the Fourth Week of Lent
Benson's Commentary of the Old and New Testaments Benson's Commentary
by Joseph Benson
EPISTLE OF PAUL THE APOSTLE TO THE HEBREWS.
AS most of the principal doctrines of the gospel are more expressly asserted and more fully explained in this epistle to the Hebrews than in any other of the inspired writings, it is peculiarly important that its authenticity and divine authority should be established. In order to this, it is only necessary to show that it was written by St. Paul, whose inspiration and apostleship are universally acknowledged, and consequently the divine authority of all his official writings. Now that he was the author of this epistle seems to be satisfactorily proved by the following arguments, advanced by Dr. Whitby and many others.
First, from the words of St. Peter, (2 Peter 3:15-16,) “As our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given unto him, hath written unto you,” it is evident, 1. That Paul had written to them to whom St. Peter was then writing, namely, to the believing Jews in general, (2 Peter 1:1,) many of whom were dispersed in divers countries, as mentioned 1 Peter 1:1. 1 Peter 1:2. That he had written to them a certain letter, distinct from all his other epistolary writings, as appears from those words, “as also in all his epistles,” that is, his other epistles. Since then none of the ancients say that this epistle was lost, it must be that which bears the name of “the epistle to the Hebrews.” Some indeed have thought, the epistle intended by St. Peter might be that written to the Romans, in which St. Paul speaks to the Jews by name, Romans 2:17. But, I. That passage is plainly addressed to the unbelieving Jews, and concerned them only: whereas, St. Peter writes to the brethren, 1 Peter 3:12; the beloved, 1Pe 3:1 ; 1 Peter 3:14; 1 Peter 3:17; to them who had “received like precious faith,” chap. Hebrews 1:1. He therefore could not mean the Jews, of whom St. Paul speaks in the epistle to the Romans.
A second argument to prove that St. Paul was the author of this epistle is taken from these words, “Know ye that our brother Timothy is set at liberty, with whom, if he come shortly, I will see you: They of Italy salute you,” Hebrews 13:23-24. For it was customary with St. Paul, when he wrote to the churches, to call Timothy his brother: see 2 Corinthians 1:1; Colossians 1:1; 1 Thessalonians 3:2; Philemon 1:1. Timothy was a prisoner at Rome in the seventh year of Nero, and set at liberty the eighth, says Dr. Lightfoot, Harm., pp. 139, 140. Of which here the author of this epistle gives notice, and says, he would come with him to them; that is, to the Jews in Judea, to whom we shall soon see this epistle was written. Now Timothy, we know, was still the companion of St. Paul. Lastly, he desires them to pray for him, which is frequently done by St. Paul in most of his epistles, but is never done in any of the catholic epistles. And, in requesting their prayers, he adds a circumstance which more fully characterizes him; “Pray for me,” says he, “that I may be restored to you the sooner.” Now Paul had been sent bound from Judea to Rome, and therefore his return from Rome to Judea was properly a restoring of him to them. And that he was thus restored to them, we learn from Chrysostom declaring, that, being set at liberty, he went to Spain, thence to Judea, and so back to Rome.
Thirdly. That this epistle was written or composed by St. Paul, may yet more strongly be concluded from the authority of the ancients; for that they did deliver this as the epistle of St. Paul, and that they were not rash in so doing, we learn from the words of Origen. Now among the ancients we may reckon Clemens Romanus, the companion of, and co-worker with, St. Paul; who, as Eusebius and St. Jerome observe, entertained many sentiments which are in this epistle, and used many expressions, word for word, taken thence; which show that this epistle was not new, and that it is duly reckoned among the writings of this apostle. Clemens Alexandrinus cites those words of St. Paul, “Without faith it is impossible to please God,” Hebrews 11:6; adding, that “faith is the substance of things hoped for, and the evidence of things not seen,” Hebrews 11:1; κατα τον θειον αποστολον , “according to the divine apostle.” And again he saith, Ο θειος αποστολος , “The divine apostle fears not to say, ‘Remember the former days, in which being enlightened, ye suffered a great fight of affliction,’” Hebrews 10:32. And so he proceeds to cite the apostle’s words to the end of the chapter, and then gives the substance of chap. 11., and the exhortation in the beginning of chap. 12., Hebrews 10:1-2. And that this divine apostle was St. Paul, we are assured from these words: “Paul also writing to the Hebrews, relapsing from the faith unto the law, saith, ‘Ye have need that one teach you again which be the first principles of the oracles of God, and are become such as have need of milk, and not of strong meat,’” Hebrews 5:12. In the third century Origen, citing the very words now mentioned, and the following words, “For every one that useth milk is unskilful in the word of righteousness,” (Hebrews 5:13-14,) saith, “He that wrote this was the same Paul who said to the Corinthians, ‘I have fed you with milk, and not with meat,’” &c., 1 Corinthians 3:2. In his Philocalia he says, “The Apostle Paul, who said to the Corinthians, ‘These things happened in a figure, and they were written for us on whom the