by John W. Ritenbaugh
The author’s exhortation in Hebrews 13:1-13 makes this appeal to the members of God’s church:
Let brotherly love continue. Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some have unwittingly entertained angels. Remember the prisoners as if chained with them—those who are mistreated—since you yourselves are in the body also. Marriage is honorable among all, and the bed undefiled; but fornicators and adulterers God will judge. Let your conduct be without covetousness; be content with such things as you have. For He Himself has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” So we may boldly say: “The Lord is my helper; I will not fear. What can man do to me?” Remember those who rule over you, who have spoken the word of God to you, whose faith follow, considering the outcome of their conduct. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. Do not be carried about with various and strange doctrines. For it is good that the heart be established by grace, not with foods which have not profited those who have been occupied with them. We have an altar from which those who serve the tabernacle have no right to eat. For the bodies of those animals, whose blood is brought into the sanctuary by the high priest for sin, are burned outside the camp. Therefore Jesus also, that He might sanctify the people with His own blood, suffered outside the gate. Therefore let us go forth to Him, outside the camp, bearing His reproach.
The author of Hebrews tells us in his own words at the end of his highly instructive but largely ignored treatise why he concludes as he does. In chapter 13, he encourages Christians to pursue purposeful, practical, and loving conduct that would produce unity among the brethren within the church as well as bring God glory before the world. He concludes that we are to conduct ourselves in this manner before all while supported by our relationship with Jesus Christ under the New Covenant.
The following summary is sufficient for those who know some of the background for the writing of the epistle to the Hebrews:
Despite strenuous Jewish objections to particular doctrinal positions and violent persecutions against the church in Judea, Christianity is the only religion in the entire universe led by a spiritual High Priest of the very highest qualifications and character. This High Priest experienced life as a human being, but He is now and forever seated at the right hand of the throne of God in heaven. The writer urges us to move forward without hesitation under His leadership, as there is no one better in all of creation to serve.
Christianity has always existed because it is the way of life practiced by the Creator God. All other religions are but futile attempts to dethrone Him and substitute a way of life that empowers people to live as they please. Jesus’ own countrymen strenuously resisted His teaching—though true in every point—to the point that they murdered Him, but the Father resurrected Him. Jesus carried on through the apostles whom He had chosen and taught, and the Jews persecuted the apostles as they had Jesus. Other Jews, however, were converting to Christianity. Thus, despite the persecutions, Christianity continued, even thrived, within the church of God.
However, some Jews fellowshipping with the church objected to Jesus as the clearly acknowledged High Priest within the New Covenant and to circumcision not being required under it. Their arguments eventually had to be met due to their dividing the unity of the fellowship, as Acts 15 describes. During the Council of Jerusalem, the issue was decided. It took several decades, though, before a formal position-paper could be produced within the church. This need was met by what has been titled, “The Epistle to the Hebrews,” the great work we have been examining closely in this series.
Within its subject material are two major points: First, the author highlights the qualifications of this great, towering Personage who holds this vital office, making Him indispensable to the salvation of all of God’s sanctified ones.
Indispensable? Absolutely! Jesus Himself tells us in John 15:5: “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit, for without Me you can do nothing” (emphasis ours). His statement is blunt and unambiguous. For us to produce behavior and attitudes that bring honor to God, we must have a steady, living relationship with Jesus. We need Him as much as a bud needs a branch to produce fruit. If we fail to glorify God, what good reason would motivate Him to put us in His Kingdom? Therefore, a stable relationship with Christ is necessary for our salvation. He desires to give us many wonderful things.
Second, the book of Acts records the history of the times as Christianity began and grew. The cultural turmoil of the day and region focused largely on the forming Christian church. This fact spawns two sub-points: One, God never intended the Old Covenant and all its attendant features to last forever. He never intended the Judaism of the day at all. He announced the New Covenant in Jeremiah’s time, six centuries earlier, long before Jesus Christ appeared as a human being, preached the gospel, and founded Christianity among men to make its mark on the world.
Two, in the transition following the Promised Seed’s resurrection and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, church members needed explicit, uniform instruction from on high to confirm the direction Jesus wanted the daily religious operations of Christianity to proceed and for spiritual growth to take place in the members’ lives. Just as Leviticus contains detailed instruction for the daily spiritual activities under the Old Covenant, so those under the New Covenant needed guidance about what they should do day by day.
