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 twenty-eight 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. (Acts 8:1) The scattered ones remained active in spreading the good news everywhere they went. (Acts 8:4) The apostles had stayed in Jerusalem and had held the remaining congregation together there, and it had grown, even under stiff opposition. (Acts 8:14) Then, for a time, the congregation entered into a period of peace. (Acts 9:31) Later, Herod Agrippa I caused the death of the apostle James, John’s brother, and mistreated others of the congregation. (Acts 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. (1 Cor. 16:1-3; 2 Cor. 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 since 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 did the rest. And some others were immature, not having made the progress toward maturity that they should have made in view of the time.—Heb. 5:12.
That the letter to the Hebrews was inspired by Jehovah’s spirit is clearly evident. The immature Hebrew Christians in Jerusalem and Judea seriously needed counsel, and all in the congregation needed encouragement. Time was running out for Jerusalem. The situation would call for alertness and faith on the part of the Christians there to obey Jesus’ warning to flee from the city when they should see Jerusalem surrounded by encamped armies. (Luke 21:20-22) According to tradition, this took place in 66 C.E. when Cestius Gallus’ troops withdrew after beginning an attack on the city. Then, in 70 C.E., Jerusalem and its temple would be razed to the ground by the Roman general Titus. Every member of the Christian congregation, and especially the immature ones, would have to strengthen themselves for these momentous events. The opposition they faced daily from the Jews put their faith to a test. They needed to build up the quality of endurance.—Heb. 12:1, 2.
The Jewish religious leaders, by lying propaganda, had done everything they could to stir up hatred. 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 be powerful reasoning to a Jew, and hard to answer.
At that time Judaism had much to offer in the way of tangible, material things and outward appearance. These things, the Jews might say, proved Judaism superior and Christianity foolish. Why, said they to Jesus, as their father the nation had Abraham, to whom the promises were given. (John 8:33, 39) Moses, to whom God spoke “mouth to mouth,” was God’s great servant and prophet. (Num. 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. (Acts 7:53; Gal. 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.—Ex. 19:16-19; 20:18; Heb. 12:18-21.
Besides all these things of antiquity, there stood the magnificent temple with its priesthood instituted by Jehovah, carrying on their duties daily with many sacrifices. Accompanying these things were the richness of the 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. (Lev. chap. 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 their priesthood? In fact, where was their leader? Was he of any importance among the leaders of the nation during his lifetime—this Jesus, a Galilean, a carpenter’s son, with no rabbinical education? And did he not die an ignominious death? Where was his kingdom? And who were his apostles and followers? Mere fishermen and tax collectors. Furthermore, whom did Christianity draw, for the most part? The poor and lowly persons of the earth and, even worse, uncircumcised Gentiles, not of the seed of Abraham, were accepted. Why should anyone put his trust in this Jesus Christ, who had been put to death as a blasphemer and a seditionist? Why listen to his disciples, men unlettered and ordinary?—Acts 4:13.
The superiority of the Christian system of things
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 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.—1:2; 2:7-9.
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 Isaiah 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. (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.—2:17, 18; 4:15.
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 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.—8:6-13; Jer. 31:31-34; Deut. 4:13; 10:4.
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 Acts 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. (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 will yet shake, not only the earth, but also the heaven.—12:18:27.
The letter to the Hebrews is of inestimable value to Christians and a strong encouragement to faith, hope, love and endurance. Without the letter, 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: that 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 know 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 onto their hope by means of “the evident demonstration of realities though not beheld,” and to keep looking to the “better place, that is, one belonging to heaven.” (Heb. 11:1, 16) At a time when many persons rely on antiquity, the material wealth and power of organizations and 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.”—2 Tim. 3:16, 17.
WRITERSHIP AND TIME, PLACE WRITTEN
Writership of the letter to the Hebrews is widely ascribed to the apostle Paul. It was accepted as an epistle of Paul by some early writers, among them Clement of Alexandria (c. 150-215 C.E.) and Origen (c. 185-254 C.E.). The Chester Beatty Papyrus No. 2 (P46) (of the early third century C.E.) contains Hebrews among nine of Paul’s letters, and it 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 the place of writing as Italy, probably Rome. (Heb. 13:24) It was in Rome 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. (Phil. 1:1; 2:19; Col. 1:1, 2; Philem. 1:1) 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.
