Hebrews is not an easy book to understand. Part of the difficulty comes directly from some of the theological issues it addresses. But some of the difficulties come from the very nature of the epistle itself.
• It’s authorship is uncertain.
• Those to whom it was written are not clearly identified.
• Where was its author during the time it was written?
• What were the exact circumstances influencing the lives of those that received it?
• And, when was it written?
These are each important matters that affect how we interpret the already difficult theological issues.
Who wrote the book of Hebrews?
When it comes to the authorship of Hebrews we find that the book itself offers no name. It doesn’t begin as many other letters of its day such as 2 Corinthians by saying…
2 Corinthians 1:1 (NASV)
Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of god, and Timothy our brother, to the church of God which is at Corinth…
Oh, that it did. It would make matters so much easier. But, nowhere in its pages does it identify who wrote it. Instead, we must look for clues, hints as to who the author was. Clues such as people that are mentioned, topics that are discussed, writing style, and theological perspectives. Even so, there is no conclusive opinion as to who the author of Hebrews was.
If we go back into church history there have been numerous suggestions by theologians.
The book of Hebrews is anonymous, though its authorship is usually attributed to Paul. This caused its early acceptance in Eastern Christianity. Clement of Alexandria (c. 150-215 A.D.) refers to Paul as the author. Origen (c. 185-253 A.D.) concludes that the thoughts are those of Paul but that the phraseology and composition are those of someone who is recalling the apostle’s teachings. Many others are suggested as the possible author: Barnabas (by Tertullian), Apollos (by Luther), Clement of Rome (by Origen), Philip the evangelist (by William Ramsay), Priscilla and Aquila (by Adolf Harnack). A third-century A.D. document has Hebrews among the Pauline epistles but after Romans. The Third Council of Carthage (397 A.D.) mentions “thirteen epistles of the Apostle Paul” and then adds “one epistle of the same writer of the Hebrews.” Origen’s famous remark still stands, “Who the author of the epistle is, God truly knows.”
Criswell Study Bible, Hebrews, p. 1428
While we cannot say so with certainty, I tend to lean towards the Apostle Paul as the author. Without going into detail I suggest that he is the author because of:
• The general consensus of many of the early church fathers that he was the author (see Barnes Notes, Hebrews, p. viii).
• The author’s detailed familiarity with Judaism…its sacrifices, rites, Old Testament, etc. necessitate a person who had been trained such as Paul was trained by Gamaliel.
• The manner of appealing to the Old Testament and applying it is the same as the other writings of Paul.
• The reference to Timothy as a companion and friend (13:23).
• The style of writing. Even though it contains words and phrases not found in other Pauline writings…it follows the same basic approach to presentation of material which Paul follows…first giving the doctrinal basis then the practical application. The change in style can be easily explained by the fact that Paul’s other writings are to Gentiles, while this epistle is to Hebrews. He has adapted his writing style to his audience.
• The reference to being in prison (13:18-19,23).
• The doctrinal perspectives are the same as Paul.
• The time-frame for Paul being in Italy coincides with the writing of this letter…perhaps from Italy or the surrounding area (13:24; Acts 24:27).
Who were the Recipients of the book of Hebrews?
There are no references to Gentiles in the book. Problems between Gentiles and Jews in the church are not mentioned or reflected here, indicating almost certainly that the congregation being addressed was strictly Jewish. To these suffering Jewish believers and some unbelievers are revealed the merits of the Lord Jesus Christ and the New Covenant, in contrast to the Old Covenant, under which they had so long lived and worshiped…
Also addressed in the letter are unbelievers, who evidently were a part of this Jewish community.
We must understand that three basic groups of people are in view throughout this epistle. If one does not keep these groups in mind, the book becomes very confusing.
The MacArthur New Testament Commentary, Hebrews, John MacAruthur, pp. x-xix
When was Hebrews written?
Written between A.D. 33 and A.D. 70. After the ascension of Jesus…because our Lord is seen, seated in Heaven (Hebrews 10:11,12)…and before the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem…because the Priests are still making sacrifices, there.
What was the purpose of Hebrews?
To encourage Hebrew-Christians who were struggling in their faith because of:
1. the beginning of persecution for their faith;
2. nostalgia for the religious institution, traditions, and practices of their historic Jewish faith;
3. their incomplete knowledge of Jesus Christ (substance over shadow).
