concerned only with foods and drinks, various washings, and fleshly ordinances imposed until the time of reformation.
Hebrews 10:1 (NKJV) For the law, having a shadow of the good things to come, and not the very image of the things, can never with these same sacrifices, which they offer continually year by year, make those who approach perfect.
Hebrews 13:10 (NKJV) We have an altar from which those who serve the tabernacle have no right to eat.

2. The A.D. 67 Jewish war had not yet started. 3. The 42 months of persecution by emperor Nero, from A.D. 63 - A. D. 67, was the immediate problem, but it had not yet reached its peak. These conditions focus on A.D. 65 as the date this letter was written. So, this letter was written just five years before the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in A.D. 70. Please keep that in mind as we study this book.

Why was it written?

The Jewish Christians were in danger of apostasy (departing from the faith of Christianity) in favor of the safety of Judaism. The early Christians were cut off from the majority of their countrymen who had rejected Jesus as their Messiah. The splendor of the temple worship, their discouragement due to persecution, and the delay of the return of Christ became the basis for many of them to return to Judaism. This book was written to encourage Christians to remain true to the Christian faith.

What was the destination of this letter?

The guesses about the destination of this letter are as numerous as the guesses abut its author. The better guesses are Palestine, Jerusalem, or Rome.

Hebrews 13:24 (NKJV) Greet all those who rule over you, and all the saints. Those from Italy greet you.

Now this could mean the author is in Rome or Italy, or the author is writing from somewhere outside of Italy to Rome and there are present with him Christians who are from Italy and are sending wishes back to those in their home town.

No one knows exactly where these Christians lived. Some feel this letter was written to Hebrew Christians living in the city of Rome. Others believe it was written to the most Jewish city on earth in that day, Jerusalem. If anyone wished to influence the world of Jewish Christians, surely that would be the place to start.

Who was this letter written to?

Because the letter does not directly state who the audience is or the problems being dealt with, we must draw our conclusions from internal implications. The most obvious clue to the identity of the audience is the title "To the Hebrews." Although we cannot be sure that this was on the original letter, there is no reason to doubt it. The extended treatment of Moses, Aaron, the levitical priesthood, and Melchizedek also indicate a Jewish audience. Evidently, there was some confusion about who Christ was with the danger being that angels were being assigned an equal or higher status than Christ. Along with this was the inclination to abandon Christ and return to the Mosaic law and the levitical priesthood. I think it is obvious that the recipients of this letter were Jewish Christians. The book is centered on the contrast of Christianity to Judaism. There are no Gentile doctrines or problems referred to in this letter.

Who and where these people were, and who the author was are not something we need to argue over, we don't have enough data to be dogmatic. But on the other hand, the Spiritual condition of these Hebrews is something worth arguing about.

Were these Hebrews to whom this book was written Christians? Was the author writing to Christians or to a mixed group or believers and non-believers? These questions are crucial to our understanding the book of Hebrews.

One commentator says, "Three groups of people are in view in this epistle. The key to interpreting Hebrews is to determine which group the writer is addressing. If we don't understand that, then we will be confused. The primary flow of the text is to believers, but, periodically, there are warnings to two groups of unbelievers."

Based upon this hermeneutic, if you don't like a passage in Hebrews, just say that it must be for the unbelievers. This is shaky ground. The warning passages in Hebrews have caused more confusion and consternation among evangelical Christians than any other group of texts in any other letter in the Bible. Are these warnings to believers or unbelievers?

There are those who teach that Hebrews was written to believers, saved people, warning them of the danger of again falling from grace and finally losing their salvation which they now possessed. This is the Arminian view.

A second school of interpretation teaches that the people addressed in the letter were not believers, but merely professing believers who had come only part way to Christ and were in danger of drawing back before they were saved.

Hebrews 3:12 (NKJV) Beware, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief in departing from the living God;

Their presupposition is believers can't apostatize, so this verse must not be speaking to believers. This is the generally accepted view of the Calvinist school of interpretation. C.I. Scofield advances this view. in his Bible he states:

Hebrews 6:4-8 presents the case of Jewish professed believers who halt short of faith in Christ after advancing to the very threshold of salvation, even going along with the Holy Spirit in His work of enlightenment and conviction. It is not said that they had faith. This supposed person is like the spies of Kadesh-barnea who saw the land and had the very fruit of it in their hands, and yet turned back.

Now, which of these two views is correct? They can't both be right. The correct interpretation of the book hinges on the answer to this one question: Were the people addressed believers or unbelievers? A person can't be half saved. Are the warning passages in this book for believers or simply to unbelievers, and we needn't worry about them?

From the beginning to the end of Hebrews, I sincerely believe that the people to whom the letter was written were genuine believers. All the New Testament epistles are addressed to believers.

