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Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible

Hebrews, Epistle to

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HEBREWS, EPISTLE TO . Introductory . At first sight it is not easy to understand why this treatise has been designated an Epistle. The only direct references by the writer to the character of his work are found in Hebrews 13:22 , where he styles it a ‘word of exhortation’ (cf. Acts 13:15 , 4M Malachi 1:1 ), and speaks of having written’ (a letter) unto you in few words’ (this verb seems to be more justly treated in AV [Note: Authorized Version.] than in RV [Note: Revised Version.] ). The general salutation of Hebrews 13:24 is similar to what is found in most of the NT Epistles (cf. Rom 16:3 ff., 1 Corinthians 16:19 ff., 2 Corinthians 13:12 f., Philippians 4:21 f., Colossians 4:10 ff. etc.). At the same time, there are numerous personal references scattered throughout the writing ( Hebrews 13:7 , Hebrews 5:11 , Hebrews 4:1 , Hebrews 10:19 , Hebrews 6:9 etc.), and in most cases the author places himself on the same level with those to whom he is writing ( Hebrews 3:19 , Hebrews 8:13 ff., Hebrews 11:40 , Hebrews 10:10 etc.). In spite of the formality which might characterize this writing as a theological essay, it is evident that the early instinct of the Church in regarding it as essentially an Epistle is substantially sound and correct (cf. Deissmann, Bible Studies , p. 49 f.). Of course, the title ‘The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews’ (EV [Note: English Version.] ) is without early textual authority. The oldest MSS have merely the superscription ‘to Hebrews,’ just as they have in the case of other NT epistles (‘to Romans,’ etc.). The only other early description to which it is necessary to refer in this place is that given to it by Tertullian, who expressly quotes it by the title of ‘Barnabas to the Hebrews’ ( de Pud . 20). It seems to have been unanimously accepted from the very earliest period that the objective of the Epistle was correctly described by this title. Whether, however, this conclusion was based on sound traditional evidence or was merely arrived at from the internal character of the writing itself, must be left to research or conjecture; for we must not suppose that the words ‘to Hebrews’ form any part of the original document.

1. Authorship . Notwithstanding the fact that this writing was known by the most ancient Christian writers, at all events by those belonging to the Church in Rome, it is noteworthy that all traces as to its authorship seem to have been lost very soon. The only information, with regard to this question, to be gleaned from the Roman Church is of the negative character that it was not written by St. Paul. Indeed, the Western Church as a whole seems to have allowed its presence in the Canon only after a period of uncertainty, and even then to have regarded it as of secondary importance because of its lack of Apostolic authority.

The Muratorian Fragment does not include it in its catalogue, and implicitly denies its Pauline authorship (‘The blessed Apostle Paul himself, following the example of his predecessor John, wrote only to seven Churches by name,’ etc., see Westcott, Canon of the NT , App. C.), as does also Caius. Of more direct value are the testimonies of Hippolytus and Irenæus, both of whom were acquainted with the Epistle, but denied that St. Paul wrote it (cf. Eusebius, HE Hebrews 10:26 , vi. 20; see Salmon’s Introd. to NT 5 , p. 47). The Churches of North Africa and Alexandria, on the contrary, have their respective positive traditions on this question. The former, as has been noted already, attributed the writing to Barnabas a theory preserved by Tertullian alone, and destined to fall into complete oblivion until quite recent times (cf. e.g. Zahn, Einleitung , ii. p. 116 f.).

The Alexandrian belief in the authorship of St. Paul, indirectly at least, dates as far back as the closing years of the 2nd century. Clem. Alex. [Note: lex. Alexandrian.] goes so far as to suggest that St. Paul wrote it originally in Hebrew, suppressing his name from motives of expediency, and that St. Luke translated it for the use of those who understood only Greek. Origen, who had his own doubts as to the reliability of the local tradition, nevertheless upheld St. Paul as the ultimate author; and his influence undoubtedly had powerful weight in overcoming the Western hesitation. At all events, by the 5th cent. it was almost universally held to be the product of St. Paul’s literary activity; and this belief was not disturbed until the revival of learning in the 16th cent., when again a wide divergence of opinion displayed itself.

Erasmus, the first to express the latent feelings of uncertainty, conjectured in a characteristically modest fashion that Clement of Rome was possibly the author. Luther, with his usual boldness and independence, hazarded the unsupported guess that its author was Apollos (cf. Farrar, The Early Days of Christianity , ch. xvii.; and Bleek, Introd. to NT ii. pp. 91 ff.). Calvin wavered between St. Luke and Clement, following, no doubt, some of the statements of Origen as to traditions current in his day (see Eusebius, HE vi. 25).

In the midst of such conflicting evidence it is impossible to feel certain on the question of authorship; nor need we experience uneasiness on this head. The authenticity and inspiration of a book are not dependent upon our knowing who wrote it. In the case of our Epistle, it is the subject-matter which primarily arrests the attention. The writer is holding before the minds of his readers the Son of God, who, as man, has spoken ‘at the end of these days’ (Hebrews 1:2 ). It seems to be suitable to his theme that he should retire behind the veil of anonymity; for he speaks of One who is the ‘effulgence’ of the Divine Glory, ‘and the very image of his substance’ ( Hebrews 1:3 ).