Those of us in the twenty-first century need daily instruction every bit as much as those under the Old Covenant. Mankind’s carnal makeup has not changed one iota since Adam and Eve. The epistle to the Hebrews contains that instruction so that those who have made the New Covenant with God can make the necessary adjustments to regulate their lives, live by faith, glorify God, and maintain their relationship with Christ while preparing for the Kingdom of God.
Before proceeding more deeply into the actual text of the epistle, and at the risk of repeating material already covered, we need to resolve a few items concerning its production. Doing so may help some understand its vital lessons more clearly.
Who Wrote Hebrews?
The following lengthy section may reinforce the beliefs of those of a conservative mind on the issue of Hebrews’ authorship, something only God knows for sure. The apostle Paul, who signed his name in a variety of ways to thirteen other epistles, did not do so at the end of the one to the Hebrews. No one knows the solution to this mystery with absolute certainty either, but the Bible provides some strong indications.
Thus, the answer to this riddle varies, tending to follow one of two general paths. If the researcher is more modern and liberal, his conclusion tends to be that the apostle Paul did not author it. His main objection—a valid one—is that the Bible makes no authoritative statement regarding Hebrews’ authorship. The more conservative researcher, especially one who leans toward evangelical beliefs, usually declares the apostle Paul to be the letter’s author based on several compelling inferences that together make his authorship wholly probable.
» That you may be mindful of the words which were spoken before by the holy prophets, and of the commandment of us, the apostles of the Lord and Savior. . . . And consider that the longsuffering of our Lord is salvation—as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given to him, has written to you. (II Peter 3:2, 15)
» To the pilgrims of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ. (I Peter 1:1-2)
In short, Peter confirms that Paul wrote to “the Dispersion” (Diaspora) of Jews in central and northern Asia Minor. These passages are probably the most persuasive, internal, biblical evidence of Paul writing to Jewish Christians. Otherwise, there seems to be no historical proof that Paul may have written Hebrews. These two passages are meager proof. Peter himself is not a strong candidate for its authorship, as his evangelizing was not widespread, nor did he write extensively (at least we have no record of it).
Acts 9:15 adds some support to Paul’s authorship: “But the Lord said to him, ‘Go, for he [Paul] is a chosen vessel of Mine to bear My name before Gentiles, kings, and the children of Israel.’” The book of Hebrews certainly falls within Paul’s areas of assignment from Christ, but its writing style is somewhat different from his other epistles. It lacks the normal, pedestrian roughness researchers expect of the style Paul used in his other letters.
Some Greek scholars have described the writing in Hebrews as “elegant,” the best-written among all New Testament epistles in terms of quality of grammar. At its beginning, it is organized as a treatise, a formal and systematic account of a subject, and reads as though it were a classroom lecture at a college. However, it ends as a personal letter from a church pastor, as Paul’s epistles usually do. Some think it was written by Luke or someone else close to Paul—even Priscilla has been suggested, but that idea is probably off the mark.
The following lengthy quotation is excerpted from An Exposition of Hebrews by Arthur W. Pink, a conservative Scot and a prolific writer. As a young minister, he immigrated to the United States and spent around twenty-five years pastoring churches in the Carolinas. He then returned to his homeland and continued writing for about another twenty years before dying in his native land. He left the following evidence, which shows that Pink was quite thorough and 180° removed from the conclusions of liberal commentators of our time.
To begin with, note its Pauline characteristics. First, a numerical one. There is a striking parallel between his enumeration in Romans 8:35-39 and in Hebrews 12:18-24. In the former he draws up a list of the things which shall not separate the saint from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus. If the reader will count them, he will find they are seventeen in number, but divided into a seven and a ten. The first seven are given in verse 35, the second ten in 8:38, 39. In Hebrews 12:18-23 he draws a contrast between Mount Sinai and Mount Sion, and he mentions seventeen details, and again the seventeen is divided into a seven and a ten. In Hebrews 10:18, 19, he names seven things which the saints are not “come unto”; while in Hebrews 10:22-24 he mentions ten things they have “come unto,” viz., to Mount Sion, the City of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, an innumerable company of angels, the general Assembly, the Church of the Firstborn, to God the Judge of all, to the spirits of just men made perfect, to Jesus the Mediator, to the Blood of sprinkling. Compare also Galatians 5:19-21, where the apostle, when describing the “works of the flesh,” enumerates seventeen. So far as we are aware, no other Epistle writer of the New Testament used this number seventeen in such a manner.