Romans 1:7 (NKJV) To all who are in Rome, beloved of God, called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
1 Corinthians 1:2 (NKJV) To the church of God which is at Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, with all who in every place call on the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and ours:
2 Corinthians 1:1 (NKJV) Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, To the church of God which is at Corinth, with all the saints who are in all Achaia:
Galatians 1:2 (NKJV) and all the brethren who are with me, To the churches of Galatia:
Ephesians 1:1 (NKJV) Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, To the saints who are in Ephesus, and faithful in Christ Jesus:
Philippians 1:1 (NKJV) Paul and Timothy, bondservants of Jesus Christ, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons:
Colossians 1:2 (NKJV) To the saints and faithful brethren in Christ who are in Colosse: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
1 Thessalonians 1:1 (NKJV) Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
2 Thessalonians 1:1 (NKJV) Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ:

The book of Hebrews is no different, it too, is written to God's children - believers. It is of the utmost importance that we understand this.

The writer identifies with the readers using plural pronouns, repeatedly indicating that they shared a like faith and experience.

In 3:14, he writes, "for we are made partakers of Christ...."

In 4:14, he writes, "let us hold fast our profession..."

In 4:16, he writes, "let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace...."

In 10:25, he writes, "Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together...."

The description of these Hebrews is one which can only fit believers.

Hebrews 3:1 (NKJV) Therefore, holy brethren, partakers of the heavenly calling, consider the Apostle and High Priest of our confession, Christ Jesus,

Could this be said of an unbeliever? Can an unbeliever be holy and a partaker of the heavenly calling? No!

Hebrews 4:14 (NKJV) Seeing then that we have a great High Priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession.

Is God admonishing them to hold fast to their false profession? Only believers are to hold to their confession.

Hebrews 10:19-25 (NKJV) Therefore, brethren, having boldness to enter the Holiest by the blood of Jesus, 20 by a new and living way which He consecrated for us, through the veil, that is, His flesh, 21 and having a High Priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. 23 Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, 25 not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching.

Could this be written to unbelievers? Is a false profession to be held on to?

Is this letter written to believers and unbelievers, the warnings being only to unbelievers? By what rule of interpretation can we then say that the very next verse is addressed not to believers but to false professors?

Hebrews 10:26 (NKJV) For if we sin willfully after we have received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins,

Who are the "we"? The same ones who in the previous verses are unmistakably identified as God's children, who are admonished to hold fast their profession. He is saying that the way to avoid willful sinning is for the believer to hold fast his profession.

Hebrews 10:34-35 (NKJV) for you had compassion on me in my chains, and joyfully accepted the plundering of your goods, knowing that you have a better and an enduring possession for yourselves in heaven. 35 Therefore do not cast away your confidence, which has great reward.

The word "reward" is the key to understanding the book of Hebrews. It is not written to half-saved professors who are threatened with being lost. It is written to believers who can never be lost again, but they can loose their reward. The warning is to believers who fail to live out their faith, and come under the chastening hand of God.

The very heart of the book of Hebrews, therefore, is a solemn plea to believers to endure, to stand fast in their faith in the midst of great persecution. It teaches that we are saved by grace alone, but that this grace carries with it serious responsibilities. We are to become mature and fruitful believers. These Hebrews are warned not to remain children in the faith, but to grow up.

Hebrews 5:12-14 (NKJV) For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the first principles of the oracles of God; and you have come to need milk and not solid food. 13 For everyone who partakes only of milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, for he is a babe. 14 But solid food belongs to those who are of full age, that is, those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil.

These Christians had been saved a long time but were still babies in Christ and could not take to solid meat of the Word.

Hebrews 6:1 (NKJV) Therefore, leaving the discussion of the elementary principles of Christ, let us go on to perfection, not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God,

Failure to heed the admonition will result in the chastening of the Lord.

Hebrews 6:8 (NKJV) but if it bears thorns and briars, it is rejected and near to being cursed, whose end is to be burned.

Are you a believer? Have you put your trust in the Lord Jesus Christ? If you are, what have you done with that grace of God? Have you gone on to maturity? Has there been any spiritual growth in your life since you've been saved? Are you living an obedient life in practical holiness? Or are you continuing in carnality and willful sinning against the clear teaching of the Word of God? You'll never get away with it:

Hebrews 10:30 (NKJV) For we know Him who said, "Vengeance is Mine, I will repay," says the Lord. And again, "The LORD will judge His people."

You cannot escape the fact that sin in the life of a believer must be judged. We can try to get around these warning passages by saying, "They are not for believers but written for professing Christians," but we're only hurting ourselves.

The Hebrew writer desperately tried to get the early Christians, who were under great trials, to remain faithful to Christ. However, the lure of Judaism, and its supposed safety, ensnared many of them.

The theme of Hebrews is the superiority of the New Covenant over the Old covenant. This letter is written to encourage those suffering Christians to persevere in spite of the tribulation they were experiencing. First, the writer stressed that Jesus is better in every way compared to the Old Covenant system. Second, the New Covenant is better in every way compared to the Old Covenant. And third, the faith of the New Covenant is better in every way compared to the faith of the Old Covenant. He seriously tried to demonstrate to these struggling Christians that the new age that was dawning would bring to completion the new and much better covenant.

