The epistle also does not identify the recipients. Although the title of the epistle suggests that it was addressed to Hebrew Christians, we do not know whether the title was original. The recipients might have been Christians in Rome (13:24 suggests that the believers who had come from Italy now sent their greetings to those at home).
Between 60 and 95 A.D.
The epistle is intended to be words of exhortation to a community of believers (13:22). These Christians had undergone great sufferings in the early days of their conversion (10:32-34), and it appears that persecutions have persisted, or perhaps even intensified (12:3-4; 13:3). In addition to facing the external oppositions, these believers are also struggling with spiritual weaknesses. The author points out the stagnancy in their growth. They ought to be teachers, but they still lack spiritual maturity (5:12-14). Some of these believers have also probably become discouraged in their faith as a result of sufferings (12:5,12). Worse yet, some of the believers have become sluggish in their faith and may eventually drift away and forsake the faith (2:1; 3:12-13; 5:11; 6:12; 10:25). But the author’s main aim is not to reprimand the believers, for, in fact, he generally has a positive view of them (e.g. 6:9-10). Neither is he attempting to address specific issues facing the community. Instead, he directs their attention to the Savior and urges them to “consider the Apostle and High Priest of our confession, Christ Jesus.” (3:1). True knowledge of Jesus Christ is the cure to all spiritual ills and serves as the believers’ ultimate source of encouragement in the face of oppositions. Thus Hebrews expounds on the supremacy of our Lord Jesus Christ, His priestly role, as well as His suffering and submission. It emphasizes the need to hold fast to the Lord and speaks of the dire consequences of forsaking Him. Then, in its final chapters, the epistle exhorts the believers to be strong in faith and reminds them to be faithful in their Christian walk.
1. It is the only book in the New Testament that discusses at length the doctrine that Jesus Christ is our High Priest.
2. Although it ends in epistolary form, Hebrews lacks the standard opening greetings found in other epistles. Based on its organization and presentation, this epistle resembles a series of sermons.
“Seeing then that we have a great High Priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession” (4:14).
1. Read the entire epistle once for general impressions. Then go through each section as listed in chart A and record a heading using a key phrase in that section.
2. Which portion of the epistle concentrates on doctrine? Which portion is mainly exhortations? 1:1-10:18 is mainly doctrines. 10:19-13:25 is mainly exhortations.
3. Identify the five major warning sections in the epistle. 2:1-4; 3:7-4:13; 5:11-6:20; 10:26-31; 12:25-29.
Christ the High Priest
Like the earthly high priests, Christ was appointed by God as the High Priest (5:4,5) to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins (5:3; 8:2,3). Unlike the earthly high priests, Christ was sinless (7:26), became the High Priest in the order of Melchizedek (5:6,10; 6:20; 7:17), was appointed with an oath (7:20-21), offered His own body as a perfect sacrifice once for all (7:27; 10:12), lives forever and sanctifies us forever (7:24,28; 10:14). Christ has entered the heavenly sanctuary on our behalf, granting us the privilege to draw near to God through His blood (10:19-22). He is a High Priest who is merciful and sympathizes with our weakness (2:17; 4:15). Thus we may “come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (4:16). Above all, He is the source of our eternal salvation (5:9), the author and finisher of our faith (12:2). He continues to intercede for us (7:25) and has perfected forever those who are being sanctified (10:14). Therefore, by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, the perfect and ultimate High Priest, we have the assurance of salvation as an anchor for the soul (6:19).
Christ the Exalted Son
Hebrews stresses the divinity of Jesus Christ, that He is the Son of God. He is “the brightness of [God’s] glory and the express image of His person” (1:3). In fact, He is the eternal God Himself, Creator of heavens and earth (1:2; 1:10-12), and He upholds all things by the word of His power (1:3). His throne is established forever (1:8-13), He has been crowned with glory and honor (2:9). By divine appointment, Christ was glorified as the High Priest (5:5). When He had offered Himself as a sacrifice for sin, He passed through the heavens and sat down at the right hand of God (1:3; 4:14; 7:26; 8:1; 9:24; 10:12). Because Christ is the exalted Son, we must hold fast our confession (4:14). Today, God has spoken to us by His Son (1:2); we must heed His word of salvation. The consequences of not obeying the Son or even trampling and crucifying the Son are dreadful (2:3; 6:6; 10:29; 12:25). Christ the Son of God is the builder of the house of God and rules over His own house. We are members of this house only if we persist in our faith in Christ (3:6).
