Hebrews - Graham's teaching notes
Introduction and social context
I want us all to imagine that we are first-century Christians. We are Jews, our whole upbringing and thought processes are rooted in our Jewish culture and the Hebrew Scriptures (our Old Testament). But we have believed in Jesus and followed the teachings of the apostles. We are a small group of like-minded Christians in a hostile world.
What was going on in the world at the time, and how did it affect us? Let’s have a bit of history, so that we can put the book of Hebrews into context and understand better why it was written ( between AD62 and AD68)
Key events of the Roman and Christian world in that decade:
AD 62 Nero is Emperor and Festus is procurator of Judea. Paul is in Rome, under house arrest, he has written most of his letters to the various churches. James (Jesus’ brother) stoned to death about this time.
The highlighted gives us some indicators as to extra pressures on the early Jewish Christians in this decade, why Hebrews has been written, and why it has taken a particular angle which is different to the other Epistles.
AD 63 The great fire 18 July – There is an unprecedented period of persecution by Nero, particularly focussed around Rome. Some big names in the Christian world have been killed – James who appears to have been the leader of the church in Jerusalem was killed by Jewish authorities; Paul is also likely to have been executed, around this time, by the Romans.
Ironically Herod’s temple in Jerusalem is finally completed around this time.
There is a rise of Jewish nationalism – there must have been massive pride and celebrations at the completion of the Temple.
AD 65 The Gospel of Mark probably completed this year; a plot to kill Nero was uncovered.
AD 67 There is a Jewish revolt which is put down by Roman General Vespasian
But Vespasian shows unusual mercy with the leaders of the revolt (But the zealots don’t get the message, resulting in AD 70 in the sacking of Jerusalem, destruction of the just-completed temple, and end of the priesthood)
AD 68 – 70 Nero is sentenced to death and commits suicide; The Zealots rise up against Roman rule again, this time it is crushed mercilessly – Jerusalem is sacked, the temple destroyed (except for the “Wailing Wall”), and the priesthood disbanded.
(Josephus publishes “A History of the Jewish People” which makes reference to the crucifixion of Jesus and the deaths of James and John the Baptist.)
Is it any wonder then, that with an upsurge in persecution and a wave of Jewish nationalism that true-blue Jews are feeling the pressure to go back to Jewish religion, abandoning the claim of Jesus as God?
Becoming a follower of Jesus was a disgrace, turning your back on your family, your race and your ancestry. You were spitting in the face of all that was held dear by those who loved you. But you would have been welcomed back with open arms if you abandoned Christianity and returned to your roots.
The focus is Jesus - Jesus in the context of his society, his roots and prophecy.
This is a book of the Bible that can be a difficult read; it is quite repetitive and talks about Old Testament things in a very Jewish way. It can seem incomprehensible unless you know your Old Testament very well.
Author – unknown. Possibly Barnabas, Luke, Apollos.
Written in excellent Greek, but by a Jew with all the signs of a proper Jewish upbringing with a thorough knowledge of Jewish writings.
No doubt from the writing that the author was not a first generation Christian (an eyewitness) but heard about Jesus from first generation believers.
Audience – The readers were well-educated Jews who had converted to faith in Jesus Christ.
Entire scaffolding of the letter is Jewish history, theology and practice.
Where were they? Can only be guessed at - possibly Jerusalem, Alexandria, Corinth, Ephesus or Rome.
Many commentators say it was probably written from the community of churches in Rome (see 13:22-25 – “Those from Italy send you greetings”), but the Greek word here suggests that these Christians are from Italy, not in Italy, so suggests that the writer is not in Rome, but may be writing to Christians in Italy, Rome perhaps.
Date - It must have been written before destruction of Temple in AD 70
- all the references to the religious and sacrificial ceremonies are in the present tense.
- wouldn’t be written like this if the temple with all the religious ceremonies were still in place
Style - in some ways Hebrews seems to be written as a sermon or treatise rather than a typical letter (style of an orator)
- sentence structure and the use of classical Greek is very correct and formal. The
- the book ends similar to other epistles with the fairly common style of personal remarks, greetings and blessings. But it starts without any of the usual greetings which is odd. Is there a missing introduction? Or meant to be introduced by the messenger who brought it?
Getting our heads around the way the author writes
How can we think in the way the way the writer of Hebrews does? How can we understand the context of what he says?
