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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament
Hebrews Epistle to the
1. Form and object.-Of all the NT writings which bear the name ‘Epistle,’ that which is commonly called the Epistle to the Hebrews presents the nearest approximation to the form of an ordered treatise. The writer pays great attention to style. His well-balanced periods appeal to the ear as well as to the intellect, and his argument is arranged with extreme care. We do not find, as is sometimes the case in the Pauline letters, several distinct ideas all struggling for expression at the same time. Each fresh notion comes in its logical order, and the mind of the reader is first carefully prepared to expect it.
‘The whole argument is in view from the beginning. Whether in the purely argumentative passages or in those which are in form hortatory, we are constantly meeting phrases which are to be taken up again and to have their full meaning given to them later on. The plan itself develops. While the figures to some extent change and take fresh colour, there is growing through all, in trait on trait, the picture which the writer designs to leave before his readers’ minds’ (E. C. Wickham, The Epistle to the Hebrews, p. xxi).
Yet, notwithstanding these general characteristics and the absence of any opening salutation, the Epistle is not to be regarded as a theological essay addressed to Christendom in general. It is a real letter, written to meet the needs of a definite and limited circle of readers. Such a circle is presupposed by the personal touches of Hebrews 13:19; Hebrews 13:23 and by the repeated exhortations (Hebrews 2:1-4; Hebrews 3:12-14; Hebrews 4:1; Hebrews 4:11-16; Hebrews 5:11 to Hebrews 6:12; Hebrews 10:19 to Hebrews 12:29), in which the writer displays too much personal feeling and too exact a knowledge of the spiritual condition of his readers to permit the supposition that he is speaking to the Church at large. But even if these passages could be struck out of the Epistle, the remaining doctrinal portions would still point to the same conclusion. The pains taken by the writer to prove that the sufferings and death of Christ were not only intelligible but also a necessary part of His human experience, or again that the Levitical order was a temporary, imperfect arrangement, imply that the readers were doubtful about these things. Such doubts may well have arisen in a small band of Christians, but they were never characteristic of the Church as a whole.
The readers for whom the Epistle was intended were Christians (Hebrews 2:3-4), who at the first had shown whole-hearted devotion to the faith (Hebrews 10:32-34). But their minds were dull. They seemed incapable of understanding anything beyond the merest rudiments of their profession (Hebrews 5:11-12; Hebrews 6:1). The earthly humiliation of Jesus, His sufferings and temptations, seemed to them unworthy of Messiah. To them, as to the Jews, the Cross was a stumbling-block, a suffering Christ no true Christ at all. Nor was that their only difficulty. They felt the novelty of Christianity. They found it hard to believe that the new religion could really supersede the ancient Divinely-given religion of the Jews. They were conscious also of its lack of outward aids to faith and worship. Christianity had, as it seemed to them, no visible priesthood or sacrifice. By these perplexities their faith in Christ was being gradually undermined. Their minds began to turn from their Christian inheritance, which contained so much that was new and strange, to the familiar splendours of the Temple and the teaching of Judaism. But it was impossible for them to remain in a state of hesitation. A crisis was rapidly approaching which must determine their course of action (Hebrews 9:28; Hebrews 10:25). The Epistle to the Hebrews was written as a ‘word of exhortation’ (Hebrews 13:22) to nerve them to meet that crisis. The writer tries to explain their difficulties and to make them realize the meaning of the earthly life and death of Christ. He urges them to make the venture of faith and take their stand by the Master’s side (Hebrews 13:13), for there is no other place where ‘eternal salvation’ can be found (Hebrews 6:4-8). His argument takes the form of a systematic contrast between Christianity and Leviticalism. Yet its logical conclusion is not simply that Christianity is the better of the two, but that Christianity is the best religion conceivable, the final, eternal revelation of God to men.
2. Summary of contents
(1) The theme: the old dispensation and the new.-God has made two revelations to men-the first partial and incomplete, the second perfect and therefore final. The prophets at best could merely proclaim the will of God, and that only so far as human limitations allowed them to perceive it. In One who is Son the very essence of the Father is revealed. Levitical priests could only call attention to the sins of man; the Son has washed them away. In Him human nature is raised to the right hand of God (Hebrews 1:1-4).
(2) The mediators of the old covenant (angels, Moses, Joshua, Aaron) inferior to the one Mediator of the new.-The Law was spoken through angels. The Son is greater than any angel, not only in His Divine glory, but also in the glory of His humiliation. For, as perfect man, He was the first to achieve the high destiny of mankind set forth in Genesis and in the Psalms (Hebrews 1:5 to Hebrews 2:18). Jesus is the Moses of the new dispensation, but greater than Moses, as a son is greater than a servant. He wrought a greater deliverance than that of Moses, and led the way to a more perfect rest than that which Joshua won for his people. To that rest He will bring us, if only we remain constant. The story of those who fell of old in the wilderness is a solemn warning of the fatal consequences of apostasy. Let us press on, remembering that the Leader who has suffered with us is also our High Priest who will bring us to the throne of grace (Hebrews 3:1 to Hebrews 4:16).