Albert Barnes helps us to understand the pull of the past that was in the heart of many of these Jews…
The general purpose of this epistle is, to preserve those to whom it was sent from the danger of apostasy. Their danger on this subject did not arise so much from persecution, as from the circumstances which were fitted to attract them again to the Jewish religion. The temple, it is supposed is evident, was still standing. The morning and evening sacrifice was still offered. The splendid rites of that imposing religion were yet observed. The authority of the law was undisputed. Moses was a lawgiver, sent from God, and no one doubted that the Jewish form of religion had been instituted by their fathers in conformity with the divine direction. Their religion had been founded amidst remarkable manifestations of the Deity—in flames, and smoke, and thunder; it had been communicated by the ministration of angels; it had on its side and in its favour all the and sanction of a remote antiquity; it commended itself by t he pomp of its ritual, and by the splendour of its ceremonies. On the other form of religion had little or nothing of this to commend it. It was of recent origin. It was founded by the Man of Nazareth, who had been trained up in their own land, who had been a carpenter, and who had ordinary advantages of education. Its rites were few and simple: splendid temple service; it had none of the pomp and pageantry, the music and the magnificence of the ancient religion. It had none of the splendid array of priests in gorgeous vestments, and it had not been imparted by the ministry of angels. Fishermen were its ministers; and by the body of the nation it was regarded as a schism, or heresy, that enlisted in its favour only the most humble and lowly people…
To meet and counteract this danger was the design of this epistle.
Barnes’ Notes on the Old & New Testaments, Hebrews, Albert Barnes, pp. xvii-xviii
J. Vernon McGee writes…
The Epistle of the Hebrews is of such importance that I rank it beside the Epistle to the Romans (which is excelled by no other book)…
This Epistle to the Hebrews was not accepted by the Western church for a long time, and the reason is found at this particular juncture: the church wanted to usurp the place of Israel. They adopted all the promises of God had made to Israel and spiritualized them, applying them to themselves and rejecting God’s purposes in the nation Israel. As a result, you’ll find that the church in those early days became actually anti-Semitic and persecuted the Jew! Therefore, to say that God is through with the nation Israel is a sad blunder, and I trust that this epistle may be helpful in our understanding the great truth that a Hebrew is a Hebrew, and when he becomes a Christian, he is still a Hebrew. When any person becomes a child of God, it does not change his nationality at all, but it brings him into a new body of believers called the church…
We need to keep in mind that this epistle was directed to Hebrew believers who stood at the juncture of two great dispensations. This dispensation of law had come to an end. The sacrifices in the temple that had once been so meaningful were now meaningless. What God had before required was now actually sin for a believer to practice, as this epistle will make clear. The Epistle to the Hebrews is addressed to Hebrew believers, although its teachings are for believers of every race in every age.
Through the Bible, 1 Corinthians-Revelation, Hebrews, J. Vernon McGee, pp. 502, 503, 505)
The readers were people under intense persecution for their belief. The whole book is meant to glorify Christ in such a way that their faith in Him will be strengthened and they will persevere until the end (cf. 2:1; 3:6,14). When we learn of Jesus through the book of Hebrews our worship of Him is lifted and our hearts sing out…Oh, what a Savior!
1:1-14-Jesus is Greater
Paul is going to present an argument that Jesus is greater in all aspects than any other being…of earth, or Heaven. This is very important to the first century Jewish mindset. The Jews highly esteemed those that God has used to speak to His people Israel, in their past. And, they also had great regard for those whom He had used to write the Scripture (Old Testament). Along with that, there had developed a system of theology that involved worship of angels. So Paul’s intention is to demonstrate to these Jewish Christians that Jesus far exceeded all of them. Jesus is greater!