ends of the ages are come,’ (1 Corinthians 10:11,) doth also, in another epistle, use these words relating to the tabernacle, ‘Thou shalt make all things according to the pattern showed thee in the mount,’” Hebrews 8:5. And that “the apostle who said, ‘Jerusalem which is above is free, and is the mother of us all,’ (Galatians 4:26,) said also in another epistle, ‘Ye are come to mount Sion, the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to myriads of angels,’” &c., Hebrews 12:22-23. In his exhortation to martyrdom he hath these words, Φησι που ο Παυλος , “St. Paul, speaking somewhere to them who suffered from the beginning, and exhorting them to suffer patiently the trials which afterward fell upon them for the word, saith, ‘Call to remembrance the former days, in which ye, being enlightened, suffered a great fight of afflictions.’ ‘Cast not away therefore your confidence, which hath great recompense of reward; for ye have need of patience,’” Hebrews 10:32-36. And in his answer to Africanus, having cited these words from this epistle, “They were stoned, they were sawn asunder, they were slain with the sword,” (Hebrews 11:37,) he says, “If any person, being pressed with these words, should fall into the opinion of those who reject this epistle as not one of St. Paul’s, he would use other words to demonstrate to him that it was the epistle of St. Paul.” He also adds, that “the sentiments contained in it are admirable, and in no respect inferior to the writings of the apostles, as he who diligently reads them must confess. In a word, when this epistle was denied by the Arians in the fourth century, because they were not able to resist the conviction it affords of our Lord’s divinity, Theodoret says, “They ought at least to revere the length of time in which the children of the church have read this epistle in the churches, namely, as long as they have read the apostolic writings; or, if this be not sufficient to persuade them, they should hearken to Eusebius, of whom they boast as of the patron of their doctrine; for he confesses this was St. Paul’s epistle, and declares that all the ancients had this opinion of it.” That this epistle was written and directed to the Jews dwelling in Judea and Palestine, though not so as to exclude the believing Jews of the dispersion, was the opinion of the ancients. This may be argued from its being inscribed to the Hebrews, rather than to the Jews. It must have been written to the Hebrews, or converts from Judaism to Christianity, who inhabited some one particular country, both because the bearer of it, whoever he was, could not deliver it to all the Jews dispersed through the whole world, and because its author directs them to pray that he might be restored to them, and promises to come and visit them. And this country, most probably, was Judea, where the converts from Judaism to Christianity were almost incessantly persecuted by their unbelieving brethren, who tenaciously adhered to the constitution and ceremonies of the Mosaic law, which Christianity superseded; the title, therefore, “To the Hebrews,” must determine the place, and point out the Jews that dwelt in Judea, a sense which the Holy Ghost puts upon the name “Hebrews,” where it is said, “There was a murmuring of the Hellenists against the Hebrews,” Acts 6:1; by the “Hellenists” meaning the Jews that dwelt in foreign countries among the Greeks, and by the “Hebrews,” those that dwelt in Judea.
But it cannot be reasonably concluded from hence that this epistle was written in Hebrew, or in Syriac; for the gospel of St. John, and his first epistle, the catholic epistles of James, Peter, and Jude, were also written to the Jews, and yet were written in Greek, that being a tongue so well known to the Jews, that in all their discourses with the Roman governors, who used the Greek tongue, we never read, either in Scripture or Josephus, that the Jews spake to them, or they unto the Jews, by an interpreter; nor are there any of the ancients who pretend to have seen any Hebrew copy of this epistle. That it was written in Greek, appears not only from the passages of Scripture so often cited in it from the Septuagint, even where they differ from the Hebrew, (Hebrews 1:6; Hebrews 3:8-10; Hebrews 8:8-10; Hebrews 10:37-38,) but also from Hebrews 7:2, where we read thus, πρωτον μεν ερμηνευομενος βασιλευς δικαιοσυνης , “first being interpreted king of righteousness, and afterward king of Salem, which is king of peace;” for both the word “Melchisedec,” and “king of Salem,” being in the first verse, should have been there interpreted, had this been the addition of the interpreter; for so we find it is throughout the New Testament, where the interpretation immediately follows the Hebrew word or phrase, as Mark 5:41, “Talitha cumi, which is by interpretation, Daughter, arise,” (see Mark 15:22; Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34; John 1:38; John 1:41; John 9:7; John 19:17; Acts 4:36; Acts 9:36; Acts 13:8,) whereas here the word “Melchisedec” is in the beginning of the first verse, and the supposed addition of the interpreter is added where the word is not; so “king of Salem” is in the first verse not interpreted, and when it is repeated then comes the interpretation, which plainly shows that it is not made to give the sense, but to explain the mystery contained in the words, namely, that “Christ” was “our peace,” (Ephesians 2:14,) and “his sceptre” was “a sceptre of righteousness,” Hebrews 1:8.