We have thus no resource but to appeal to the writing itself in order to arrive at a decision as to the kind of person likely to have penned such a document (cf. art. ‘Hebrews’ in Hastings’ DB [Note: Dictionary of the Bible.] , vol. ii. 338 a ). The author seems to have a personal and an intimate knowledge of the character and history of those whom he addresses (cf. Hebrews 6:9 f., Hebrews 10:34 , Hebrews 13:7; Hebrews 13:19 ). It is quite possible, of course, that this may have been gained through the medium of others, and that he is speaking of a reputation established and well known. When we consider, however, the numerous instances in which close ties of relationship betray themselves, we are forced to the conclusion that the writer and his readers were personally known to each other. Timothy was a mutual friend ( Hebrews 13:23 ), although it is confessed that both the author and those addressed belong to the second generation of Christians ( Hebrews 2:3 ). There is, moreover, a constant use of the first personal pronoun ( Hebrews 1:2 , Hebrews 2:1 ff., Hebrews 2:9 , Hebrews 3:6; Hebrews 3:14 , Hebrews 4:3; Hebrews 4:14 , Hebrews 6:18 ff., Hebrews 8:1 , Hebrews 9:24 , Hebrews 10:10; Hebrews 10:19-25; Hebrews 10:30 , Hebrews 11:3 , Hebrews 13:10 ), even in places where we should have expected that of the second person ( e.g. Hebrews 12:1 f., Hebrews 12:28 , Hebrews 13:13 ff.). To the present writer the words translated ‘that I may be restored speedily unto you’ ( Hebrews 13:19 ) seem to convey the meaning that he had been amongst them once, although Westcott is inclined to see here but a suggestion of ‘the idea of service which he had rendered and could render to his readers’ ( Ep. to the Hebrews, in loc ., see also Introd. pp. lxxv vi and Cremer, Bibl.-Theol. Lex. of NT Greek , p. 312). If thus he were a close personal acquaintance, these reminiscences of their former endurance, and of the faithfulness of those through whose instrumentality they had embraced the Christian faith, gain force and point (cf. Hebrews 10:32 , Hebrews 13:7 ). There is, moreover, a tone of authority throughout, as if the writer had no fear that his words would be resented or misinterpreted ( Hebrews 12:4 f., Hebrews 13:9 , Hebrews 10:25; Hebrews 10:35 , Hebrews 5:11 ff., Hebrews 3:12 etc.).

To these notes of authorship must be added the evidence of wide literary culture observable throughout the Epistle. This characteristic has been, and is, universally acknowledged. The author did not use the Hebrew OT, and in the single quotation where he varies from the LXX [Note: Septuagint.] we gather, either that he was acquainted with the Epistle to the Romans, or that he gives a variant reading preserved and popularized by the Targ. Onk. (cf. Hebrews 10:30 and Romans 12:19 ). There is no other NT writer who displays the same rhetorical skill in presenting the final truths of the Christian religion in their world-wide relations (cf. Hebrews 1:1-4 , Hebrews 2:14-18 , Hebrews 6:17-20 , Hebrews 11:1-40 etc.). His vocabulary is rich and varied, and in this respect stands closer to the writings of St. Luke than to any other of the NT books. ‘The number of words found in the Epistle which have a peculiar Biblical sense is comparatively small’ (Westcott, ib. Introd. xlvi.). For these and similar reasons it is generally believed that our author was a scholar of Hellenistic training, and most probably an Alexandrian Jew of philosophic temperament and education (see Bacon, Introd. to NT , p. 141).