Use of the OLD TESTAMENT
His source of scripture is our Old Testament
– he thinks in the context of what is written there, and quotes it many times
– he doesn’t need to reference it, as his audience will also know their OT thoroughly - there may be no warning that he is about to give a quote, at best he says “someone has said”, or “it is said”.
Your Bible will usually have foot, or column notes which tell you where the quote is from, so you can look it up.
There are hundreds of phrases and sections in the Old Testament which Jewish teaching traditionally accepted as referring to the Messiah, many of them not recognised as such by ourselves. The quotes in Hebrews are mostly ones accepted by Jewish tradition as being Messianic.
Use of the Septuagint
Watch out for the quotes not seeming quite right. Whereas our OT has been translated from the Hebrew texts, our writer is using the Septuagint – a Greek translation of the Hebrew from the 3rd Century BC, used by people who couldn’t read or speak Hebrew. The constraints of writing good Greek meant that the translation was not in any way exact, which explains the differences.
The 2 main arguments of the whole book:
* Jesus is the Christ (the Messiah);
* Jesus the Messiah is more than a man, He is God.
Just like in church, whatever the question, the answer is Jesus!
Opening verses of Hebrews (1.1-3).
Big theme – Christ is superior to all and everything.
Jesus is referred to as “the Son” all the way through chapter 1 – emphasising Jesus’ similarity/closeness to God the Father. Jesus referred to himself as the son of man, but talked always his “Father”. To be a son was seen as representative of the father.
The writer is basically stating Jesus’ divinity – logically, if Jesus created the universe, and is an exact representation of the Father, he has to be equivalent to God the Father.
Big theme – Christ is superior to all angels
Jewish thinking at this time had developed a theology of angels which made them much more than simply the messengers of God that we think of. They believed that angels brought the Old Covenant from God to the Israelites; angels controlled things like the stars and the never-ending succession of days. Angels had the duty to control the dew, the frost, the rain, the snow, hail and thunder. There were even “recording angels” who wrote down everything that happened.
The belief that guardian angels watched over people was prevalent.
The idea that angels were the intermediaries between God and man became more common as well.
N.B. the Sadducees didn’t believe in angels, just as they didn’t believe in the resurrection.
So there is good reason for the author to promote Jesus as being above angels, superior in every way. You can imagine how it would be easy for people to say that Jesus isn’t God, just a higher angel. In fact until recently that is what the Jehovah’s Witnesses said about Jesus, thinking of Him as the angel Michael.
Moses – 3.1 – 4.13
Big theme – Christ is superior to Moses
3.2 to 6 – Is all about word play. Verse 2 contains a short quote from Numbers where God declares Moses faithful in all God’s household. The writer plays on the word which can be translated as house or household, effectively making reference in this passage to the Tabernacle, the temple, and mostly to God’s household, as in meaning His people.
Moses was held in high esteem partly for building the Tabernacle, the first House of God. But Christ is the greater builder and faithful one over God’s household.
3.7 – 4.13. Here we have a parallel drawn between the Israelites being freed from Egypt, and all God’s people being saved from their sin. Here the word play is on the word “rest”. Moses brought the people out of bondage to the Egyptians to the promised land – their “Rest”. Jesus brings us out of the bondage of Satan to eternal life – our “Rest”
The warning is that just like the Israelites were prone to moaning and rejecting God’s
way, so can we. They wanted to go back to Egypt – the Christians may be wanting to go back to their Judaism. Rejecting God means failing to reach the promised land – eternal life.
Priesthood – 4.14 – 8.5
Big theme – Christ is our high priest, greater than all others
Jesus not described as our priest anywhere else in the New Testament
This section of Hebrews is long and complicated. It points out the weaknesses of the Jewish priesthood, and how Jesus is the perfect High priest for us.
4.14 – 5.10 is the introduction to the idea. BUT from 5.7 to 6.12 the writer diverts for a while, and uses styles and phrases used by Greek philosophers. It’s like he’s saying “this next bit is very grown-up, but you need to be able to take it! Stay with me and don’t give up! Definitely into Orator mode!
6.4 - 6.12, he shows his concern that if they fall away there will be no return, but is confident in them.
From 6.13 onwards he slips almost seamlessly back to the theme he started, Jesus’
priesthood “in the order of Melchizedek”. The author is now using Jewish argument and logic to build his case. This phrase is from Psalm 110 – ‘The LORD has sworn and will not change his mind: "You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek."’
