I think I’m going to have a difficult time writing a blog post or two on Hebrews. Partly because I’ve been reading and working in Hebrews for almost two years now, reading and re-reading and translating and reading commentaries and books about it, and then doing more of that. And partly because, as has often been said, Hebrews is the longest continuous argument in the Bible – and it’s complicated.
However, in the spirit of hope and the way we’ve been doing things here on this blog as we read through the Bible, I’m going to give it a shot. First, an intro: Hebrews is at the same time one of the most complicated books in the New Testament, by far the hardest Greek in the New Testament, and a letter (or sermon) that is the most “alien” on the New Testament – only Revelation could be more difficult and that’s because it’s in a genre that we’re just not used to. No one knows who wrote Hebrews, or to whom it was written. At least, no one alive – they didn’t know who wrote it in 200AD, either. However, it was quoted verbatim by Clement I, in about 100AD, so we know it was written before then. Unfortunately, Clement didn’t say who wrote it, either.
Guesses have been made for the author ranging from a woman (which is highly unlikely but possible), to Paul, to Apollos, to Luke, to all sorts of other people. “Tradition” says it was written by Paul, although even tradition has a hard time actually saying this. Some of the earliest comments on Hebrews are questions as to its author – Tertullian says that most people think it was written by Paul and translated from Hebrew into Greek by Luke, but he’s not so sure. Recent scholarship doesn’t help much either, although after reading a couple of books by David L. Allen, I’m close to being convinced it was written by Luke.
In the same way, we don’t know who it was written to. The language and many of the references in the Letter suggest that it was written to a group of people who were very familiar with the Old Testament, the Temple worship services, and also Hellenistic culture. Allen thinks that Luke wrote to a group of former Jewish priests in or around Jerusalem. That is certainly possible – but just like we don’t REALLY know who wrote it we don’t know to whom it was written or when.
However, we can be relatively certain of why. It appears that, whoever these people were, they were seriously considering returning to the faith they had left when they came to believe in Christ as the Messiah and Son of God. They had been instructed and should have been able to teach the doctrines of the faith, but were turning aside. In at least some way, they were confused about the Truth of Christ – some were thinking that Jesus had been an angel of some sort (or perhaps that angel worship was suggested by something Jesus had said or done).
So the author begins to argue rhetorically (and by that I mean according to the rules of rhetoric in the first century) for the supremacy of Jesus the Christ. First he talks about how Jesus was and is greater than any angel – that He was the Son of God and at the same time human (for a short time He was lower than the angels, but not now!). The angels follow Him and through Him all things were created. Then the author begins to talk about Jesus as the great high priest, which takes some time.
He uses strings of Old Testament references to prove his point, and says that human high priests need to continue to give the sacrifice in the Temple every year, but Jesus didn’t. That a normal high priest has to give atonement not only for the sins of the people but also for his own – whereas our High Priest did not because even though He was like us in all things – human completely – He did not sin even though He was tempted. So His sacrifice in His own body and blood did what the Old Testament sacrificial system could never do – provide complete atonement for all sin. Jesus paid the debt that was held for us.
Moreover, because He is eternal, there never will be a need for another human high priest. Jesus has done that function and it never needs to be done again – He is a high priest after the order of Melchizedek, the “king of righteousness” without “pedigree or descendants with no record of birth or death.” (Melchizedek was a king and a priest of the Most High God that Abraham tithed to in Genesis 14. He appears with no warning and disappears just as quickly – and was a priest before there was a priesthood. He is referenced in the Psalms and the author sees that as a reference to Christ as well (Psalm 110).
But all of this is not what the author is really aimed at, because he spends some time discussing the readers’ lack of Christian maturity. They should be teachers, but they seem to have forgotten the basic doctrines of the faith. The author will not be reminding them about these basics, which he terms these: “repenting from works that lead to death, faith in God, instructions about washings and laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead and eternal judgment.” He tells them that if God allows it, some day he will re-instruct them about this, but for now lets get on with the high priesthood. He says that God isn’t going to abandon them and that they need to return to Him. There is a couple of verses in chapter 6 that are difficult to hear – they suggest that if we turn away from God in too strong a manner we may lose our salvation (Reformed theology does not like this idea…but it’s there). Like I said above, Hebrews is difficult Greek and is a window into an incredibly intelligent learned mind of the 1st century AD. It is inspired – it’s Scripture! – but it’s hard. The s0-called “simple” reading of it suggests that if someone purposefully falls away after tasting of the “good word of God and the powers of the life to come” it is not possible to come back to God again after leaving Him. But the author goes on to say that he doesn’t believe this is the case with the readers/hearers of the Letter. The author thinks that they are still believers and can “show the same diligence right up to the end” that they had shown early on their faith.
And it is because of this faith he has in their trust that he writes – because he thinks they’re wrong and dangerously so – he wants to call them back from the edge of eternal destruction. So he continues their instruction about Jesus as high priest. [This, by the way, is why several scholars think that the original audience of the Letter were priests themselves.] The author continues speaking about Jesus the High Priest after the Order of Melchizedek. Just at the beginning of chapter 8 he sort of wraps it us, saying ” here is the point of what we have been saying: we do have JUST such a high priest….and he really does sit at the right hand of the throne of Majesty in the heavens.” And there He serves as High Priest forever in the True Temple made not with human hands.
More on that next post. The point of all of this is that the author is trying to rationally argue the audience into a new understanding of Christ – because they ARE in danger of falling away. They ARE in trouble – they’re (we find out more later) not attending “church” and they’re not paying attention to what they learned; they are returning to the faith that is around them. And that is exactly why I love this book so much and I have worked on reading and understanding it so hard! Because they are in the same place as so many churches in America are! The people of God – in the church – are not attending services and don’t care about Truth; rather we American Christians are more like the secular people around us than we are like the Church around the world. We have, as a body, turned away from the basic doctrines of the faith that we have been taught, and are in danger of really falling away. I have met far too many people in the Body of Christ – including ministers – who think (or act!) that the Resurrection was some sort of spiritual trick and Jesus really didn’t rise from the dead. Or that the miracles of God in and through Christ were just tricks that people played on themselves. [Like the Feeding of the 5,000 was really just people pulling out food they had hidden away in response to being made to feel guilty for not sharing...]
Hebrews, for all that it is difficult and hard to read and understand, for all that it has things that are difficult to hear – like “it is impossible for someone to come back after falling away” – I honestly believe that the Letter to the Hebrews has a great deal to say to the modern American church if only we would listen.