Again; the terms which he used. We single out one only. In Hebrews 2:10 he speaks of the many sons which Christ is bringing to glory. Now Paul is the only New Testament writer that employs the term “sons.” The others used a different Greek word meaning “children.”
Note a devotional correspondency. In Hebrews 13:18, the writer of this Epistle says, “Pray for us.” In his other Epistles we find Paul, more than once, making a similar request; but no other Epistle-writer is placed on record as soliciting prayer!
Finally, it is to be noted that Timothy was the companion of the writer of this Epistle, see Hebrews 13:23. We know of no hint anywhere that Timothy was the fellow-worker of anyone else but the apostle Paul: that he companied with him is clear from II Corinthians 1:1, Colossians 1:1, I Thessalonians 3:1, 2.
In addition to the many Pauline characteristics stamped on this Epistle, we may further observe that it was written by one who had been in “bonds” (see Hebrews 10:34); by one who was now sundered from Jewish believers (Hebrews 13:19)—would not this indicate that Paul wrote this Epistle while in his hired house in Rome (Acts 28:30)? Again; here is a striking fact, which will have more force with some readers than others: if the Epistle to the Hebrews was not written by the apostle Paul, then the New Testament contains only thirteen Epistles from his pen—a number which, in Scripture, is ever associated with evil! But if Hebrews was also written by him, this brings the total number of his Epistles to fourteen, i.e., 7 × 2—seven being the number of perfection and two of witness. Thus, a perfect witness was given by this beloved servant of the Lord to Jew and Gentile!
In the last place, there is one other evidence that the apostle Paul penned the Hebrews’ Epistle which is still more conclusive. In II Thessalonians 3:17, 18 we read, “The salutation of Paul with mine own hand, which is the token in every Epistle, so I write, the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.” Now, if the reader will turn to the closing verse of each of the first thirteen Epistles of this apostle, it will be found that this “token” is given in each one. Then, if he will refer to the close of the Epistles of James, Peter, John and Jude, he will discover a noticeable absence of it. Thus it was a distinctive “token” of the apostle Paul. It served to identify his writings. When, then at the close of Hebrews we read “grace be with you all” the proof is conclusive and complete that none other than Paul’s hand originally wrote this Epistle. . . .
Should it be asked, Why is the apostle Paul’s name omitted from the preface to this Epistle? a threefold answer may be suggested. First, it is addressed, primarily, to converted “Hebrews,” and Paul was not characteristically or essentially an apostle to them: he was the apostle to the Gentiles. Second, the inscribing of his name at the beginning of this Epistle would, probably, have prejudiced many Jewish readers against it (cf. Acts 21:27, 28; 22:17-22). Third, the supreme purpose of the Epistle is to exalt Christ, and in this Epistle He is the “Apostle,” see Hebrews 3:1. Therefore the impropriety of Paul making mention of his own apostleship. (Author’s original emphases.)
When Was Hebrews Written? To Whom?
Like the other epistles, Hebrews is undated. But internal evidence suggests that, since certain statements are written in the present tense, the Temple was still standing, and sacrifices were still being offered on its altar. Most commentators conclude that it was written by the mid-AD 60s, or at the latest, before the Temple fell to Roman armies in AD 70.
The title given at the top of its first chapter in most Bibles reads, “The Epistle to the Hebrews.” No truly reputable researcher claims this title is inspired or even present on the original manuscript. However, these facts do not imply that it is entirely wrong because it is a reasonable conclusion from evidence within the Bible itself. The author wrote to Hebrew or Jewish people.
What Are the Epistle’s Theme and Character?
A theme is a work’s primary idea, which the author develops as thoroughly as possible; it is the chief reason for the document or speech. Hebrews’ theme—the contrast between the old approach to God and the new, superior one—strongly suggests that the epistle was primarily intended for a Jewish audience since only they had actual experience with its subject matter and illustrations. Most Gentile converts had little background in its contents because they were generally unfamiliar with Levitical practices.
