Overview of the Book of Hebrews

Question

Overview of the Book of Hebrews

Answer

Overview of the Book of Hebrews

Author: The author is unknown.

Purpose:

To encourage fidelity to Christ and the new covenant by showing that Christ is the new, final and superior High Priest.

Date: Before A.D. 70

Key Truths:

  • Christ is superior to angels, Moses, Aaron and the Old Testament priestly ministry.
  • The Old Testament admitted the temporary character of its structures, so the new covenant is not at all contrary to the old.
  • Turning from Christ and back to outmoded forms of faith will lead to divine judgment.
  • People of the Church must persevere to the end in faithfulness to Christ or they will suffer divine judgment.

Author:

The author of Hebrews was a man (he used the masculine form of a Greek verb in referring to himself in Heb. 11:32) who was skilled in Greek and in Hellenistic literary style. He was immersed in the Old Testament (especially in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament) and was sensitive to the way in which salvation history culminates in Jesus. He had a pastoral concern for his original readers, knew them personally (Heb. 13:22-23) and understood their background (Heb. 10:32-34). Like his readers, the author came to faith not through direct contact with Jesus, but through the ministry established by the apostles (Heb. 2:3-4). He was also acquainted with Timothy (Heb. 13:23).

Because the epistle does not reveal the author's name, we are left with a tantalizing mystery. By the time of Clement of Alexandria (c. 150-215) and Origen (185-253), the Eastern church had attributed the epistle to Paul. In the West, Tertullian (c. 155-220) proposed Barnabas (Acts 4:36) as the author. Other early suggestions were Luke and Clement of Rome (c. 95). From the fifth to the sixteenth centuries, Pauline authorship was largely accepted both in the East and in the West. During the Reformation Luther proposed Apollos (Ac 18:24-28) as the writer. Other nominees for authorship in the modern period have included Priscilla (but cf. Heb. 11:32, where the author described his own action with a masculine verb), Epaphras (Col. 1:7) and Silas (Acts 15:22, 32, 40; 1 Pet .5:12).

While it is difficult to rule out many of these candidates, it is equally hard to mount a convincing case in favor of any one of them. From the standpoint of early tradition, the strongest argument can be made for Pauline authorship, but Calvin rightly observed that Hebrews differs from Paul's writings in its style, teaching method, and in the author's inclusion of himself among the disciples of the apostolic ministry. The statement in Hebrews 2:3 is "wholly different" from Paul's claims to have received his apostolic appointment and revelation of the gospel directly from Christ (e.g. Gal. 1:1, 11-12).

The epistle has theological affinities with Paul's writings, but the same is true of John's "Word" Christology and the portrayal of Jesus' suffering in the Synoptic Gospels. In any case, if the author is not someone whose background or other writings we know, his identity would add little to our understanding of the epistle.

Time and Place of Writing:

Apparently the Temple was still standing and its sacrificial rituals being regularly performed (Heb. 10:1-3, 11) at the time of writing. Since the Temple was destroyed in A.D. 70, this indicates a probable date of composition prior to then. If Hebrews was written during the time of the persecutions under Nero (c. A.D. 64), the suffering mentioned in Hebrews 10:32-34 could have been caused by an edict of Claudius that expelled Jews from Rome in A.D. 49 (Acts 18:2).

Original Audience:

Hebrews offers a fair amount of information about the original recipients and their situation. The original readers spoke Greek and probably used the Greek translation of the Old Testament (the Septuagint). They were able to follow arguments drawn from the Old Testament and were interested in the Old Testament sanctuary, sacrificial system and priesthood. They had heard the gospel through the apostolic word (Heb. 2:3) rather than directly from Jesus. In addition, they may have been undergoing a transition in church leadership (Heb. 13:7, 17) and therefore may have been concerned about security and permanence (Heb. 6:19; 11:10; 13:8, 14). In any event, they had suffered, and were currently suffering, persecution (Heb. 10:32-34; 13:3). Although they had not yet been martyred, death for the cause of Christ was likely a real possibility for them (Heb. 12:4). It is possible that they had also been expelled from Jewish institutions (Heb. 13:12-13) and thus shamed for their confession of Jesus and stripped of the familiar and visible institutions of organized Jewish religion. Some may have been tempted to "shrink back" (Heb. 10:38-39) into unbelief and so to give up their journey toward God's rest and God's city (Heb. 4:1-2, 11; 11:10, 14-16; 13:14). Finally, they received greetings through the author from "those from Italy" (Heb. 13:24).

Drawing these features together, we may conclude that the recipients were primarily Jewish Christians of the dispersion. They probably lived in Italy (Heb. 13:24 is likely a greeting sent "home" by expatriates) and may have lived in Rome, where the earliest evidence of acquaintance with the epistle has been found (in the early postapostolic document known as 1 Clement).

Purpose and Distinctives:

Hebrews' high literary style and theological interests set it apart from other New Testament books. Among its greatest contributions to the New Testament revelation of Jesus Christ is its detailed disclosure of Jesus' fulfillment of the Temple, sacrifices and priesthood that were established in the law of Moses (Heb. 8-9).

The author referred to his work as a "word of exhortation" (Heb. 13:22). Since the same Greek expression in Acts 13:15 ("message of encouragement") refers to a synagogue speech, this term may identify this "epistle" as an expository sermon in written form. Hebrews is aptly described as a "word of exhortation" (Heb. 13:22), for exhortation and encouragement are at the heart of the book's purpose (Heb. 3:13; 6:17-20; 10:25; 12:5-6). Hebrews repeatedly calls its readers to an active and courageous response (e.g. Heb. 4:11, 14, 16; 6:1; 10:19-25).

The exhortation to persevere in the faith of the New (re-newed) Covenant rises from the fact that the Old Testament itself testifies to the incompleteness of the covenant at Sinai and of the Old Testament sacrificial system, thereby pointing out the need for a future, superior priest. That superior priest is Jesus Christ, who far surpasses the mediators, Temple and sacrifices of the old order. He is worthy of "greater honor than Moses" (Heb. 3:3). The "how much more" arguments of Hebrews 2:2-3; 9:13-14; 10:28-29; 12:25 - underscore the greater grace and glory - and thus the greater accountability - that have arrived in the New (re-newed) Covenant mediated by Jesus. Jesus calls believers to worship God in reality, so they may draw near to heaven itself with clean consciences. Jesus Christ is the guarantee of this better covenant, for he links us inseparably with the God of grace.

Notes from the NIV Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible, Dr. Richard Pratt, ed. (Zondervan, 2003).

Introduction Material:

The Epistles of the New Testament

Copyright:

Copyright, Authors, and Theological Editors of the SORSB

Answer by Dr. Richard L. Pratt, Jr.

Dr. Richard L. Pratt, Jr. is Co-Founder and President of Third Millennium Ministries who served as Professor of Old Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary and has authored numerous books.