(3) The Son revealed as Priest after the eternal order of Melchizedek.-The essential conditions for all priesthood are two-perfect sympathy with sinful men, and a Divine call to the office of priest. These conditions are perfectly fulfilled in Christ. He is Priest not after the order of Aaron, but after the eternal order of Melchizedek (Hebrews 5:1-10). Throw off your dullness and lay hold on the meaning of Christ’s Priesthood, for therein lies the Christian hope. Christ is man and one with us. We can therefore follow Him into the inner sanctuary of God’s own presence whither as Priest He has gone on our behalf (Hebrews 5:11 to Hebrews 6:20). The Psalmist declared that the Christ should be Priest after the order of Melchizedek. Notice that the promise of this new priesthood, spoken while the Aaronic priests were in possession, shows that the order of Melchizedek is better than that of Aaron. Its superiority is emphasized by the Divine oath with which the promise is introduced. The account of Melchizedek given in Genesis declares both by its statements and by what it leaves unsaid what are the marks of this priesthood. It is royal, righteous, peace-bringing, personal, dependent not on lineal descent, but on the inherent fitness of the priest; it is eternal. Abraham, and by implication Levi, did homage to this priesthood when they paid tithes and received a blessing, thereby acknowledging the presence of something greater than themselves. These marks of the eternal priesthood find their perfect fulfilment in Jesus. Perfect kingship is manifested in the royal condescension of His earthly humiliation, and righteousness in His sinless life as man; abiding peace is the result of His cleansing of man’s sin. He was not born of the tribe of Levi. His Priesthood is inherent in Himself, working ‘according to the power of an endless life’ (Hebrews 7:16). It can never be superseded because it has perfectly fulfilled the object for which all priesthood exists (7).
(4) The priestly ministrations of Aaron and of Christ: their sanctuaries, their basal covenants, their sacrifices.-We have, then, a High Priest who has entered upon His regal state of Priesthood in heaven, the true sanctuary. But priesthood implies sacrifice. He must therefore have something to offer; but what and where? Not in the earthly ‘Holy of Holies’-that is already occupied. Besides, the Bible warns us that the earthly sanctuary is only a shadow of the heavenly reality. Christ’s priestly ministry and sacrifice belong to the realm of realties, just as He is the Mediator of a new and better covenant than that of the Jews. For we must face the fact already realized by Jeremiah-the old covenant was imperfect and must pass away when the new and perfect covenant is established (8). The Levitical service of the old covenant was not lacking in outward splendour, but its magnificence served only to emphasize its ineffectiveness. The structure of its sanctuary was specially designed to illustrate its weakness. The entrance to the Holy of Holies was covered by a veil beyond which not even priests might pass. One man alone could ever enter there, and for him the way was beset with danger and open only once in the year. Even so his annual sacrifice was no real atonement. The material offerings-blood of bulls and goats-professed to deal only with ritual errors (ἀγνοημάτων, Hebrews 9:7). They could not cleanse the conscience or take away real sin. All these things-the inaccessible sanctuary, the sin-stained high priest, the annual ineffective sacrifices-clearly indicated that the true atonement was not yet found (Hebrews 9:1-10). Christ our High Priest, on the other hand, has found for men eternal salvation. For He entered into no material sanctuary but into the very presence of God once for all. His sacrifice was no mere symbolical cleansing of ritual errors. It effected the actual taking away of the accumulated sins of men, and opened the way of free access to God. For it was not material but spiritual, not annual but offered once for all; it was the offering of His own life (Hebrews 9:11-15).
Thus the new covenant rests on the death of its Mediator. Does this idea seem strange? The following analogies may help you to understand: (a) a testament is a covenant, but it has no value unless the testator die; (b) the old covenant was inaugurated with the offering of the life of bulls and goats; (c) in the Levitical Law every atonement is symbolized by the offering of the life of beasts. By such offerings the earthly sanctuary was cleansed. But nothing short of the most perfect conceivable offering is sufficient for the perfect heavenly sanctuary, and what offering could be more complete than the voluntary laying down of the High Priest’s own life? Such a spiritual sacrifice has eternal validity. It can never be repeated because by the taking away of sins it has established for ever that perfect union with God which all sacrifice symbolizes. When Christ next appears it will be as Deliverer of those who are expecting Him (Hebrews 9:15-28).
(5) Summing up of the argument: the shadow and the substance.-The Law was only an outline sketch of good things to come; its repeated sacrifices were symbols, calling attention to man’s sins, but incapable of cleansing, for blood of bulls and goats could never take away sins. Christ long ago declared this by the mouth of the Psalmist, and added that the only valid offering in God’s sight is the surrender of the will in complete obedience to Him. Such an offering Christ has now made. That is why, in contrast to the Levitical priest ever offering, never atoning, He sits enthroned at the right hand of God, ‘waiting till his enemies become his footstool.’ He has set up the perfect covenant (Hebrews 10:1-18).