OUTLINE OF CONTENTS
I. Christ’s superior position (1:1–3:6)
A. Is heir of all things and the one through whom God made the systems of things (1:1, 2)
B. Is better than angels (1:3-14)
1. In being the Son of God (1:3-7)
2. As God’s King forever (1:8-12)
3. By exaltation to God’s right hand; angels only servants (1:13, 14)
C. We should pay unusual attention to things spoken by God through Christ (2:1-18)
1. Retribution cannot be escaped if we neglect salvation spoken through him and borne witness to by God (2:1-4)
2. Inhabited earth to come will be subjected to Christ, who, though made temporarily lower than angels, is now exalted for having tasted death for every man (2:5-9)
3. He is God’s Chief Agent of salvation (2:10-18)
a. He had to become blood and flesh, then die, in order to bring Devil to nothing and emancipate “all those who for fear of death were subject to slavery”
b. Not helping angels, spirits, but helping Abraham’s seed, who were blood and flesh
D. Christ, as Son over God’s house, is greater than Moses, who was merely faithful attendant (3:1-6)
II. Entering God’s rest possible at this time (3:7–4:13)
A. Israelites’ unfaithfulness in wilderness, failure to enter God’s rest, a warning to Christians (3:7–4:5)
B. Rest into which Joshua led Israel not the real ‘rest of God’; exercise of obedience needed to enter into sabbath resting that remains now for people of God (4:6-9)
C. Christian must rest from own (self) works, realizing God’s word discerns “thoughts and intentions of the heart” (4:10-13)
III. Superiority of Christ’s priesthood (4:14–7:28)
A. Christ is God-appointed, tested, compassionate High Priest “according to the manner of Melchizedek”; has “passed through the heavens” (4:14–6:3)
1. We should hold onto our confessing of him and approach with freeness of speech to the throne to obtain mercy (4:14–5:3)
2. Christ did not glorify or appoint himself; offered supplications to God, was heard for his godly fear (5:4-7)
3. Learned obedience through suffering, became responsible for salvation of obedient ones (5:8–6:3)
a. Therefore, immature ones must press on to maturity
b. Train perceptive powers to distinguish right and wrong
c. Progress from primary doctrine to learn deeper things about Christ
B. Those falling away impale Christ afresh, cannot be revived to repentance; hence, all are urged to continue showing industriousness and imitating faithful, patient ones (6:4-12)
C. Heirs of God’s promise to Abraham who continue to trust in Christ’s priesthood have an assured hope (6:13-20)
1. God’s promise and His oath are two unchangeable things in which it is impossible for God to lie (6:13-18)
2. Jesus’ entry as forerunner “within the curtain” provides heirs of promise the assurance of realizing that hope (6:19, 20)
D. Christ greater than Abraham; Jesus’ priesthood superior to Levitical priesthood (7:1-28)
1. Like that of King-Priest Melchizedek, who blessed Abraham and to whom Abraham (and thus yet-unborn Levi) paid tithes (7:1-10)
2. Perfection not through imperfect Levitical priesthood; change of priesthood was needed, also change of law (7:11-28)
a. Christ of tribe of Judah, not Levi
b. Christ’s priesthood not dependent on fleshly descent; he has indestructible life
c. He has no successors, is able to save completely all those approaching God through him
d. Sinful Levitical priests offered sacrifices for their own sins and those of people daily; sinless Christ offered himself up once; is perfected in office forever
IV. Superiority of new covenant (8:1–10:39)
A. Mediator and High Priest sits at God’s right hand in heavens, in “true tent” put up by Jehovah (8:1-3)
B. Sacred service rendered according to Law only typical of heavenly things (8:4-6)
1. By it God’s laws are put in mind and written in heart (8:7-12)
2. God’s declared purpose makes former covenant become obsolete “near to vanishing away” (8:13)
D. Sacred tent and its services and sacrifices under former covenant were shadow and illustration of time now here (9:1–10:18)
1. Description of earthly tent, with furnishings, utensils (9:1-5)
2 High priest alone took blood into second compartment once a year (9:6-10)
a. Holy spirit thereby showed way into holy place not then manifest
b. Sacrifices made could not make men perfect as respects conscience
3. Christ entered into greater “tent” once with own blood, obtaining everlasting deliverance and cleansing consciences of believers (9:11-14)
4. Law covenant inaugurated with animal blood; new covenant validated by blood of Christ (9:15-22)
5. Christ entered heaven itself, appeared before God (9:23-28)
a. By one sacrifice put sin away once for all time
b. Will appear second time for judgment and for salvation of believers
6. Animal sacrifices ineffectual; prophecy foretold that God’s will was to abolish them and establish real sacrifice through Christ (10:1-10; Ps. 40:6-8)
7. After Christ’s one sacrifice, sat down at God’s right hand until time for enemies to be made footstool (10:11-18)
E. By this new and living way of entry may approach God by means of great High Priest with true hearts, clean consciences (10:19-39)
1. Hold fast to public declaration of faith (10:23)
2. Gather together, encouraging one another (10:24, 25)
3. Avoid falling into willful practice of sin, which brings destruction (10:26-31)
4. Endure by faith; do not shrink back to destruction (10:32-39)
V. Faith essential to please God, receive reward (11:1–12:17)
A. Definition of faith (11:1-3)
B. Examples of faith: Abel, Noah, Abraham, Moses and others (11:4-40)
1. Men of faith died, not getting fulfillment of promises (11:4-13)
2. They reached out for better place, one belonging to heaven (11:14-38)
3. Will be made perfect, but not apart from joint heirs with Christ (11:39, 40)
C. Faith requires discipline (12:1-17)
1. Surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, we should lay aside all weights in running race, looking intently at Jesus (12:1-3)
2. Do not belittle Jehovah’s discipline, which is for our good (12:4-11)
3. Make straight paths, pursue peace, sanctification (12:12-14)
4. Watch that no “poisonous” thing or person defiles others in congregation (12:15-17)
VI. Superiority of Christian’s position (12:18-29)
A. Not approaching a literal mountain, but a heavenly Zion and Jerusalem, assembly of angels, congregation of firstborn, God the Judge of all and Jesus the Mediator (12:18-24)
B. God will shake both earth and heaven to remove shakable things (12:25-27)
C. Christians receive kingdom that cannot be shaken (12:28, 29)
VII. Concluding exhortations and remarks (13:1-25)
A. Counsel on brotherly love, hospitality, keeping marriage honorable and dependence on Jehovah (13:1-6)
B. Imitate faith of those taking lead; avoid being carried away with strange teachings (13:7-9)
C. Suffer reproach of Christ, looking for city to come (13:10-14)
D. Offer sacrifices of praise, do good, share with others (13:15, 16)
E. Be submissive to those taking lead (13:17)
F. Writer requests prayer of brothers, promises visit to Jerusalem, closes with greetings (13:18-25)