It is my intention over the next weeks and months to deliver a series of expository messages on the book of Hebrews. I’m excited about this, and I hope you will join me in my excitement over this, because this is such a wonderful and important epistle. Of course it is, because it is in the Bible! It is inspired and without error. But why begin here with Hebrews? Let me give you a couple of reasons.
First, Hebrews is important because in some sense this epistle summarizes the message of both the Old and the New Testament. It is the entire Bible in the short compass of its thirteen chapters. I think this is the reason R. C. Sproul said that if he were going to prison and could only take one book, he would take the Bible; but if he could only take one book from the Bible, he would choose Hebrews.
But second, I think the book of Hebrews is especially relevant for our day, because it speaks to people who are thinking about leaving the faith. Today we are seeing a lot of vocal and visible people leave the Christian faith and the Christian church. Deconversion stories abound. We are clearly living in a time when a lot of people who were raised in the church or who were once members of the church are seriously questioning the feasibility of remaining a Christian. To many people, it is seeming less and less plausible. I would not be surprised if there are some in this very congregation who are there. So I hope this epistle speaks to you and encourages you to remain faithful to Christ. But even if you are not there, discouragement can make being a Christian and being a light in the world difficult, and this epistle speaks to that as well. So I hope these messages will encourage you.
Let’s start there – what kinds of things would make someone want to leave the faith, and what does Hebrews say about his? There are many things that might make one want to give up on Christianity or the church or the faith. Of course, we know from the Bible that the enemy of the church – Satan – is constantly at work to overthrow the faith of the saints. He is roaming about, seeking whom he may devour, wanting to sift the faith of the vulnerable. But he uses a multitude of means to accomplish his nefarious ends, and I want to mention a few of these.
One of the main things the devil likes to use is just plain old suffering. It could be suffering through persecution. Or it could be suffering as it comes in a number of other forms: cancer, family crises, betrayal, job loss, business failure, and on and on. But the thing that is most likely to put the greatest amount of stress upon our faith is not just suffering, it is suffering with no earthly end in sight. When we look at the trial we are going through and it doesn’t look like it will ever let up – that is often when our faith becomes strained to the point of breaking. And the devil knows that. We ask, “If God is real, and if the Christian faith is real, wouldn’t that mean that God will take these sufferings away? And if they’re not taken away, doesn’t that prove that Christianity doesn’t work, or at least that God doesn’t care?” And so many folks have walked away from Jesus since because of their suffering they don’t have confidence anymore that he is there or that he cares.
Another thing that really is a subset of the former category, but which I want to highlight, is social alienation. I’m not talking about social awkwardness; I’m talking about people rejecting you or marginalizing you because of your faith in Christ. At times like this we are tempted to ask, “How can this be right when so many people find it disgusting? How can something be right that so many people think is foolishness? How could I live in a world created by God amidst people created by God and see things so entirely different from everyone else? Might not the answer be that I am wrong?” And then add to the fact that if we stopped being faithful to Christ it would make our live much easier on this earth and you have a recipe for walking away from Jesus.
And add to that the doubts that we all wrestle with from time to time. Of course, doubts don’t come from nowhere. They are there many times when we are in circumstances like those we have just mentioned. But the fact of the matter is that our culture is constantly bombarding us with doubts about our faith. Everything is being questioned. There is no part of the Christian faith that is not under attack. A few years ago, here in the West we had the privilege of living in a society that shared many of our basic convictions. But that is no longer the case. We cannot even assume that our culture accepts many of our basic convictions about ethical issues. But here’s the point: when doubts begin to pile up – doubt upon doubt, we get to the point where we don’t think we can believe in the Christian faith anymore. And so people walk away.
So here’s the question: how do you encourage someone (and that might be yourself!) to keep the faith when they are weary and discouraged, perhaps to the point of wanting to give up? Here is where the book of Hebrews can be of tremendous help and benefit. Because the book of Hebrews was written to a small church of mainly Jewish believers, many of whose members were apparently in precisely this predicament. What we have in front of us in the book of Hebrews is a sermon – it is called a “word of exhortation” in Heb. 13:22 – meant to encourage and strengthen and give hope to worn and weary believers who were on the verge of abandoning the faith.
