THE EPISTLE TO THE
O U T L I N E
The Book of Hebrews was written to professing Jews that had embraced Jesus as their Messiah. But there was a danger that some false-professors mixed in among them might “fall back”, rejecting Jesus as the true Messiah, because they were not able to break free from the clutches of Judaism. They had been exposed to the highest truth (the Person of Christ), and had been attracted by the external blessings of Christianity (Heb. 6:4-6), but they were in danger of apostasy! In this epistle God is striving with these professing Hebrews to see that Jesus was not only David’s son, but David’s lord (Matt. 22). God insists that we recognize not only Christ’s messianic title (humanity, Son of David), but His intrinsic deity (Godhood, Son of God). “If ye believe not that I am he, ye shall die in your sins” (John 8:24). The epistle is written to detach the believer’s heart from earthly religion and attach it to Christ in heaven.1 What made this separation particularly difficult for the Hebrews was that the religion was instituted by God, revealed by prophets, through the administration of angels. It was a religion that had every stamp of Divine approval. The Hebrews already had a revelation from God, although on an earthly ground, but they were in need of “some better thing”. In Galatians, the apostle speaks rather harshly to the Gentile believers who had put themselves under law, rebuking them for putting themselves under bondage. Here, he gently yet firmly works with Jewish believers to the same end, but with a different tone.
The Writer. Based on the greetings at the end of this epistle, and Peter’s reference to an epistle of Paul to the Hebrews (2 Pet. 3:15), it would seem most likely that Paul is the writer of Hebrews. It is no more surprising than that John does not attach his name to his first epistle. Why doesn’t Paul bring out his apostleship in the opening verses of Hebrews as he does in many other epistles? First, in this epistle, Christ’s apostleship is brought forward (Heb. 3:1), and that eclipses all other apostles. We see this in the beginning of ch.2 where the twelve are called “them that heard Him”, rather than apostles or “sent ones”. Second, Paul was the apostle to the uncircumcision (Gal. 2:7), and therefore he does not write to the Jews in an apostolic character, although he certainly carried all the authority of an apostle even to the Jews. For instance, we see Paul addressing Jews in several chapters in the book of Romans, etc. In Hebrews, Paul writes as a teacher to his Jewish brethren, appealing to the Old Testament scriptures rather than his apostolic authority. But the better reason for the author being unnamed is that Christ Himself is the Apostle. From Hebrews 13:19 we see it is possible that Paul was still under some kind of restriction or guard, although it is not definitely said that He was in prison. Timothy had just been released, but was not yet with the apostle, suggesting Paul was not in Rome. The salutation (Heb. 13:24) suggests Paul was either still in Italy or had recently left it. The exactly location of the writing of Hebrews is not known, but a location in Italy or a nearby island like Crete (Titus 1:5) are likely possibilities. The date of authorship is also unknown, although evidently before the destruction of Jerusalem (Heb. 10:11; 13:10). A good estimate would be A.D. 63-64.
Overview. The book of Hebrews is one of contrasts and of parallelism, although the contrasts outweigh the parallels! By way of contrast, the Spirit of God compares Christ to the Prophets, to the Angels, to Moses, to Joshua, to Aaron, then to the whole Jewish system, and shows how Christ is far superior to all of them. At the same time, the Spirit illuminates the glories of Christ by drawing parallel features from the Old Testament typology. The writer takes one scripture after another from the Old Testament and sets forth the true meaning of it as a teacher. This was teaching like the Jews never had heard before! The point of this book is to detach believing Jews from Judaism by attaching their hearts to Christ! We have twelve chapters in which the glories of Christ are unfolded, and finally we get the call to “go forth therefore unto him without the camp, bearing his reproach. For here have we no continuing city, but we seek one to come” (Heb. 13:13-14). The Jew, with all his earthly hopes would not be easily convinced to give up earth in exchange for heaven. The Spirit of God does this by giving the reader a view into the opened heavens; a view of Jesus “crowned with glory and honor”. Then, with hearts attached to that glorified, heavenly One, we can separate from all the trappings of an earthly religion. He first puts us within the veil (“let us draw near”), then calls us outside the camp. Another way to break down the book is like this: the first eight chapters present the greatness of the Person of Christ, chapters 9 and 10 present the greatness of the work of Christ, followed by the instruction to draw near. The remaining chapters are encouragement and exhortations. The subject of the priesthood of Christ in the first part of the epistle leads into the subject of faith and endurance, of which Christ is the author and finisher. Throughout the epistle there are numerous warnings of coming judgment on Judaism, which would take place quite literally with the destruction of Jerusalem.