Many Jews had a superstitious or idolatrous respect for angels, because they had received the law and other tidings of the Divine will by their ministry. They looked upon them as mediators between God and men, and some went so far as to pay them a kind of religious homage or worship. Thus it was necessary that the apostle should insist, not only on Christ's being the Creator of all things, and therefore of angels themselves, but as being the risen and exalted Messiah in human nature, to whom angels, authorities, and powers are made subject. To prove this, several passages are brought from the Old Testament. On comparing what God there says of the angels, with what he says to Christ, the inferiority of the angels to Christ plainly appears. Here is the office of the angels; they are God's ministers or servants, to do his pleasure. But, how much greater things are said of Christ by the Father! And let us own and honour him as God; for if he had not been God, he had never done the Mediator's work, and had never worn the Mediator's crown. It is declared how Christ was qualified for the office of Mediator, and how he was confirmed in it: he has the name Messiah from his being anointed. Only as Man he has his fellows, and as anointed with the Holy Spirit; but he is above all prophets, priests, and kings, that ever were employed in the service of God on earth. Another passage of Scripture, Ps 102:25-27, is recited, in which the Almighty power of the Lord Jesus Christ is declared, both in creating the world and in changing it. Christ will fold up this world as a garment, not to be abused any longer, not to be used as it has been. As a sovereign, when his garments of state are folded and put away, is a sovereign still, so our Lord, when he has laid aside the earth and heavens like a vesture, shall be still the same. Let us not then set our hearts upon that which is not what we take it to be, and will not be what it now is. Sin has made a great change in the world for the worse, and Christ will make a great change in it for the better. Let the thoughts of this make us watchful, diligent, and desirous of that better world. The Saviour has done much to make all men his friends, yet he has enemies. But they shall be made his footstool, by humble submission, or by utter destruction. Christ shall go on conquering and to conquer. The most exalted angels are but ministering spirits, mere servants of Christ, to execute his commands. The saints, at present, are heirs, not yet come into possession. The angels minister to them in opposing the malice and power of evil spirits, in protecting and keeping their bodies, instructing and comforting their souls, under Christ and the Holy Ghost. Angels shall gather all the saints together at the last day, when all whose hearts and hopes are set upon perishing treasures and fading glories, will be driven from Christ's presence into everlasting misery.
Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary, http://biblehub.com/hebrews/1-4.htm
1:1-3-He is Greater than the Prophets
Notice all the reasons that Paul gives to establish the fact that Jesus is greater than the prophets…
• Because He is the Final Word (:1). In numerous times past God had spoken. In a variety of ways God has spoken. But now, God has spoken to us in Jesus...and He is the final, consummate word from God. He is greater than all others that have ever spoken.
• Because He is the Possessive Word (:2). He was appointed the heir over all things. Many men have been used of God and belong to His family. But Jesus is the Son, He is the heir of everything that God has created.
• Because He is the Creative Word (:2). The world was made through Him (cf. John 1:1-3).
• Because He is the Incarnate Word (:3). He is the radiance of God's glory…(Ryrie Study Bible, Hebrews 1:3 footnote, p. 1837) "effulgence or flood of resplendent light. The word means an outshining, not a reflection". God shines through Him…because He is God in the flesh.
• Because He is the Divine Word (:3). He is the "exact representation" (the instrument used for engraving or carving, the marked stamp) of His nature (whatever God is, He is).
• Because He is the Sustaining Word (:3). His power holds all of creation together.
• Because He is the Sacrificial Word (:3). He made purification for the sins of men.
• Because He is the Finished Word (:3). He is seated, His work having been faithfully and totally completed.
• Because He is the Exalted Word (:3). His position at the right hand of the Father speaks of the majesty that they share, together.
1:1-3-He is Greater than the Angels
Notice all the reasons that Paul gives to establish the fact that Jesus is greater than the angels…
• Because His Nature is Inherited (:4-5). His name reveals Who He really is…the only begotten Son of God. Angels are the creation of God.
• Because His Nature is Worshipped (:6-7). Only God is worthy of worship…and here the angels are commanded to worship Him.
• Because His Nature is Divine (:8). There can be no clearer statement of the deity of Jesus than these verses. Jesus, the Son is directly and deliberately called “God”.
• Because His Nature is Righteous (:9). Only God is essentially righteous by nature. All other beings, which are created beings, are righteous by virtue of the fact that God imputes (places to their account) righteousness to them.
• Because His Nature is Creative (:10). Angels created nothing. Only God has ever created something…out of nothing.
• Because His Nature is Eternal (:11-12). Angels, like men, will live forever. However, they are not eternal…meaning that they have previously existed in the timeless past…having never come into existence. Only God is eternal.
• Because His Nature is Sovereign (:13-14). Verse 13 paints a picture of Jesus seated in the throne and all of creation being subject to Him. Only God is sovereign. All others have only the power and authority that He has granted to them.
The entire book of Hebrews is Paul’s assertion that Jesus is better, Jesus is greater than all others…on earth, and in Heaven. This first chapter makes that infinitely clear. As we read these verses our hearts should soar…”Oh, what a Savior!”
These Jewish Christians were going to need to remember what Paul is going to teach them…because difficult days lay ahead of them. And only He would be great enough to sustain them. Sometimes, you and I need to remember what Paul has written here…because difficult days lay ahead of us. Learn these lessons well. So that when you face those days…you will believe with all of your heart…that Jesus is greater than anything!
Prayer: Lord Jesus, help me to see You in all of Your splendor and glory...to worship You for Who You truly are.