Saturday, March 5, 2016

The Letter to the Hebrews

Last weekend they held the Oscars in Hollywood. Have you ever noticed how the movies everyone loves are not the ones that win the awards? Almost every year a film is released that the critics absolutely love while the average theater-goer goes “meh” about. Meanwhile, the movies that all the regular folk are raving about, and paying millions of dollars to go see, hardly get any recognition at all.

When it comes to the writings of the New Testament, the Letter to the Hebrews is like those critic’s choice movies. Scholars gush about the polished and eloquent Greek in which Hebrews is written, they marvel at its carefully constructed arguments that employ the best Hellenistic rhetorical strategies in an impressive and effective manner. They go on and one about the fact that it is a “masterpiece” of writing.

Still, Hebrews doesn’t top many popularity lists for Christians who just want to do some inspirational reading. The letter has an unfortunate reputation for being long and stodgy, intellectual and difficult to understand, or even – dare we say it…boring. Many claim that apart from a few memorable verses (e.g. He 4:12), the book doesn’t really get good until its final three chapters. Then at last it becomes more accessible, inspirational, practical and relevant.

One problem may be that those first ten chapters deal with subjects that seem distant and totally irrelevant to contemporary Christian readers: Jewish sacrifices, purification rituals, the priesthood and some guy named Melchizedek who was obscure even to the book’s first readers. Some have likened the first ten chapters of Hebrews to the OT book of Leviticus – and we all know what a joy it is to read Leviticus.

Another problem with Hebrews concerns its threats of condemnation concerning falling away from the faith that seem to go too far, denouncing the backslidden in a way that rules out any possibility of recovery. Three passages stand out:

·         Hebrews 6:4-6 says that it is impossible for those who have been enlightened (come to faith in Christ) and then fallen away to be restored to repentance.

·         Hebrews 10:26-31 makes clear that those who willfully persist in sin after receiving knowledge of the truth in Christ will discover that no sacrifice for those sins remains, and indeed they will suffer a worse punishment in hell than those who sinned without such knowledge.

·         Hebrews 12:16-17 confirms the teaching that apostates cannot be restored to faith, offering an analogy to Esau, who repented of giving away his birthright and then sought to recover his blessing only to find that his repentance was rejected and his tears were shed in vain.

Still a third problem with the reception of Hebrews today concerns the fact that it is a writing dedicated to establishing the superiority of Christianity over Judaism and in an era that emphasizes religious tolerance, cooperation and dialogue – it comes across as totally intolerant.

But let’s not totally “poo-poo” Hebrews entirely. It has definitely made some positive contributions to the Christian church and its believers. For instance:

·         Its theology has helped to define orthodox position on the identity of Christ and on the meaning of his death and resurrection.

·         The book has retained a special appeal for those who see themselves “outside the camp” so to speak, as pilgrims dedicated to following Jesus. Many believers are ostracized by relatives and neighbors (especially in certain cultures) and they see themselves on a journey beyond this world on earth towards a city that cannot be shaken. As they read it they can feel themselves encouraged and cheered by the great cloud of witnesses who have made the same journey. Jesus is the “author and perfector of our faith,” a pioneer himself, whose life, death and exaltation opened a pathway to eternity. I encourage you to go home today and read Hebrews 11, 12 and 13 and see if you are not moved. I dare you.

Having said all that, let’s do our overview of the book.

The author does not identify himself.  For some 1200 years the author was believed to be the apostle Paul (e.g., Origen, Clement of Alexandria).  Yet it seems unlikely when considering the author’s statement, "...was confirmed to us by those who heard Him" (He 2:3).  This suggests the author received the gospel message second-hand, while Paul declared that he had not received the gospel from or through men (Ga 1:11-12). We can assume that the author was a person of prominence in the early church. He speaks of Timothy as “brother” (13:23). He knew people who knew Jesus and he knew at least some of the readers personally. He is also confident enough to speak to them authoritatively, even though he does not appear to have been the founder of their community. Other names have been proposed as the author over the years including Barnabas (suggested by Tertullian), Apollos (suggested by Luther), even Priscilla (suggested by Harnack).  Perhaps Origen says it best, "But who wrote the epistle, to be sure, only God knows."

