HEBREWS, LETTER TO THE
An inspired letter of the Christian Greek Scriptures. Evidence indicates that it was written by the apostle Paul to the Hebrew Christians in Judea about 61 C.E. To those Hebrew Christians the letter was most timely. It had then been about 28 years since Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection. In the earlier part of that period severe persecution had been brought upon these Jewish Christians in Jerusalem and Judea by the Jewish religious leaders, resulting in the death of some Christians and the scattering of most of the others from Jerusalem. (Ac 8:1) The scattered ones remained active in spreading the good news everywhere they went. (Ac 8:4) The apostles had stayed in Jerusalem and had held the remaining congregation together there, and it had grown, even under stiff opposition. (Ac 8:14) Then, for a time, the congregation entered into a period of peace. (Ac 9:31) Later, Herod Agrippa I caused the death of the apostle James, John’s brother, and mistreated others of the congregation. (Ac 12:1-5) Sometime after this, there developed a material need among the Christians in Judea, giving opportunity for those in Achaia and Macedonia (in about 55 C.E.) to demonstrate their love and unity by sending aid. (1Co 16:1-3; 2Co 9:1-5) So the Jerusalem congregation had suffered many hardships.
Purpose of the Letter. The congregation in Jerusalem was comprised almost entirely of Jews and those who had been proselytes to the Jews’ religion. Many of these had come to a knowledge of the truth after the time of the most bitter persecution. At the time the letter to the Hebrews was written, the congregation was enjoying comparative peace, for Paul told them: “You have never yet resisted as far as blood.” (Heb 12:4) Nevertheless, the lessening of outright physical persecution to death did not mean that strong opposition from the Jewish religious leaders had ceased. The newer members of the congregation had to face the opposition just as the rest did. And some others were immature, not having made the progress toward maturity that they should have made in view of the time. (5:12) The opposition they faced daily from the Jews put their faith to a test. They needed to build up the quality of endurance.
Time was running out for Jerusalem. Neither the apostle Paul nor those in the congregation at Jerusalem knew when the foretold desolation would occur, but God did know. (Lu 21:20-24; Da 9:24, 27) The situation would call for the Christians there to be alert and to exercise faith so that they would flee from the city when they saw Jerusalem surrounded by encamped armies. All in the congregation needed to strengthen themselves for these momentous events. According to tradition, it was just about five years after the writing of this letter that Cestius Gallus’ troops attacked the city and then withdrew. Four years after that, Jerusalem and its temple were leveled by the Romans under General Titus. But before either of these events took place, Jehovah had provided the inspired counsel that his servants needed.
Jewish opposition. The Jewish religious leaders, by lying propaganda, had done everything they could to stir up hatred against Christ’s followers. Their determination to fight Christianity with every possible weapon is demonstrated by their actions, as recorded in Acts 22:22; 23:12-15, 23, 24; 24:1-4; 25:1-3. They and their supporters constantly harassed the Christians, evidently using arguments in an effort to break their loyalty to Christ. They attacked Christianity with what might seem to a Jew to be powerful reasoning, hard to answer.
At that time Judaism had much to offer in the way of tangible, material things and outward appearance. The Jews might say that these things proved Judaism superior and Christianity foolish. Why, they had told Jesus that the nation had as their father Abraham, to whom the promises were given. (Joh 8:33, 39) Moses, to whom God spoke “mouth to mouth,” was God’s great servant and prophet. (Nu 12:7, 8) The Jews had the Law and the words of the prophets from the beginning. ‘Did not this very antiquity establish Judaism as the true religion?’ they might ask. At the inaugurating of the Law covenant, God had spoken by means of angels; in fact, the Law was transmitted through angels by the hand of the mediator Moses. (Ac 7:53; Ga 3:19) On this occasion God had given a fear-inspiring demonstration of power in shaking Mount Sinai; the loud sound of a horn, smoke, thunder, and lightning accompanied the glorious display.
Besides all these things of antiquity, there stood the magnificent temple with its priesthood instituted by Jehovah. Priests officiated at the temple, daily handling many sacrifices. Accompanying these things were the costly priestly garments and the splendor of the services conducted at the temple. ‘Had not Jehovah commanded that sacrifices for sin be brought to the sanctuary, and did not the high priest, the descendant of Moses’ own brother Aaron, enter the Most Holy on the Day of Atonement with a sacrifice for the sins of the whole nation? On this occasion, did he not approach representatively into the very presence of God?,’ the Jews might argue. (Le 16) ‘Furthermore, was not the kingdom the possession of the Jews, with one (the Messiah, who would later come, as they said) to sit on the throne at Jerusalem to rule?’