2. Destination, circumstances of readers, date . When we ask ourselves the question, Who were the people addressed in this Epistle?, we are again met with a confusing variety of opinion. The chief rival claimants to this honour are three: Palestine , which has the most ancient tradition in its favour, and which is countenanced by the superscription; Alexandria; and Rome , where the Epistle first seems to have been known and recognized. One conclusion may, at any rate, be accepted as certain: the addressees formed a definite homogeneous body of Christians. The writer has a local Church in view, founded at a specific period, and suffering persecution at a definite date (note the tense of the verbs, ‘ye were enlightened,’ ‘ye endured,’ Hebrews 10:32 ). He addresses this Church independently of its recognized ‘leaders’ ( Hebrews 13:24 ). In his exhortation to patience and endurance he reminds his readers of the speedy return of Jesus, as if they had already begun to despair of the fulfilment of that promise ( Hebrews 10:36 ff.; cf. 2 Peter 3:8 ff., Rev 3:3 , 2 Thessalonians 2:1 ff.). He had been with them at some period prior to his writing, and he hoped once again to visit them with Timothy as his companion ( Hebrews 13:19; Hebrews 13:23 ). Their spiritual growth was arrested just at the point where he had looked for vigour and force ( Hebrews 5:11 ff., Hebrews 6:1 ff.), and this resulted in moral degeneracy ( Hebrews 5:11 , Hebrews 12:5 , Hebrews 3:12 ), and in neglect of that ordinance which promotes social intercourse and Christian fellowship ( Hebrews 10:25 ). As a Church, too, they were in a position to help their poorer brethren ( Hebrews 6:10 ), and he expected them to continue that help in the future ( Hebrews 6:11 ) a feature of early Christian activity which reminds us of the poverty of the Church in Judæa (cf. Acts 11:29; Acts 24:17 , Romans 15:26 , 1 Corinthians 16:1 ff. etc.). To the present writer this allusion of itself presents a formidable, if not a fatal, objection to the theory that Palestine was the destination of our Epistle. This conclusion is strengthened by the elegant Greek in which the Epistle is written, and by the writer’s use of the LXX [Note: Septuagint.] instead of the Hebrew OT. On the other hand, the only direct internal evidence pointing to the readers’ relations with Rome is found in the salutation, ‘They of Italy salute you’ ( Hebrews 13:24 ). It is true that this is sufficient to establish a connexion; but it would be futile to deny that it is capable of a double explanation that the Epistle was written either from or to Italy. The former seems at first sight the more natural interpretation of the words (cf. Colossians 4:16 ) and we are not surprised to find such scholars as Theodoret and Primasius expressing their belief that our author here discloses the place from which he writes. Indeed, on the supposition that ‘they of Italy’ were the writer’s companions who were absent with him from Rome, the words do not seem the most felicitous method of expressing their regards. It would be natural to mention some at least of their names in sending greetings from them to their brethren, with whom they must have been on terms of the most intimate fellowship (cf. Romans 16:21 ff., 1 Corinthians 16:19 ). Besides, if he wrote from Rome we have a natural explanation, amounting to a vera causa , of the fact that our Epistle was known there from the very first; for it must not be supposed that a writing like this was allowed to go forth without copies having been made beforehand (for a supposed instance of this kind in the case of St. Luke’s writings, see Blass, Ev. sec. Lucam , and Acta Apostolorum , especially the Præfatio and Prolegomena respectively, where that scholar contends that the remarkable textual variations in these writings can be explained only by the theory of a second edition of each).

Nor can the claim of Alexandria to be the destination of the Epistle be said to have much force. The argument on which this theory is mainly based has to do with the discrepancies between the writer’s descriptions of Levitical worship and that which obtained in the Jewish Temple in accordance with the Mosaic code (cf. e.g. Hebrews 9:3 f., Hebrews 7:27 etc.). It has been supposed that he had in his mind the temple of Onias at Leontopolis in Egypt. This, however, is pure conjecture (cf. Westcott, ib. Introd. p. xxxix.), and is contradicted by the historical evidence of the late date at which the Epistle seems to have been known in Alexandria, and by the fact that its authorship was completely hidden from the heads of the Church in that place. We are thus reduced to the balancing of probabilities in selecting an objective for our Epistle, and in so doing we have to ask ourselves the much canvassed question, What were the antecedents of the readers? Were they Gentile or Jewish converts? Until a comparatively recent date it was believed universally that the writer had Jewish Christians before his mind. A formidable array, however, of NT critics, especially Continental, now advocate the theory that, in spite of appearances to the contrary, the original readers of our Epistle were Gentiles or mainly Gentiles ( e.g. von Soden, Jülicher, Weizsäcker, Pfleiderer, M’Giffert, Bacon, etc.). Certainly among the Christians of the first two or three generations there must have been a large number of proselytes who were well acquainted with the Levitical ceremonial, and to whom the description of the furniture of the Tabernacle would have been perfectly intelligible ( Hebrews 9:2 ff.; cf. Hebrews 9:13 ff., Hebrews 9:19 ff., Hebrews 10:11 ff. etc.). That the addressees included Jews cannot be denied (see Hebrews 6:6 f., Hebrews 13:9-16 etc.). At the same time, it would be futile to base an argument for the purely Jewish destination of the Epistle upon such passages as speak of OT prophetic revelations having been made to ‘the fathers’ ( Hebrews 1:1 ), or of ‘the seed of Abraham’ ( Hebrews 2:16 ) as constituting the basis of Jesus’ human nature. A similar identification is made by St. Paul in writing to the Church in Rome ( Romans 4:1-25 ), where undoubtedly there was a large admixture of Gentile Christians. Moreover, Clement of Rome again and again refers to ‘our fathers,’ though he too is writing to a Church largely Gentile (see cc. 4, 31, 62. etc.). It is also well to remember that the organized bodies, were dependent, to a very large extent, upon the OT Scriptures for their spiritual nourishment and guidance. These were to them the chief, if not the only, authoritative record of God’s revelation of Himself and His purposes to the world. It was perfectly natural, therefore, that St. Paul should presuppose a wide knowledge of OT history, and, indeed, of the Jewish interpretations of that history (cf. Romans 5:12 ff., 1 Corinthians 15:22 , 2Co 3:7 ff; 2 Corinthians 6:16 , Galatians 3:29 ), on the part of his Gentile readers, just as Clement of Rome does.