The author clearly knew his recipients and longed to be reunited with them (He 13:19). The general consensus is that this letter was written to Jewish Christians who may have been considering a return to Judaism, perhaps because of their immaturity or due to their lack of understanding of biblical truth. There is uncertainty as to where they and the author were at the time of composition. The author passed on the greeting of those “from Italy” (He 13:24). Scholars debate whether he was in Italy writing to the church elsewhere or was outside Italy though accompanied by Italians and writing back to an audience in Italy (possibly Rome).

We know for sure the epistle was written prior to 96 A.D., because Clement of Rome quotes from Hebrews in his letter that was written at that time. There are certainly strong indications that it was written prior to 70 A.D. since there is no mention of the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple and the author writes as though priests were still offering sacrifices (He 8:4; 10:11). If the Jewish Christians were in Palestine, it was likely before or at the beginning of the Jewish Wars (ca. 66-70 A.D.; cf. He 12:4). The time frame of 63-65 A.D. is often suggested.

The Jewish Christian recipients were probably undergoing fierce persecution, both socially and physically, both from Jews and from Romans. Christ had not returned to establish his kingdom, and the people needed to be reassured that Christianity was true and that Jesus was the Messiah. There also appear to have been some strange teaching introduced to the (Roman?) Jewish Christians that needed to be refuted and this influential reader felt confident enough with this community to do so.

The book is unique among NT writings in that although Hebrews is called a “letter” (13:22) it has the style and content of a sermon. A better name might have been the “Sermon to the Hebrews.” Like any good sermon, solemn warnings are interspersed throughout the letter showing the danger of neglect, unbelief, immaturity and apostasy. One is not to turn away from the truth and the privileges of the Gospel. Also, like any good Christian sermon, the superiority of Christ is emphasized. In fact, it is emphasized to a degree not found in any other book in the New Testament. Jesus stands above men, angels and old covenant institutions – He is the final revelation of God (1:2) and the mediator of a new and better covenant (8:6).

The purpose of this epistle was to exhort its readers to remain faithful to the much better things they have in Christ (He 13:22). The author wanted to prevent his readers from abandoning their faith in Christ (He 2:1-4).  To encourage his Jewish brethren not to go back to the Old Law, he endeavored to show the superiority of Christ and His Covenant (He 8:1-2,6).  A key word found throughout the epistle is "better": Christ is "better than the angels" (He 1:4). We enjoy "the bringing in of a better hope" (He 7:19). Jesus has become "the surety of a better covenant" (He 7:22). He is also "the Mediator of a better covenant, which was established on better promises" (He 8:6). The cluster of words "better," "more," and "greater" appear a combined total of 25 times.

“The Superiority of Christ and The New Covenant.” “Jesus is the Better Way.” The superiority of Christ over everyone and everything is clearly demonstrated by the author. Christianity supersedes all other religions and can never be surpassed. Living in Christ is having the best there is in life. All competing religions are deceptions or cheap imitations. Jews who had become Christians in the first century were tempted to fall back into Judaism because of uncertainty, the security of customs they had participated in for years, and the persecution they were now facing. Today believers are also temped to fall back on “old ways” and to begin fulfilling minimum religious requirements rather than pressing on in genuine faith.  Whatever you are considering as the focus of life, Christ is better. He is the perfect revelation of God, the final and complete sacrifice for our sin, the compassionate and understanding mediator, and the only way to eternal life. Don’t settle for anything less.

A.      The Superiority of Christ (1:1 – 10:18)
a.       Christ is better than the angels
b.       Christ is better than Moses
c.       Christ is greater than the OT priesthood
d.       The new covenant is greater than the old.

B.      The Superiority of faith (10:19 – 13:25)

The Life Application Study Bible; New Revised Standard Version
The NIV Study Bible
The ESV Study Bible
Introducing the New Testament by Mark Allan Powell

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