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NEW TESTAMENT SURVEY NewTestament Survey


STUDY 19 - THE EPISTLE TO THE HEBREWS


For this study see: M.C.Tenney, pp.355-364; R.H.Gundry, pp.421-430. Further reading: D.A.Carson, et al., An Introduction to the New Testament, pp.391-407.

1. AUTHORSHIP AND DESTINATION

"Who wrote the epistle God only knows certainly" (Origen, Eusebius VI.25).

Authorship
The author of Hebrews does not give his name. The internal indications are that he was an educated person of some literary ability, someone well versed in the Greek version of the OT (LXX), which he quotes extensively. He was not an immediate disciple of Christ (Heb.2:3).  He was a friend of Timothy (13:23).  For many years Paul was believed to be the author - but the epistle's style, diction and content is said to argue against Pauline authorship. Other suggestions include Barnabas, Apollos, Luke, Timothy, Aquila and Priscilla.  The author's acquaintance with Timothy and his use of Hab.2:4 (10:38; cf., Rom.1:17; Gal.3:11) [1] may indicate someone in the Pauline circle.  It is now generally agreed that the author is unknown, hence references are often made simply to the Auctor (Lat., Author).

Readers
It is difficult to decide for whom the epistle was written as it does not open with any formal salutation.  The old heading 'To the Hebrews' and the nature of the content suggests that Jewish Christians were in mind.  Whoever they were they had been acquainted with the gospel and had heard it preached by eyewitnesses of Jesus' life (2:3-4).  They had endured persecution to some degree (10:32-34).  Some of their leaders had died (13:7).  In his commentary on Hebrews, W.Manson suggests that the readers were a community of Jewish Christians in Rome who, threatened with persecutions, were shrinking back under cover of Judaism. [2] The greetings give an Italian connection (13:24).

2. DATE OF WRITING

M.C.Tenney shares some good observations:

"The epistle was written during the lifetime of the second generation of Christians (2:1-4) and at a considerable interval after the conversion of the recipients (5:12). They had forgotten the 'former days' (10:32) and their leaders had died (13:7). Timothy had been imprisoned (13:23), but was still living and had been liberated.  The allusions to the priesthood imply that the temple was still standing, but the removal of Jewish institutions was not too far distant (12:27).  Persecution was imminent (10:32-36; 12:4).  The epistle seems to fit best the situation of the late sixties, when the church at Rome was fearing persecution and when the fall of the Jewish commonwealth was imminent". [3]

Hebrews must be dated before the end of the first century as Clement of Rome quotes from it in his epistle to the Corinthians (c.A.D. 95).  Reference is made to the temple as if it was still standing (8:4,13; 10:11; 13:10,11).

3. OUTLINE AND CONTENT

Hebrews compares the old and new covenants demonstrating the superiority of the new.

An outline of the epistle M.C.Tenney incorporates the keyword 'better' into his analysis and outline:

Hebrews falls into two main parts:

The main argument (1:1-10:18) and the closing exhortation (10:19-13:25). Note: 'exhortation' (13:22).

  • Hebrews: The Epistle of Better Things

  • The better messenger: the Son (1:1-2:18)

  • The better apostle (3:1-4:13)

  • The better priest (4:14-7:28)

  • The better covenant (8:1-9:28)

  • The better sacrifice (10:1-31)

  • The better way: faith (10:32-12:29) 

  • Conclusion: the practice of faith (13:1-25).

Content
The readers were tempted to 'loose their mooring' and 'drift' to Judaism (2:1).  So the Auctor seeks to exhort them to 'hold fast' (4:14).  He demonstrates the superiority of God's revelation in Christ to the revelation of God through the law, especially as represented by the Levitical priesthood. Christianity is superior to Judaism. As Tenney says, the new revelation in Christ has superseded the old; the coming of the substance has made the shadow obsolete. To go back to the old religion was backsliding and apostasy.  The author concentrates on the superiority of Christ, who is compared with angels, Moses, Joshua, and the priestly order of Aaron.  As a priest he is seen as a superior high priest belonging to the order of Melchizedek.  Christ is depicted as both priest and sacrificial offering - and a mediator on behalf of the people of God. He bases his argument on the OT.

Exhortations
Hebrews contains strong warnings against apostasy (6:4-12; 10:26-31), but the general feel of the work is one of exhortation (13:22).  From the Greek New Testament we note these exhortations:

  1. Let us fear (4:1);

  2. Let us therefore give diligence to enter (4:11);

  3. Let us hold fast our confession (4:14);

  4. Let us draw near to the throne (4:16);

  5. Let us press on unto perfection (6:1);

  6. Let us draw near to God (10:22);

  7. Let us hold fast the confession of our faith (10:23);

  8. Let us consider one another 10:24);

  9. Let us lay aside every weight (12:1);

  10. Let us run the race, looking unto Jesus (12:1);

  11. Let us have grace (12:28);

  12. Let us therefore go forth (13:13);

  13. Let us offer up sacrifice of praise (13:15).


  4. EVALUATION

Although the author of Hebrews is unknown its inspiration is obvious. It 'contains the holy of holies of Christian truth'.  Note the teaching:

Christology
"The greatest single value of the book of Hebrews is its teaching on the present ministry and priesthood of Christ" (M.C.Tenney). [4] The ministry of the Son as revealer and redeemer is told in majestic language in chapter one (vv.1-4).  The eternal nature of the Son's priesthood is pictured in Melchizedek (6:20), and the Son's eternal priesthood is seen as foretold in Psa.110 (7:17).  The intercessory ministry of the risen Lord is expounded (7:24; 8:1; cf., Rom.8:34). The eternal Sonship of Christ is seen in the words: "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and for ever" (13:8).

Atonement
Christ is both priest and sacrifice.  His work is finished (1:3).  He offered one sacrifice, for all sins, for all time.  It was 'once for all' (7:27).  The new covenant is explained and seen as a fulfilment of Jer.31:31-34 (see 8:8-12).

The examples of faith
Chapter eleven illustrates the importance of faith and gives a list of past men and women of faith.  The example of these 'witnesses' is used, together with the Lord's, to exhort the Christians to persevere (12:1f.).

The nature of the church
The old priesthood is outmoded.  All believers are viewed as priests able to enter the heavenly temple with spiritual sacrifices (13:15-16; cf., 1 Pet.2:9).

Use of the Old Testament (LXX)
According to M.C.Tenney, the epistle is "an exposition of one theme, the new revelation of God, based on the passages in the OT that contain the latent truth, and developed in orderly rhetorical fashion to a climax.  Its use of quotations gives a good idea of the passages and the methods of interpretation that were used by the Christian teachers of the first century". [5]

Hebrews teaches us that the OT points to Christ.
And Jesus Christ is the key to unlocking the Scriptures.


ENDNOTES

1. The exegesis of Hab.2:4 differs in Romans and Hebrews.

2. Consult the introduction in: W.Manson, The Epistle to the Hebrews, London, Hodder, 1951.

3. M.C.Tenney, p.359.

4. M.C.Tenney, p.363.

5. M.C.Tenney, p.363.



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