When we turn to our Epistle, we are struck at once by the fact that the writer is not moving in, or thinking of, a living practical Leviticalism. He is dealing with Mosaism in its ideal conditions. The ritualism about which he addresses his readers seems to be, not that which actually obtained in the later Temple services (cf. e.g. Hebrews 7:27 , Hebrews 10:11 , Hebrews 9:21 ), but that splendid theoretical ceremonial every detail of which was believed to be a type and a shadow ‘of the good things to come’ ( Hebrews 9:11; cf. W. R. Smith’s art. ‘Hebrews’ in E Br ). Indeed, the typological and allegorizing elements in the Epistle claim for it almost peremptorily a non-Eastern objective; and though the present writer cannot see his way to accept Zahn’s conclusion that the addressees formed a compact body of Jewish Christians within a large Gentile community of believers, he is ready to yield to his exhaustive study of the problem when he points to Rome as offering the fewest objections, on the whole, to be the destination of the writing ( Einleit. in das NT , ii. p. 146 ff.).

Accepting this conclusion as at least a provisional, and it may be a temporary, solution of the difficult question arising out of the objective of our Epistle, we shall find several allusions to the existing conditions of life in the Church addressed . Nor shall we be left completely in the dark as to the probable date of its composition. Looking first for incidental remarks, independently of the locale of the readers, we find several hints pointing to a comparatively late period in the history of the early Church. Both writer and readers were separated by at least a generation from the first circle of believers ( Hebrews 2:3 ). The readers, moreover, had been long enough under the influence of the Christian faith to give our author grounds for hope that they could occupy the position of teachers and of ‘perfect’ (‘full grown,’ RV [Note: Revised Version.] ) professors of their religion ( Hebrews 5:11 ff.; note the verb translated ‘ye are become,’ which expresses the end of a lengthened process of degeneracy). This hope was bitterly disappointed, although he is careful to recall a period when their love was warm and their Christian profession an active force in their lives ( Hebrews 6:9 f.). Basing his appeal on this memory, he strives to encourage them to revert to their former earnestness (‘diligence,’ EV [Note: English Version.] Hebrews 6:11 ); and, in order to prevent that dulness to which they had already given way from developing further, he urges them to take for a pattern those Christian teachers who had already spent their lives in the service of the faith ( Hebrews 6:12 ). It is probable that their own rulers of the preceding generation had signalized their fidelity to Christ by enduring martyrdom for His sake (cf. Westcott, Ep. to Heb., in loc. ). The first freshness of their enthusiasm for the gospel was wearing off, and some at least amongst them were in danger of a complete lapse from Church membership ( Hebrews 10:25 ). The cause of this temptation is not far to seek. In an earlier period of their history they had ‘endured a great conflict of sufferings’ ( Hebrews 10:32 ff.), and the writer hints at another and a similar experience, of which the beginnings were making themselves felt (cf. Hebrews 12:3 f.; note the warning tone in Hebrews 10:36 exhorting to the cultivation of patience). Persecution on this occasion had not as yet burst with its full fury upon them ( Hebrews 12:4 ). That he sees it fast coming is evident from the writer’s continually appealing for an exhibition of fortitude and patient endurance ( Hebrews 12:1 ff., Hebrews 12:11 f. etc.). Indeed, he understands the dangers to which a Church, enjoying a period of freedom from the stress of active opposition (in this case peace for the Church had lasted, in the opinion of the present writer, for close on thirty years [see Robertson’s Hist. of Christ. Church , vol. i. p. 7 f.]), is exposed when brought face to face with a sudden storm of persecution and relentless hatred ( Hebrews 12:5; Hebrews 12:7 f.). He seems to fear apostasy as the result of moral relaxation ( Hebrews 12:12 f.), and encourages his readers by telling them of the liberation of Timothy from his imprisonment for the faith ( Hebrews 13:23 ). It is not impossible that one of his reasons for writing directly to the Church, instead of addressing it through ‘them that had the rule over them’ ( Hebrews 13:24 ), was that be feared a similar fate for the latter, or that, like himself, they were compulsorily separated from their brethren ( Hebrews 13:19 ) by the persecuting authorities. Now, if we accept Rome as the destination of our Epistle, and see in Hebrews 13:7 an allusion to the martyrdom of St. Peter and St. Paul, and at the same time remember that we have the Epistle of Clement to the Corinthian Church as its terminus ad quem , we have reduced the limits of the date of its composition to the period between the Neronic and Domitianic persecutions. Rather we should say, following some of the allusions referred to above, that it was written at the beginning of the latter crisis; in other words, the date would be within the closing years of the 8th and the opening years of the 9th decade of the 1st cent. a.d. The fact that Timothy was alive when our author wrote does not militate against this date, as he seems to have been a young man when converted through the instrumentality of St. Paul (cf. 1 Corinthians 16:11 , 1 Timothy 4:12 , 2 Timothy 2:22 ).

