The Epistle to the Hebrews

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The Hebrews were under pressure and wanted God to send an angel or a prophet to help them. The writer is trying to show that God has gone one better! The book is dominated by discussion of Christ's priesthood, arguing that it is incomparably better than that of the Old Testament because

  1. Hebrews 7:26–27 — the old priests were themselves sinners in need of forgiveness, so they were not actually able to provide forgiveness for others,
  2. Hebrews 10:4–10 — being sinners, they had no right of access to God, and
  3. Hebrews 7:25 — the priests died and were unable to save permanently.

Hebrews 8:1 celebrates the fact that Christ is free of these defects. The writer seems keen to show that Christianity is rooted in the Old Testament but without the defects of Judaism, so he looks back to time before Moses, focussing on Abel, Melchizedek and Abraham.[1 p.62]

The word "epistle" is inappropriate because it lacks the beginning and ending of a true letter; it might have been a circular, or the "meat" to go in several mass-produced letters.

The opening chapters give the impression of a very theoretical and Jewish book, but Green[2] found the later chapters very useful for teaching Christian living to new Christians. He taught: acceptable worship (Hebrews 12:28f, Hebrews 13:15); love for the brethren (Hebrews 13:1); love for strangers (Hebrews 13:2); love for the under-privileged (Hebrews 13:3); Christian family life (Hebrews 13:4); simple living (Hebrews 13:5, 6, 16); spiritual leadership (Hebrews 13:7, 17); sound teaching (Hebrews 13:9) and suffering (Hebrews 13:10–14).

The book has many similarities with the approach of John's Gospel; it describes Jesus as "the Word", uses Platonic imagery (as well as some nautical images), and avoids mentioning the Bread and Wine when quoting Genesis 14 concerning Melchizedek, as John avoids mentioning the institution of Holy Communion when he describes the Last Supper. The references to baptism also resemble Jewish thinking rather than Christian; the writer talks about "baptisms" (washings) rather than the one-off initiation into Christ that Paul described. So there is something peculiar about the treatment of the sacraments. Bultmann thought that the writer came from a school that was against sacraments, perhaps indicating a Gnostic background. Similarly the mentions of "spirit" (pneuma or "wind", a neuter substance) as opposed to "the Holy Spirit" (as a male person) are at odds with most of the rest of the New Testament. Either this book is heavily dominated by Jewish thought or it is so early that Christian doctrine on these issues had not yet emerged.

The use of quotations from the Septuagint is rather self conscious compared with the way Paul introduces quotations effortlessly. There are many allusions to Psalm 110. The writer seems to be aware of Paul's writings, or to have a common basis, because the word "grace" appears; but it is used to mean something quite different from what Paul thinks it means. Also there is no mysticism in Hebrews.

The book lacks the formal beginning and ending, with personal greetings, that mark Paul's epistles, so it is not likely that he wrote it. Clement, Martin Luther, and Hugh Montefiore[14] all suggested that Apollos might be the author; others have suggested Barnabas.

Structure

Hebrews 1:1–2:9Jesus rescues us by becoming like us
Hebrews 2:10–2:18We are adopted as brothers of Jesus
Hebrews 3:1–4:13How we should live as brothers
Hebrews 4:14–5:10Jesus our Great High Priest
Hebrews 5:11–6:12Grown-up Christianity
Hebrews 6:13–8:13Melchizedek and the new covenant
Hebrews 9:1–10:18The one and sufficient sacrifice
Hebrews 10:19–11:40Living by Faith
Hebrews 12:1–13:25Victorious Living

Commentary

1

It appears that some people thought that Jesus might have been born as an angel, or become one after his death. Angels were familiar and comfortable in Jewish thought; consider how Joseph obeyed the angel telling him to take the family to Egypt. Jesus's life depended on Joseph obeying the command of that angel. We should be far more careful to obey the one who not only knows what's good for us, but also carries all authority!

1:1

The original initiative was God's; he had to find us, because we could not find him. And in Jesus he came to live with us, and spoke to us face to face. The mention of the author and his readers having a common ancestry within Judaism indicates that the book was written with a Jewish audience in mind, so the traditional title "Hebrews" is reasonable. The word translated "various" actually means "fragmentary" implying incomplete revelation before Jesus.

1:2

Jesus acted during his Galilean Ministry like one of the old prophets; he suffered the misunderstanding and ridicule they suffered. He affirms their role by taking it up himself.