(6) Practical applications to present difficulties: appeal to the example of the Fathers: renewed exhortation and final greeting.-Jesus has rent the veil and opened for all the way to the heavenly sanctuary over which as Priest He presides. Where He is, we too may go. Let us then imitate His priestly consecration and press on in His foot-steps, for our hope is certain. We must urge each other on and not isolate ourselves, for the crisis is very near (Hebrews 10:19-25). Under the Law of Moses apostasy involved terrible consequences. How much worse to reject the perfect sacrifice, to wound the personal Saviour (Hebrews 10:26-31)! Remember your former steadfastness under trial. Do not throw away your boldness. To receive the promises, all that is needed is patience. Think of the words in which Habakkuk speaks of the promise. They who shrink back forfeit God’s favour. His ‘righteous ones’ live by faith (Hebrews 10:32-39). The faith he means is unshaken confidence in the certainty of God’s promises, even though their realization seems far off. It was such faith as this that inspired the long roll of Jewish heroes (11). Wherever we turn in the sacred records we meet these examples of faith in the unseen, and the chief of them all is Jesus. Let us fix our eyes on Him, and, stripping off everything that encumbers, run boldly the race He has run before us (Hebrews 12:1-4). Be not discouraged at the prospect of suffering. Suffering sent by God is a means of discipline; it proves that we are really His sons (Hebrews 12:5-13). Seek peace and sanctification; never give up your eternal birthright for mere present enjoyment (Hebrews 12:14-17). As the glories of the heavenly Sion eclipse the terrors of Sinai, so is our responsibility greater than that of Israel of old. Sion too has its earthquake and its fire which shatter and consume all that is unreal (Hebrews 12:18-29). Do not forget your mutual responsibilities as brethren. God’s help is sufficient for all (Hebrews 13:1-6). Follow the example of your old leaders now departed (Hebrews 13:7). Be constant in your belief, for Jesus Christ is eternally the same. Break loose from the associations which would draw you away from Him. He suffered as our atoning sacrifice outside the city gate. We must be content to bear the same reproach and take our place by His side. The only ‘abiding city’ is where He is. Let us then offer to God through Him the spiritual sacrifices He loves (Hebrews 13:8-16). Obey your rulers; pray for us that we may be restored to you, even as we pray for you that God may make you perfect in obedience and every good thing (Hebrews 13:17-21). Have patience with my letter of exhortation. Timothy has been released. He and I may visit you together. Greet your rulers and all the saints. ‘They of Italy’ send their greeting to you. ‘The Grace’ be with you (Hebrews 13:22-25).
(1) Conception of Christianity.-The writer of the Epistle thinks of religion as a covenant. The religion of Jesus Christ is the new eternal covenant (Hebrews 13:20) of which the prophet spoke (Hebrews 8:8-13), for He alone has established a perfect covenant relation between God and man. He has opened for man the way of free and unrestricted access to God. He has removed the great obstacle-sin. The symbolism of the ‘old covenant’ pointed to this ideal. But what was there set forth symbolically as an unrealized hope, Christ has made actual. In Him God and man are perfectly united; His one sacrifice takes away sin, not in symbol but in deed; as High Priest He is not simply the representative of the people but their πρόδρομος (Hebrews 6:20)-where He has entered they too may go; and the sanctuary to which He leads them is no material ‘Holy of Holies’ but the eternal presence of God (Hebrews 9:24). A covenant of this kind leaves nothing to be added. It has eternal validity, and must therefore supersede all the imperfect religions which have gone before.
(2) Christology.-The finality of the new covenant rests on the perfection of Him who is its Mediator (Hebrews 8:6; Hebrews 9:15; Hebrews 12:24) and Surety (Hebrews 7:22). It is natural therefore that the main theme of the Epistle should be the person and work of Christ.
(a) Christ the Eternal Son.-Christ’s perfection may be expressed in one sentence-He is the Son of God (Hebrews 1:2; Hebrews 4:14; Hebrews 5:8; Hebrews 6:6; Hebrews 7:3; Hebrews 7:28; Hebrews 10:29). Others have been described in the Scriptures as sons of God (cf. Hebrews 1:5; Hebrews 1:8; Hebrews 1:13; Hebrews 2:10), but His Sonship is different in kind from theirs. He is the Son of God, inseparable from the Father as the ray is inseparable from the light, revealing the essence of the Father as completely as the device engraved upon a seal is revealed by its impress on wax (ἀπαύγασμα τῆς δόξης καὶ χαρακτὴρ τῆς ὑποστάσεως αὐτοῦ, Hebrews 1:3). As Son He is the Creator, the Sustainer, and the Heir of all things (Hebrews 1:2-3). His Sonship raises Him far above angels (Hebrews 1:5-13), above Moses (Hebrews 3:6), and above Aaron (Hebrews 7:28). It gives Him the right, now that His earthly task is completed, to sit enthroned at the right hand of the Majesty on high (Hebrews 1:3).
(b) The Incarnation.-Having once clearly stated at the outset the eternal Divinity of the Son, the Epistle dwells almost entirely on His life, work, and exaltation as man. The reason for this is to be found in the apologetic aim of the writer. His readers’ perplexities centred round Christ’s earthly life of suffering and temptation, which they regarded as unworthy of one who occupied His nigh position. The Epistle declares that such humiliation was not only in the highest degree worthy of Him who bore it and of God who sent Him (ἔπρεπεν, Hebrews 2:10; cf. Hebrews 7:26), it was a necessary part of the experience of one who fulfilled the office of universal High Priest. It was the ground of His subsequent exaltation (cf. διὰ τὸ πάθημα τοῦ θανάτου … ἐστεφανωμένον, Hebrews 2:9).
