The book of Hebrews contains essential doctrinal information and instruction for all Christians. It affirms the authority and supremacy of Christ.
There is a confusing variety of opinions and conflicting evidence among Bible scholars when it comes to who wrote the epistle of Hebrews. Some early traditions attribute it to Paul, and the King James Version uses the title “The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews.” However, the earliest manuscripts do not name the author.
As The New Unger’s Bible Handbook puts it: “This great epistle is anonymous. … In the absence of direct statement or indubitable proof, the question must remain unsettled. This, however, does not affect the genuineness of the epistle. No book contains grander truth, nor attests itself as being more divinely inspired” (p. 583).
The inspiration of the book is not dependent on knowing the author, as it is the contents that are of primary importance. The writer of Hebrews refers readers to the inspiration of God, who “has in these last days spoken to us by His Son” (Hebrews 1:2). As the apostle Paul wrote to Timothy, “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
Date and audience
The book of Hebrews was most likely written between A.D. 64-67 before the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by the Roman army in A.D. 70. Even though the author doesn’t refer to the temple in Jerusalem, but rather to the tabernacle in the wilderness, he describes the rituals associated with the sacrifices in the present tense—thus before the destruction of the temple (Hebrews 10:2; 13:9-16).
Most commentaries and biblical scholars believe that Hebrews was written to Christians who had a good knowledge of the Old Testament, especially the sacrificial system.
However, the sound biblical teachings, caring advice and admonitions apply to all Christians throughout the ages.
Purposes of Hebrews
The following are themes of the book of Hebrews:
- Spiritual warnings: The author was aware that the recipients were in serious spiritual danger. He was concerned that they were at risk and might “drift away” by neglecting “so great a salvation” (2:1, 3). He feared they might “harden their hearts” and, as a result, “fall short” of that wonderful “rest” promised by God to those who remain faithful (3:7 to 4:11).
And, even worse, he feared that by falling away they might “crucify again for themselves the Son of God, and put Him to an open shame” (6:4-6), and suffer punishment as one “who has trampled the Son of God underfoot, counted the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified a common thing, and insulted the Spirit of grace” (10:29). His point is that if one accepted and later rejected what Christ’s sacrifice accomplished for him or her, it would be impossible to renew repentance. It would be like asking Jesus to go through another death on the stake (10:26).
Furthermore, he warned them to “not refuse Him who speaks. For if they did not escape who refused Him who spoke on earth, much more shall we not escape if we turn away from Him who speaks from heaven” (12:25, emphasis added throughout).
The writer was warning his readers about spiritual lethargy and against neglecting God’s great calling.
- Another objective of Hebrews was possibly to prepare the Christians for the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple. The result would be that the temple rites would come to an end.
Halley’s Bible Handbook says, “This Epistle was written to explain to them that Animal Sacrifices … were no longer of any use, that the killing of a bullock or a lamb could never take away sin; that those Sacrifices had never been intended to be Perpetual; that they had been planned to be a sort of Age-Long Picture of the Coming Sacrifice of Christ; and now that Christ had come, they had served their purpose” (p. 647).
- Hebrews highlights the role and superiority of Christ. The New Oxford Annotated Bible, edited by Bruce M. Metzger and Roland E. Murphy, states, “Three main points are emphasized … and directed to those whose faith and practice are weakening, not to abandon that salvation (2:1; 10:32-36; 13:22) … (a) The superiority of Jesus Christ to the prophets (1:1-3), to the angels (1:5-2:18), and to Moses himself (3:1-6); (b) The superiority of Christ’s priesthood to the Levitical priesthood (4:14–7:28); and, (c) The superiority of Christ’s sacrifice, offered in the heavenly sanctuary, to the many animal sacrifices offered on earth by the Levitical priests (8:1-10:39)” (p. 316).
- Leadership: Hebrews encourages readers to remember the laudable examples of past leaders of the Church (13:7) and to be responsive to present leaders who “watch out for your souls” and “let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you” (13:17).
- Another theme is faith. Hebrews 11 is often called the Faith Chapter. It gives a definition of faith (verses 1 and 6) and provides a long list of individuals from the Old Testament who were outstanding examples of faith.
Outline of Hebrews
The first part of Hebrews covers the superiority of Christ and His sacrifice (chapters 1 through 10:18). The last part of the book looks at elements of the faith (10:19 through chapter 13).
The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Revised Edition) refers to five “warning passages” in Hebrews:
- Warning not to drift away (2:1-4).
- Warning not to harden our hearts (3:7-4:13).
- Warning about the unpardonable sin (6:4-8).
- Another warning about sinning willfully (10:26-31).
- Warning about refusing to hear God (12:25-29).
