Sunday, February 03, 2013

HEBREWS: AN INTRODUCTION



HEBREWS: AN INTRODUCTION

We commonly refer to this New Testament book as the “Book of Hebrews” or “The Letter To The Hebrews”. It does not have the customary beginning of a letter. It does not say who it is from or to whom it is addressed. In the letter right before Hebrews, Philemon, the verse word of the letter is “Paul”, telling you who the letter is from, as was customary for the time. Then it says “to Philemon”. Hebrews, however, jumps right into the theological argument. The end of Hebrews does contain a blessing and some personal greetings, however.

Because of this, I think Hebrews is a sermon which was written and sent as a letter. The writer calls it “my word of exhortation”. (13:22)

We do not know who wrote Hebrews. For many centuries it was taught that Paul was the author. Your King James Bible labels it “Paul’s Letter to the Hebrews”. However, the ancient manuscripts do not contain the title. Many early writers disputed the idea that Paul wrote it. Origen noted the difference in the writing style of this book versus the letters of Paul. Much later, Calvin succinctly dismissed the possibility that Paul was the author.

Since we do not have good historical evidence, I would point out one piece of internal evidence. That is in Hebrews 2:3. The writer speaks of the gospel, saying “it was declared at first by  the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard…” In other words, Jesus preached the gospel to the first disciples who told it to us. That would mean the writer was a “second generation” believer. He heard the gospel not from Christ but from one of the original disciples. That was also true for his audience.

In contrast, Paul writes in the Letter to the Galatians, the he received his commission as apostle directly from Jesus (1:1), had Jesus revealed directly to him (1:16) and did not consult the other apostles for his message. Indeed, this direct revelation is the basis of his claim to be an apostle. He had to be one that had been with Christ.

Some in medieval times proposed Barnabas as the writer. Many other have bee proposed. There is no historical evidence for any of them however. So, our conclusion is that we do not know who wrote it. 

To whom was this sermon addressed? Who was the intended audience? The specific audience was a group of Jewish Christians who were tempted to abandon the faith and return to Judaism. I believe they were in and around Rome. Hebrews 13:24 says “those from Italy” greet you. That indicates the writer was in someplace other than Italy, accompanied by others from Italy and writing to people still in Italy who would be interested to know others from Italy were with the writer.

Rome persecuted Christians. Jews persecuted Jewish Christians. In addition, Judaism, with its laws and ceremonies, was what they were raised with. So, the writer of Hebrews demonstrated the supremacy of Christ over all parts of Judaism.  He urged them and exhorted them not to give up, but to hold fast to their faith and grow in it.

More generally, the sermon is addressed to people tempted to give up on the faith. This is applicable to us, the modern readers. Your faith will be attacked this year. People will criticize your beliefs. Books, magazines and movies will try to discredit the Bible, the church and the historical faith. Friends will abandon the faith. False doctrines will be proclaimed by preachers who formally preached the gospel.

In addition to persecution, some of you will suffer trials. You will be sick. You will lose your job. Friends and family members will die. Your marriage will dissolve. You will be betrayed. You will be hurt. You will be tested. How will your survive with your faith intact? You must look to Christ! And to do that, you must know who he is and what he had done. We call this the person and the work of Christ. Hebrews deals with both in detail.

So, this book is about Christ. It shows us who he is and that he is above everyone else. It shows us what he has done and how his work is superior to anyone else’s work. He is above all. That is a message you need and you can use.
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