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by Thomas Coke
THE EPISTLE OF PAUL THE APOSTLE TO THE HEBREWS.
THE epistle to the Hebrews is not only, like all the other sacred books, the production of the Holy Spirit, but is particularly distinguished as being full of the profoundest wisdom, and treating on the most sublime subjects of religion. The church has always regarded it as the work of St. Paul, and on that account all the ancient manuscripts have put his name to the title of it. The argument, that it does not bear his name, can be no cogent reason against the received opinion of its being his, without discrediting at the same time the universal belief of the church, that the First Epistle of St. John was really written by St. John, whose name it bears, although not inserted by the apostle himself. But, though the name of the apostle be wanting to this epistle, we may boldly say that he himself appears throughout; his stile, his expressions, his mode of reasoning, his usual manner of concluding his letters, decide the point. Besides, several circumstances are interspersed throughout the epistle, which can refer only to him. See Ch. Heb 10:34 and Hebrews 13:23-24.
It is not quite so easy to discern who are the persons to whom this Epistle is addressed. They are called by the general name of Hebrews, and all we can discover by that title is, that it was not written to the Gentile churches. But, if the Jewish proselytes only are meant, why, in the first place, does St. Paul call them Hebrews, a name which had long been out of use? and secondly, to what Hebrews did he write, and of what city or country? As to the first question, it appears from the 6th chapter of the Acts, Phm 1:1 and the 3rd of the Epistle to the Philippians, Phm 1:5 that the name of Hebrews was a term of distinction for certain persons and families among the Jews, and had a particular reference to the Hebrew language which those persons or families carefully cultivated; while, on the other hand, it was greatly neglected by those other families which were called Hellenists, or Greek Jews. But the apostle does not use it in that sense here; the title of his epistle is too general to be confined to this sect of Jews only, and the subjects treated have no reference to such a distinction, but are common to all the faithful converted from Judaism, whether Hebrews or Hellenists. The word Hebrews is therefore here, as of old, the name of a nation and a people; Genesis 39:17; Genesis 40:15. But, since the name of Jews was a term for those who held the Jewish religion, except in those places where it is used in direct opposition to the heathen nations, as in Galatians 3:28. St. Paul, writing to persons no longer Jews in religion, but Christians and believers, does not therefore address his epistles to the Jews, but to the Hebrews, because herein he regards their extraction and origin.
As to the second question, in what country or city resided the Hebrews to whom St. Paul wrote—though this be more difficult to answer, it is at least certain, that the apostle did not mean to address himself generally to all the churches of converted Jews throughout the world; for then he would not have said, as in Ch. Heb 13:23 that he hoped to see them with Timothy; neither had he particularly in view the dispersed Jews, to whom St. James and St. Peter wrote their epistles. It is therefore very probable, that St. Paul wrote this epistle to the churches of Judea, and that he wrote it while a prisoner at Rome, since he speaks of his bonds, Ch. Heb 10:34 and it appears from Ch. Heb 13:24 that he wrote it from Italy.
The general design of this Epistle was, to confirm the Hebrews in the profession of the gospel, and the experience of its genuine power. This the apostle clearly shews as early as the beginning of the second chapter, and returns to the same subject in Ch. Heb 4:14 and Ch. Hebrews 6:4-5, &c. And from Ch. Heb 10:23 he speaks scarcely of any thing else; and he calls his letter the word of exhortation, Ch. Heb 13:22 to shew that his design was to exhort the Hebrews to persevere in the faith.