Besides the danger to the faith arising from physical sufferings and persecutions, another and a more deadly enemy seems to have been threatening to undermine the foundations of the Church at this period. After the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, Jewish Rabbinism seems to have been endowed with a new and vigorous life. Hellenistic Judaism, with its syncretistic teodencies and its bitter proselytizing spirit, must have appealed very strongly to that class of Christians for whom an eclectic belief always has a subtle charm (cf. the warning ‘Be not carried away by divers and strange teachings,’ and the reference to the distinctions regarding ‘meats’ in Hebrews 13:9 , which forcibly remind us of St. Paul’s language in Colossians 2:16; for an exhaustive survey of the extent and number of proselytes to Judaism, and the eagerness with which this work was pursued, see Schürer, HJP [Note: JP History of the Jewish People.] ii. ii. 291 327).

3. Purpose and contents . In order to counteract this deadly influence, the writer sets about proving the final and universalistic character of the Christian revelation. It is with this practical aim that he takes his pen in hand, and he himself gives its true designation to his literary effort when he styles it ‘a word of encouragement’ ( Hebrews 13:22 ). At the same time, it is evident that our author moves on a high plane both of thought and of language. No other NT writer seems to have grasped so fully the cosmological significance attaching to the earthly life and experiences of Jesus ( Hebrews 5:7 f., Hebrews 4:15 , Hebrews 2:9 ff., Hebrews 2:17 f.), or to have set forth so clearly His present activity on behalf of ‘all them that obey him’ ( Hebrews 5:9 , Hebrews 2:18 , Hebrews 7:25 , Hebrews 9:15; Hebrews 9:24 , cf. Romans 8:34 ). For him the Incarnation has bridged once and for all the hitherto impassable gulf separating God and man, and has made intelligible for man the exhortation ‘Let us draw near’ to God, for a ‘new and living way’ has been ‘dedicated for us’ through His flesh ( Hebrews 10:20 ff., cf. Hebrews 7:19 ). It may be said, indeed, that the author regards Christianity as the final stage in the age-long process of religious evolution. The Levitical institutions, with their elaborate ceremonialism, constituted the preceding and preparatory step in the Divine plan of world-salvation. This too was good in its way, and necessary, but of course imperfect. It did its duty as a good servant, faithfully and well, but had to give way when the ‘heir of all things’ ( Hebrews 1:2 ) came to claim His inheritance (cf. Hebrews 3:6 f.).

In order to establish emphatically the pre-eminence of Christianity over all that went before, the Epistle opens with a series of comparisons between Christ and the great representatives of the former dispensation. ( a ) In the ‘old time’ the messages of God were delivered ‘by divers portions and in divers manners’ through the prophets, but now ‘at the end of these days’ He has spoken His final word ‘in a Son’ ( Hebrews 1:1 ff.). ( b ) The Law of Moses was revealed through the mediation of angels and was ‘steadfast’ ( Hebrews 2:2 ); but angels were employed in service ‘on behalf of those who are to inherit salvation’ ( Hebrews 1:14 ), whereas the revelation through the medium of the Son who was ‘made a little lower than the angels’ was correspondingly of a higher order than that which had these beings as intermediaries ( Hebrews 1:4-14 , Hebrews 2:5-9 ). ( c ) The great lawgiver Moses occupied but the position of servant, and therefore holds a subordinate place to that of the Son in the Divine scheme of redemption ( Hebrews 3:2-6 ). ( d ) Finally, as Christ is personally superior to Aaron, so His office is essentially more profound and efficacious than that which typified it.

This last comparison is elaborated at much greater length than the others (Hebrews 8:1 to Hebrews 10:18 ), and indeed in its argumentative treatment is developed into a contrast. The discussion here is simple but effective. All recognize that ‘without blood-shedding there is no forgiveness’ ( Hebrews 9:22 ), but Aaron and his successors went into the holy place ‘with blood not their own’ ( Hebrews 9:25 ), the blood of bulls and of goats, which cannot possibly take away sins. ( Hebrews 10:4 ). Moreover, the first requisite to the high-priestly service of atonement is that a sin-offering had to be made for the officiating priest himself before he offered for the people ( Hebrews 9:7 , Hebrews 5:3 ). The temporary makeshift character of these ordinances was shown and acknowledged by the fact that they had to be constantly repeated (‘once in the year,’ Hebrews 9:7 , cf. Hebrews 10:3 ). They had in themselves no moral uplifting force, cleansing the consciences of, and perfecting, ‘them that draw nigh’ ( Hebrews 10:1 f.). On the other hand, Christ entered into ‘the holy place once for all through his own blood’ ( Hebrews 9:12 ), and, though He ‘is able to sympathize with our weaknesses, having been tempted in all things according to the likeness of our temptations,’ yet He remained sinless ( Hebrews 4:15 ). He needed not to offer on His own behalf, for temptation and suffering proved to Him but stages in the process of perfecting His Sonship ( Hebrews 2:10 , Hebrews 5:2 f., Hebrews 7:28 ). In describing the personal character of the high priest suited to our needs, the writer is at the same time describing the character of the sacrifice which Christ offered, for ‘he offered up himself ( Hebrews 7:26 ff.). In order to obviate any objection likely to be made against the irregularity of a priesthood outside the Levitical order, he has already pointed to an OT case in point, and here he strengthens his plea by quoting from a Psalm universally recognized as Messianic. Melchizedek was a priest who had no genealogical affinity with the tribe of Levi, and yet he was greater than Aaron ( Hebrews 7:4-10 ); and it was said by God of His own Son that He should be a ‘priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek’ ( Hebrews 5:6 , Hebrews 7:17 ).