If the letter to the Hebrews was being written to equip the Christians to answer objections that were actually being raised by the Jews, then those enemies of Christianity had contended in this way: ‘What did this new “heresy” have to point to as evidence of its genuineness and of God’s favor? Where was their temple, and where their priesthood? In fact, where was their leader? Was he of any importance among the leaders of the nation during his lifetime
Superiority of Christian system. Some of the immature Christians may have become neglectful of their salvation through Christ. (Heb 2:1-4) Or they may have been swayed by the unbelieving Jews who surrounded them. Coming to their aid with masterful argument, using the Hebrew Scriptures, on which the Jews claimed to rely, the apostle shows irrefutably the superiority of the Christian system of things and of the priesthood and kingship of Jesus Christ. He Scripturally demonstrates that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, greater than angels (1:4-6), than Abraham (7:1-7), than Moses (3:1-6), and than the prophets (1:1, 2). In fact, Christ is the appointed heir of all things, crowned with glory and honor and appointed over the works of Jehovah’s hands.
As to priesthood, Christ’s is far superior to the Aaronic priesthood of the tribe of Levi. It is dependent, not on inheritance from sinful flesh, but on an oath of God. (Heb 6:13-20; 7:5-17, 20-28) Why, though, did he endure such hardships and die a death of suffering? This was foretold as essential to mankind’s salvation and to qualify him as High Priest and the one to whom God will subject all things. (2:8-10; 9:27, 28; compare Isa 53:12.) He had to become blood and flesh and die in order to emancipate all those who through fear of death were in slavery. Through his death he is able to bring to nothing the Devil, a thing no human priest could do. (Heb 2:14-16) He, having so suffered, is a High Priest who can sympathize with our weaknesses and can come to our help, having been tested in all respects.
Moreover, argues the apostle, this High Priest “passed through the heavens” and appeared in the very presence of God, not in a mere earthly tent or building that was only pictorial of heavenly things. (Heb 4:14; 8:1; 9:9, 10, 24) He needed to appear only once with his perfect, sinless sacrifice, not over and over again. (7:26-28; 9:25-28) He has no successors, as did the Aaronic priests, but lives forever to save completely those to whom he ministers. (7:15-17, 23-25) Christ is Mediator of the better covenant foretold through Jeremiah, under which sins can really be forgiven and consciences can be made clean, things that the Law could never accomplish. The Ten Words, the basic laws of the Law covenant, were written on stone; the law of the new covenant, on hearts. This prophetic word of Jehovah by Jeremiah made the Law covenant obsolete, to vanish away in time.
It is true, the writer of Hebrews continues, that an awesome display of power was manifested at Sinai, demonstrating God’s approval of the Law covenant. But even more forcefully God bore witness at the inauguration of the new covenant with signs, portents, and powerful works, along with distributions of holy spirit to all the members of the congregation assembled. (Heb 2:2-4; compare Ac 2:1-4.) And as to Christ’s Kingship, his throne is in the heavens itself, far higher than that of the kings of the line of David who sat on the throne in earthly Jerusalem. (Heb 1:9) God is the foundation of Christ’s throne, and his Kingdom cannot be shaken, as was the kingdom in Jerusalem in 607 B.C.E. (1:8; 12:28) Furthermore, God has gathered his people before something far more awe inspiring than the miraculous display at Mount Sinai. He has caused anointed Christians to approach the heavenly Mount Zion, and he will yet shake not only the earth but also the heaven.
The letter to the Hebrews is of inestimable value to Christians. Without it, many of the realities concerning Christ as foreshadowed by the Law would be unclear. For example, the Jews had known all along from the Hebrew Scriptures that when their high priest went into the Most Holy compartment of the sanctuary in their behalf he was representing them before Jehovah. But they never appreciated this reality: Someday the real High Priest would actually appear in the heavens in Jehovah’s very presence! And as we read the Hebrew Scriptures, how could we realize the tremendous significance of the account of Abraham’s meeting with Melchizedek, or understand so clearly what this king-priest typified? This, of course, is to cite only two examples out of the many realities that we come to visualize in reading the letter.
The faith that the letter builds helps Christians to hold on to their hope by means of “the evident demonstration of realities though not beheld.” (Heb 11:1) At a time when many persons rely on antiquity, on the material wealth and power of organizations, on the splendor of rites and ceremonies, and look to the wisdom of this world instead of to God, the divinely inspired letter to the Hebrews admirably helps to make the man of God “fully competent, completely equipped for every good work.”