1:3

He "sustains" the universe with his word; that is, the "laws of nature" operate by his command. They seem as rigid as laws to us, but they are flexible choices to him. Having made the world, structured it, and saved it from itself, everything is now finished, and he as resumed his seat. Not only is the creating and law-giving done, but the sacrificing for sin is done too. The word translated "representation" means "image", a platonic concept.

1:4f

There follows a long discourse for no apparent reason about angels and their inferiority to Jesus. Perhaps the writer was aware of some heresy such as thinking Jesus to have been an angel always, or to have become one when resurrected from the dead. The Essenes' Qumran ["Dead Sea"] Scrolls show a belief that there would be two Messiahs, one military, and another (greater) priestly one, both subordinate to the Archangel Michael.[3] Though we may not share this heresy we should not skip over this section's important information.

1:6

The reference to angels worshipping the Son is from the longer version of Deuteronomy 32:43 found at Qumran[13] and in the LXX.

1:7

Here the writer to the Hebrews draws attention to Psalm 104:4 which says that winds are his messengers and his angels (or servants in some translations) are tongues of fire. Then Hebrews 1:14 says that angels are spirits that minister to God's people. Thus the observation of the sound of wind and sight of flames in Acts 2:2–3 recalls Psalm 104:4, and this chapter reinforces the suggestion that not only the Son and the Holy Spirit but also angels were active at the birth of the church.

1:8

The author presents Jesus as the overall ruler of everything.

1:10

The author presents Jesus as creator of the universe. This verse illustrates how early christians took verses about God from the Old Testament (Psalm 102:25 in this case) and applied them to Jesus.[4 p.41]

1:11

The author presents Jesus as an eternal being.

1:12

The author says Jesus will decide when to throw the earth away like rubbish. This does not necessarily imply the destruction of the earth, just its replacement (or renewal) by a new one (Isaiah 65:17, Isaiah 66:22, 1 Peter 3:13, Revelation 6:14, Revelation 21:1).

1:13

The author teaches that everything and everyone will have to fall before Jesus in the end; see Revelation 5:13.

1:14

Angels visit earth to help God's people; "ministering" literally means "servant". See comments on Hebrews 1:7 and Acts 2:2–3.

2:1

So having told us who Jesus is, we are urged to note his words carefully and obey them, not only because his wisdom can save our lives (e.g. Joseph told by an angel to take Mary and Jesus to Egypt — Matthew 2:13), but also because he is king of the universe, and his word is law... (continues at verse 9)

2:7

The text literally means "for a little while he was...", which is a small mis-quotation from Psalm 8:5, but fits in with verse 9.

2:9

(continued from verse 1)... and secondly now that we know who Jesus is, we should worship him — because everything must (Revelation 5:13)!

3:6

A house is something you dwell in. We are a house that God dwells in.

3:7–11

The writer quotes Psalm 95:7b–11 (which is based on Exodus 17:7) and verses 3:12 to 4:11 apply it to the Christian situation.

3:12

This verse confirms that it is possible to turn away from Christ thus losing our salvation; see Appendix 2 Judgement.

3:15

cf. Hebrews 1:1–2 — God speaks to us in many different ways; this verse does not mean we should wait for a prophetic experience before we act.

3:19

The argument doesn't make sense until you remember that when they sent spies to spy out the Promised Land, the Hebrews listened more to their fears about giants in the land than the promises of God (Numbers 14).

4:1 f

The "Sabbath Rest" referred to here is something we should enjoy every day (verse 7) so it must mean the peace which the Christian life offers.

4:2

Hearing the Gospel is no use unless it leads to faith which in turn leads to salvation.

4:7

In a sense every day should be a Sabbath to the Lord for the Christian. Every day is holy.

4:10

In Genesis 1:31–2:3 God took satisfaction in his work; that is the present situation in Heaven. When we enter Heaven we will participate, but since it was his work and not ours, we will praise Him for it. That is why praise is crucial in worship.

4:12

cf. Revelation 1:16. The use of the sword here sounds rather like a surgeon's scalpel, able to peel back our defences in order to heal our inner parts, though Psalm 149:6–7 says that a two-edged sword is for vengeance. It appears that God's living word is dynamic because of the way the Holy Spirit operates in the minds of those who read it. "If you have had experience of a spirituality that seeks to hear God speak, you may have found that as you study the bible devotionally, God regularly highlights words or phrases from it. These may give His guidance, support or encouragement. They may give specific help in particular circumstances when human perspectives seem insufficient".[5 p.48]

See also the comment on 1 Thessalonians 2:13.