The writer to the Hebrews actually gives a bit more info on Melchizedek than the Old Testament. Genesis 14.1-24 tells the story of Abram’s nephew Lot being captured by enemies when the city of Sodom (amongst others) was attacked. Abram chased the attackers and recaptured everything lost by Sodom and the other cities that had been attacked. Abram is then blessed by Melchizedek, the King and High Priest of Salem. Salem is almost certainly Jerusalem. And Salem is also the Hebrew word “shalom” – peace.
So Melchizedek is ambiguous, with no genealogy or explanation – he just appears and is not mentioned again – he is seen as an echo of Christ, someone who was greater than Abraham, Moses and David.
The argument made in Hebrews here, is that Melchizedek came before Abraham, was greater than Abraham, and therefore was greater than all the Levite priests that came as descendants of Abraham. The reference to the Messiah being a Priest in the order of Melchizedek means that Jesus has that same role of Priest-King, leapfrogging the whole system of priesthood set up in Exodus 29.
A Summary of the argument of Jesus as High Priest section is in chapter 7.23-25.
A new Covenant 8.6 – 8.13
Big theme – The Old Covenant has been replaced by a new, better one
The writer slips seamlessly from the argument of Jesus as our high Priest, into Jesus bringing in a New Covenant.
8.6 – “the ministry Jesus has received is as superior to theirs as the covenant of which
he is mediator is superior to the old one”
The argument here is that our access to God has changed. The system of blood sacrifices was never enough, so the Old Covenant was insufficient just like the temple priests are insufficient.
Jeremiah 31.31-34 is quoted in full, as a prophecy clearly pointing to the New Covenant
A new sacrifice 9.1 – 10.18
Big theme – There has been one sacrifice for all, for all time
Chapter 9.7 – 10 As if you haven’t had enough of priests and temple worship! This is another long section where the writer goes through the system of rituals and sacrifices at the temple in some depth. If you take the time to read this carefully and think about the temple sacrificial system, you will see many parallels to the sacrifice of Jesus, and this is what the author is trying to lead us towards.
Chapter 10 verses 19 to 22 are well known, and summarise what the author has been trying to show over the last 6 chapters.
Big theme – Therefore...let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess...
The writer of Hebrews has argued that the priesthood and new covenant through Jesus means we can have confidence in the truth of our belief in Jesus. So again he warns, don’t go back to an inferior way; look at what you have been doing, it’s good! Just persevere in the knowledge that you have something so much better than that which you have left.
By Faith Chapter 11
Big theme – we have good reason to have faith
The best-known passage of Hebrews. Much easier to follow than most of the book!
The writer is still following a logical path. Having given the readers good reasons to stay on track with Jesus, Faith in Jesus is rooted in logic and argument as well. It is not a vague hope, or a leap in the dark, or just a wish for something to be true.
11:1 – “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” The word “hope” can be better translated as “expect”. Faith is being sure of our expectations - the forgiveness of sins through the cross, new life in Christ, indwelling of the Holy Spirit and life with Christ after death.
The example of all the characters listed here is that they had faith for something that they would not see themselves (verse 13). As Jesus said to Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen, yet have believed”.
Persevere Chapter 12
Big theme – Endure however hard it seems - God is in control!
Put up with persecution and hard times – the reward is so much greater. Be holy, i.e. set apart – different, showing the fruit of the Spirit. We do not need to fear Almighty God as in the days of old, our names are written in heaven!
But don’t dare to walk away!
Concluding remarks Chapter13
No big theme, an ending similar to other NT letters
Here we have final concluding exhortations and encouragements (13:11-14).
There is also a bit of context for the book thrown in for us – Timothy appears to have been imprisoned but recently released, and greetings are sent from “those from Italy” – the Greek word here suggests that these Christians are from Italy, not in Italy, so suggests that the writer is not in Rome, but may be writing to Christians in Italy.
There are several well known Bible verses in this chapter - 2, 6 and 8 are pretty well known quotes, and verses 20,21 are part of Anglican liturgy (if I’m not mistaken).
Bible versions – be careful, and use more than one and compare them.
Commentaries can be helpful, but don’t always answer your questions!
I find KJV with Strong’s numbers helpful sometimes.
The best reference is the Bible itself – cross-reference, see what else it says on the subject and don’t take verses out of context! END