The first part of Hebrews covers the superiority of Christ and His sacrifice. The last part looks at elements of the faith.Here is a chapter outline of the book:
1:1-3: Christ is superior to the prophets. (Verse 1 is not the typical introduction of an epistle.)
1:4-14: Christ is superior to the angels. He is recognized as Creator (verses 10-12) and Redeemer of mankind (verses 13-14). Angels are never talked about in these terms, but are “ministering spirits sent forth to minister for those who will inherit salvation” (verse 14).
2:1-4: A dire warning not to drift away, and thereby “neglect so great a salvation.”
2:5-9: Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is “crowned with glory and honor” and is far above angels in power and authority.
2:10-18: The incredible destiny and potential of mankind is made possible through the suffering and death of Christ. Since He was tempted as a human being, He is able to help humans who face temptations and trials.
3:1-6: Christ is greater than Moses.
3:7-19: Warning not to go astray by hardening our hearts.
4:1-8: Further warning about coming short of entering the future rest (the Millennium).
4:9-11: The weekly Sabbath is a reminder of the ultimate rest.
4:12-13: The power of God’s Word discerns the secret intentions and motives of the heart. As Halley’s Bible Handbook says: “If only our churches could realize what Power they would gain by giving God’s Word its proper place in the services!” (p. 650).
4:14-16: Christ was appointed our great High Priest. As Christ experienced the challenges of being human, He can sympathize with our human weaknesses when we approach the throne of grace.
5:1-6: Christ is greater than the Aaronic priesthood and is now “a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek” (verse 6). Melchizedek is mentioned again in chapter 7.
5:7-10: All the days of His life Christ learned obedience through suffering, even though He was the Son of God.
5:11-14: The writer says, “You have become dull of hearing.” They had allowed themselves to drift into spiritual lethargy. Milk is likened to basic teachings, and solid foods, to more advanced lessons.
6:1-8: A further warning to return to the high standards God sets and not to take the sacrifice of Christ lightly. This could result in what has been called the unpardonable sin (Matthew 12:31-32; Mark 3:28-30).
6:9-20: God’s promises are absolutely certain to those who remain faithful in service to Him. Abraham is an example of one who received God’s promise “after he had patiently endured” (verse 15).
7:11-28: The Levitical priesthood is temporary, but Christ’s priesthood is eternal. The sacrificial system could not forgive sin and justify the sinner (verses 11 and 28); only Christ who offered the perfect sacrifice can. True Christians now have access to God the Father through Christ as High Priest.
8:1-13: A comparison between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant. The New was established on “better promises” (verse 6) and is able to change our hearts and minds. This was not possible with the Old Covenant. The “fault” was not with the Old Covenant, but with the people (verse 8).
9:15-22: The tabernacle ceremonies were inadequate and temporary. The sacrificial system could not forgive sin. Only through the shedding of our Savior’s blood could sins be forgiven.
9:23-28: Only Christ’s sacrifice could ever put away sin (verse 26).
10:1-18: Animal sacrifices were merely a “shadow” of Christ’s sufferings and death.
10:19-25: In the Old Covenant only the high priest was allowed to enter the Holy of Holies. Now with Christ as High Priest, we can have direct access to the throne of God (verse 19). Verse 25 warns us not to forsake the “assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some.”
10:26-39: Readers are given a further warning not to “draw back” and reject the promises of God (verse 38) and are told to patiently do “the will of God” in order to receive the reward promised to true Christians (verse 36).
This is the well-known Faith Chapter, which defines faith (verses 1 and 6) and lists faithful individuals.
12:1-3: The ultimate example of faithful endurance is Christ, who set us an example to follow.
12:4-17: God will discipline those He loves. Don’t look at trials and sufferings negatively but as a way our Father develops righteous character in us. The writer warns against allowing a “root of bitterness” to take hold and make us “defiled” (verse 15). Esau is an example of a person who could have repented but did not (verses 16-17).
12:18-29: God has our best interests at heart, so we must not “turn away from Him who speaks from heaven” (verse 25).
13:1-17: God will not forsake us if we avoid covetousness and remain faithful to Him. If we do, “He will never leave you nor forsake you” (verse 5). Brotherly love, faithfulness to the marriage covenant, and thankfulness as opposed to covetousness are emphasized (verses 1-5, 15).
13:20-25: The book concludes with encouragement “to do His will” and to do those things that are “well pleasing in His sight” (verse 21).
The book of Hebrews combines both sound doctrinal themes and thoughtful, sincere exhortations to the recipients to stand firm and remain faithful to their calling. The writer shows a deep love for those he is writing to.
As The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Revised Edition) puts it: “It is a pastoral exhortation, interspersed with earnest appeals to the recipients to stand firm in their faith” (p. 19).
Hebrews contains messages for Christians throughout all ages not to neglect God’s great salvation, but to stand firm in their loyalty to God and His Word.
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