We know that they had become weary through persecution for the faith from evidence given to us in the book itself. In 10:32-39, we are told that they had “endured a hard struggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to reproach and affliction” (32-33, ESV). Some of them had gone to prison, and others had lost property and possessions (34). Their enduring the contradiction of unbelievers had had its toll: and later these believers will be exhorted to look to Christ “lest ye be wearied and faint in your minds” (12:3). Apparently, some were already there. Then, we have this exhortation: “Wherefore lift of the hands which hang down, and the feeble knees” (12:12), a picture of utter discouragement, because that’s where they were. Finally, in 13:13, the author encourages them to “go forth therefore unto him without the camp, bearing his reproach.” It seems that they were just so worn down and disheartened that they just didn’t feel it in them to endure anymore. If they were going to remain Christian, they were going to do so in private. They had just had enough of this persecution. They didn’t want to endure any more, even if that meant they had to give up the faith.
We can’t know for sure, but it seems – and there seems to be somewhat of a general consensus on this – that this epistle was written to a house church in Rome about the middle of the first century. It is thought to have been addressed to a church in Rome for two main reasons. First, because the very first time this epistle is quoted is by Clement of Rome at the end of the first century. The fact that it first shows up in the writings of an elder of the Roman church makes it likely that the epistle originated near there. Second, we have these words in 13:24 – “They of Italy salute you.” This is not the only way to interpret this sentence, but certainly one way is that the author is with folks from Italy who want to send their greetings back to their fellow countrymen.
It was probably written in the middle of the first century. Assuming a Roman provenance, an earliest date would be A.D. 49, for this was when the Jews were evicted from Rome by the Emperor Claudius (an event noted in Acts 18:2 and by the Roman historian Suetonius). It was this event which probably explains the loss of property and imprisonment referred to in chapter 10. So it had to be after that. An upper bound for the date of this epistle is A.D. 95 because that’s when Clement of Rome quotes parts of Hebrews 1 in his epistle to the Corinthians. However, the fact that Hebrews seems to assume the Temple service is still ongoing (cf. Heb. 10:11) would mean that it had to be before A.D. 70. But there is another consideration. It is this: though they had endured persecution, they had not yet experienced martyrdom, for they had “not yet resisted unto blood, striving against sin” (12:4). However, we know that the Emperor Nero persecuted Christians in Rome between A.D. 64 and 68, when he died. It seems likely, then, that it was written perhaps in the early 60’s in the first century.
Now I said that this was written to a congregation of mainly Jewish believers, because, it seems to me, the argument of the epistle demands that. They were weary and thinking about walking away from the faith. But what were they walking to? It seems that they were thinking about returning to a Christless Judaism. That is, they just wanted to set back the clock and go back to the way things were before Jesus showed up. That would certainly relieve them from a lot of the persecution they were experiencing. Judaism was a legally recognized religion in the Roman empire, but Christianity was not. By going back to their old Judaism, they would no longer have to endure persecution for their faith. The argument of the epistle is that the must not, they should not, do this. It is insanity to abandon their faith in Christ, no matter what sufferings they will have to endure. That’s the argument.
Before I proceed, let me address the million-dollar question: who wrote Hebrews? Well, if you have a KJV, you might think I’m being stupid here, because it says, in all caps at the very beginning of the epistle: “THE EPISTLE OF PAUL THE APOSTLE TO THE HEBREWS.” However, you need to understand that this heading did not originate with any of the Greek manuscripts from which Hebrews is translated. It originated, I believe, with Jerome’s version of the Bible in Latin, called the Vulgate. The reality is that there has been a lot of debate from the very beginning over the authorship of this epistle, and that Paul’s name was never universally recognized as the author, although due to the influence of Augustine and Jerome in the fourth century, Paul’s name became for many years the one associated with this letter.
I can’t say that I know who wrote it. However, I can say that I’m pretty sure that the apostle Paul did not in fact write it. I say that for two reasons. First, in every other epistle of his, Paul always identifies himself (and it seems pretty important to him that he does this). The fact that the author doesn’t do so here indicates this is not the apostle Paul writing it. Second, and what I consider to be the decisive argument, is what is said in 2:3-4: “How shall we escape, if we neglect so great salvation; which at the first began to be spoken by the Lord, and was confirmed unto us by them that heard him; God also bearing them witness, both with signs and wonders, and with divers miracles, and gifts of the Holy Ghost, according to his own will?” Whoever wrote Hebrews does not put himself with those who personally heard Jesus, nor with those who performed miracles in his name. This would certainly rule Paul out.