Use of Old Testament Scripture. For a Jew leaving Judaism for Christianity, there would be a number of challenges that would arise in the mind regarding the Person of Christ. A number of these problems are dealt with in the epistle to the Hebrews, and each is done, not be insisting on apostolic authority, but rather by demonstrating from the Hebrews’ own scriptures. To meet the issue of the doctrine of the trinity, and specifically the deity of Christ, the first chapter shows the evidence from the Old Testament that Jesus is the Son of God. To meet the issue of a suffering and crucified Messiah, chapter 2 shows a number of reasons why the Messiah had to suffer and die. As to how Christ from the line of Judah could be priest, chapter 7 shows that there is another order not descending from Abraham.
The Hebrew-Christian Epistles. The Hebrew-Christian epistles are written to Jews who had believed the gospel, including those who had made a profession. These epistles - Hebrews, James, 1 Peter, 2 Peter - are given to help the Jewish believers in their special circumstances, dealing with the challenges they would have because of their background.
- James was written to “the twelve tribes”, written the earliest (circa A.D. 45). James does not call the Jewish believers to leave the Jewish system, as in Hebrews. Instead it was written to people just like those at the time of our Lord’s ministry, who knew the basic truths of Christianity, but at the same time were keeping the law and the ordinances (see Acts 21:18-24). The danger was that Christianity would become a dead religion to them. There were a mixture of those of faith and those without faith, but James encourages the real believers to let their faith be manifested by their works! In other words, without calling the faithful to leave Judaism, James calls the believers to distinguish themselves by living out their faith!
- Hebrews was written much later (circa A.D. 63) to Jewish people who had made a profession of Christianity. The epistle is written generally to real believers, yet recognizing that there were some mixed among them who were not real, and would later apostatize; "But, beloved, we are persuaded better things of you, and things that accompany salvation, though we thus speak." (Hebrews 6:9). Hebrews sets forth the superiority of Christ and Christianity to all that the Jews had under the law. It served as a clear and persuasive call to the Hebrew-Christians to totally separate from Judaism, which the writer calls "the camp"!
- Peter wrote still later from Rome during the the Neronian Persecution (A.D. 65-67). He wrote two epistles to Jewish believers who had been scattered from Israel; "the strangers scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia" (1 Peter 1:1). Peter wrote to strengthen and encourage these believers who had already made the step of leaving Judaism, and were feeling the loss of all the things they held dear (Luke 22:32). Peter in his own way takes up the better place the Hebrew Christians now had, presenting to them the "better promises", etc.
The Hebrew-Christian epistles therefore have this progression: James (A.D. 45) calls the Jewish believers to distinguish themselves by living out their faith, Hebrews (A.D. 63) calls them to leave Judaism completely, and Peter (A.D. 65-67) encourages them in their pathway, they what they have in Christ is indeed far better! A common theme through all of these epistles is the reality of faith lived out in the believer's life. None of these epistles are written to the church as such, nor are they based on the doctrine of the Church in her union with Christ. The Church is hardly mentioned all! The "church of the firstborn" in Hebrews pictures the saints as individuals in connection with Christ, rather than as His body. They were not ready for the “strong meat” (Heb. 5:12-14). Hebrews is based on the doctrine of the Person and Work of Christ, presenting Jesus to the Jewish remnant as their Messiah, no longer on earth but now glorified in heaven. Hebrews does not even go as far as to unfold the believer's relationship with God as Father.
- “It is an epistle in which one… looks nevertheless at the Lord from here below; and presents His Person and His offices as between us and God in heaven, while we are in feebleness on earth, for the purpose of detaching us … from all that would attach us in a religious way to the earth; even when — as was the case among the Jews — the bond had been ordained by God Himself. This epistle shows us Christ in heaven, and consequently that our religious bonds with God are heavenly, although we are not yet personally in heaven ourselves nor viewed as united to Christ there. Every bond with the earth is broken, even while we are walking on the earth. – Darby, J.N. Synopsis of the Books of the Bible.