Christ the Suffering Son
Juxtaposed to the glory of the exalted Christ is the humiliation of the suffering Christ. Before the Son of God receives glory and brings many sons into glory, He has to be made perfect through sufferings and to taste death for everyone (2:9-10). By the things He suffered, the Son of God learned obedience, and having perfected, He became the author of eternal salvation to all who obey Him (5:8-9). The Son suffered by offering His body as the sinless sacrifice. Through His atonement, He has put away sin once for all (9:26; 10:14), destroyed the devil and the power of death, (2:14), released those in bondage (2:15), and allowed us to enter the Holiest through a new and a living way (10:19-20). Furthermore, Christ’s sufferings enabled Him to sympathize with our weakness and help us when we are tempted (2:18; 4:15). It is because of His sufferings that He can be the perfect High Priest and Intercessor. His endurance has also become our ultimate source of strength in our sufferings (12:2-3), and the author urges us to join Him in His sufferings (13:11-13).
Superiority of Christ and His Salvation
By way of numerous contrasts, Hebrews demonstrates the supremacy of Christ. The author shows that Christ is greater than the prophets (1:1-3), the angels (1:4-14), and Moses (3:1-19). He is greater than the Levitical priests because He became a High Priest in the order of Melchizedek, who was greater than Levi (7:1-19), was appointed with an oath (7:20-21), is not prevented by death (7:22-25), and is able to make the people perfect forever (7:26-28). Christ has become a surety and Mediator of a better covenant, which was established on better promises (7:22; 8:6). Whereas the earthly priests served in the earthly sanctuary and offered the blood of bulls and goats, Christ went into the heavenly sanctuary and presented the better sacrifice with His own blood (9:23-26)—the blood of sprinkling that speaks better things than that of Abel (12:24). By this better sacrifice, we are given a better hope, through which we draw near to God (7:19). Having been made perfect, we know that we have a better and enduring possession in heaven (10:34), and we look forward to the better, heavenly, country (cf. 11:16, 40).
The main objective of Hebrews in presenting the suffering and exalted Christ is to strengthen the reader’s faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Through faith, we have assurance before God, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water (10:22). Faith in Christ means hearing His words (1:2) and pay careful attention to His gospel of salvation (2:1-4). Faith means trusting God’s promises even before their realization, for faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. (11:1). Faith is in the abstract but is expressed through acting upon God’s promises and living a life pleasing to God. The ancients, including Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, and innumerable others, all demonstrated their faith by their lives (11:2-40). They believed in God and lived their lives accordingly, even though they were yet to receive what was promised. Thus, we ought to mix the message we have heard with faith and make every effort to enter God’s rest (cf. 3:7-4:13). Faith must endure to the end. In order to be partakers of Christ, we need to hold fast to our confession (3:6,14; 6:11,12; 4:14; 10:22,23,38,39). Looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, we must overcome all sluggishness, callousness, sin, and discouragement (12:1-17). We need to imitate the unwavering faith of the saints who suffered for Christ and consider the outcome of the faithful (6:12; 11:33-38; 12:1; 13:7). Our Lord will not fail us, for He is the same yesterday, today, and forever (13:8). If we endure sufferings through faith in Christ, then, when we have done the will of God, we will receive the promise and great reward (10:35-36).
Warning against Apostasy
In connection to the exhortations on faith are the severe warnings against apostasy—the abandonment of faith. We read the author’s earnest call to be careful not to drift away, fall short of God’s grace, or even reject God (2:1; 3:12,13; 4:1; 12:15). We are reminded of the Israelites who provoked God’s wrath and fell in the wilderness (3:7-19). We are to heed the example of Esau, who came to a bitter end because he was godless and forfeited his blessings (12:16-17). In the warning passages, we learn the dreadful consequences of falling away and the impossibility of restoration for those who have trampled and crucified again the Son of God (6:4-8; 10:26-31). In contrast to God’s saving grace is God’s judgment on the disobedient. God is a consuming fire (12:29). He is uncompromising in His judgment and retribution (13:4; 10:30). No one who neglects the gospel of salvation spoken by our Lord shall escape God’s wrath (2:2-3; 12:25). Having few better words to convey the dread of facing God’s vengeance, the author concludes: “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (10:31). Thus, knowing the terrible consequences of turning away from Christ, we must hold on to our share in God’s kingdom and God’s grace, serving God acceptably with reverence and godly fear (12:28).
The challenges that confronted the first readers of Hebrews are just as relevant for us today. Stagnancy, discouragement, apostasy, are still real threats to our faith. But the exhortations in Hebrews are just as timeless. Believers of all ages must look to Jesus the High Priest, who has gone to heaven and is now interceding for us. Since “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (13:8), He is the ultimate answer to our spiritual needs regardless of the time and age we are in.
The epistle makes it clear that its message holds true for all times: “exhort one another daily, while it is called ‘Today,’ lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin” (3:13). As long as it is “today,” we are to heed the message of the epistle. Like the believers back then, we also need to pay careful attention to the gospel of salvation, hold on to our confession in the Lord Jesus, go on to perfection, endure sufferings through faith, and pursue holiness and love. So let us take the words of exhortations as if they are being spoken to us and let us ponder how they apply to our lives as we journey through this book.