But who did write it? I think it was Origin who famously said of the author of Hebrews, “Only God knows,” and I agree. Tertullian thought Barnabas wrote it. Others suggested Luke (author of the gospel of Luke and Acts) and Clement of Rome. Martin Luther thought Apollos wrote it. Other names have been put forward as well. Nevertheless, the most we can say is that whoever wrote it was a Jewish Christian man (the grammar of Heb. 11:32 demands that the author is male) in the first century. Does it make a difference not knowing? No; there are several books in the Bible whose authors we do not know (think the books of Kings and Chronicles, for example), but that does not negatively affect their canonicity. The reality is that the early church accepted Hebrews as canonical because it recognized that in this book we have a word inspired by the Holy Spirit for the good of God’s church and for the glory of his name. One writer has put it this way: “Hebrews was preserved and transmitted because Christian leaders kept picking it up and positive results followed.”
The Roots of their Discouragement
The author, whoever he was, was clearly concerned for the spiritual welfare of these Jewish Christians in Rome. He knew that they were on the verge, at least some of them, of spiritual collapse. And so he is writing them to encourage them to persevere, to continue in the faith.
Now, I think it is very instructive how he does not do it. He does not do it by promising them that if they remain faithful, things will look up and they will escape persecution. In some ways, the author is steeling their minds and hearts for faithfulness in future persecution.
Rather, what he does in this book is to look at the roots of their discouragement and to address those. He considers how the alienation and loss they had and were experiencing had undermined their faith. There were at least three things that were happening and which book of Hebrews was written to address.
First, they had failed to embrace a pilgrim mindset, which will make suffering for Christ much more difficult. Hence we have the call to such a mindset in Hebrews 11 and 13. If you view this world as your home, you will be discouraged when it becomes inhospitable. But when you consider yourself a pilgrim, a sojourner, you are going to be more likely to put up with certain losses and crosses. So there is this tremendous emphasis on seeing themselves as aliens in a foreign land, on their way to their true homeland.
Second, they had failed to believe that the Christian hope is superior to its alternatives. Other things had grabbed their hearts. And this will inevitably cause a person to abandon the faith in Christ for something else that is perceived to be superior. And so this epistle aims at convincing its audience that the Christian hope is superior to its competitors.
You see this concern embedded in the very structure of the book. Comparisons are made and the hope of Christ is argued to be “better.” Thus, “For the law made nothing perfect, but the bringing in of a better hope did; by the which we draw night unto God” (7:19). “By so much was Jesus made a surety of a better testament” (7:22). “But now hath he obtained a more excellent ministry, by how much also he is the mediator of a better covenant, which was established upon better promises” (8:6). Then you have this magnificent running comparison between Mount Sinai [which represents the law] and Mount Zion [which represents the Christian hope] in 12:18-29.
In fact, the whole argument of this epistle is that Christ is better. He is better than the angels through which the law was given (chapters 1-2). He is better than Moses to whom the law was given (chapter 3). He is better is Joshua, who led law-blessed Israel into the Promised Land (chapter 4). He is better than Aaron and the Levitical Priesthood established by the law of Moses, which is where the author camps out and spends a lot of times developing the superiority of Christ to all that (chapters 5-10). What remains of the book (beginning about 10:19) is to apply the richness of the excellence of the gospel to their lives. If they really grasp these things, they will, they must, hold the confidence of their hope firm to the end.
Of course, that doesn’t mean application isn’t ongoing throughout the epistle. The whole letter is one sustained exhortation, and the author doesn’t wait until the end to make application; he does so throughout. Thus you have repeated instances of exhortation and rebuke throughout the letter. In fact, I would argue that the doctrine of Hebrews is meant to support the entreaties and warnings made throughout the letter. It is an urgent call to see the superiority of the hope we have in Christ so that we don’t abandon him for second-rate and phony alternatives.
So they had failed to embrace a pilgrim mindset, they had failed to see the superiority of the Christian hope, and they had failed to see the excellency and sufficiency of Christ as our Savior, which guarantees our hope and grounds it. Such a failure to see these things will surely lead to spiritual attrition and apostacy. This book deals with each one of these failures head on and diagnoses them and gives the Biblical solution to them.
The Need to Hear the Word of God
However, underneath all this, all these failures, lies a more fundamental error. Although, at the same time they also perhaps contributed toward this error. That is, these Christians had stopped listening to the voice of God in his Scripture and in his Son. They had stopped believing that God was speaking to them in the preaching of the gospel. This is, as I understand it, the overarching theme of the book of Hebrews: this epistle fundamentally addresses the need to listen to, to take heed to, to hear afresh the voice of God in the word of God.
