Lesson 2: Introduction to HEBREWS (cont'd)
Acts 7:54--8:3; 9:26-30, Galatians 1:11--2:8, Hebrews--do a percursory reading
The Book of Hebrews. Welcome again! This is lesson # 2. We have already said the facts surrounding this book are more obscure than the Bible books we covered in our previous studies. We cannot be absolutely certain; but, there is a high probability the apostle Paul wrote this letter TO THE HEBREWS. Now, please note: the word "Hebrew(s)" does not occur in the text of this Bible book that we refer to as HEBREWS,.only in the title of this book does it occur and most likely this title was added to the letter at some later time; although, it must have been added very early. By way of review, the word "Hebrews'! is a reference to the Jewish people; but, also the word carries (in the N.T.) a reference to their language. At the time of Jesus, Hebrew was spoken in the home land of the Jews and especially in Jerusalem where the Jewish temple was located. But, NOW, here's the paradox: did I say the book of HEBREWS was written in the Hebrew language? I don't believe it was. Many commentators and Bible students have assumed the book was originally written in the Hebrew language; simply because it bears that title. I believe this letter was written to people with Hebrew speaking capability, i.e. the Jewish Christians in and around Jerusalem. Those people (at the time of Paul) spoke Hebrew or at least had that capability. However, most of the Jews in the homeland were bi-lingual and most of their day-to-day dealings were done in Greek. In the generation following Jesus, i.e. AD 33 thru the AD 60's, even the language of the homeland gradually changed from Hebrew to more and more Greek. Then, please recall, the city of Jerusalem, including the temple, were destroyed (in the fall of AD 70) which practically struck down the Hebrew language at least for a time. Some think this book was written in Hebrew and then translated into Greek. However, some of the earliest writers refute this. And even some of those who knew both languages (i.e. Greek and Hebrew) have said it was definitely composed in Greek. All of Paul's other 13 N.T. books (we have already covered) were composed in the Greek language. Thus, especially, if the book was written by the apostle Paul it is most logical the book was written in Greek; although (get this now), Paul did speak Hebrew fluently (this we know from Acts 21:40). Thus, the Jews to whom it was written could have read the book in either Greek or Hebrew. However, I am inclined to think that the Holy Spirit had it composed in Greek for the benefit of the next generation of Christians, to which the book served with great force. And it still has a great message, a strong message for us.
Paul had made contact with the Jerusalem church very early in his career as an apostle. As a matter of fact, even before he was an apostle, when he was known as Saul, he had persecuted this church (according to Acts 8:3). About three years after Paul was converted on the road to Damascus, he went back to Jerusalem for the first time since his conversion (we learn this in Gal. 2:18 & Acts 9:26). At that time Paul spent two weeks living in the household of Peter; but, most of the Christians were afraid of Paul, assuming (I suppose) that he was an infiltrator. Then Paul and Barnabas, some two or three years after that, brought some relief materials to the brethren that dwelt in Judea from the church at Antioch (this is Acts 11:29-30). Then after returning to this predominately gentile church at Antioch, the Holy Spirit separated Paul and Barnabas for what is usually called the first missionary journey, i.e. an evangelistic tour into Asia Minor (recorded in Acts ch. 13-14). At the end of that first missionary journey they came back to Antioch of Syria and again spent some time. It was during that time that Paul and Barnabas re-visited Jerusalem to confer with the apostles and elders at Jerusalem about the circumcision issue that had arisen in the Antioch church. That was 14 years later (according to Gal. 2:1). Then Paul came back to Antioch and saluted this church again at the
end of his second missionary journey (this is Acts 18:22). It was at the end of Paul's third missionary journey, that he went back to Jerusalem to help take the bounty of relief from Achaia, Macedonia, Asia, Galatia, (etc.) AND that was the occasion in which he was arrested at the temple. Ironically, he wound up spending four years in prison following that incident (the record of this begins in about Acts ch. 20 and consumes the rest of that book). It must have been about AD 62-63 when he was finally released from the imperial .prison in Rome. I am inclined to think it was during this release, i.e. before Paul's second Roman imprisonment, that this letter to the HEBREWS was written. As we have reviewed, Paul had made contact with his Jewish brethren in the homeland several times over the years. It is true, Paul was an apostle to the gentiles first, you will remember (Acts 9:15); however, he was also a chosen vessel to the children of Israel according to that same verse. At this later stage in the apostle's life, he was very concerned about the church(s) back in the homeland of Judea. Now, what was the concern?
