Hebrews: Introduction

Hebrews is an occasional letter written to, as the name of the book indicates, Hebrews. These were probably Greek speaking Jews who had converted out of Judaism in to Christianity, yet were being confronted with persecution either by Jews or Romans because they were Christians. These Christians wanted to go back to the way things were before they were Christians, living lives comfortably and without persecution. The author of Hebrews wanted to encourage them live boldly for Christ rather than shrinking back to the way things were. He accomplishes this by communicating a clear message: the supremacy and sufficiency of Christ.

Jesus is shown to be greater than angels, the great Hebrew leaders like Moses, Aaron, Joshua and the Levitical Priesthood. Jesus is also shown to be a priest-king like Melchizedek. And most of all, Jesus is given a status on par with God himself. Jesus’ sufficiency is demonstrated in that he ushers in a better covenant, a better temple, and a better sacrifice, all fully and finally realized in the person of Christ. If Christ is the full and final realization, then there was no reason or need to go back to Judaism. To that end, Hebrews is peppered with warnings about the consequences of shrinking back and wavering in one’s faith in Jesus.

The author of Hebrews is unknown, but some things about the author are obvious in the book of Hebrews.

  • He had a command of the Greek language. The author writes in a highly stylized, formal Greek more akin to classical Greek than most of the New Testament, which was written in a more informal style. (This is not as evident in English translations though.)
  • When writing, the author quotes from the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament scriptures.
  • The author obviously knew Hebrew traditions and scriptures. He doesn’t point to the contemporary temple worship practices of the day, but talks about the practices used by the ancient Hebrews.
  • The author employs an interpretive method rooted in a common in the first century method called “midrash” (read the section on midrash here for a more thorough explanation) that was used by Jewish teachers. This method sought to find a “plain meaning” in the Hebrew Scriptures, but also looked for a “deeper meaning” behind the scriptures.

These things would indicate someone who was probably well educated in both classical Greek and rabbinical Hebrew studies. The philosophical underpinnings of these various schools are important when understanding how and why the author of Hebrews used the Old Testament the way he did. As one begins to study Hebrews, one does well to read not merely the quoted verses, but also read their context in the Old Testament to get a fuller picture of where the author is drawing his conclusions from. In the same manner Hebrews helped first century Christians understand relationships between Christianity and its Jewish roots, Hebrews helps Christians understand the relationship between the New Testament and the Old Testament. And like the first century recipients, modern day readers can be encouraged to look forward to Jesus rather than shrinking back into what they came from.

Lord, help me to understand how Jesus is all that I need!