You can see this in the way the author bookends this letter. He begins with the statement that God has spoken – first in the prophets and climatically and finally in his Son (1:1-2), and then towards the end, exhorts them to “see that ye refuse not him that speaketh” (12:25). God has spoken: hear him! that’s the message. The problem when we become discouraged is that we stop listening to God. We start listening to other things, other messages, and we therefore give in to other hopes and end up walking away from Christ. One of the goals of any Christian minister and pastor is to facilitate the faithful hearing of the word of God to the people of God. That is what this pastor – the author of Hebrews – is doing.
And it’s amazing and fascinating in the way he does it. We have to remember that for him, Scripture was the Old Testament. And so he quotes it, and does so often, expounding and explaining and applying God’s word to God’s people. In Hebrews, the OT is quoted and alluded to so often that it’s actually difficult to nail down precisely just how much he does it. According to one NT scholar, “there are thirty-one explicit quotations [of OT Scripture] and four more implicit quotations, a minimum of thirty-seven allusions, nineteen instances where OT material is summarized, and thirteen more where a biblical name or topic is cited without reference to a specific context.” That’s a lot for a small book.
But what I find compelling is how he quotes the OT, and this is actually without parallel in the NT. He doesn’t quote the OT by the phrase, “It is written,” but by something like, “he says,” or “it says.” For example, just to take one instance, look at Heb. 3:7. When he quotes Psalm 95, he does so by introducing it by the phrase, “as the Holy Ghost saith.” Two things are very important here. First, this is not just David speaking. David probably wrote Psalm 95, but that is not how the author of Hebrews begins the quote. He does so by saying that this is the word of God; specifically the word of the Holy Spirit, the one who inspires all God’s word. But this is not all. He could have justly said, “The Holy Spirit said,” past tense – but this isn’t what he did, is it? No – instead he puts it in the present tense: “The Holy Spirit is saying.” Do you see what he is doing? The Bible is not some dead letter. God is still speaking through it. This is why “the word of God is quick [living], and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and the marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and the intents of the heart” (4:12). Do we understand the Bible like that? Do we understand that when we pick of the Bible, God is speaking to us?
Someone could tell whether or not I believe this by how often I pick up the Bible. It’s one thing to believe that the Bible is God’s word, that he has spoken in the pages of Scripture. Yes, and Amen. But if that’s where I stop, I may never really appreciate what the Bible is to me, and as a result I will not incorporate it into my life like Psalm 1 and Deut. 6 commands us to do. And as a result, I am going to be a weak and a defective Christian. How is a Christian to become strong and mature? It is by the word of God (2 Tim. 3:16-17; cf. 1 Thess. 2:13).
This is what had happened, apparently, to these Christians. Instead of listening to the word of God with enthusiasm, they had become “dull of hearing” (5:11). Because of the suffering they had endured, they had stopped being willing to listen to the word of God. Persecution and loss can indeed make it hard to believe that God is concerned about us and our circumstances. And if that’s the case, it’s hard to believe that his word has anything to say to us. But it does! And Hebrews is meant to convince us of this reality. I hope it does this for you and for me. But God is concerned. And he does speak to us, and he speaks to us in such as way that if we are willing to listen, it will fill us with hope and joy and confidence and determination.
In closing, let me summarize for you what kind of word God has to say to us in this book. First of all, it is a word of salvation – he has given us the gospel of our “great salvation” (2:1-3; 4:2; 8:10-12; 10:15-17). This is not some cheap salvation, like this world offers. This is not some “live for the moment” kind of mumbo-jumbo. No, this is great salvation. It is described as rest – can the world really give you this? But Christ can (cf. Mt. 11:28-30), and we are encouraged to enter into that rest.
Second, it is a word of hope – “strong consolation” (6:13-19). No matter what is facing us, the hope that we have in Christ is sure and steadfast and certain. Again, there is nothing on this earth that can give you that. I challenge you to present it, if you can. Only Christ can give us this kind of hope, and this in fact is the very word he has given.
Third, it is a word of wisdom – like a father instructing his children (12:5, ff). God relates to his children as a good Father, genuinely caring for their needs. And this means that he will discipline us if that is what is needed. He knows what is best for us, and his word comes to us with wisdom of a good and gracious father.
Finally, it is a word of warning (2:1-4; 3:7-19; 5:11-6:12; 10:19-39; 12:14-27). There are five major warnings in this epistle. Frankly, these warnings are the reason for much consternation – as well as bad doctrinal conclusions – in the church. We will consider them in due time. But the point I want to make at this juncture is that such warnings are good and necessary for us. A parent that never warns their children is a bad parent. God is going to warn us of what will happen if we walk away. And in his sovereign grace and mercy these become the means by which he often brings back his straying children. We should heed the warnings. Don’t write them off. Take them seriously. Do not refuse the God who speaks!