We have said above that the central thought of our Epistle is the discovery by Christianity of a way, hitherto hidden from the eyes of man, of access to God (cf. Hebrews 4:16 , Hebrews 10:19 , Hebrews 7:19; Hebrews 7:25 ). Once this was accomplished, nothing further remained to be done ( Hebrews 10:18 ) but to enter on that path which leads to the ‘Sabbath-rest reserved for the people of God’ ( Hebrews 4:9 ). We may now ask the question. What are the author’s conceptions with regard to the Being and Personality of the High Priest upon whose functions he sets such value? In other words, What are the chief features of the Christology of the Epistle? We have not to proceed far in the study of our Epistle before we are brought face to face with a thought which dominates each discussion of the relative claims of Christ and the OT ministers of revelation and redemption. It is upon His Sonship that the superiority of Jesus is based. Neither the prophets nor the ministering angels, neither Moses nor Aaron, could lay claim to that relationship which is inherent in the Person of Jesus Christ. In consequence of the unique position occupied by ‘the Son of God’ ( Hebrews 4:14; cf. Hebrews 1:2; Hebrews 1:6 , Hebrews 3:6 , Hebrews 5:8 , Hebrews 7:28 , Hebrews 10:29 ), it follows that the dispensation ushered in by Him is above all that went before it. The latter was but the dim outline (‘shadow’), not even the full representation (‘the very image’) ‘of the good things which were to be’ ( Hebrews 10:1 ). Regarded as a means of revealing God to man, this superiority is self-evident, as the Son is above both prophets and angels. Looked on as a mediatorial scheme of redemption and of reconciliation, it stands immeasurably above that whose representatives were Moses the lawgiver and Aaron the priest.

It is evident from what has been said that this feature of the Personality of Jesus is transcendent and unique. It is also evident that sonship in a general sense is not unknown to the author (cf. Hebrews 2:10 , Hebrews 12:5; Hebrews 12:7 f.). As if to preclude all misunderstanding of his meaning, he at the outset defines his belief when he represents the Son as ‘the heir of all things’ and the agent of God’s creative activity ( Hebrews 3:3 f.; cf. John 1:3 ), the effulgence of His glory and the very image of His Person. Not only do we see in these words the definition of a faith which confesses Jesus as the great world-sustaining power ( Hebrews 1:3 ); there is also implied, so far as a non-technical terminology can do so, belief in the eternity of His Being. It is true that the term ‘first-begotten’ ( Hebrews 1:6 ) does not necessarily carry the idea of eternity with it, or even the statement that He is the Maker of the ages ( Hebrews 1:2 ). On the other hand, we must remember that these are but supplemental to the grand Christological confession of Hebrews 1:2 , which excludes the notion of the non-existence of the Son at any time in the ages of eternity. The shining of light is coeval with the light itself, and the impress of the seal on wax is the exact reproduction of the original engraving. It is true that we have here no systematic declaration of Christological belief. The time had not yet come for the constructive theologian. At the same time, it is difficult to see how the author could have framed a more emphatic expression of his belief that Jesus the Son of God is a Divine Person from eternity to eternity (cf. Hebrews 7:28 ). The grand and final scene in the Divine process of self-revelation is painted in words of magnificent solemnity, referred to incidentally, and repeated again and again. As the Son of God, Jesus had a Divine inheritance into which He entered, after His work of redemption was completed on earth, by sitting down on the right hand of the Majesty on High ( Hebrews 1:3; cf. Hebrews 1:13 , Hebrews 2:9 f., Hebrews 4:14 , Hebrews 6:20 , Hebrews 7:26 , Luke 22:69 , Mark 16:19 ).

In his reference to the work of the Son in ‘making purification for sins’ (Hebrews 1:3 ) the author implies at once his belief in the humanity of the Son. Although he gives us no direct clue to the extent of his knowledge of the conditions under which the Incarnation was effected, he leaves us in no doubt not only that the manhood of the Son is a reality, but that for the work of redemption it was necessary that it should be so. The fact that his allusions to this doctrine are always indirect point to the conclusion that he expected his readers to be familiar with it as an indisputable article of the Christian faith. Besides, he reinforces his arguments by a running commentary upon those Psalms wherein he sees prophetic expressions of the humiliation of the Christ (cf. Hebrews 2:7; Hebrews 2:9; Hebrews 2:14; Hebrews 2:16; Hebrews 2:18 , Hebrews 5:7 ). Incorporated with them we have numerous references to the earthly experiences of Jesus. The manner of His death ( Hebrews 12:2 , cf. Hebrews 2:9; Hebrews 2:14 ), His general temptations ( Hebrews 2:18 , Hebrews 4:15 ), and, in particular, that of Gethsemane ( Hebrews 5:7 , where the author boldly refers to Jesus’ prayer to His Father in the face of an awful calamity, and the cause which occasioned that prayer). His work as preacher of salvation, and the delegation by Him of the work of proclamation to those who heard Him ( Hebrews 1:2 , Hebrews 2:3 ), His protracted struggle with implacable religious enemies ( Hebrews 12:3 ) all point to our author’s minute acquaintance with the historical facts of Jesus’ life.