O.K., this concern was (in essence) the reason for and the purpose of the book of HEBREWS. Now, let's talk about the church at Jerusalem just a minute, to which this book was undoubtedly written. This was the first church, the church that began on the day of Pentecost (Acts ch. 2), fifty days after Jesus arose from the dead. The kingdom came. After Jesus had spent several months training and preparing the apostles, they opened the church on the day of Pentecost ten days after Jesus ascended back to heaven. Jesus had said, "I will give unto thee [i.e. the apostles] the keys of the kingdom" (Matt. 16:19). The apostles opened the kingdom (or what we more commonly refer to as the church) on the day of Pentecost (AD 33). At first that Jerusalem church grew rapidly, by leaps and bounds. They were soon making great head-way, converting thousands. Even a great company of the Jewish priest were obedient to the faith (Acts 6:7). But, the hierarchy of the Jewish religion fought back bringing on a great persecution of that church. Paul, then called Saul, played an important role in that persecution. As a result, the church was scattered throughout Judea and Samaria (Acts 8:1). During all of this, the apostles at Jerusalem stood their ground, stayed in that city and nurtured the Jerusalem church by their daily teaching. Then, Saul was converted on the road to Damascus and the Gentiles were grafted in (we read about in Acts ch. 9-10). The Jews influenced king Herod to kill the apostle James with the sword (Acts 12:2) and he tried to kill Peter also. Saul, whose name was changed to Paul, ultimately began his missionary journeys. In one generation the church spread all over the Roman empire (Col. 1:23). However, it would appear that the church located in Jerusalem began to wane, i.e. dwindle or diminish somewhat (especially in the AD 60's), i.e. during the second generation of the church in that city. A few of the Jewish Christians were apparently being converted back to the Jew's religion. As their faith weakened, some slacked off in attendance and it would appear some felt guilty of leaving their ancestral religion, the Law of Moses and they longed for the temple services which were still being conducted there in the city of Jerusalem. It was to this weakened and weakening church(s), that the book of HEBREWS was written. Actually this writing was right on the brink of the destruction of Jerusalem. Of course, the Christians there were in general unaware of this impending destruction. This was the condition surrounding the arrival of this book into the homeland.
Because of the extreme prejudice against the apostle Paul in the region of the homeland, even into the second generation of the church, some believe this is the reason Paul did not include his name at the beginning of this book as he did in the other of Paul's books in which we have covered.
In other words, Paul may have thought his influence would be more far-reaching if he simply left his name off the book. This is conjecture, of course, and we have no way of knowing whether this is right or wrong.
Now, in the time remaining, let's try to get a birdseye glimpse of this book's content, i.e. what is said in the book as well as the way in which the book is organized. It has already been said that the book employs, in almost every reference and almost every sentence, a knowledge of the Old Testament. The book played upon the native background knowledge and information which the Jewish Hebrew Christians abundantly possessed. In other words, the writer took advantage of and appealed to any longing they might have had for an association with their ancestral religion. The writer logically connected his message, i.e. the very part those Jewish Christians tended to overlook and neglect; the writer emphatically reviewed and showed the superiority of the Christian religion over their ancestral religion, Moses and the prophets. The writer showed in fact, Moses and the O.T. prophets were truly a school master to bring them (and to bring us) to Christ (using the language of Gal. 3:24). You see, we still have what we call the O.T. as a school master to point us to Christ. In the fulfillment of the O.T., everything in the O.T. leads to Christ, his coming, his superiority, his atonement, his system. The HEBREW writer showed the superiority of Christ over Moses. He showed the superiority of Christ over angels and as a man. We have a better rest, i.e. heaven as compared to the sabbath rest, they observed. We have a greater priesthood, Jesus Christ himself being our high priest in the Christian system in contrast to the Levitical priesthood in the old Mosaic system that their ancestors knew and the system they had now left behind. Christ's death on the cross was a much greater and higher atonement than the animal sacrifices known and offered year after year in the old system. We have a new and living way, a superior relationship to God. The tabernacle and ultimately the temple and the old priestly system and all the elements of the old Mosaic system were a shadow of things to come, i.e. they were a type, or a symbolic representation of the new system that ultimately came about in Jesus Christ. The old system was in effect a prophecy (a pattern or a prototype, i.e. an illustration) of what the new system would be like. John the apostle said: "the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ." (John 1:17). In this new system, we work and worship by faith in Christ Jesus. God has given a new covenant, i.e. a new dispensation, a new age in Christ. The old system, the old covenant is no longer in force. To turn back and to follow the old system, the old covenant and it's inferior system is to miss Christ and to be lost. This was the concern of the writer of the HEBREW letter. In this writing the old system and the new system are contrasted and represented as two distinct dispensations, two distinct covenants as was also prophesied in the Old Testament (e.g. Jeremiah 31:31ff). The new system is superior to the old and the new system has replaced the old. The old pointed to the new and the new has arrived.