4:15

See comment on Luke 4:1–13.

5:6f

Melchizedek appears in scripture only in Genesis 14:18–20, Psalm 110:4, and here. The two Old Testament pasasages give tantalisingly little information about him, but show him to be a mysterious figure who was superior in some sense to Abraham. These verses present him as a prototype of Jesus in several ways:

Hence Jesus is superior to the Old Testament Law and Patriarchs (older and greater) cf. John 8:58 "before Abraham was, I AM". Jesus is eternal and universal cf. Matthew 28:19–20 "to the end of the age".

He is the only Old Testamant figure who is both a priest and a king, and his priesthood is earlier than that of the Levites, yet superior in that he gave the blessing to their ancestor Abraham. He therefore validates Jesus as a priest and king not descended from Levi.[15]

5:7

The "loud cries" seem to indicate Gethsemane.

5:8–9

When Jesus was tempted in the wilderness his strength to resist was built up, and when he went to Calvary his strength was proved beyond doubt. "made perfect" does not imply that Jesus was imperfect before; proved perfect would be a better translation. The proof of his perfection is his obedience even to death.

The idea that testing can lead to growth is confirmed by James 1:2–8, 1 Peter 1:7. Testing is painful, and we may pray against it (Matthew 6:13, Matthew 26:39) but nevertheless we still get plenty of it.

His suffering and obedience made him perfectly qualified to be our high priest; that idea leads to the following statement that our obedience qualifies us to receive the benefit of his salvation.[6]

"God wants us to walk in obedience, not victory. Obedience is oriented toward God; victory is oriented toward self".[7]

However, "for me to die is gain" because (as shown by Jesus our fore-runner) when God is in charge, death is not final but leads to resurrection. Even when the Enemy claims to have victory over us, when can remain confident in God's resurrection power.

I see Jesus's suffering as perfecting him in knowledge rather than obedience. Rulers rule insasmuch as they know what is going on in their domains; what they don't know, they don't rule. Jesus has experienced the worst that this world can offer, and is therefore equipped to be "Lord of all" (Acts 10:36) in a way that he could not otherwise be.

5:10

Some New Testament writers seem shy of calling Jesus a priest, probably because he was not a Levite; that is probably why Hebrews says so much about Melchizedek (mentioned in the Old Testament only in Genesis 14:18–20 and Psalm 110:4) who seems to have been a priest but not a levite. The characteristics of priesthood that Melchizedek showed were:

  1. he was King of Peace (Salem) (Genesis 14:18);
  2. his name meant King of Righteousness (Hebrews 7:2);
  3. in 1800 B.C.E. he sat on the throne that would be occupied 800 years later by King David (Genesis 14:18, Luke 1:32);
  4. he was called Priest of God Most High (a most unusual concept in an age when local gods were routinely worshipped) (Genesis 14:18);
  5. his role as Priest was international, outside the Jewish Law (he was no Levite) (Hebrews 7:6);
  6. his term as Priest has eternal, with no recorded beginning nor end (Psalm 110:4, Hebrews 7:16).
  7. he was humble enough to give time to his visitor, and he went out to Abram (Genesis 14:18);
  8. he gave bread and wine (Genesis 14:18);
  9. he blessed Abram, by praying to God on Abram's behalf (Genesis 14:19);
  10. he received Abram's tithe on God's behalf (Genesis 14:20);
6:1–3

One would expect these verses to show the author's plan for the structure of the book, but the connections are not easily discerned!

7:1–3

The reference to Melchizedek is puzzling because the purpose of the argument is not immediately clear and the source of the facts which the writer cites is not given. Equally puzzling is the lack of any mention of the bread and wine that Melchizedek gave to Abraham, like Holy Communion, strengthening the case for Melchizedek pre-figuring Jesus.

The Qumran Scrolls[8] contain references to Melchizedek, adding to what we can deduce from Genesis 14:18–20 and Psalm 110:4. The point that is being made here, as a Hebrew should realise, is that Melchizedek was not a Jew, let alone a Levite, yet he was treated as a Priest by no lesser person than Abraham. The writer is showing that even Abraham (who the Hebrews look up to as their supreme ancestor) saw that there were Priests other than his family to whom he owed respect and homage.

