Lesson 4 of5
In Progress

Introductory Issues in Hebrews

Angels

Hebrews begins by showing Christ’s superiority to the angels as a way of focusing the readers’ attention on the importance of the Christian message (1:1-2:4). Some have wondered whether the author assumed that the intended readers were confused about the status of angels, making it necessary to show that Christ was superior. This seems unlikely since there is no evidence elsewhere in the book that angels were a theological problem. The primary reason for speaking of angels is simply to show the majesty of Christ, the Son of God. Another reason is to heighten the sense of urgency in listening to the Christian message. Readers understood that the law of Moses had been given through angels and that there were grave consequences for those who ignored it. Therefore, the author could point out that there would be even graver consequences for those who ignored the message about Christ, who was actually worshiped by the angels (2:1-2). Finally, however, mentioning angels at the beginning of the book anticipates the conclusion of the book, where the author speaks of the company of the redeemed in the heavenly Jerusalem, worshiping God in the presence of angels (12:22-24).

Introductory lines

Hebrews is often called a letter, but it lacks the kind of opening that appears in other New Testament letters. The standard letter format has a three-part opening: identification of the sender, identification of the recipients, and greetings (for example, 1 Corinthians 1:1-3). By way of contrast, Hebrews begins with a lofty summary of the way God has spoken in the past through the prophets and again in Jesus the Son. Many interpreters compare the opening of Hebrews to the openings in ancient speeches. Speakers understood that when addressing a group of listeners, it was important to engage their attention and to make them ready to hear what the speaker had to say. Hebrews does this by summing up the work of God and Christ in an almost poetic fashion that catches the ear and excites the imagination (1:1-4). A lengthy series of quotations from the Psalms and other Old Testament writings helps to create a vivid sense of the glorious power of the Son of God (1:5-13). After a short exhortation to pay attention (2:1-4), the author is ready to focus on the main topic of the book, namely, the way the story of Jesus’ suffering, death, and exaltation gives hope to discouraged readers.

Jesus’ life

The author of Hebrews portrays Jesus primarily in terms of Old Testament imagery. Very little is said about Jesus’ life and teachings. The author knows that Jesus was descended from the tribe of Judah (7:14) but does not say more about the circumstances of his birth. The author also knows that Jesus experienced anguish before his death (5:7), was crucified outside the city (13:12), and was exalted to heavenly glory (1:3). Few details of Jesus’ ministry are mentioned, however. It is interesting that when the author reports sayings of Jesus, all the words come from the Old Testament. In Hebrews 2:12-13 Jesus’ words come from Psalm 22:22 and Isaiah 8:17-18, and in Hebrews 10:5-7 the words of Jesus are from Psalm 40:6-8. There are no references to Jesus’ parables or sayings, and it is not clear how much the author of Hebrews knew about Jesus’ teachings. For the argument of Hebrews it is essential that Jesus lived, died, and rose, but the details of these events are not the focus of attention.

Melchizedek

The attention given to the figure of Melchizedek in Hebrews has puzzled many interpreters. Melchizedek is an obscure figure, who is mentioned in connection with Abraham (Genesis 14:17-20) and again in Psalm 110:4, yet the author sees in Melchizedek many of the traits of Jesus, the eternal Son of God (Hebrews 7:1-3). Some have wondered whether the readers might have been familiar with speculations about Melchizedek’s exalted or angelic status. There is evidence that the name Melchizedek was given to heavenly figures in a few ancient Jewish sources. Nevertheless, the way Hebrews describes Melchizedek does not follow any other source very closely. A more likely interpretation is that the argument of Hebrews is based on a reading of the Old Testament. Early Christians frequently quoted Psalm 110:1: “The Lord says to my lord, ‘Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool.'” They also understood that this verse applied to the risen and exalted Christ (Matthew 22:44; Mark 12:36; Luke 20:42-43; Acts 2:34-35; 1 Corinthians 15:25; Hebrews 1:13). Therefore, if Psalm 110:1 refers to Christ, the author assumes that the promise of a priest like Melchizedek in Psalm 110:4 must also refer to Christ. The author finds in the story of Melchizedek a foreshadowing of an eternal priesthood that will be fulfilled by the risen and exalted Jesus.