The Hebrew Christians to which this letter was first written had begun this new life, they were baptized into Christ. The Lord added daily to the Jerusalem church (Acts 2:47). Since the day of Pentecost (just a generation before), the church of Jesus Christ had grown, spread and gone into every province of the Roman empire, i.e. the world they knew at that time. These saints in and around Jerusalem and the ones they had converted HAD launched upon the right course; but, they had (many of them...had) become weary in well doing (as the apostle warned we should not do, in Gal. 6:9). When we become weary, weakened and begin to stray, we slack off on our duties and then: we soon fall away. It's a sad state when Christ is no longer first in our lives. To those drifting saints of the AD 60's in and around the homeland, this letter was written. They had once been strong. They had endured a great persecution, first by unbelieving Jews (Acts ch. 8:1) and then by the Roman state (Acts 12:1), king Herod himself. Do you remember? Here in what we call Heb. ch. 10, down in v.32, the writer said: "But call to remembrance the former days, in which, after ye were illuminated, ye endured a great fight of afflictions; partly, whilst ye were made a gazingstock both by reproaches and afflictions; and partly, whilst ye became companions of them that were so used." Then in v.34 (Heb. ch. 10), here is another of those first person references we mentioned, "For ye had compassion of me in my bonds, and took joyfully the spoiling of your goods, knowing in yourselves that ye have in heaven a better and an enduring substance." The writer then advises (in v.35) "Cast not away therefore your confidence, which hath great recompense of reward." The word "confidence" there is another word for "faith" to which the writer devoted the entire eleventh chapter (the next chapter). The word "reward," there in v.35 is a reference to heaven. It concerned the writer that on their presence course, they might miss heaven, i.e. be lost and the residual message to us has not diminished one whit as to its importance.
Finally, as we close this introduction, please thumb with me to a few of the high points by which the writer logically organized the thought in this letter. First, he acknowledged that God had spoken to generations past through the patriarchs and through the prophets of the O.T. (this is the very first verse in this book). However, in contrast to that, God "hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son," i.e. through Jesus the Christ. Then the superiority of Jesus is discussed in great detail. The writer dwells on the humanity of Christ and contrasts Christ as the Apostle of the new covenant with Moses, the apostle of the old covenant. Then (#2) over 4:14ff the writer introduced Jesus as our new high priest now in heaven, i.e. in contrast to the high priest of the Jews;: then in Jerusalem, offering animal sacrifices and following the old system. Then (#3), beginning 5:11ff he shows how some had digressed from their calling. (#4) At the beginning of ch. 7, the writer returns to the priesthood idea that was introduced back in chapter four. In ch. 8, v.6 the writer pursues and discusses the two covenant idea, the old and the new, and quotes from Jeremiah ch. 31, verbatim, which these Hebrew Christians must have known like the back of their hand. Then (#5), beginning in what we call ch. 9 and going down to about the middle of ch. 10, the writer shows the superiority of Christ's atonement by drawing upon several illustrations from the old covenant, the tabernacle (etc.). Then (#6), the writer begins in ch. 10, v.19 a warning against apostasy, i.e. our privileges and obligations as Christians and how these things were being flaunted and the ultimate consequence. This is followed by the faith chapter (ch. 11) which defines and illustrates "faith" and shows the enduring influence of faith. The faith ch. is followed (in ch. 12), by a return to the apostasy idea and is really an encouragement to persevere. Finally (#7) the writer gets down to local and practical matters, promising them a visit which we have already considered. Until lesson #3, this is saying: have a good day.