No attempt is made by the writer to minimize the extent and character of Jesus’ earthly sufferings and the limitations to which He was subjected. It seems as if, above all things, he is anxious to impress his readers with their stern reality, and as if they, in their turn, were tempted to despise the salvation which was wrought out through such humiliation (Hebrews 2:3 ). For him this humiliation is filled with a moral and spiritual significance of the most vital importance. In His constant endurance and His ultimate triumph Jesus has left an abiding example to all who suffer temptation and persecution ( Hebrews 12:2 f.; cf. the expression ‘we behold him,’ etc., Hebrews 2:9 ). The power of this example is the greater because of the oneness of Jesus and His people (cf. Hebrews 2:11 ), by which their endurance and witness become the embodiment and extension of His work in this respect (cf. Hebrews 5:12 , Hebrews 13:7 , Hebrews 12:1 ). The spiritual significance of the earthly life of Jesus is no less real and splendid. ‘It was fitting’ that Jesus should be perfected ‘through sufferings’ ( Hebrews 2:10; Hebrews 2:17 ), not only because He thereby attained to the captaincy of salvation, becoming merciful and faithful ( Hebrews 2:17 ) and sympathizing ( Hebrews 4:15 ), but because the ability to help ‘his brethren’ (cf. Hebrews 2:11; Hebrews 2:17 ) springs from the double fact that He is one with them in His experiences, and at the same time victorious over sin (‘apart from sin,’ Hebrews 4:15 , cf. Hebrews 7:26 , Hebrews 9:28 ) as they are not. The profound synthesis of the humiliation and the glory of Jesus thus effected by our author is enhanced as it reaches its climax in the bold assertion that development in character was a necessary element in His earthly life ( Hebrews 5:8; cf. the words ‘perfected for evermore,’ Hebrews 7:28 ).

In order that his readers may fully appreciate the character of the work accomplished by the life and death of Jesus, the writer proceeds to answer objections which may be raised against the propriety of His discharging the priestly functions of mediation and atonement. This he does by a twofold process of reasoning. First, reverting to the language of the great Messianic Psalm, he demonstrates the superiority in point of order, as in that of time, of the priesthood of Melchizedek to that of Aaron (Hebrews 5:6; Hebrews 5:10 , Hebrews 7:4 ff., Hebrews 7:17 etc.). Next he shows how the ideals dimly foreshadowed by the functions of the Aaronic priesthood have become fully and finally realized in the priesthood of Jesus ( Hebrews 8:4 ff., Hebrews 9:8 f., Hebrews 9:14 f.). There are certain characteristics in the Melchizedekian order which, by an allegorical method of interpretation, are shown to be typical in the sublime sense of the priesthood of Christ. It was ( a ) royal, ( b ) righteous, ( c ) peaceful, ( d ) personal, ( e ) eternal ( Hebrews 7:2 f.). A high priest having these ideal attributes realized in himself answers to man’s fallen condition, and they all meet in the Person of the Son ‘perfected for evermore’ (cf. Hebrews 7:26 ). No mention is made of the sacrificial aspect of Melchizedek’s work, but this is implied in the subsequent assertion that our high priest ‘offered up himself once for all’ ( Hebrews 7:27 ). Indeed, it may be said that the latter characteristic is inseparable from the above-mentioned five, for the priesthood which realizes in itself the ethical ideals here outlined will inevitably crown itself by the act of self-sacrifice. The argument is then transferred from the Melchizedekian to the Levitical order, where the last-named function found detailed expression in the Mosaic ritual institutions. Here an answer is given to the question, ‘What has this man to offer?’ The Aaronic priests offered sacrifices continually, and in his description of the functions incidental to their position we seem to hear echoes of contrasts out of the very parallelisms instituted. The Levitical priest is not ( a ) royal; he ‘is appointed’ to fulfil certain obligations ( Hebrews 8:3 , cf. Hebrews 5:1 ); he is not ( b ) essentially righteous; he has, before he fulfils his mediatorial functions, first to offer for his own sins ( Hebrews 8:7 , cf. Hebrews 5:3 ); his work does not conduce to ( c ) peace, for ‘conscience of sins’ is still, in spite of priestly activity, alive, and ‘perfection’ is not thereby attained ( Hebrews 10:1 f.); his priesthood is not ( d ) personal; it is an inherited authority ‘made after the law of a carnal commandment’ ( Hebrews 7:16 ), and the personal equation is shown to be eliminated by the fact that it is the blood of goats and calves that he offers ( Hebrews 9:12 ); finally, it is not ( e ) eternal; its ordinances were temporary, ‘imposed until a time of reformation’ ( Hebrews 9:10 ). In every instance ‘the more excellent ministry’ ( Hebrews 8:6 ) of Jesus is substantiated, while the repeated assertions of the sacrificial character of His priestly work, by the emphatic declarations that He is not only the Priest but the Sacrifice ( Hebrews 7:27 , Hebrews 9:12; Hebrews 9:26 ), show the difficulty the writer must have felt in sustaining a comparison which is summed up in an antithesis (‘once in the year’ Hebrews 9:7 , and ‘eternal’ Hebrews 9:12 ). The whole discussion may be regarded as an a fortiori argument on behalf of the superiority of the priesthood of Jesus. The ritual of the Day of Atonement is selected as the basis of his contention, and it was here that the Levitical ceremonial was at its noblest ( Hebrews 9:1-7 ). Even here the above-mentioned antithesis is observable; the Levitical ministry was discharged in a Tabernacle which was but ‘a copy and shadow of the heavenly things’ ( Hebrews 8:5 ), while that of Christ fulfils itself in ‘the true tabernacle’ ( Hebrews 8:2 ), where alone are displayed the eternal realities of priestly sacrifice and mediation. The offering of Himself is not merely the material sacrifice of His body on the cross, though that is a necessary phase in His ministerial priesthood (cf. Hebrews 2:8; Hebrews 2:14 ); it is the transcendent spiritual act of One who is sinless (‘through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish,’ Hebrews 9:14 , Hebrews 7:26 , Hebrews 4:15 ). This gives the offering its eternal validity (‘once for all,’ Hebrews 7:27 , Hebrews 9:12 , Hebrews 10:10 ), and although ‘the sacrifice of Himself’ was consummated ‘at the end of the ages,’ its force and value reach back to ‘the foundation of the world’ ( Hebrews 9:26 , cf. Hebrews 9:15 ), and continue for all the time that is to come ( Hebrews 7:25 , Hebrews 9:24 ).