Nowhere in the NT is more emphasis laid on the reality of His human nature and human experience. He who bore the simple human name Jesus (Hebrews 2:9; Hebrews 3:1; Hebrews 4:14; Hebrews 6:20; Hebrews 7:22; Hebrews 10:19; Hebrews 13:12) was made like His human brethren in all things (Hebrews 2:11; Hebrews 2:17). He partook of flesh and blood as they do (Hebrews 2:14); He could sympathize with their sufferings and temptations, for He too, as man, suffered and was tempted (Hebrews 2:18; Hebrews 4:15); like them He had to conquer human weakness before He could learn the hard lesson of obedience to God’s will (Hebrews 5:7-8). The only difference between their struggle and His lay in the issue. They sometimes fail, but He always conquered, for He was sinless (Hebrews 4:15). By His participation in human weakness and suffering and temptation Christ was ‘made perfect’ (τελειωθείς, Hebrews 5:9; cf. Hebrews 2:10). By experiencing them in His own human life He gained the perfect sympathy with mankind which fits Him to be their High Priest. By overcoming them He realized in Himself as man the high destiny of the race. He became the first-born of many sons who shall be led to glory (Hebrews 2:10).
(c) The Priesthood and Sacrifice of Christ.-(i.) The sufferings and death of Christ find their final explanation in the thought of His High-Priestly office. They are the necessary condition of His call to that office. Any priest who is called to be the representative of men must himself be man, capable of sympathy with human weakness and error (Hebrews 5:2). The Levitical priests possessed sympathy with human weakness, but they were also tainted with human sin (Hebrews 5:3). The ideal priest must combine perfect sympathy with the sinner with complete freedom from sin (Hebrews 4:15). These qualifications were united in Christ. He was therefore called by God to be Priest, not after the order of Aaron, but after the eternal order of Melchizedek (Hebrews 5:4-6). The Aaronic order was only the shadow, not the reality of priesthood. Only by way of contrast could it set forth the character of the eternal Priesthood. For the members of that order held office by virtue of mere physical descent (Hebrews 7:16); their ministry could call sins to mind but could not cleanse them (Hebrews 10:1-3); they could not unite the people to God-even into the earthly symbol of His presence the high priest himself could enter only once a year alone (Hebrews 9:7); lastly, the Aaronic priests were mortal-their work was confined to one generation (Hebrews 7:23).
By contrast with the Aaronic priesthood, it follows that the perfect priest must be really, not ritually, holy, his office resting on his own perfect fitness to perform it; he must be able to take away sin and to unite men to God; lastly, he must be eternal-placed beyond the reach of sin and death. The essential features of this perfect priesthood are set forth, as in a parable, in the biblical portrait of the priest-king Melchizedek. The name Melchizedek, which means ‘king of righteousness,’ indicates the personal, not merely official, holiness of the true priest; his connexion with Salem, which means ‘peace,’ points to the abiding union between God and man which he effects; the absence from the record of any mention of Melchizedek’s parentage and of any references to his birth or his death suggests that the perfect priesthood is eternal and exercised by right of the personal qualification of the priest (Hebrews 7:1-3). Abraham, the father of Levi, acknowledged the superiority of the eternal priesthood when he paid tithes to Melchizedek and received his blessing (Hebrews 7:4-10). The eternal priesthood ‘after the order of Melchizedek,’ as the Psalm foretold, is perfectly realized in Christ. His office rests not on ‘the law of a carnal commandment’ (Hebrews 7:16)-for according to the flesh He was not born of a priestly family (Hebrews 7:13)-but on ‘the power of an indissoluble life’ (Hebrews 7:16). He has perfect sympathy with human weakness and temptation, for He has felt them (Hebrews 2:18; Hebrews 4:15), yet He is not tainted with human sin (Hebrews 4:15; Hebrews 7:27). He is really, not ritually, holy and without blemish, blameless in His relation to God and to man (Hebrews 7:26). In His own Person He has inseparably united man with God, and opened a way of access into the Divine presence which can never again be closed (Hebrews 6:20; Hebrews 10:19-20). For His Priesthood is inviolable and eternal (Hebrews 7:25). He has passed into the world of eternal realities, far beyond the reach of sin and death (Hebrews 1:3; Hebrews 6:20; Hebrews 7:26; Hebrews 9:24). There He ever liveth to make intercession for us (Hebrews 7:25).
(ii.) The central function of priesthood is to offer sacrifice. If Christ be perfect Priest, what has He to offer (Hebrews 8:3)?-The eternal Sacrifice which corresponds to the eternal Priesthood. Once more the idea is worked out by means of a contrast with Levitical institutions and the exposition of a verse from the Psalter. Levitical sacrifices were material and frequently repeated. Frequent repetition was necessary because they had no efficacy in the spiritual sphere; they could not take away sin or cleanse the conscience (Hebrews 9:9; Hebrews 10:1-4). Long ago the Psalmist recognized their futility and indicated the nature of valid sacrifice. True sacrifice, he declared, is spiritual; its essence consists in self-sacrifice-the complete surrender of the will in voluntary obedience to God (Hebrews 10:5-10). Christ’s oblation was a sacrifice of self, the complete surrender of a perfect self in willing obedience (Hebrews 7:27; Hebrews 9:14). ‘The days of His flesh’ were one long period of self-dedication, and in the culminating moment on the Cross His sacrifice was made complete (Hebrews 5:7-8; Hebrews 9:12; Hebrews 10:10; Hebrews 10:20). Self-sacrifice could be carried no further. Christ’s perfect spiritual Sacrifice-the entire devotion of a perfect will-although its manifestation took place on earth, belongs in all its stages to the world of eternal realities (cf. διὰ πνεύματος αἰωνίου, Hebrews 9:14). It has the power ‘to cleanse the conscience from dead works’ (Hebrews 9:14) and ‘to make perfect for ever them that are sanctified’ (Hebrews 10:14). Because it possesses eternal validity it can never be repeated (Hebrews 7:27; Hebrews 9:24-28). The ‘indissoluble life’ (Hebrews 7:16) of the Priest-Victim is made available for all men by the one offering. The new covenant-relation between God and man is established (Hebrews 9:24). Henceforth Christ sits enthroned in the heavenly sanctuary in token that His task is done, waiting until His enemies become His footstool (Hebrews 10:12-14).
