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Introduction to the Epistle to the Hebrews

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General Info

In reading the New Testament (NT), we sometimes overlook the fact that the original Christians were Jewish.  Jesus’ first disciples and most early converts came from Judaism.  They met in synagogues and maintained observance of many of the various Jewish customs.  This is not surprising since Jesus Himself was a Jew and came first for the Jews (Mt 15:21-28, Rom 1:16).  Yet, when Christ fulfilled much of the Old Testament (OT) and introduced Christianity, many questioned were raised among Jewish believers.  How should they now view the laws of Moses?  What about the OT sacrificial system?  Was having faith in Christ really sufficient to get to heaven?  In short, did converting to Christianity contradict or invalidate all they had been taught and believed?

To complicate matters, they were now being harassed by the Jewish leaders that clung to Judaism, and by persecutions from the Romans under their cruel emperor Nero.  For some, the choice between remaining in Judaism or converting to Christianity might mean the choice between life or death.  Many were considering reverting back to their old religion.  Thus, the perspective and current converts were desperate for answers.  The Book of Hebrews attempts to provide solid answers to these difficult questions.  The book is undoubtedly the best commentary ever written on the OT law and sacrificial system and sought to provide answers that perspective believers were seeking.  It explains many of the OT narratives as symbols that foreshadowed the various works of Christ.

The title of the Book of Hebrews comes from the fact that it is written to Jewish Christians.  The Eastern and North African churches, who generally accepted the Apostle Paul as the author, accepted Hebrews into the NT Canon near the end of the secondary century AD.  Most of the the Western churches accepted the book in the second half of the fourth century AD, likely due to the fact that it was widely believed to be authored by Paul or a close associate of Paul.  In the Protestant Canon, the Book of Hebrews is grouped at the end of the Pauline Epistles.

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Brief Survey

The author of Hebrews begins by noting that God had previously spoken through the prophets at by various ways and methods, but now He as spoken to us by His Son, the Heir of all things, the exact representation of His Being, Who is  sustaining all things, and through Whom He also created the universe, and finally Who is now seated at His right hand in heaven as a testimony to His finished work.  The author then spends the first nine and a half chapters discussing various aspects of the Superiority of Christ.  He begins by noting that Christ is superior to the holy angels (chapters 2 and 3).  Christ is pictured as the eternal (uncreated) Son of God, whom the angels worshipped.  Although Christ was voluntarily and temporarily made lower than the angels when He became human in order to die for our sins (2:5-18), He reassumed His exalted position after His resurrection and ascension.

In chapters 3 and 4, the author demonstrates the superiority of Christ over Moses and Joshua, the two leaders that led Israel out of Egyptian captivity and into the Promised Land of Israel (see the OT books of Exodus and Joshua).  Although Moses and Joshua were faithful servants within God’s household, Christ is supreme over God’s household.  Moses and his successor Joshua ultimately failed to provide the promised rest in the land due to the unbelief and rebellion of the people (see Numbers 13 and 14 for a prime example).  But the work of Jesus and the Great High Priest has already secured our eternal rest in heaven for all true believers (chapter 4).

Chapter four also begins the longest section of the book.  The section deals with the superiority of Christ to Aaron (Israel’s first high priest and brother of Moses), and more importantly describes the work of Christ as our Perfect Eternal High Priest.  The section is also the greatest commentary ever written on the OT sacrificial systems and explains how Christ fulfilled the various practices, with chapter 4:14-16 serving as the introduction and the qualifications of Jesus in fulfilling the role.  To illustrate the eternal and permanent nature of the priesthood of Jesus in chapter 7, the author referenced the story of Melchizedek from Genesis 14:17–20 which records no beginning or ending for his life.  See Interpretive Challenges below for additional info on the identity of Melchizedek.

In chapter 8-10, the author contrasts the nature and the substance of the sacrificial systems.  The OT system consisted of a human high priest that had to enter the earthly temple and offer repeated sacrifices for both his sins and the sins of the people.  By contrast, Christ as the sinless permanent High Priest, who ministered in the true tabernacle in heaven (8:1-5), offered Himself one time for all (9:23-10:18).  This is also framed within the context of the old vs new covenant.  To illustrate, the author quoted Jeremiah 31:31-34: But God found fault with the people and said: “The days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah.  It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they did not remain faithful to my covenant, and I turned away from them, declares the Lord.  This is the covenant I will establish with the people of Israel after that time, declares the Lord.  I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts.  I will be their God, and they will be my people.  No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.  For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”  Thus, Christ has instituted a New Covenant as recorded throughout the NT.