Therefore the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) are not the only ways to relate to God. It seems that the Rabbis had realised this implication, hence their interest in Melchizedek. But Christians see Melchizedek as a pointer to the New Covenant inaugurated by Christ.

7:11

This verse is central to the argument of the book: the levitival priesthood was imperfect, so it has been superseded.

7:25

The word translated "intercede" literally means to meet or be alongside.[9 p.13] That connects with the idea of Jesus as Immanuel, meaning God with us. And running through this chapter there is a subtle contrast between the mosaic priests, respected for what they did, and Jesus the ultimate high priest, respected for who he is.

7:27

cf. Exodus 29:38, though there is no indication that the daily offering was related to sin. Perhaps the author means us to understand that the priests, being human, sinned every day.

8

The author is inspired by Psalm 110.

8:2

The word translated "true" is alethinos which is a Platonic term for the heavenly reality that throws the visible shadows on Earth.

8:8–13

First the prophecy of Jeremiah 31:31–34 and then the tearing of the temple curtain on Good Friday hinted that big changes were afoot. Then the old temple literally disappeared in 70 C.E. when the Romans demolished it. Such a thing would not have occurred without God's permission; God had finished with it.

8:10

cf. Hebrews 9:12, Matthew 26:28, Jeremiah 31:31.

9

It is important when reading this chapter to remember that in the Greek original the same word means both "covenant" and "will".[12 p.83]

9:12

cf. Hebrews 8:10, Matthew 26:28, Jeremiah 31:31–34.

9:19

Hyssop: See Appendix 2: Hyssop

9:22

Blood sacrifices are a feature of the Mosaic Law and remembered in Christian worship, presumably because "the life of a creature is in the blood" (Leviticus 17:11), yet it was not the blood of the sacrificed animals that took away sins; their purpose was a reminder of sins (Hebrews 10:4, cf. Romans 3:20, 5:20). We do we not sacrifice animals and circumcise men because you don't need images when you have the real things — the sacrifice of Jesus and the Holy Spirit.

10:4

cf. Romans 3:20, 5:20. See also comment on Hebrews 9:22.

10:5–9

cf. Psalm 40:6–8.

10:11–14

The contrast between the old and new covenants is stark: the old covenant priests serve day after day, and stand to do so, but ineffectually; Jesus suffered once, now sits at God's right hand, and said "it is finished". See Carr[10] page 109.

Feature Old Covenant Changed, see New Covenant
Priests (note both are families) Levites Revelation 5:9–10 Us
Temple
(God's dwelling on earth)
Tent/Temple 1 Corinthians 6:19 Our bodies
Means of atoning for sin Sacrifices Hebrews 10:11–12 Cross
Message telling us about sin Law Hebrews 10:1, Luke 16:16 Gospel
Sign of belonging to God Circumcision Ephesians 4:30 Holy Spirit *
Example of faith Abraham Romans 4:13–16 Abraham

something deeper?

Priest of the Most High God Melchizedek Hebrews 7:23–25 Jesus

* Baptism is the sign of belonging to the Church — see Appendix

10:17

cf. Jeremiah 31:34. John the Baptist was one of the first to recognise that this was Jesus's role, in John 1:29.

10:30

See comment on Proverbs 25:21–22.

10:37

The writer quotes Habakkuk 2:3–4.

11

Modern examples of faith include an investor; Houdini crossing Niagara; a soldier waving a white flag and breaking cover. The idea of Faith in Hebrews is about "stickability" and "stiff upper lip", like going to the dentist; quite different from Paul's idea of relationship or the Pastoral Epistles' idea of the Faith as a body of Doctrine and Moral Discipline.

There seems to be a gulf between the sort of faith described in verse 1 and some academic approaches to scripture — see Academic Approaches.

11:2

e.g. Abraham in Genesis 15:6.

11:4

Genesis 4:2–4.

11:5

Genesis 5:24.

11:6

Prayer needs faith (cf. Mark 11:23).

11:7

Noah's obedience is recorded in Genesis 6:22.

11:8

Genesis 12:1–4.

11:9–10

There is a subtle development from verse 4 here. Cain the murderer established the first city, while his brother continued a nomadic lifestyle; "to be in the way of faith is to be dissatisfied ... never complacent".[11]

11:11

Genesis 21:1–2.

11:12

Genesis 15:5.

11:13

This was fulfilled particularly clearly by John the Baptist in Matthew 11:2f; cf. Moses seeing the promised land from afar in Deuteronomy 32:48–52.