(d) The Death of Christ.-The supposition that the death of Christ was a real stumbling-block to the first readers of the Epistle is justified by the evident pains taken by the writer to find reasons for that death. Firstly, Christ died ‘by the grace of God’ (Hebrews 2:9); God willed that it should be so. Secondly, Christ died as true man. To did once and once only is part of the common lot of men (Hebrews 9:27). Thirdly, Christ died as testator, that we might enter into the inheritance He has bequeathed to us (Hebrews 9:16). Fourthly, the death of Christ was the necessary climax of the experience of human suffering which qualified Him to be ‘captain of salvation’ (Hebrews 2:10). Fifthly, Christ died to free us from the fear of death. From the time of the Fall, death was terrible because it was regarded as the penalty of human sin. Jesus Christ, by dying though He was sinless, broke the connexion between death and sin, and so robbed death of its enslaving terrors (Hebrews 2:14-15), Finally, Christ’s death was the foundation of the new covenant, the priestly act of self-sacrifice by which ‘he hath perfected for ever them that ore sanctified’ (Hebrews 9:15; Hebrews 10:14).
That the voluntary laying down of Christ’s life was a sacrificial act is regarded as self-evident, and no direct answer is given to the question, ‘How does His sacrifice make perfect His followers?’ Yet the writer provides the material for an answer when he dwells on the principle of Christ’s ‘solidarity with sinners.’ ‘He that sanctifieth and they that are to be sanctified are all of one’ (Hebrews 2:11, sc. ‘one piece, one whole’; cf. Davidson, Hebrews, p. 66, n. [Note: . note.] 2). Christ’s High-Priestly acts were not the acts of an individual but of the representative man. It was human nature which in Him was perfected through obedience, entered the heavenly sanctuary, and sat down on the throne of majesty. What was actually effected in Him, was effected potentially in those who follow Him (cf. Hebrews 10:10). Christians ‘are included in that purpose of love which Christ has realised’ (Westcott, Ep. to the Hebrews 3, p. 314). The High Priest is also the πρόδρομος (Hebrews 6:20), one of many sons who are being brought to glory (Hebrews 2:10), who becomes the cause of salvation to His human brethren because in Him the perfection of human nature has been realized (Hebrews 5:9).
(e) The Parousia.-The Epistle speaks of ‘the day which is approaching’ (Hebrews 10:25), when God ‘will shake not the earth only but also the heavens’ (Hebrews 12:26), and the glorified Christ ‘shall appear unto salvation for them that await him’ (Hebrews 9:28). ‘The day’ is unquestionably the prophetic ‘Day of Jahweh,’ but the idea of the day intended by the writer seems to be that of the older OT prophets (cf. Amos 5:18, Isaiah 2:12), rather than that of the later apocalyptists. It is ‘a coming’ rather than ‘the Coming’ of the Christ. About the final Coming the Epistle has nothing to say. But a crisis is at hand; the readers can already see its approach. To the writer it is a real coming of Christ.
‘The Master had said that He might come at even or at midnight or at cock-crowing or in the morning (Mark 13:35). To the writer of this letter the thought has occurred that those hours may be not merely alternative but successive. And now that the first of them has sounded warning, he bids his friends be ready’ (Nairne, The Epistle of Priesthood, p. 210).