In this view the apostle, from the very beginning of the Epistle, lays down the chief foundations of the faith, (Ch. 1:) which are, the Divinity of Christ's person; the infinite value of his sacrifice; and his exaltation into heaven, by which he is become the head of the church, and has acquired a dignity which can only consort with a divine personage. These great truths being thus laid down, in order to fill the minds of the Hebrews with sentiments of esteem, respect, and admiration for the gospel, the apostle immediately after, in the second chapter, draws this consequence, which arises from the nature of his subject, that we ought to give the more earnest heed to the things which we have heard, and not neglect so great salvation; Ch. Hebrews 2:1; Hebrews 2:3. And, because it was necessary to fix the attention of the Hebrews somewhat longer upon the glory and majesty of Christ, as contrasted with the ignominy of the cross, which the unbelieving Jews endeavoured to make a ground of distaste to the gospel, the apostle continues to speak throughout the whole of this chapter upon Christ's supreme exaltation; and he adduces a prophesy in the 8th Psalm, shewing that, conformably thereto, Christ's humiliation was to precede his exaltation; and that upon these two circumstances united in the Messiah, his cross and his triumph, his abasement and his exaltation, depends all our happiness.
Having in the first two chapters shewn our blessed Lord in his character of a king, in the third he exhibits him as a prophet; and, comparing him with Moses in a particular which does most honour to that minister of the old dispensation, (under the laws of which the unbelieving Jews would fain bring back those who had been converted,) namely, that of God's confiding to him the entire care of his tabernacle, and the conducting of his people, the apostle raises Christ infinitely above Moses, by shewing that the latter had only borne the name of a servant, and that consequently he only ministered in a house not his own; whereas Christ is placed over the church, the house of the living God, as a Son, not as a servant, for to him it properly belongs, as having built it himself. The remainder of this chapter, and the whole of the following one, are filled with strong exhortations to perseverance; laying before the Hebrews the famous examples of their fathers, who, on account of their rebelling against God in the wilderness, could not themselves enter the land of Canaan; whence the apostle, drawing a similar conclusion, explains to the Hebrews, that if they continued to rebel against God, they could not enter into his rest.
He then (Ch. 5:) treats at some length of the priesthood of Christ, to clear away the illusions which the rebellious Jews threw in the way of the converted Jews as to the Levitical priesthood. In the sixth chapter, as if by way of digression, he pictures the wretched state of those, who were once enlightened, and had tasted of the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Ghost; (Ch. Hebrews 6:4.) and yet had afterwards apostatized. In the seventh chapter, he raises Christ's priesthood above that of Aaron, by comparing it with the priesthood of Melchisedec; and for the subject or text of his discourse, he takes the 110th Psalm, wherein God had said to the Messiah, Thou art a priest for ever, after the order of Melchisedec, Phm 1:4 and he proves, 1 that the Messiah's priesthood was an everlasting priesthood; and, 2 that it rested solely in his own person, and did not pass from one to another, like that of Aaron. The rest of this chapter, the 8th, the 9th, and the 10th, to Phm 1:19 treat in detail upon the Levitical priesthood, shewing so clearly its weakness and imperfection, that nothing can be conceived stronger to the purpose of removing the prejudices of the Jews, and of giving the converted Hebrews, and the church in general in every place and in every age, the most exalted idea of Christ's priesthood and of the efficacy of his sacrifice.
St. Paul, having thus resisted every thing which the rebellious Jews could imagine most specious and imposing in favour of their religion, and against the Christian doctrine, and having fully established the excellence of the gospel, he employs the remainder of this epistle in strengthening the Hebrews against persecution, and exhorting them to patience. He is very earnest on this subject in Ch. Hebrews 10:19-39. In the 11th Chapter, he collects together the most illustrious examples from scripture, to shew the high value of faith, and the importance of keeping it undefiled. In the 12th Chapter he proceeds to the application of these great examples; and, his zeal being highly animated by a view of so many objects crowding upon his mind, he express himself more strongly than ever against apostacy, and shews so emphatically its dreadful consequences, that those only who are infatuated by their passions, can fail to take salutary warning. The last chapter is written with the same views as the preceding; it is a kind of epitome of this excellent Epistle, which the learned may always regard as an inexhaustible source of improvement in doctrine, and the whole church as an inestimable treasure of instruction and consolation.
the Week of Christ the King / Proper 29 / Ordinary 34