Chapter 1

Introducing the Letter to the Hebrews

Our good friends had a heart for missions and for reaching the lost for Christ. Even before they were married, they had talked about serving overseas as missionaries. Once they finished their college education, they began to consider mission agencies where God might want them. Their church decided it was time for them to adopt an unreached people group. This was a major movement in the 1980s and ’90s, when churches picked up the call to reach every people group in the world with the good news of salvation available through Jesus the Messiah.

After some investigation and fact-finding trips, the church decided to invest significant resources in reaching a particular group for Christ. This segment of the population had tens of thousands of immigrants living as “guest workers” in central Europe. There were several good reasons for choosing them. First, as refugees and immigrants, they needed the kind of friendship and help our friends could offer. A strong anti-immigrant sentiment existed in Europe at the time and so it was unusual for these immigrants to be greeted with a warm smile and a helping hand. In addition, this group had been intensely persecuted for political reasons by others of their own religious tradition. This made them open to hearing about the good news of salvation that came through Jesus.

Our friends were excited about this prospect and so, after raising support and getting appropriate training, they moved to Europe. In cafes, parks, and shopping centers, they came into contact with members of this group and befriended them. In time they launched a low-key Bible study in their home. These relationships grew until several people responded and accepted Jesus Christ as their Savior. We received an exciting letter from our friends, who were thrilled. A baptism had been planned for that Sunday.

Sunday came and went without word. A week later we received a note from our friends. Sadly, all of the new believers had pulled out at the last minute. They had decided a public baptism was just too much at this time. They feared they would be ostracized, persecuted, and even disowned by their family and friends. In time a number of them became followers of Jesus and were baptized, yet their initial hesitation reminds us of the challenges people face when confronted with the high cost of following Jesus. In many places around the world, Christians are experiencing persecution because of their faith. In some, they are suffering and even dying.

Hebrews: Stand Firm in the Faith

The situation our friends faced in Europe was not so different from the situation that produced the New Testament letter we call Hebrews. The letter was written to a group of Jewish Christians who were experiencing severe challenges to their faith. They had acknowledged Jesus as the Messiah and expressed their faith in him, and now they faced increasing persecution and suffering (hebrews 10:23, 32–39). There was a great deal of pressure to abandon their faith in Jesus and return to the relative safety and security of their old Jewish faith. Judaism was a respected and protected religion in the Roman Empire and as long as Christianity was viewed as a sect within Judaism, Christians had a measure of protection. But as Christianity began to be viewed as a new religion, Christians were increasingly singled out for persecution. In this context, those believers who had come from Jewish ancestry were tempted to return to those roots.

This is what is happening in the letter to the Hebrews. The author writes out of concern that the readers are in danger of rejecting Christianity and returning to Judaism. He warns them of the devastating consequences of such a move. God’s plan to bring salvation to all the world finds its culmination in Christ. His life, death, resurrection, and ascension are the most important events in human history, providing forgiveness of sins and a restored relationship with God. To turn away from this is to lose any hope of salvation.

The Structure of Hebrews

To prove his case, the author builds an argument for the superiority and completeness of Christ and the new covenant in contrast to the preparatory nature and incompleteness of the old. The old covenant’s purpose was to prepare the way for the new, which now supersedes and replaces it.

Interspersed throughout these theological themes are a series of urgent, practical, and passionate calls for the readers to persevere. There are five major warning passages describing the dangerous consequences of abandoning the faith (2:1–4; 3:7–4:14; 5:11–6:20; 10:19–39; 12:25–29). Apart from Christ, there is no salvation and no relationship with God. It is of critical importance, therefore, for them to hold on to their faith and persevere to the end.

Central Theological Theme: Christ Superior to All

Theologically, the author produces a logical and systematic case for the superiority of Christianity to Judaism. Though the Old Testament (OT) was an authentic revelation from God, its purpose all along was to point forward to the coming of Jesus the Messiah. The central theological theme of the letter is the superiority of Christ and the new covenant to all that came before. The letter begins with this statement: “In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son . . .” (1:1–2). Jesus is God’s greatest and final revelation, the One who has accomplished once-for-all salvation for all who believe in him. The old covenant was incomplete; the revelation through Jesus is perfect and complete, providing true forgiveness of sins and an eternal relationship with God.

The author frequently uses the word “better” to describe the new revelation given through Jesus. As the mediator of God’s final salvation, Jesus is better than the angels, who mediated the first covenant. While angels are only ministering servants of God, created to do God’s bidding, Jesus is the Son of God and heir of all things (1:4–14).

Jesus is a better priest. Instead of the priesthood passed down through Aaron and his sons, Jesus is an eternal high priest according to the order of Melchizedek (7:1–10) [see chapter 3 of this booklet for additional treatment of Melchizedek]. While Israel’s high priest was a sinner and so had to offer sacrifices first for his own sins and then for the sins of the people, Jesus was both fully human and fully divine. As the perfect representative for humanity, he could offer himself once-for-all for the sins of humanity (2:14–18; 4:14&ndashl5:10; 7:11–8:6).

Jesus establishes a better covenant. Israel failed to keep the covenant given through Moses at Mount Sinai and so failed to enter into God’s salvation rest (3:7–19). Through his life, death and resurrection, Jesus came as mediator of the new and better covenant promised in Jeremiah 31. This new covenant, which is written on our hearts instead of on tablets of stone, provides true forgiveness of sins and authentic knowledge of God (8:1–13).

Jesus enters a better tabernacle. While the earthly tabernacle was a mere symbol and shadow of God’s presence, at Jesus’s resurrection and ascension he passed through the true heavenly tabernacle and so opened the way into the presence of God (9:1–28).

Jesus offers a better sacrifice. The OT sacrifices had to be made day after day and ultimately did not even take away sins. Jesus’s once-for-all sacrifice on the cross was truly effective and paid the penalty for all sins for all time (10:1–18).

Central Practical Theme: A Call to Mature and to Persevere

In light of the superiority of Christ and the new covenant, the author calls on his readers to persevere in the face of persecution and to move on to maturity (10:19–39). There is no salvation outside of Christ and his sacrifice on the cross, so to abandon Christianity is to give up any hope of salvation. The key, then, is to keep their eyes on Christ, who, as the pioneer of their faith, has run the race before them and set an example that they should follow.

And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart (hebrews 12:1–3).

The Genre of Hebrews

Although Hebrews is referred to as an “epistle” (or letter) in many ways it reads more like an essay. Most letters from the first century began with an identification of the author and the recipients, followed by a greeting (see, for example, romans 1:1, 7; 1 corinthians 1:1–3, etc.). Hebrews starts instead with an introductory statement of its central theme, and no identification of its author or recipients (hebrews 1:1–3). Yet it is clearly a letter in the sense that it is a personal message written to a specific group of people in a particular time and place (see the personal references in hebrews 13:18–25). Some have referred to Hebrews as a sermon in letter form. The author himself refers to it as a “word of exhortation” (13:22), that is, a message meant to encourage, instruct, and call to action.