(3) The Christian Life.-The ‘great salvation’ (Hebrews 2:3) wrought by Christ is variously described in the Epistle as the realization of man’s lordship over creation (Hebrews 2:8-9), deliverance from the fear of death (Hebrews 2:14-15), entrance into the perfect Sabbath-rest of God (Hebrews 4:9). But its essence consists in cleansing and consecration, the taking away of sin (Hebrews 9:14), and the opening of a way of free access into the Divine presence (Hebrews 10:20), or, as it is expressed in one passage, ‘the perfecting for ever of them that are sanctified by the one offering of Christ’ (Hebrews 10:14). In one sense this ‘perfecting’ is already accomplished (τετελείωκεν, Hebrews 10:14). From another point of view it is regarded as a hope yet to be realized. For there is nothing mechanical about its working. Each individual Christian must make it his own. If we are to be perfected, our will must be united with the will of Christ in perfect surrender to God (Hebrews 5:9; Hebrews 10:10). Seen from this standpoint, the Christian life is a progressive sanctification (Hebrews 2:11; Hebrews 10:14; Hebrews 12:14), which may be figuratively represented as a race or a pilgrimage. Hence arises the need of solemn warnings. It is possible to drop out of the Christian race before the goal is reached, or to set out on the pilgrimage and yet never arrive at the heavenly city. The great danger which besets the Christian is faint-heartedness (ἀπιστία, Hebrews 3:12), the loss of the vision of the land of eternal things, and want of confidence in Him who leads us to that land. The Christian safeguard is ‘faith.’ Faith is the power which helps us to grasp the abiding realities which lie behind the world of sense, and to test the existence and character of things which are for us as yet unrealized (Hebrews 11:1). It is the faculty by which, for example, we recognize the eternal issues which were decided by the earthly life and humiliation of Christ, and the futility of all hopes that stand apart from Him. The practical result of such faith will be unswerving devotion and obedience to our Captain in the face of all trouble and difficulty (Hebrews 5:9), for He Himself has run the race before us and stands waiting for us at the goal (Hebrews 12:2). If our eyes are fixed on Him, and all things which might impede our progress are thrown aside, He will make perfect the faith which He has given (Hebrews 12:2), He will grant us the ‘full assurance of hope’ (Hebrews 6:11), which will bring us safely along the path which He has trodden to the end, where the fullness of His salvation is revealed in the eternal sanctuary, the very presence of God (cf. Hebrews 6:19-20).
4. Date.-The first generation of Christians had passed away (Hebrews 2:3; Hebrews 13:7); members of the Church had already suffered persecution, imprisonment, and loss of property (Hebrews 10:32-34); the relation of Gentile and Jewish Christians was no longer a burning question of the day. The Epistle cannot therefore have been written long before a.d. 70. On the other hand, it cannot be placed much later than a.d. 90, for it was extensively used by Clement of Rome in his Epistle to the Corinthians, c. [Note: . circa, about.] a.d. 95-96 (cf. ad Cor. 9, 12, 17, 36, 45).
Any more precise determination of the date must rest chiefly on the view taken of the crisis with which the first readers of the Epistle were confronted. If the approaching ‘day’ (Hebrews 10:25) be taken to mean the Final Coming of Christ, the exact date of the Epistle must be left uncertain. But if it be rightly interpreted as an allusion to the inevitable culmination of some national movement already active-a movement which forced upon the readers a final choice between Christianity and Judaism-it is most naturally regarded as referring to the outbreak of the Jewish war which led to the Destruction of Jerusalem. The date of the Epistle would then fall between a.d. 63 and 70.
No chronological argument can be based on the fact that the writer of the Epistle generally uses the present tense in speaking of Levitical institutions (Hebrews 7:8; Hebrews 7:20; Hebrews 8:3; Hebrews 8:5; Hebrews 9:8-9; Hebrews 9:13; Hebrews 13:10). The use of the present tense does not necessarily imply that the Temple was still standing when he wrote. Similar language is frequently employed in reference to the Temple service in writings much later than a.d. 70 (e.g. Clem. Rom. ad Cor. 40-41; Justin Martyr, Dial. 117; Epistle of Barnabas, passim). But what the writer to the Hebrews has in mind is not the service of the Temple but that of the Tabernacle. ‘The references [of the Epistle] to the Mosaic ritual are purely ideal and theoretical, and based on the Law in the Pentateuch’ (Davidson, op. cit. p. 15).
Some commentators have found a further indication of date in the writer’s application of the words of Psalms 95 to the circumstances of his own day (Hebrews 3:7-11). Special emphasis is laid on the fact that be departs from the construction of the original passage in connecting the words ‘forty years’ with the preceding clause ‘they saw my works,’ instead of with that which follows. It is suggested that the change was made intentionally, because the writer wished to point out that, as he wrote, another period of ‘forty years of seeing God’s works’ was rapidly drawing to a close, namely, the forty years which followed the Crucifixion (circa, about a.d. 30-70). Yet, even if it be permissible to take the number forty literally, this argument has little value. The language of the Psalm might equally well be applied to the period a.d. 30-70 at a much later date by a writer who considered that the ‘to-day’ of unbelieving Israel’s opportunity closed with the Destruction of Jerusalem. The passage has even been used to prove that the Epistle must have been written some years later than a.d. 70 (Zahn, Introd. to the NT, Eng. translation , ii. 321ff.). But it seems unlikely either in the original Psalm or in the quotation that ‘forty years’ means anything more definite than the lifetime of a generation.
5. The readers
(1) Jews or Gentiles?-A unanimous tradition, reaching back to the 2nd cent. and embodied in the title invariably given to the Epistle, asserts that it was addressed πρὸς Ἑβραίους. It may be granted that the title does not go back to the original writer, and that it represents nothing more than an inference from the contents of the letter, but the inference is probably correct if not inevitable. The traditional view remained unquestioned until the 19th cent., but since then it has frequently been maintained that the Epistle was addressed to Gentiles, or at least to Christians generally, without regard to their origin. By isolating certain incidental statements contained in the Epistle, it is not difficult to present a plausible case for this opinion. It has been said, for example, that no Jewish convert would need to be taught the elementary doctrines enumerated in Hebrews 6:1-2; that conversion from Judaism which the writer believed to be a Divinely-given religion, would never have been described by him as turning ‘from dead works to serve a living God’ (Hebrews 9:14); that the faults against which the readers are warned (Hebrews 12:14; Hebrews 13:4) are the faults of heathen rather than of Jews. It must be recognized, however, that the details on which the argument rests are capable of more than one interpretation, and that similar passages, equally dubious perhaps (e.g. the use of the terms ‘seed of Abraham’ [Hebrews 2:16] and ‘the nation’ [Hebrews 2:17], where the argument rather requires ‘mankind’), may be quoted on the other side.
