A study of Hebrews presents some challenges because there are several questions about the letter which we simply cannot answer. Let’s briefly note some of these questions:
- Who wrote the letter? There was a relatively early tradition in the church that Paul wrote the letter in Hebrew and Luke then translated it into Greek. However, other early traditions pointed to a variety of possible authors including Barnabas, Aquilla and Priscilla, and finally Apollos. The author speaks of having received the gospel from the original witnesses, and not from the Lord (see Hebrews 2.3). This argues against Pauline authorship as Paul proclaimed that he received the gospel from the Lord (see Galatians 1.12). Apollos is an attractive option given his description in Acts 18.24-25.
- Who were the recipients? This letter was known and circulated among the churches very early (by the end of the first century), but it did not receive its traditional title until late in the second century. The letter bears out that the intended audience were Jewish Christians who were undergoing persecution (see Hebrews 12.1-4), and were thus tempted to go back to Judaism. It’s likely that these Jewish saints did not live in Palestine, but where they lived is unknown. Asia Minor, Greece and Rome are all given as possibilities.
- When was the letter written? We know that the community was experiencing persecution, but none of them had yet died for the faith (Hebrews 12.4). This argues for a date before Nero’s general persecution against Christians in the mid 60s. It is also likely that the letter was written before Jerusalem was destroyed in AD 70. “The principal indication of the date is that the epistle says nothing about the destruction of the temple but leaves the impression that the Jewish sacrificial system, with its ministry of priests and all that that involved, was a continuing reality, cf. 9:6–9.” (Expositors Bible Commentary). So, a date in the early 60s is likely.
While there are many things about the letter we don’t know, the message of the letter is not in doubt! The authors point to this Jewish community of saints is that Jesus Christ is better! Note how this is stated throughout the letter:
- Jesus is better than the angels (Hebrews 1.4)
- Jesus offers a better hope (Hebrews 7.19)
- Jesus guarantee’s a better covenant (Hebrews 7.22)
- Jesus has better promises (Hebrews 8.6)
- Jesus made a better sacrifice (Hebrews 9.23)
- Jesus provides a better possession (Hebrews 10.34)
- Jesus provides a better resurrection (Hebrews 11.35)
- Jesus’ blood is better (Hebrews 12.24)
The message of “Jesus is better” is prominent from the moment the letter begins, describing how Jesus is better than God’s other messengers. God had many faithful prophets (spokesmen) in the Old Testament, and He had communicated to them in numerous ways including a burning bush (Exodus 3.2ff), a still, small voice (1Kings 19.12ff) and glorious visions (Isaiah 6). But “in these last days” (i.e. the Messianic age), God spoke through His Son! And God’s Son is not only better than the prophets (Hebrews 1.1-2), He’s also better than the angels (Hebrews 1.4)! The writer gives seven descriptive phrases of Jesus which show how superior He is!
- Jesus is appointed heir of all things (Hebrews 1.2). Just as the Father had promised (see Psalm 2.8).
- God made the world through Jesus (Hebrews 1.2). Note John 1.1-4.
- Jesus is the radiance of God’s glory (Hebrews 1.3). NLT: “The Son radiates God’s own glory”. See John 1.14,18.
- Jesus is the exact representation of God’s nature (Hebrews 1.3). NLT: “expresses the very character of God”. Expositors Bible Commentary: “in is literal sense it was used of the impression on coins”.
- Jesus upholds all things by the word of His power (Hebrews 1.3). NLT & NIV: “sustains”.
- Jesus made purification of sins (Hebrews 1.3). This is the issue at the heart of the letter. The Old Testament sacrificial system could not make purification… but Jesus could! See Hebrews 10.3-4,10.
- Jesus sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high (Hebrews 1.3). Note how the Hebrew writer speaks of the priests standing daily to offer their sacrifices (see Hebrews 10.11). But Jesus, since He made one sacrifice for all, now sits at God’s right hand!
Jesus is better, and our study of Hebrews will show just how much better He is! And since He is better, the call for us is the same as was given to the original recipients of this letter:
“12 Take care, brethren, that there not be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart that falls away from the living God. 13 But encourage one another day after day, as long as it is still called “Today,” so that none of you will be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. 14 For we have become partakers of Christ, if we hold fast the beginning of our assurance firm until the end…” Hebrews 3:12–14(NASB95)
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