The epistle’s theme can be best understood in light of the cultural and religious upheaval in Judea due to the clear superiority of Christianity over Judaism, beginning with its central figure. At Christianity’s core stands Jesus Christ, its High Priest. He far exceeds, not only all high priests who had gone before, but He also surpasses literally everybody, including angels, patriarchs, kings, and prophets, regardless of the office they had held within God’s purpose. Virtually every chapter in the epistle pays homage to the Hebrew leaders of old, but they in no way measure up to Christ.
The author of Hebrews asks his intended readers, Jewish converts to Christianity, to compare the old with the new. If they were honest, they could see the astounding difference between what they had given up—Judaism—with what they had gained by choosing to live by faith in Jesus Christ. He, His way of life, and His promises are far superior to Judaism.
The author proves the superiority of Christ over the prophets, angels, Moses, Joshua, Aaron, and the entire ritual of Judaism. He exhibits His superiority over the entire panoply of saints listed in Hebrews 11. In doing so, he makes a distinct statement about the preeminence of Christ over everything and anyone that came before Him to do God’s work. In comparison to Him, who is Reality, all others are little more than misty shadows.
Hebrews features a couple of key terms: “better” and “greater.” They appear regularly within the text in reference to Christ and Christianity. Also, readers are encouraged to look forward rather than back—to the world to come, toward a salvation yet to be revealed, to the coming Redeemer, to the coming city of God, etc.
Everywhere the reader turns, he is drawn toward one overriding reality: Despite their God-given status, the Temple, the priesthood, the sacrifices, and the Old Covenant were all but shadows, symbols. Through Christ and His eternal gifts and purposes, Christians can now deal with far superior spiritual realities leading to full inheritance of the Kingdom of God.
As for the epistle’s character, that the author is unknown is its first and most apparent feature. The author’s anonymity allows the reader to focus on the main character, Christ. It also contains no opening salutation identifying its addressees, implying it is useful and necessary for all.
Its most valuable asset may be that the letter opens the High Priesthood of Jesus Christ to full view. The reader learns just how vital He is to salvation, as well as all the indispensable work He has done and continues to do for the called. The author first mentions Him in Hebrews 1:3, seated at the Father’s right hand, and in doing so, sets an immediate, emphatic tone for the whole letter.
Hebrews focuses on Old Covenant teaching more frequently, thoroughly, and powerfully than any other New Testament epistle, allowing the reader to see God’s purpose for both, as well as to make accurate comparisons between them. Within its teaching appear strong warnings against apostasy, the most frequent in the New Testament. It appeals to the brethren to remain faithful and steadfast even amid persecutions and the incursions of false teachers. The author emphasizes heavenly realities rather than the natural focus of most people, the earthly and carnal, to raise the reader’s sights to the more worthwhile goal.
Finally, the author himself calls it merely a “word of exhortation” (Hebrews 13:22), although it is also a warning and an encouragement. Overall, it is a positive exposition of God’s gracious providence in the Person of Jesus Christ.
Covenants Are Important to Salvation
In 2018, I finished a long series of sermons on the covenants God made with those He sanctified, primarily the Patriarchs and the people of Israel. He instituted another one immediately following Christ’s death and resurrection, in which the calling of Gentiles—non-Israelites—was an essential addition.
Covenants are essential to our spiritual well-being. God’s overall intention in making covenants is to provide specific, binding instruction about what He desires of those called and living by faith within His purpose. This is especially important to us because we are already on the path toward the completion of His purpose in our lives.
Recall the author’s conclusions to his epistle in Hebrews 13. We see that he is not looking for qualities the world extols and for which they reward with praise, prestige, and even riches. Instead, he seeks to encourage his readers to continue to develop personal leadership in terms of character and attitude molded and shaped in God’s own image: practicing brotherly love, extending hospitality, aiding persecuted brethren, maintaining marriage vows, etc. Those attributes bring glory to God, pleasing Him. They are intrinsic parts of the teaching contained within the covenant He makes with us.
A review of a few basic functions of covenants will set them firmly in mind and help us to understand the New Covenant. Much of the Bible’s recording of both biblical and worldly history revolves around three covenants: the covenant God made with Abraham, the one He made with Israel in the wilderness (commonly called the Old Covenant), and finally, the one the epistle to the Hebrews calls “a new covenant” and “a better covenant.”