Writership and Time, Place Written. Writership of the letter to the Hebrews has been widely ascribed to the apostle Paul. It was accepted as an epistle of Paul by early writers. The Chester Beatty Papyrus No. 2 (P46) (of about 200 C.E.) contains Hebrews among nine of Paul’s letters, and Hebrews is listed among “fourteen letters of Paul the apostle” in “The Canon of Athanasius,” of the fourth century C.E.
The writer of Hebrews does not identify himself by name. Even though all his other letters do bear his name, this lack of identification of the writer would obviously not rule out Paul. Internal evidence in the letter strongly points to Paul as its writer and to Italy, probably Rome, as the place of writing. (Heb 13:24) It was in Rome, evidently during the years 59 to 61 C.E., that Paul was first imprisoned. Timothy was with Paul in Rome, being mentioned in the apostle’s letters to the Philippians, the Colossians, and Philemon, written from Rome during that imprisonment. (Php 1:1; 2:19; Col 1:1, 2; Phm 1) This circumstance fits the remark at Hebrews 13:23 about Timothy’s release from prison and the writer’s desire to visit Jerusalem soon.
The time of writing was before the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E., for the temple at Jerusalem still stood, with services being performed there, as is evident from the argument in the letter. And Paul’s remark about Timothy’s being released reasonably fixes the time of writing about nine years earlier, namely, 61 C.E., when it is thought that Paul himself was released from his first imprisonment.
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HIGHLIGHTS OF HEBREWS
A powerful treatise that fortified Hebrew Christians and enabled them to help sincere fellow countrymen during the final years of the Jewish system
Evidently written by the apostle Paul less than a decade before Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 C.E.
The superior position occupied by God’s Son (1:1–3:6)
He is the unique Son, appointed heir, exact representation of his Father’s very being, through whom all that was made is also sustained
Compared with the Son, angels are but servants. The Father calls him alone “my son,” the Firstborn to whom even angels would do obeisance; of him and not of angels can it be said that his royal rule rests upon God as his throne, his permanence surpasses that of heavens and earth made through him, and his position is at the Father’s right hand
If the Law conveyed through angels could not be disregarded without punishment, what was spoken by God through the Son, who is higher than angels, must be given extraordinary attention
Though lower than angels as a man, Jesus Christ was afterward exalted above them and granted dominion over the inhabited earth to come
Moses was an attendant in the house of God, but Jesus Christ is over the entire house
Entering God’s rest still possible (3:7–4:13)
Because of disobedience and lack of faith, the Israelites who left Egypt failed to enter God’s rest
Christians can enter God’s rest, provided they avoid Israel’s disobedience and exert themselves in a course of faithfulness
The living word promising entrance into God’s rest is sharper than a sword, dividing (by a person’s response to it) between what he may appear to be as a soul and what he really is as to his spirit
Superiority of Christ’s priesthood and the new covenant (4:14–10:31)
Because of having been tested in all respects yet remaining sinless, Jesus Christ as high priest can sympathize with sinful humans and deal compassionately with them
He is priest by God’s appointment according to the manner of Melchizedek, whose priesthood was greater than the Levitical priesthood
Unlike Levite priests in Aaron’s family, Jesus Christ possesses an indestructible life and thus requires no successors to continue his saving work; he is sinless and so does not need to present sacrifices for himself; he offered up his own body, not animals, and entered, not an earthly sanctuary, but heaven itself with the value of his outpoured blood, thereby validating the new covenant
The new covenant, with Jesus as Mediator, is superior to the Law covenant in that those in it have God’s laws in their hearts and enjoy true forgiveness of sins
Appreciation for these benefits will move Christians to make public declaration of hope and to assemble regularly
Faith essential to please God (10:32–12:29)
Jehovah is displeased with those faithlessly shrinking back from him instead of enduring so as to receive what he has promised
The exemplary faith of integrity-keepers from Abel onward serves as encouragement to endurance in the Christian race, while considering closely Jesus Christ and his flawless course under suffering
The suffering that God permits to befall faithful Christians may be viewed as a form of discipline from him, designed to produce the peaceful fruit of righteousness
Exhortations to pursue a faithful course (13:1-25)
Manifest brotherly love, be hospitable, remember believers who are suffering, maintain marriage in honor, and be content with present things, confident of Jehovah’s help
Imitate the faith of those taking the lead, and avoid succumbing to strange teachings
Be willing to bear reproach as Christ did; always offer to God sacrifice of praise through him
Be obedient to those taking the lead