Two other interdependent ideas remain to be briefly considered. It has already been said that our author may be described as a theological evolutionist, and in no sphere of his thought is this more evident than in his ideas of salvation and of faith. Salvation is not so much the present realization of the redemptive value of Christ’s atoning work as a movement commencing here and now towards that realization in all its fulness. It is true that faith is for him the power to bring the unseen realities into touch with the present life (Hebrews 11:1 ff.). At the same time, the dominant conception of salvation in the writer’s mind is the fruition of hopes originated and vitalized by the teaching and experiences of Jesus. Future dominion in a new world ordered and inhabited in perfect moral harmony (see Westcott, Ep. to Heb ., on Hebrews 2:5 ) awaits those who neglect not ‘so great salvation’ ( Hebrews 2:3 ). The basis upon which this lordship rests is the actualized crowned Kingship of the Man Jesus, which is at once the guarantee and the rationale of the vision ( Hebrews 2:9 ff.). Immediately following this view another conception arises dealing with the realization, in the future, of a dominion based upon conquest. Death and the author of death are the enemies which Jesus has ‘brought to nought’; and not only has He done this, but He delivers those who all their life were in bondage ‘through fear.’ The perfect humanity of Jesus is again the avenue along which this goal is reached. No other way is possible, and in Him all may find their servitude transmuted into freedom and dominion (cf. Hebrews 2:14-18 ). Once more, arguing from the imperfect realization by the Israelites, under Joshua, of their hopes, the author points out that what they looked for in vain is a type of a higher thing which is now actually awaiting ‘the people of God.’ Salvation consists in entering into that eternal Sabbath-rest where Jesus has gone before, and where the presence of God is (cf. Hebrews 4:9 ff.). The pivotal conception round which these ideas revolve is the unity of Christ and man, the likeness in all things, sin alone excepted, which was effected by the Incarnation.

Our author’s habit of looking on faith as an active force in men’s lives displays the same tendency to make the future rather than the present the field of his vision. At the same time, it would be a great mistake to imagine that the present is outside the scope of his thought. Obedience , however, is the word and thought preferred by him when he speaks of the present grounds of salvation ( Hebrews 5:8 f., cf. Hebrews 11:8 ). Faith is for him a force working towards ethical ideals, a power which enables men of every nation and class to live lives of noble self-denial for righteousness’ sake, ‘as seeing him who is invisible’ (cf. Hebrews 11:1-40 , Hebrews 4:2 , Hebrews 6:12 , Hebrews 10:39 ). Of this faith Jesus is ‘the author and perfecter’ ( Hebrews 12:2 ), and here, too, we get a glimpse of that quickening Divine humanity upon which the writer lays such constant stress, and which is the source of the effort demanded from his readers when he asks them to imitate their former rulers in a faith which issued in a glorious martyrdom.

J. R. Willis.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Hebrews, Epistle to'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/hdb/h/hebrews-epistle-to.html. 1909.

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