The final section of the book (10:19-13:25) is a challenge and exhortation to remain faithful to the New Covenant message of Christ.  Due to persecutions, some recent converts were doubting whether they made the right choice to follow Christ, and some were even beginning to consider returning to Judaism.  The author encourages his readers to continue in their faith.  As an incentive, the author recorded a “Hall of Faith” consisting of many of the OT faithful such as Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Joseph, Moses, David and many unknown others that are referred to as “a great cloud of witnesses” (12:1).  In chapter 12, the author offers Christ as a prime example of faithfulness (12:1-3).  God allows all Christians to experience temporary hardship in order that they might develop holiness.  Although God’s chastisement may seem hard for the time, it will eventually produce righteousness in those who remain true to Him (12:7-11).  

In chapter 13, the author closes with some final encouragements, to keep loving one another, to remember those imprisoned for their faith, to honor marriage vows, and to avoid false teachers among other instructions and requests.

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Key Verses

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, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe.  The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.  After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven. (1:3)

We must pay the most careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away.  For since the message spoken through angels was binding, and every violation and disobedience received its just punishment, how shall we escape if we ignore so great a salvation?  This salvation, which was first announced by the Lord, was confirmed to us by those who heard him.  God also testified to it by signs, wonders and various miracles, and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will. (2:1-4)

Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess.  For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.  Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. (4:14-16)

Therefore let us move beyond the elementary teachings about Christ and be taken forward to maturity, not laying again the foundation of repentance from acts that lead to death, and of faith in God. (6:1)

Now there have been many of those priests, since death prevented them from continuing in office; but because Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood.  Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them.  Such a high priest truly meets our need—one who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens.  Unlike the other high priests, he does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people.  He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself.  For the law appoints as high priests men in all their weakness; but the oath, which came after the law, appointed the Son, who has been made perfect forever. (7:23-28)

Now the main point of what we are saying is this: We do have such a high priest, who sat down at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, and who serves in the sanctuary, the true tabernacle set up by the Lord, not by a mere human being. (8:1-2)

For Christ did not enter a sanctuary made with human hands that was only a copy of the true one; he entered heaven itself, now to appear for us in God’s presence.  Nor did he enter heaven to offer himself again and again, the way the high priest enters the Most Holy Place every year with blood that is not his own.  Otherwise Christ would have had to suffer many times since the creation of the world.  But he has appeared once for all at the culmination of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself.  Just as people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him. (9:24-28)

Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins.  But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, and since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool.  For by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy. (10:11-14)

Key Chapter:  Chapter 11 - The Hall of Faith:  Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see...  All these people were still living by faith when they died.  They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth.  People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own.  If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return.  Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one.  Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them...  Women received back their dead, raised to life again.  There were others who were tortured, refusing to be released so that they might gain an even better resurrection.  Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment.  They were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword.  They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated—the world was not worthy of them.  They wandered in deserts and mountains, living in caves and in holes in the ground.  These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect. (11:1, 13-16, 35-39)

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles.  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. (12:1-2)

Keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters.  Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.  Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering. (13:1-3)

Now may the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever.  Amen. (13:20-21)

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Author, Date and Recipients

While we know that the divine author of the book is God Himself, the human author is currently unknown, since the author does not reveal his names in the text and we have no surviving exterior document that specifically names him.  The author was probably a Christian preacher who was well known to his original audience at the time.  He was very skilled skilled in the Greek and Hellenistic literary styles, taking the overwhelming majority of his OT quotations from the third or second century Septuagint (the Greek translation of the OT Hebrew).  He was a Jew, evidenced by referring to “our ancestors” and “the prophets” (1:1).  He was also acquainted with Timothy (13:23).  While his name is currently unknown, there is no shortage of opinions, suggestions and guesses.

Early African Christian leader from Carthage, Tertullian (~ 155-235 AD), who contributed mightily to the development of the doctrine of the Trinity, attributed the book to Barnabas, a Levite and frequent travelling companion of the Apostle Paul.  However, a contemporary of Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, credited the book to Paul himself.  As we mentioned in the “General Info” above, the Eastern churches generally accepted Paul as the author by the second century AD.  The primary objection to Paul’s authorship is the author’s statement that he received the gospel from those who heard it from Jesus (2:3), not from Jesus Himself as Paul declared in Galatians 1:11-12 and 1Cor 15:1-11.  Origen of Alexandria (~ 185-253 AD), an early Christian theologian, initially concluded that Paul was the author, perhaps writing the epistle in Hebrew with someone else such as Luke or Clement of Rome (~ 35-99 AD) translating it into Greek.  This could possible explain the “second-hand” nature of Hebrews 2:3 in that the translator may be explaining from the position of someone recalling the apostle’s teaching.

Other suggestions for the author have included Luke, Clement of Rome, Apollos (Ac 2, 18:24-28) proposed by Martin Luther during the Reformation, and Philip the Evangelist (Acts 8).  A number of others have been suggested in modern times, but none have gained traction due to the absence of support throughout church history.  Origen’s famous statement that only God knows the human author of Hebrews is still true today.

