This Sunday the church begins a new sermon series on the Epistle to the Hebrews. It is the only letter in the NT where the authorship is unknown and hotly debated. Scholars have narrowed the list of possible authors down to the apostle Paul, Luke, Barnabas and Apollos. Origen, a 3rd century scholar, probably said it best that ‘who wrote the Epistle, God only knows the truth’. But who were the recipients? Scholars were able to agree that the epistle was meant for a restricted group of believers known to the author, who looked forward to visiting them (13:19, 23). He had a good opinion of them (6:9), asked for their prayers (13:18) and gave them news concerning Timothy (13:23). He recalled the earlier days of their conversion and the persecutions they faced (10:32). He also remembered their generosity toward other believers (6:10) and the good leaders they had and whom they ought to obey (13:7, 17). And because the author moved so neatly within the scope of OT Scriptures and Jewish liturgy, like the worship of the tabernacle, the priesthood and its sacrifices, as well as people like Abraham and Melchizedek, Moses and Joshua and many other saints of the OT, many believes the recipients were Jewish believers and hence the title was given.
Judging from the arguments of the author, it appears that these Jewish Christians were in danger of giving up their faith in Christ in the face of persecution and returning back to their former ways of Judaism. Some might even come to the point of denying their faith altogether. But what hope would they have if they should give up the Son? With these concerns in mind, the author set out with the purpose to show the superiority of Christ over the ordinances of the old covenant. And to do so, the author has a unique way of quoting OT scriptures, i.e. he chooses to neglect the human authors of most of the quotations (except for 4:7 and 9:19-20) and ascribes those words to God, Christ or the Holy Spirit. Other NT writers normally ascribe their quotations to God when God is the actual speaker in the OT. The point the author is trying to make is to remind his readers about the divine authorship of Holy Scriptures. So whatever the prophets said in the past, those were really the word of God himself. And when we see how God continues his revelation after the prophets by his Son, we should realize that all Scriptures point to Jesus. So the thrust of the OT is to reveal Jesus as God’s sole promise of salvation. There is therefore no point for them to turn back to the old ways. The way out is to persevere in faith, as shown by the saints of the OT and Christ himself.
We may then ask: of what use is a book packed with OT exposition, Jewish liturgy and prominent Jewish figures to Gentile believers like us today? We first need to ask: are Jewish laws, sacrificial rites and festival observance still binding for the church? How can Hebrews help us deal with such questions? Hebrews does not answer them directly but shows us the way to approach it, i.e. OT ought to be seen and understood in the light of Jesus Christ. Hebrews affirms believers today of the superiority of Christ and how he came to fulfill the laws of the OT and brings about God’s promise of salvation to mankind. In him we find rest and hope of eternity as God intended from the beginning, even if we should live in a world of chaos and troubles today. We only need to persevere in faith and follow the examples of all the saints who had gone before us.
So as we begin our study of Hebrews, we may view the epistle around two great themes, namely the revelation of the word of God and the great salvation through the work of Christ. From Hebrews’ perspective, the word of God (1-6 and 11-13) began in the OT as a diversified word through many prophets and became personified in the person of Jesus, who is God’s greatest and final word to the world. This Word is like a double-edged sword, confronting the reader with the seriousness of unbelief and disobedience but promising hope and grace for the faithful. It condemns and convicts until the readers acknowledge the seriousness of sin and the immensity of grace. The work of Christ (7-10) brings to fulfillment the rest that is promised in the OT but not obtained. It is made possible by the sinless Son who willingly offered Himself as the one sacrifice that effectively takes away all our sins. This rest that is promised is now given to those who do not harden their heart when they hear the voice of God concerning his final revelation in the Son. So man is ignorant and needs God’s revelation in Scripture. But God’s revelation will convicts man of his sin. So man is therefore guilty as well and needs Christ’s work for the redemption of his sin. This is the gospel of Jesus Christ that we as believers ought to know. But when trials and sufferings come our way, we can forget about this saving truth and look elsewhere for relief and deliverance. And that’s why God gives us this great Epistle. There is no other way and hope beside Jesus. So let us keep faith in the Son.
July 24, 2011