The theme of Hebrews is very similar to what Paul teaches in several of his letters. For example:

2 Corinthians 3:10-11 (NKJV) For even what was made glorious had no glory in this respect, because of the glory that excels. 11 For if what is passing away was glorious, what remains is much more glorious.

Paul here contrasts the two covenants in a very similar way to the contrast set forth by the author of Hebrews. At the time of this writing, one was passing away while the other was being fully consummated. The NIV translators chose to change the present tense "is passing away" (present, passive, participle) to "was fading away."

2 Corinthians 3:11 (NIV) And if what was fading away came with glory, how much greater is the glory of that which lasts!

The correct usage of the word is that, at the time of Paul's writing in about A.D. 55, the glorious Old Covenant "is passing away."

Most believers don't understand that we live in a different age than Paul did. What was "passing away" for Paul, is now gone. Paul lived in what the Bible calls the "last days"- they were the last days of the Old Covenant. Those "last days" began in the time of Christ and ended at AD 70 when the Jewish temple was destroyed. We now live in what the Bible calls "the age to come," which is the New Covenant age. The forty year period, from Pentecost to Holocaust, was a time of transition from the Old Covenant to the New Covenant. In this transition period, the New Covenant had been inaugurated but not consummated. It was a time of "already but not yet."

The ongoing tension of this transition period from the Old to the New Covenant is seen in Paul's allegory of Abraham's two sons.

Galatians 4:21-31 (NKJV) Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not hear the law? 22 For it is written that Abraham had two sons: the one by a bondwoman, the other by a freewoman. 23 But he who was of the bondwoman was born according to the flesh, and he of the freewoman through promise, 24 which things are SYMBOLIC. For these are the TWO COVENANTS: the one from Mount Sinai which gives birth to bondage, which is Hagar; 25 for this Hagar is MOUNT SINAI IN ARABIA, AND CORRESPONDS TO JERUSALEM WHICH NOW IS, AND IS IN BONDAGE WITH HER CHILDREN; 26 but the JERUSALEM ABOVE IS FREE, WHICH IS THE MOTHER OF US ALL. 27 For it is written: "Rejoice, O barren, You who do not bear! Break forth and shout, You who are not in labor! For the desolate has many more children Than she who has a husband." 28 Now we, brethren, as Isaac was, are children of promise. 29 But, as he who was born according to the flesh then persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, EVEN SO IT IS NOW (during the transition period). 30 Nevertheless what does the Scripture say? "Cast out the bondwoman and her son, for the son of the bondwoman shall not be heir with the son of the freewoman." 31 So then, brethren, we are not children of the bondwoman but of the free.

In this allegory, we have two women who are also said to be two cities, and they derive their origin from TWO COVENANTS, giving birth to two kinds of children. The first is Hagar, answering to physical Jerusalem, unto whom is born a nation after the flesh. The second is Sarah, answering to new Jerusalem, unto whom is born a nation after the Spirit. These two nations, or Israels, are the theme of Old Testament prophecy, the gospels, the epistles, and finally, the Revelation message.

Just as Hagar and her son (Old Covenant system and people) coexisted for some time with Sarah and her son (New Covenant system and people), so also both covenant systems coexisted for a time. However, the bondwoman and her son were eventually cast out, just as the Old Covenant system would be cast out when God finished His redemptive work in the AD 70 destruction of Jerusalem.

In Hebrews, it is the contrast between the Old and the New Covenants that is shown with Christ, the New Covenant, and the new Christian faith being better in every way to the old system. God, through the writer of this letter, encouraged those Christians to remain faithful in spite of the great tribulation that was coming upon them.

The early church had suffered from Jewish persecution over the past thirty-five years, but they had been spared Roman persecution. It had only been about two years since the Romans had come to the belief, at the insistence of the Jews, that Christianity was not a part of Judaism, and therefore, it was an illegal religion under Roman law. The Jewish nation had failed to realize that Christianity was the fulfillment of Judaism.

The Roman empire permitted conquered nations to practice their original religions but no new ones were allowed. Early Christianity had been able to grow under the umbrella of Judaism. However, all that had now changed, and Christians were now being severely persecuted by both the Jews and the Romans. The tribulation that the church was experiencing was soon to become even more intense. It was into this crucial situation, in A.D. 65, that the author was writing this magnificent letter of encouragement.

The temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in AD 70. This brought an end to Judiasm and the temple worship. Today, the rituals of Judaism seem strange to us. Then what message does this book have for us today? Christians still have a tendency to look to rules and regulations for spirituality. Many still look to "sacrifices" (prayer, attendance, service, etc.) to make them acceptable to God. Somehow, we have failed to grasp the greatness of the salvation that God has given us in Christ. Tragically, religion is more real to us than our relationship in Jesus Christ.

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