The letter to the Hebrews is unique among all the letters in the New Testament. We do not know who wrote it, when it was written, or exactly who it was addressed to.
The writer talks about the Jewish temple in Jerusalem, where sacrifices were still being offered by the priests. That temple was destroyed in AD 70 and so the letter must have been written before then. Towards the end of the letter we read about Timothy, one of Paul’s companions, being released from prison, which probably took place around AD 65.
If we can guess at the date, we are much less certain of the author and destination. The Apostle Paul, Barnabas, Silas, and Apollos have all been suggested, but there is no consensus. Hebrews 2:3-4 suggests that the author heard the gospel through apostolic witness. So, it was not written by Paul. The author was well informed about the Old Testament law with its sacrifices; and identified how Jesus fulfils and supersedes that system. The writer linked Old Testament texts with the person and work of Jesus in ways that traditional Jewish audiences could understand.
It was written from Italy where Timothy had recently been released from prison, and the author intended to meet the readers, if Timothy arrived with them soon (Hebrews 13:23-24). So, the readers would not have been in Italy: but there is no clear indication of where they may have been.
Who were the original recipients? The letter is primarily intended for Jewish-background believers, who were tempted to return to Old Testament patterns of worship, thereby denying the superiority of Christ who fulfils the Law. There could be a few reasons for this. Those who followed the Jewish faith were offered some protection under the Roman law – it was a legalised religion, but Christianity was illegal. The Jews collaborated with the Roman authorities to persecute the Christians who they regarded as heretics for believing in ‘a crucified messiah’, which in Jewish eyes proved He was not the Messiah who was promised.
The letter urges the readers to: ‘Consider Him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart’, (12:3). The letter deals with the relationship between the Old and New Testament covenants. The apostles, led by the Holy Spirit, understood that Christ fulfils the Old Testament law, and His death was the one final sacrifice for sin, to which the previous sacrifices pointed. The writer urges all readers not to abandon their faith in Christ by reverting to an inferior and redundant religious system. The laws and sacrifices had their place under the old covenant that God had with Israel. Now, all people, including those who were formerly Jews, can be part of the better, eternal covenant sealed with the blood of Christ.
The writer warned his readers that to turn back to the legalistic practices of the old covenant would risk losing the precious salvation they enjoyed. He urged them to listen to Christ, trust in Christ, suffer for Christ and look forward to being with Christ.
To see how great Jesus is
In the Old Testament, God promised His plan of salvation. In the New Testament we see those promises fulfilled in Jesus. Jesus Christ is unique. 3:1 says, ‘… fix your thoughts on Jesus, whom we acknowledge as our apostle and high priest.’ These are two key themes in Hebrews. Jesus is the greatest Apostle or Leader, greater than Moses or Joshua (chapters 3-4) because He can lead us right into heaven! Jesus is also the Great High Priest – greater than Aaron and Melchizedek because He can bring us full forgiveness and make us God’s own special people. On 15 occasions the author uses the words ‘better’ and ‘superior’ to describe Jesus Christ compared to the old covenant.
To understand the Old Testament
Hebrews is a pivotal book as we read the Old Testament, and especially Exodus to Deuteronomy, which outline the laws and regulations that Israel was called to keep as part of the covenant made with Moses. The value of the understanding the old covenant is that it provides physical pictures of spiritual realities. The old system with its laws and sacrifices helps us to understand the atoning work of Jesus, as both the priest and the sacrifice. The story of Israel in the Old Testament helps all believers to appreciate the privilege of being grafted into the stem of Israel (Romans 11:23).
Some of the chapters may seem complicated if we are unfamiliar with the Old Testament sacrificial system which emphasises the seriousness of sin. But they help us to joyfully appreciate the way we can now approach God through all that Jesus accomplished.
To encourage Christians to keep going
On five occasions the writer warns the readers about their conduct, or potential conduct, and the dire consequences of abandoning Christ: 2:1-4; 4:12-13; 6:4-8; 10:26-31; 12:25-29. There is no question about the ability of God to keep those who believe, but there is no comfort for those who choose to abandon their faith in Jesus.
The author urged them to persevere regardless of the trials they faced, or the temptation to choose an easier route. Alongside these warnings are wonderful exhortations to rejoice in the good things that God has done through Jesus, adopting all believers into His family, promising eternal deliverance, and giving help amidst life’s challenges and temptations.
|1-2||Christ is superior to the angels – a Son not just a servant|
|2-4||Christ is superior to Moses and Joshua – the Leader of our salvation|
|5-7||Christ is superior to Aaron’s and Melchizedek’s priesthood – our Great High Priest|
|8-10||Christ is superior to the Mosaic Law – He fulfils all the law|
|11-13||Christ is the reason for living by faith in God’s promises|