The want of St. Paul’s name has been mentioned by some as a reason for doubting its being originally written by him, or for supposing our present Greek copy is only a translation of an epistle which was written in Hebrew. But this can be no sufficient reason for calling in question his being the author of it. For in our canon of the New Testament, there are epistles universally acknowledged to be the productions of an inspired apostle, notwithstanding his name is nowhere inserted in them; for instance, the three epistles of the Apostle John, who for some reasons, now not known, hath omitted his name in all of them; his first epistle beginning exactly like the epistle to the Hebrews, while in his other epistles he calls himself simply, “the presbyter,” or “elder.” It is true, Paul commonly inserted his name in the beginning of his letters. Yet in this to the Hebrews, he deviated from his usual manner, probably for the following reasons: 1. Because the doctrines which he set forth in it, being wholly founded by him on the Jewish scriptures, the faith of the Hebrews in these doctrines was to stand, not on the authority of the writer who taught them, but on the clearness of the testimonies which he produced from the Scriptures, the propriety of his application of these testimonies, and the justness of the conclusions which he deduced from them. 2. As Paul was the apostle of the Gentiles, in writing to the Hebrews he did not assume his apostolical character, because it was little respected by the unbelieving Jews and the Judaizing Christians, who traduced him as one who taught the Jews, living in foreign countries, to forsake Moses, Acts 21:21. For which reason, instead of writing to the Hebrews with the authority of an apostle, he, in the conclusion of his letter, “besought them to suffer the word of exhortation,” (Hebrews 13:22,) and protested, that in the whole of the doctrine delivered to them, he had maintained a good conscience, Hebrews 13:18. Indeed, if he had prefixed his name to this epistle, as he did to the epistles addressed to the Gentile Christians, and termed himself an “apostle of Christ,” it might have so awakened the prejudices conceived against him by the Jewish converts, as to have caused them to throw his letter aside unperused.
As for the date of this epistle, it seems evident that it was written after that to the Colossians and to Philemon; for there he is said to be “Paul the prisoner;” here we find him “set at liberty,” and hoping to come quickly to those to whom he writes: those epistles, therefore, being written in the sixty-fourth year of Christ, this must at least have been written in the following year. Again, in the epistle to the Colossians we have mention of Timothy, but nothing of his bonds; here we have mention both of his imprisonment and his deliverance, which may well cast this epistle into the year above mentioned.
The manifest design of St. Paul in this epistle was to confirm the Jewish Christians in the faith and practice of the gospel of Christ, from which they were in danger of apostatizing, either through the insinuations or ill treatment of their persecutors, or to recover such as had apostatized.