Date and Recipients

The original recipients of the epistle were Jews who had recently converted to Christianity and probably lived outside of Palestine, perhaps residing in Rome and other areas.  Allusions to the book of Hebrews first appeared in the First Epistle of Clement, who lived in Rome.  This also is consistent with the most popular proposals for the time frame of the book, early to late 60s AD. 

Some scholars date the book after the fall of Jerusalem and destruction of the Temple in 70 AD since internal references to the sacrificial system refer to the tabernacle rather than the temple.  Yet, there is no mention in the book of the Temple being destroyed, one of the most important events in Jewish history.  In addition, the various Levite rituals associated with the Temple are consistently referred to in the present tense.  These would have already ceased if the Temple was no longer standing.  Finally, the destruction of the Temple would also have provided irrefutable evidence for his argument that the eternal High Priestly work of Christ was far superior to the temporary nature of the OT sacrificial system, so it appears highly unlikely that the author would have failed to note the event if it had already occurred.

Other internal evidence supports this conclusion.  Hebrews 10:32–34 describes the persecution endured by the original recipients.  It mentions loss of liberty and having their property confiscated, but says nothing about loss of life.  Hebrews 12:4 confirms that the recipients had “not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood”.  These circumstances are consistent with the edict of Claudius in 49 AD that banned early Christians from the city of Rome, in which many believers were forced to forfeit their property rights.  The author then warned of greater tests ahead, a likely reference to the persecutions underway during the reign of Nero (54-68 AD).  If this assumption is accurate, we can propose of date of writing for Hebrews of ~62-69 AD.  Nero’s reign began at age 16 and he initially instituted needed reforms (even pardoning some political enemies and banning capitol punishment), but his policies became very unpopular.  By 64 AD, conditions in Rome had deteriorated to such a degree, rumors have it that he set fire to the city of Rome to distract from his disastrous rule, although there appears to be little, if no evidence for the charge.  He also used the Christians as a scapegoat, blaming them for the fires.  Thus, the martyrdom of Christians under Nero began.  In 67 AD, the Apostle Paul was beheaded under orders by Nero.  Nero was forced to flee the city and died at the age of 30 in 68 AD.

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Historical Background

Since the author of Hebrews is unknown, the historical background of the epistle is closely tied to its original audience.  As we noted under “Date and Recipients” above, the epistle was written to newly converted Christians, many from Judaism, who likely resided in or near Rome and likely worshiped in house churches.  We also gave a brief summary of the historical and political background of the times.

The Christian community was founded in the 30s AD with the birth of the Christian Church at Pentecost (Acts 2), in which “there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven” (Ac 2:5).  Acts 2:10 tells us that, among the crowd were “visitors from Rome”, so the Roman church would have originated from those visitors returning home and initially forming a number of house churches in the city.  Encyclopedias record that at this time, Rome had over a million people, including an estimated large population of Jews (40,000–60,000).  Early believers had, for the most part, demonstrated courage and endurance (10:32–34), but by the time that Hebrews was written, the spiritual enthusiasm of some had grown cold and were no longer progressing in their faith (5:11–14), and their theological perspective was skewed (2:1).  Some had even abandoned Christ and the church (6:4–8).

As Christianity continued to spread throughout the Mediterranean world, the earliest followers of Jesus Christ faced serious challenges from the Jews that remained in Judaism.  The Jewish religious leaders saw them as a threat to their perceived authority over the OT Law and the temple worship system.  Others in Judaism held interpretations of many of the OT scriptures that conflicted with beliefs of the new Christian movement, including rejecting Jesus as the Messiah.  In addition, the secular society held views that, for the most part, misunderstood and distrusted both the Christians and Jews.  The Hellenists, those who were steeped in Greek thoughts and customs, considered both Christians and Judaists to be “atheists” because they did not believe in the Greek or Roman gods.  Those who converted to Christianity (placed their faith in Christ) from either pagan or Judaist backgrounds often paid a very high price, including loss of their jobs, friend and family severances, and other social discriminations.  As the Christian movement progressed, this persecution often escalated to forfeiture of life itself.

The believers to whom the epistle was addressed probably belonged to a group of house churches in Rome in the early 60s AD.  The Christian community in Rome was founded in the AD 30s when those present at Pentecost (Acts 2:10) made their way home.  Rome had over a million people, including a large population of Jews (40,000–60,000).  Roman believers had demonstrated courage and endurance (10:32–34), but by the time Hebrews was written, the spiritual fervor of some had grown cold (5:11–14).  Some were even considering leaving Christ and the faith (6:4–8), while others were contemplating returning to Judaism (10:24-31), yet the author expressed confidence that they would persevere (6:9-12).

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See the Timeline for the Epistles of Paul for additional context.