11:15–16

The writer seems to be referring to the wanderings in the wilderness recorded in Exodus. cf. "Doubting Thomas" in John 14:5, who did not know the way because he had not been there before.

11:17

Genesis 22.

11:20

Genesis 27

11:21

Genesis 47:31f.

11:22

Genesis 50:24–25.

11:23

Exodus 2:1–2.

11:24

Exodus 2:10, 5:1.

11:27–28

Exodus 12

11:29

Exodus 14.

11:30–31

Joshua 6

11:37

There was a tradition that Isaiah was sawn in two in the reign of Manasseh.

12

Most of the "examples of faith" in Hebrews 11 consciously stepped out in faith, but the writer expects that for most of his readers it will not be like that; we will be reactive not proactive.

We exercise faith in the way we respond to things that happen to us, not by the things we initiate, hence the talk of the Lord's discipline and obedience to leaders. Though it is possible that, in responding to the situations we find ourselves in, we will find we have to step out in faith as the old testament heroes did. If so, we should heed the warning of Psalm 30, not leaning on our own judgment but hearing the guiding voice of the Holy Spirit.

12:1

cf. Romans 12:6–8; sometimes we need to be encouraged, other times we are to encourage others. And we are always being watched by the spirit world, and usually by the physical world as well.

12:4–6

The writer is virtually re-stating some of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:2–17). cf. Proverbs 3:11–12.

12:7 f

A similar idea is found in Proverbs 4:26 and Amos 3:2. The reference to making the path level echoes the ideas in Isaiah 40:1 and Psalm 65:10.

12:11

cf. the hardship resulting from the fall in Genesis 3:14–19.

12:12

This verse quotes Isaiah 35:3, the context of which explains the meaning.

12:16

Unlike Esau (Genesis 25:29–34), Jesus (Matthew 4:3–4) quoted Deuteronomy chapter 8 when faced with a similar temptation.

12:17

Genesis 27:33–40.

12:18–19

Exodus 19:16, Exodus 20:18–19.

12:20

Exodus 19:12–13 and perhaps Exodus 19:21.

12:22

Psalm 84:4–7.

12:26

Haggai 2:6.

12:29

cf. Deuteronomy 4:24.

13:1

The last chapter is a call for purity cf. John 13:34, 15:12, 15:17.

13:2

Examples include Genesis 18 and 19:1.

13:3

It seems likely that this was written during a time of persecution when many believers were imprisoned — see the reference to Timothy's release in verse 23. There are many believers suffering persecution today, mostly out of our sight. We also have responsibilities to Christians in other sorts of trouble, for example exile, disability or illness.

13:4

Exodus 20:14, Leviticus 18, Deuteronomy 22:13–30.

13:5

The quotation comes from Deuteronomy 31:6 and Joshua 1:5.

13:6

Psalm 118:6.

13:13–14

Jesus was rejected by earthly society, and his followers are likely to have the same experience, and so we should focus our attention on our place in the "city that is to come" described in Revelation 21:2 cf. John 14:2–3. cf. Psalm 39:12.

References:

  1. Jones et al (eds) The Study of Liturgy London: SPCK, 1992
  2. Green, Michael Freed to Serve
  3. The Bible Speaks Today on Hebrews
  4. Moule, C.F.D. The Origin of Christology Cambridge University Press, 1977
  5. Aveyard, Ian God thoughts — a starter course on theological reflection Nottingham: St John's Extension Studies, 1997
  6. The Bible Speaks Today
  7. Bridges, Jerry The Pursuit of Holiness NavPress, 1978
  8. The Qumran Scroll called 11QMelchizedek
  9. Ramsey The Christian Priest Today London: SPCK, 1985
  10. Carr, W Handbook of Pastoral Studies London: SPCK, 1997
  11. Williams, Rowan The Wound of Knowledge DLT 1979 p75–6, quoted in Richter, Philip God's Here and Now London: DLT 1999 p.82
  12. Green, M. Baptism: Its Purpose, Practice and Power London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1986
  13. Barker, Dr Margaret Who was Melchizedek and who was his God? 2008 p.5 footnote 8. Online, available from: http://www.templestudiesgroup.com/Papers/Melchizedek_Barker.pdf, accessed 5 February 2017
  14. Hugh Montefiore A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews London: Black's New Testament Commentaries, 1964
  15. C S Lewis Reflections on the Psalms page 104

© David Billin 2002–2020