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Themes in Hebrews: Introduction to Hebrews

25/09/2011

Ballynahinch Congregational Church run a series of classes for their members on the last Saturday of each month. They call it “The School of the Prophets.” This year at SOTP I am presenting a series of lectures entitled, “THEMES IN HEBREWS” The first lecture, an Introduction to the book, was given on Saturday 24th September 2011. The notes from the talk are below.

Themes in Hebrews – Introduction

Text: Hebrews 1:1-4

We are embarking upon a series of seven studies in the Book of Hebrews. What do we want to achieve? Basically I want, at the end of this series, for you and I both to appreciate two simple things:-

  • That Jesus is far better than anything else! If, at the end of this series of studies, we just grasp the fact more clearly, – that Jesus is the best, and that nothing can take His place, we will have achieved something.
  • That because he is the best for us, we must press on, whatever the obstacles, to the final goal, of eternal rest in Him.

Having openly stated at the very beginning, what my agenda is, let us ask a few very basic questions about this book:-

1. Who Wrote It.

There’s no mention in the book of an author. Now, my contention is that God doesn’t make mistakes, and if He has decreed that the Hebrew author should be anonymous, then we should do little more than to accept that with a glad amen. Yet as long ago as the end of the second century AD (in the times of Clement of Alexandria and Origen) the eastern church was attributing the epistle to Paul. Let’s spend some time looking at that proposition…

  • Arguments for Pauline Authorship. There are four basic indications of Pauline authorship:
    • The author was closely acquainted with Timothy. Hebrews 13:23 Know ye that our brother Timothy is set at liberty; with whom, if he come shortly, I will see you. There’s obviously a very close personal relationship there.
    • There is a warning about disobedience. Now this is something that Paul raises in 1 Corinthians. Israel disobeyed God and they were punished, and that was meant as a warning to us. 1 Cor. 10:1-6 See the similarity in Hebrews 4:1-11 Both Paul and Hebrews are warning us, that having done so much for His people, God demands adherence to His covenant stipulations –requires obedience on our part. Let us use Israel as our example, – let us not emulate them in their faithlessness.
    • There is an emphasis on the New Covenant. Both Paul and Hebrews make this a major theme of their writings. This is the theme of 2 Corinthians 3, for example. 2 Cor. 3:3-10

So, based on that evidence, people are willing to assume that Paul was the author of the book of Hebrews. But when we look a little closer we see some difficulties with all of that.

  • Arguments against Pauline authorship.
    • In Paul’s letter to Timothy, he speaks of him as MY SON. 1 Tim. 1:2 1 Tim. 1:18 2 Tim. 1:2 Hebrews, as we have seen, refers to Timothy just as ‘our friend.’ Is that really the close relationship that Paul had with Timothy? Some theologians think probably not.
    • The reference to Israel’s poor example is not as precise as it first seems. When you look closely, there is a subtle but important theological difference. Paul is referring MORAL LAPSES in Israel. The people were being led astray by laxity in their behaviour, a godless lifestyle. They were LUSTING AFTER EVIL THINGS. 1 Cor. 10:7-12 Hebrews, on the other hand, is using Israel’s bad example to warn against UNBELIEF. Let us labour therefore to enter into that rest, lest any man fall after the same example of unbelief.
    • Paul always states his name. Now for some this is the decisive issue. 2 Thes. 3:17
    • The Hebrew author appears not to be an apostle. Paul spent much time in his letters defending his apostleship. He does it in several books. But the Hebrew author doesn’t do this. He gives the impression that he has heard the message of the Gospel from the apostles, not AS ONE OF THE APOSTLES. Hebrews 2:3-4 It’s doubtful whether the Hebrew author ever met the Lord, in the sense that Paul had, when he wrote, 1 Cor. 15:7-9
    • Hebrews quotations are alsways from the Septuagint. Paul does too – but not just so consistently. Sometimes he transliterates directly from the Hebrew OT, sometimes he paraphrases.

So, the obvious conclusion that we are driven to in all of this, is that the answer to the question, “Who wrote Hebrews” is a question we simply cannot answer.

2. Who was Hebrews written for?

Let’s consider firstly, what we know about these people…

  • They were of a Jewish Background.
  • They spoke Greek.
  • They had heard the gospel from the apostles, not directly from Jesus. Hebrews 2:3
  • They had already suffered for their faith. And in fact were presently suffering from persecution. Hebrews 10:32-34 Because of this…
  • They are in danger of drifting away from the faith – their Christian experience is weak. Hebrews 2:14-18 Although, so far in this persecution, no-one has yet died for their faith. Hebrews 12:4
  • There may have been a pending change in the leadership of the church. Hebrews 13:7 Hebrews 13:17
  • They receive a greeting through the author, from Italy. Hebrews 13:24

So, with all of that in mind, some suggestions have been made about the recipients…

  • Possibly Jews in Alexandria? There was a community of Christians in Alexandria who were originally part of the Jewish Diaspora, and who were Hellenistic. But the only reason for believing that the letter was for them is the LXX references and the Temple/Jewish ritual connections.
  • Possibly Jews in Canaan? If so, why the reference in Hebrews 12:4 (Ye have not yet resisted unto blood, striving against sin.) to their escape of martyrdom? This surely couldn’t be written to people in Jerusalem, where at this time at least one martyrdom (Stephen) had already occurred. And why use the LXX to address people who spoke fluent Hebrew?
  • Possibly former members of the Qumran Community? This suggestion has been popular among some scholars. But again it would seem strange to use quotations from the LXX. Why such references to the Jewish temple? The Qumran scholars regarded the Temple at Jerusalem as totally apostate.
  • Possibly to Christians in Italy? This is a sensible suggestion. Chapter 13:9 tells us that those from Italy greet you. The word apo is FROM – but could equally be ‘away from.’ So FROM but not IN. Hebrews was known very early on in Italy. Clement of Rome died in 95AD and in his writings quoted from Hebrews. Hebrews 10 may be a reflection of the expulsion of the Jews from Rome in AD49 under Claudius. Hebrews 10:32-37 We know for example that Aquila and Priscilla were expelled from Rome at this time. Acts 18:1-3 The reference to FOODS in Heb 13:9 could have referred to a problem that was prevalent in Rome, but which was also prevalent just about everywhere else, eg. Corinth.

There is one point that must be made here. Hebrews is NOT a ‘general epistle’ such as 1 John, or James. The writer of the book is very specific about to whom it is written.

3. Why was Hebrews written?

Our final consideration must be to ask about the author’s purpose in writing this book.

  1. To focus on the uniqueness of Christ. Jesus is our Great High Priest, and as such He is better than anything else that went before.
  2. It is a word of exhortation! We must therefore persevere. Notice a particular type of argument style that runs through the book. It is a ‘lesser to greater’ progression: Hebrews 2:2-3 Hebrews 3:3 Hebrews 9:13-14 Hebrews 10:28-29 Hebrews 12:25
  3. To demand a response! Hebrews 4:11-16 Hebrews 6:1 Hebrews 10:19-25
  4. I’ll post the notes for the second lecture in early November. Check back each month to read the entire series.

Rev R K McEvoy,

24th Sept 2011

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