But the traditional opinion is most strongly supported by the general drift and tendency of the Epistle taken as a whole. The writer appeals to the OT as to an independent authority which may be quoted in support of the Christian faith. He assumes that his readers take the same view of the OT. This would be true of Jewish but not of Gentile converts. To the Gentile the OT had no meaning apart from Christianity. In the same way the main argument of the Epistle, while involving the conclusion that Christianity is the perfect and final religion, yet formally proves only that Christianity is superior to Judaism. This method of reasoning, unaccompanied by any reference to paganism in any form, is only intelligible if addressed to men who were either Jews by birth or who had adopted Jewish ways of thinking so completely as to be indistinguishable from born Jews.
(2) Place of residence.-The Epistle contains no opening salutation, and no direct information as to its destination. This lack of evidence makes it very difficult to locate the readers for whom it was intended. The ancient title πρὸς Ἑβραίους throws no light upon the question, for the term ‘Hebrews’ is national, not local. Many suggestions have been made of probable places where such a circle of readers as the Epistle presupposes may have existed. The claims most widely upheld are those of (a) Jerusalem or some other Palestinian or Syrian community, (b) Alexandria, (c) Rome or some other church in Italy.
(a) In favour of the first hypothesis, it is argued that Jerusalem, or at least some Palestinian city, would be the most likely place for a purely Jewish community, and that there too the practical problem with which the Epistle deals would be most keenly felt. But the language used in the Epistle (Hebrews 2:3), which implies that the community addressed had had no opportunity of hearing the gospel from Christ’s own lips, certainly does not favour the theory of any Palestinian destination, nor do the suggestions of the comparative wealth of the readers (Hebrews 6:10; Hebrews 10:33 f.) agree with the known poverty of the primitive church of Judaea . Palestine again is not a place where Timothy might be expected to have much influence (Hebrews 13:23), and the absence of any distinct mention in the Epistle of the Temple as opposed to the Tabernacle would be, to say the least, remarkable if it were addressed to Judaea .
(b) Alexandria has been suggested chiefly on account of the affinities of thought and language between the Epistle and Alexandrian Judaism as represented by the writings of Philo and the Book of Wisdom. Such affinities undoubtedly exist, and may perhaps contain a hint concerning the writer’s own birth-place, but they supply no evidence as to the destination of the Epistle. It must be remembered also that the Alexandrian type of Judaism was by no means confined to Alexandria. The theory that the Epistle was written with particular reference to the worship of the Jewish Temple at Leontopolis falls to the ground when it is realized that the writer had in view not the worship of any particular Temple, but the Levitical service as it is described in the Pentateuch (K. Wieseler, Untersuchung über den Hebräerbrief, 1861).
(c) What little evidence the Epistle itself supplies, may be quoted in favour of Rome or some other Italian community. For the words ‘They of Italy send greeting’ are most naturally taken as implying that the letter was sent either to or from Italy, and some less vague expression than οἱ ἀπὸ τῆς Ἰταλίας (Hebrews 13:24) might reasonably have been expected if the writer were actually in Italy at the time of writing. Corroborative evidence for regarding Rome as the destination of the Epistle may be found in the fact that the earliest known quotation of its language occurs in the letter of Clement of Rome.
But the question of the Epistle’s destination must remain without a final answer. It seems clear that it was addressed not to a mixed community, but to Jews, and the general impression it gives is of a limited circle of readers rather than of a large and miscellaneous gathering (Zahn, op. cit. ii. 349ff.). Whether that circle was ‘the church in so-and-so’s house,’ or ‘a group of scholarly men like the author’ (Nairne, op. cit. p. 10), cannot be finally determined.
6. Author.-‘But who wrote the Epistle God Only knows certainly’ (τίς δὲ ὁ γράψας τὴν ἐπιστολήν τὸ μὲν ἀληθὲς θεὸς οἶδεν, Origen, ap. Historia Ecclesiastica (Eusebius, etc.)vi. 25). These words were originally spoken with reference to the amanuensis or translator of the Epistle. Most modern scholars are content to extend their reference to the actual author. The writer keeps himself in the background, and later research has never finally discovered his identity. In this respect students of the 2nd cent. were as much in the dark as those of the present day. It is significant that the Roman Church, which was the first to make use of the Epistle, refused for more than three centuries to grant it a place amongst the NT Scriptures, on account of the uncertainty of its authorship ( Historia Ecclesiastica (Eusebius, etc.)iii. 3). If Eusebius is to be trusted, Roman opinion on the subject did not go beyond a denial of the authorship of St. Paul. The only positive statement made by any early Latin writer occurs in a work of Tertullian, who attributes the Epistle without question to Barnabas (de Pudicitia, xx.). This belief may perhaps represent a Montanist tradition generally current in North Africa. It is difficult to see why it vanished so completely from the other churches, if it had ever been more widely circulated.