The simplest definition of a covenant is nothing more than “a formal agreement between parties to accomplish a mutual goal.” Throughout the world, such contracts are commonly used in business for establishing and guiding the specific obligations of each party involved. Covenants are the primary way in which the Bible formally assigns overall responsibilities within the relationship between God and His people. To a more limited extent, they also serve as a general guide for all humanity, providing a basic awareness of its obligations to the Creator.
Converted church members gain a substantial advantage in having clearly assigned and defined responsibilities within a covenant. It removes all doubt about their obligations to God and fellow man in accomplishing the purpose God has called them to achieve with Him. Yet, if the called would follow God by keeping His commandments as He does, a formal covenant would perhaps not even be necessary!
The most basic requirement is that no covenant with God excludes this absolute obligation: Covenants with God—including the New Covenant—always require the keeping of His commandments. It does not matter if they are literally stated or not. Why? Because God’s overall purpose is not just to pay for sin but to eradicate it altogether in His people. However, even the best of us do not do this as well as we should. History shows that humanity has never demonstrated a willingness to set and follow such a high standard.
Only the converted—those genuinely living by faith—will set their minds to accomplish this towering objective. It is a serious business. Even as carnal minds are fixed on earthly things, the converted mind must be fixed on heavenly things to accomplish this lofty goal (Colossians 3:1-2). Such resolve can only be established within a converted individual’s heart. The unconverted person cannot do this because his carnal heart is always at war against God (Romans 8:7).
Another, always-present standard is that all covenants made with God are between unequal partners. God is the sovereign Creator who initiates the covenants. He makes our obligations clear, and He blesses when we fulfill them and penalizes when we break them. He is actively involved. The language of God’s covenants gives a distinct impression that He is conferring a good thing upon men. In them, His voice is transcendent. There is no bargaining with God; He sets the terms of the covenants. His promises and rewards for obedience are always generous but also require thoughtful, faithful devotion.
Why do the obligations within God’s covenants seem so demanding? It is partly because the agreement is being made with God. The First Party in the contract is no ordinary fellow human, and that makes the covenant intimidating. Dealing by faith with Him is daunting because there can be no fudging whatever on anything. He is always fully aware.
Attached to this fact is the overwhelming wonder that helps produce a realization of the purpose of the covenanted relationship. In accepting it, we literally become part of God’s personal Family. We must never forget that, though the standards seem so high, they are never unreasonable and always fall within what we can accomplish. Why? Because God is sensitive about losing any of us.
The twenty-first-century Christian can easily struggle in attempting to understand the epistle to the Hebrews because its subject matter is so tied to the Old Covenant and its rituals. Even those who attend a church regularly may have church pastors who are unfamiliar with the intricacies of the Old Covenant. They may also be somewhat ignorant of the history of God’s relationship with the Israelites. This is undoubtedly true of Christians of this world, who have written off the Israelites as cut off from God and “lost.” For these reasons, their preachers rarely teach from Hebrews. A sort of stand-off ignorance of the epistle prevails in the mainstream churches.
It is interesting that, when the author concludes his declaration of our Savior’s significant involvement in the history of Israel and now in the church, he does not sound a war cry, charging us with the responsibility of storming the battlements as Christian soldiers. He could have written, “Let’s go save the world!” or “Be zealous and take the gospel to all nations!” Instead, he exhorts us to engage in the mundane responsibilities of daily Christian conduct—all things that are well within the capabilities of every converted person. What he asks of us can be done.
I hope that we come to see Hebrews as a goldmine, a veritable treasure-trove of spiritual riches containing, among other things, an overview of thousands of years of the occasional appearances of our Creator and Savior to men and women and of His actions in support of the purpose He is working out. That same purpose is being worked out in our lives. Hebrews 1-2 are exhilarating regarding the future placed before us.
We must not allow the epistle’s many fervent exhortations to drift through our minds without heeding their appeals. As the author writes in Hebrews 2:1, “Since all this is true, we ought to pay much closer attention than ever to the truths that we have heard, lest in any way we drift past [them] and slip away” (The Amplified Bible).