I. As the zealous defenders of the Mosaic law would naturally insist upon the divine authority of Moses, the distinguishing glory and majesty which attended its first promulgation by the ministry of angels, and the special privileges with which it invested those who adhered to it, and by arguments and insinuations of that kind would endeavour to shake the faith of those Jews who had embraced Christianity, and to prevail on them to renounce it, and return to Judaism, the apostle shows that in all these several particulars the gospel was infinitely superior to the law; which topic he pursues from chap. 1-11. 1. He reminds the believing Hebrews of the extraordinary favours shown them by God, in giving them a revelation by his own Son, whose glory was far superior to that of angels, (chap. 1. throughout,) very naturally inferring from hence, the danger of despising Christ on account of his humiliation, which, in perfect consistence with his dominion over the world to come, was voluntarily submitted to by him for wise and important reasons, particularly to deliver us from the fear of death, and encourage the freedom of our access to God, chap. 2. 2. With the same view he further magnifies Christ as superior to Moses, their great legislator; and from the punishment inflicted on those who rebelled against the authority of Moses, he infers the danger of contemning the promises of the gospel, Hebrews 3:1-13. And as it was an easy transition, while treating on that subject, to call to mind that rest in Canaan to which the authority wherewith Moses was invested was intended to lead the Israelites, the apostle, 3. Cautions them against the sin of unbelief, as what would prevent their entering into a state of rest far superior to what the Jews ever enjoyed, (Hebrews 2:14; Hebrews 4:11,) a caution which is still further enforced by awful views of God’s omniscience, and a lively representation of the high-priesthood of Christ, of whose divine appointment, gracious administration, and previous suffering, he goes on to discourse, promising further illustrations of so important a topic, Hebrews 4:12; Hebrews 4:14. Hebrews 4:4. He declares that he would advance to sublimer truths, without dwelling upon the first principles, for the sake of those who might have apostatized from the truth, and whose case he represents as very hopeless, (Hebrews 6:1-9,) and then, for the establishment and comfort of sincere believers, he sets before them the consideration of the goodness of God, and his fidelity to his promises, the performance of which is sealed by the entrance of Christ into heaven as our forerunner, Hebrews 6:10, to the end. 5. Still further to illustrate the character of our Lord, he enters into a parallel between him and Melchisedec, as agreeing in title and descent; and from instances wherein the priesthood of Melchisedec excelled the Levitical, he infers that the glory of the priesthood of Christ surpassed that under the law, Hebrews 7:1-17. Hebrews 7:6. From these premises, which plainly manifested the defects of the Aaronical priesthood, he argues that it was not only excelled, but consummated, by that of Christ, to which it was introductory and subservient; and, of consequence, that the obligation of the law was henceforth dissolved, Hebrews 7:18, to the end. Then, 7. Recapitulating what he had already demonstrated concerning the superior dignity of Christ’s priesthood, he thence illustrates the distinguished excellence of the new covenant, as not only foretold by Jeremiah, but evidently enriched with much better promises than the old, (chap. 8., throughout,) explaining further the doctrine of the priesthood and intercession of Christ, by comparing it to what the Jewish high-priest did on the great day of atonement, Hebrews 9:1-14. And, 8. Having enlarged on the necessity of shedding Christ’s blood, and the sufficiency of the atonement made by it, (Hebrews 9:15, to the end,) and proved the legal ceremonies could not, by any means, purify the conscience, and from thence argued the insufficiency of the Mosaic law, and the necessity of looking beyond it, (Hebrews 10:1-15,) the apostle urges the Hebrews to improve the privileges which such a High-Priest and covenant conferred on them, to the purposes of approaching God with confidence, a constant attendance on his worship, and most benevolent regards to each other, Hebrews 10:15-25. Having thus obviated the insinuations and objections of the Jews to the gospel of Christ, as inferior to the Mosaic dispensation, by showing its transcendent excellence in a clear and convincing light, for the satisfaction and establishment of the believing Hebrews, the apostle proceeds,
II. To awaken their attention, and fortify their minds against the storm of persecution, which had come, and was further likely to come upon them, for the sake of the Christian faith. To this end he reminds them of the extremities they had already endured in defence of the gospel, and of the fatal consequences which would attend their apostacy, (Hebrews 10:26, to the end,) calling to their remembrance the renowned examples of faith and fortitude which had been exhibited by holy men mentioned in the Scriptures of the Old Testament, (Hebrews 11:1-29,) concluding his discourse with glancing on many illustrious worthies whom he does not name; and, besides those recorded in Scripture, referring also to the case of several who suffered under the persecution of Antiochus Epiphanes, Hebrews 11:30; Hebrews 12:2.
III. Having thus executed his design in the argumentative part of the epistle, he applies the whole, by exhorting the Hebrew Christians to sustain and improve the afflictions to which they were exposed, and to exert themselves vigorously to promote the united interests of peace and holiness, Hebrews 12:3-14, cautioning them against disparaging the blessings of the gospel, and making them a sacrifice either to any secular views, or sensual gratifications; representing the incomparable excellence of these blessings, and the wonderful manner in which they were introduced, which even the introduction of the Jewish economy, glorious and magnificent as it was, did by no means equal, Hebrews 12:15-29; exhorting them to brotherly affection, purity, compassion, dependance on the divine care, steadfastness in the profession of the truth, and to a life of thankfulness to God, and benevolence to man, from the consideration of the inestimable privileges derived to us from Christ, which ought always to encourage us resolutely to endure any infamy and suffering which we may meet with in his cause, Hebrews 13:1-16; concluding the whole with recommending to them some particular regards to their pious ministers, entreating their prayers, and adding some salutations, and a solemn benediction, Hebrews 13:17, to the end. See Whitby, Macknight, and Doddridge.