It was in Alexandria, after the Epistle had already been accepted as canonical on its own merits, that the theory of Pauline authorship gradually arose. The writings of Clement of Alexandria (circa, about a.d. 200), Origen (circa, about a.d. 220), and Eusebius (circa, about a.d. 320), display the theory in process of formation. Clement put forward the suggestion that St. Paul wrote the Epistle in Hebrew, and St. Luke afterwards translated it into Greek. The latter conjecture is based on the resemblance of style between the Greek of the Epistle and that of the Acts ( Historia Ecclesiastica (Eusebius, etc.)vi. 14). Origen expresses his own opinion thus: ‘The thoughts are the thoughts of the Apostle, but the language and composition that of one who recalled from memory, and, as it were, made notes of what was said by the master’ (ἀπομνημονεύσαντός τινος τὰ ἀποστολικὰ καὶ ὡσπερεὶ σχολιογραφήσαντος τὰ εἰρήμενα ὑπὸ τοῦ διδασκάλου, ap. Historia Ecclesiastica (Eusebius, etc.)vi. 25). Eusebius himself, while admitting that the Roman Church did not accept the Epistle because it was not St. Paul’s (HE [Note: E Historia Ecclesiastica (Eusebius, etc.).] iii. 3), yet declares that it is reasonable ‘on the ground of its antiquity that it should be reckoned with the other writings of the Apostle’ (iii. 37). Clearly, none of the three writers regarded the Epistle as being Pauline in the full sense, yet for the sake of convenience it was their practice to quote it as ‘of Paul.’ Later Alexandrian writers adopted this title as being literally true, and from Alexandria belief in the literal Pauline authorship of the Epistle spread throughout the Church. In this, as in other matters, the Western Church followed the lead of St. Hilary, St. Jerome, and St. Augustine.
It is easy to imagine how the Epistle became connected with St. Paul’s name. When once an anonymous letter bearing the simple title πρὸς Ἑβραίους was appended to a collection of acknowledged Pauline Epistles, the addition to the heading of the words τοῦ Παύλου would only be a matter of time.
Nevertheless, as Origen already felt, internal evidence makes the theory of Pauline authorship untenable. It is incredible that St. Paul, who insisted so strongly that he received his gospel by direct revelation (Galatians 1), could have written the confession of second-hand instruction contained in Hebrews 2:3. Nothing, again, could be more unlike St. Paul’s method of expression than the elegant and rhythmical style of the Epistle to the Hebrews; and behind the difference of style lies a real difference of mental attitude. The characteristic Pauline antitheses ‘faith and works,’ ‘law and promise,’ ‘flesh and spirit,’ are replaced by new contrasts-‘earthly and heavenly,’ ‘shadow and substance,’ ‘type and antitype.’ The difference of thought which separates the two writers becomes apparent when they meet on common ground. ‘Faith’ and ‘righteousness’ are key-words in St. Paul’s theology. The Epistle to the Hebrews also speaks often of ‘faith’ and sometimes of ‘righteousness’ (Hebrews 1:9; Hebrews 5:13; Hebrews 7:2; Hebrews 11:7; Hebrews 11:33; Hebrews 12:11), but the words have lost their special Pauline sense, ‘Faith’ no longer means intimate personal union with Christ, but expresses the more general idea of ‘grasp on unseen reality.’ ‘Righteousness’ is stripped of its forensic associations. It simply means ‘ethical righteousness,’ not ‘right standing in the eyes of God.’ The same contrast is visible in the different applications made by the two writers of the only two OT passages quoted by both (Deuteronomy 32:35, quoted in Romans 12:19, Hebrews 10:30; Habakkuk 2:3 quoted in Romans 1:17, Galatians 3:11, Hebrews 10:37-38).
The theory of Pauline authorship being therefore necessarily abandoned, all attempts to discover the author’s name are reduced to mere conjecture. Such conjectures have usually started from the assumption that his acquaintance with Timothy (Hebrews 13:23) places the writer of the Epistle amongst the circle of St. Paul’s friends. The early Church suggested, as having at least a share in the authorship, St. Luke (Clem. Alex. ap. Historia Ecclesiastica (Eusebius, etc.)vi. 14), or Barnabas (Tertullian, de Pudicitia, xx.), or Clement of Rome (‘some’ known to Origen [ap. Historia Ecclesiastica (Eusebius, etc.)vi. 25]). Luther (e.g. Enarr. in Genesis 48:20, Op. Exeg. xi. 130) supported the claim of Apollos. More recent conjectures have been Silas (e.g. C. F. Boehme, Ep. ad Heb., 1825); Aquila (suggestion mentioned but not approved by Bleek, Der Brief an die Hebräer, i. 42); St. Peter (A. Welch, The Authorship of Hebrews, 1898); Prisca and Aquila in collaboration, Prisca taking the lion’s share (Harnack, Zeitschrift für die neutest. Wissenschaft , 1900); Aristion, the Elder known to Papias (J. Chapman, Revue Bénédictine, xxii. , p. 50); and lastly, Philip the Deacon (Ramsay, Expositor, 5th ser. ix. 401-422). The evidence in favour of any of these conjectures is of the flimsiest description. The
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Hastings, James. Entry for 'Hebrews Epistle to the'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/hdn/h/hebrews-epistle-to-the.html. 1906-1918.