Old and new covenants

Hebrews contrasts the Sinai covenant and Levitical priesthood with the new covenant inaugurated through the sacrifice of Christ. The author considers the new covenant to be better than the old one, which he says has become obsolete (8:6, 13). Some have wondered whether this contrast downplays the importance of the Jewish tradition. In response, it is important to note that much of the book’s argument assumes a strong sense of continuity between the Old Testament and the work of Christ. Hebrews expresses the significance of Christ using language and imagery from Israel’s Scriptures. The great chapter on faith, chapter 11, tells the story of faith from Israel’s earliest ancestors down to the time of the readers. The sharp contrasts are made when speaking about the Levitical priesthood and animal sacrifice. The author argues that Christ’s death is the definitive means of atonement for sin and that the older practices of animal sacrifice are no longer needed. The book has a strong sense of connection to Israel’s heritage, as well as a sense that in Christ God has done something new.

Repentance

There are several points at which Hebrews warns that people who have fallen away might not be restored to repentance but will suffer eternal punishment (6:4-8; 10:26-31; 12:16-17). These warnings are severe and have disturbed many readers, but they follow a certain logic. The author speaks of a situation in which people have been blessed by God with the message of salvation but then repudiate what they have been given. Since grace and salvation are what they have rejected, the author points out that it makes no sense to think of them simply being given grace all over again. Grace is what they have rejected. The author likens the situation to a field that has been blessed with abundant rain only to produce thorns and thistles. Pouring more rain on the thistles will not change the situation but will only encourage the thistles to grow more abundantly. In a similar way, giving grace to people who have rejected it will simply make sin grow more abundantly. Therefore, the author warns that God will bring fiery judgment on those who have turned away from God. These passages present sharp warnings, and it is essential to understand how these warnings work. Warnings are given not to make people utterly despair but to make them grasp God’s promises of salvation more firmly. For a warning to make sense, two things need to be in place: (1) danger is real and (2) danger can be averted. If there is no danger, no warning need be given. Yet if there is no hope, then a warning need not be given either, since disaster is inevitable. The author gives sharp warnings in order to alert people to the danger of divine judgment, yet promptly encourages them with the message that it is not too late. God remains committed to promises to bring blessing (6:9-20).

Shadow and reality

Hebrews sometimes contrasts true heavenly things with their earthly representations or shadows. For example, the true sanctuary is located in heaven, where Christ ministers, and its shadow is the earthly sanctuary in which ordinary priests serve (8:1-6). Similarly, the law is considered a shadow of the true sacrifice that Christ offered (10:1). Some interpreters liken this to Platonic philosophy, which contrasts the eternal archetypes with their earthly copies or shadows. There are similarities between the language used in Hebrews and in certain philosophical writings, but there are also many differences. Hebrews, for example, never uses the standard philosophical words archetype or paradigm. The way Hebrews communicates the message of Christ would have resonated with some currents in Greek thought, yet the author has unique forms of speech that do not exactly mirror the categories of any one philosophical tradition.

Use of the Old Testament

Hebrews frequently quotes, paraphrases, and alludes to the Old Testament. The author does not use the Hebrew form of the Old Testament, but relies on the Greek translation known as the Septuagint. The Septuagint sometimes reads a bit differently from the Hebrew texts on which our modern English translations are based. For example, the Hebrew form of Psalm 8:5 speaks of one being made a little lower than God or the gods, but the Septuagint version of that verse refers to one being lower than the angels. This is the version used in Hebrews 2:7. Hebrews interprets the Old Testament in light of Christ and understands Christ in light of the Old Testament. It is clear that the author understands many promises of God to be fulfilled in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus, for example, is the one who establishes the new covenant promised in Jeremiah 31:31-34 (Hebrews 10:14-18). At the same time, the Old Testament provides the perspective from which Jesus’ actions can be understood. The biblical descriptions of atonement, for example, give the author ways to speak about Jesus’ crucifixion as a sacrifice. Throughout the book, readers find the author discerning new insights into the old texts by relating them to Christ and discovering new insights into the Christian message by relating Jesus to Israel’s Scriptures.

Wrath of God

Hebrews includes sharp warnings about the wrath of God. The story of the wilderness generation is a vivid example of how divine wrath works. God redeemed the people from Egypt and promised to bring them to rest in the land of Canaan, yet the people rebelled and refused to go, saying they would rather die. Therefore, God did not compel them to go any farther, but allowed their rejection to stand, and they died in the wilderness. God let their rejection take its course (3:12-19). Similarly, Hebrews warns Christian readers not to drift away from the message of salvation. God does not act arbitrarily but will let sinners experience the consequences of their own actions.

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