30 or 33 (1) Jesus’ Crucifixion and Resurrection, Pentecost
~ 46 - 48 Paul’s first missionary journey
~ 49 - 52 Paul’s second missionary journey
~ 53 - 57 Paul’s third missionary journey
~ 59 - 60 Paul’s voyage to Rome
~ 60 - 62 Paul imprisoned in Rome
~ 62 - 65 Paul released and goes on fourth missionary journey to Spain (according to tradition)
~ 63 - 69 Estimated Date for the Writing of the Letter to the Hebrews
~ 64 - 67 Paul imprisoned and martyred in Rome
70 Destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem

(1)  These dates are either one or the other (Nisan 14 Passover falling between Thursday sundown to Friday sundown on the Jewish calendar).  The earlier date is the most popular, but there are good evidences and arguments to support either date.

~ Dates are approximated.

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Themes, Purpose and Theology

The main theme and purpose of Hebrews are basically the same, that is the Superiority of Christ over the angels, and over the OT prophets, priests and kings.  That is to say, He is superior over all people and things.  In the process, the author also notes the superiority of the New Covenant over the Old (Jer 31:31-34 and quoted in part in Heb 10:16-17).  The author of Hebrews then adds, “And where these have been forgiven, sacrifice for sin is no longer necessary” (Heb 10:18) since Christ offered Himself as the one-time-for-all perfect sacrifice.  This superior Sacrifice by a superior High Priest is a closely related theme.

A secondary purpose was transitioning Jewish believers in Jesus from relying on the law of Moses or the old covenant to placing their faith in Christ alone for their salvation and deliverance.  Once again, this is due to the superiority of the Person and Work of Jesus Christ over the temporary Mosaic covenant.  This also involved the encouragement of the new converts who had begun to doubt whether they had made the right choice in following Christ, with some even returning to Judaism (10:25–39).  The author longed to reassure these discouraged Jewish believers that Jesus Christ was the true fulfillment of the Jewish OT religion, and to prevent his readers from falling back to their old beliefs and practices.

With the increasing persecution, some of the Jewish Christians became discouraged.  They began to doubt whether Christianity really was God’s new and victorious way to the eternal kingdom.  In their view, Judaism appeared to be as firm as ever, whereas Christianity appeared to be heading for disaster.  Some had stopped attending Christian meetings and even given up their Christian faith and gone back to Judaism.  The letter to the Hebrews was written to reassure the Jewish believers and prevent them from slipping back to their former religious practices (Heb 2:1–4).


Regarding the various systematic theological disciplines, the vast majority of the Book of Hebrews contains a heavy dose of Christology, that is the study of the Person, Deity and Works of Jesus Christ.  This is evident from the first verses:  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, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe.  The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.  After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.  So he became as much superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is superior to theirs (1:1-4).

We also see a large portion of the book dedicated to Soteriology, the branch of systematic theology that examines the doctrine of salvation, including man’s condition, God’s plan of redemption, and means of atonement.  This is presented by comparing the permanent, superior work of Christ as our Perfect High Priest under the New Covenant with that of the temporary Old Covenant sacrificial system (chapters 3-10).  Christ was able to defeat sin and death permanently for all those who place their trust in Him (5:7-10).

In addition, there is also an Eschatological theological aspect to the book.  Eschatology is the study of the end times.  The author notes that Christ did away with the ultimate penalty of sin (for believers) at his first coming, and that He will fully consummate this salvation when He returns in the future (9:26-28).

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 Interpretation Hints and Challenges

Due to the number and complexity of the interpretive difficulties in the Book of Hebrews, we've split this chapter into multiple pages.  Our main Hebrews interpretive page is found at:

Solving Interpretive Challenges in the Book of Hebrews

The remote page contains treatments for many of the difficulties found in the book, plus multiple links to examinations of additional complex questions.

The list of questions includes:

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The central theme of the Book of Hebrews is the Superiority of Jesus Christ.  In Hebrews, Christ, the Son of God is portrayed as superior to the angels (chapter 1 and 2), and superior to Moses (Heb 3:1-4:13).  Christ is then further portrayed as superior to Aaron, the brother of Moses and the original high priest of Israel, and an unending Priesthood in the order of Melchizedek (Heb 4:14-7:28; see also Gen 14:18-20).  Chapters 8-10 continues to describe Christ’s priestly ministry in terms of a superior covenant, a heavenly vs earthy tabernacle, and His superior “once for all” sacrifice with eternal ramifications.

1:1 - 2:18 Christ Superior to the Angels
3:1 - 4:13 Christ Superior to Moses and Joshua
5:1 - 7:28 Christ Superior to all other Priests
8:1 - 10:18 Superiority of Christ’s Priestly Ministry
10:19 - 12:29 Perseverance in the Faith
13:1 - 13:25 Final Exhortations and Benediction

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