1. Title. The title given this book in the oldest Greek manuscripts is simply Pros Hebraious (“To the Hebrews”). Inasmuch as the book deals to a large extent with the significance, for the Christian, of the sanctuary and its early Hebrew, or Jewish, Christians (see below under “Historical Setting”), the title is particularly appropriate.
2. Authorship. The authorship of Hebrews has been in dispute since early times. While many attributed the book to Paul, others dissented vigorously. Origen, one of the early Fathers, concluded his examination of the book with the declaration, “Who wrote the epistle, in truth God knows” (quoted by Eusebius Ecclesiastical History vi. 25. 14; Loeb ed., vol. 2, p. 79). Other Fathers thought Barnabas, Apollos, Clement, or Luke to be the author. This uncertainty in regard to the authorship of Hebrews was a major factor in the reluctance of many early Christians in the western part of the Roman Empire to accept the epistle as canonical. It was, in fact, not until the latter part of the 4th century that Hebrews came to be accepted generally in the West see Vol. V, p. 131). During the following centuries the discussion regarding the authorship of Hebrews ceased, and most Christians accepted it as the work of Paul. This view was generally held until comparatively modern times, when the question again came under scholarly discussion. As late as 1885 the RV ascribes Hebrews to Paul, but at the present time few critics hold this view. The evidences against the view that Paul wrote Hebrews have been drawn largely from considerations of the literary style and content of the book. Although it is possible for a writer’s vocabulary and style to vary with subject matter, these variances are largely in the technical terms characteristic of the different subjects about which he writes. His more general vocabulary and particularly the words that he chooses almost unconsciously in expressing himself, such as prepositions, adverbs, and especially connectives, are considered by most scholars to be much better indications of his style than is his technical terminology. When compared with the generally accepted epistles of Paul, Hebrews differs markedly, especially in the small, common connective words with which its author binds together his clauses. Another distinctive difference is found in the handling of quotations from the OT. The accepted epistles employ one group of more or less standard phrases to introduce OT quotations, whereas Hebrews uses another group. Also, the epistles show that the apostle was relatively free in his use of OT materials. Often his quotations follow the LXX, but at times he gives what apparently is his own translation of the Hebrew; at still other times he is content to give only a loose quotation. By contrast OT quotations in Hebrews are virtually always word for word from the LXX. From a broader standpoint, the general literary style of Hebrews is notably different from that of any of the epistles that bear the name of Paul. The style of the latter is marked indelibly by effervescent yet fervent passages that reveal the surging torrent of the author’s thoughts at the expense of polished literary style. Hebrews, on the other hand, presents a thoroughly organized argument, and maintains the highest rhetorical level of any NT book. This marked difference in style was noted by writers of the early church, for whom Koine Greek was the native language. Clement of Alexandria (died c. A.D. 215; cited by Eusebius Ecclesiastical History vi. 14.2-3) suggests that Paul wrote Hebrews in Hebrew, and that Luke translated it into Greek. Although such an explanation is ruled out by the fact that Hebrews contains a number of plays on Greek words that could not have been translated from another language, yet Clement’s statement is significant in that it implies the recognition that the Greek of Hebrews does not appear to be the Greek of Paul. Origen (died c. A.D. 254), one of the prominent scholars of the early church, likewise recognized the difficulty of harmonizing the style of Hebrews with that of Paul. His solution was “that the thoughts are the apostle’s, but that the style and composition belong to one who called to mind the apostle’s teachings and, as it were, made short notes of what his master said” (quoted by Eusebius Ecclesiastical History vi. 25. 13; Loeb ed. vol. 2, pp. 77, 79). Certain presumptive evidence in favor of the Pauline authorship of Hebrews rather recently came to light in connection with the discovery of the 3d century Chester Beatty Biblical Papyri (see Vol. V, pp. 116, 117. In the codex that consists of the Pauline Epistles, Hebrews is found between Romans and 1 Corinthians. Though this fact does not prove the Pauline authorship of Hebrews, it strongly suggests that very early in the history of the church there were those who believed that Hebrews should be included as a part of Paul’s writings. This commentary holds that though weighty arguments have been presented against the Pauline authorship of Hebrews, those arguments are not sufficient to offset the traditional belief that Paul is the author. Much of the difference in tone and style of Hebrews compared with the known Pauline epistles may be reasonably explained by the fact that these other epistles are addressed to particular church groups, or to individuals, to meet particular problems. Granted there are certain differences in literary style that cannot be explained on this basis, these differences may be reasonably explained on the assumption that Paul preached certain sermons on the theme of Christ’s priestly ministry and that these were taken down stenographically. As is sometimes the case with matter thus recorded, the final literary form of the transcribed copy may be strongly colored by the transcriber. It is easy to see how Paul might never have had opportunity to edit these sermons—he traveled incessantly, with the traveling terminated, erelong, by martyrdom. It is generally agreed that Hebrews was written before the fall of Jerusalem. Now, the number of church leaders was very small in the years before A.D. 70. Which of those leaders might have set forth an argument as profound as that presented in the book of Hebrews? By all odds the most likely person is Paul. To say that the author was an unknown Christian of that early period simply poses a new problem. How was it that a Christian possessing the theological insights and the logical powers necessary to produce a work like Hebrews should have been anonymous at a time when Christian leaders were so few and the record of Christian workers so full?
3. Historical Setting. The issue that produced probably a deeper cleavage in the apostolic church than any other was the question of the ceremonial law and its observance by Christians. The council at Jerusalem had freed Gentile Christians from its obligations, but psychologically the large Jewish-Christian community in Palestine was unprepared to enter into the same freedom. They doubtless felt that they themselves, because they were Jews, should keep it. Thus they failed to realize that for all men the ceremonial observances had met their fulfillment in Jesus Christ. This situation set up an unhealthy tension in the church, inasmuch as one large segment followed an elaborate system of religious life disregarded by the other. Paul and those close to him had the needed insight into the Mosaic ordinances and ceremonies to evaluate them rightly and give them their proper setting in the plan of salvation. Paul knew their transitory nature and that the time was past due for their abrogation (see Col. 2:16, 17). The Jewish Christian church, centered at Jerusalem, seemed unaware of the calamities soon to befall it. Jewish Christians still kept the feasts; they still sacrificed as in former years; they were still zealous for the ceremonial law see (Acts 15). They had but a faint conception of Christ’s work in the heavenly sanctuary; they knew little of His ministry; they did not realize that their sacrifices were useless in view of the great sacrifice on Calvary. These thousands of Jewish Christians, “all zealous of the law” (Acts 21:20), would be confronted by a crisis when the city and the Temple should be destroyed. This occurred apparently only a short time after Hebrews was written see Vol. VI, pp. 86, 106.
It was high time that the eyes of the Jewish Christians should be opened to heavenly realities. When their Temple should be destroyed, it would be needful for them to have their faith anchored to something sure and steadfast that would not fail. If their minds could be turned to the heavenly High Priest and sanctuary and to a better sacrifice than that of bulls and goats, they would not be dismayed when a mere earthly structure should pass away. But if they had no such hope, if they had no vision of the sanctuary in heaven, they would be bewildered and perplexed as they should see the destruction of that in which they had trusted. It was important that the Jewish Christians should understand these things, not only for themselves, but also for the sake of the Gentile churches throughout the provinces among whom the Jerusalem believers would be scattered during the coming war with Rome. It seems to have been in this crisis hour that the book of Hebrews appeared. It contained just the help needed: light on the sanctuary question; on Christ as high priest; on the blood “that speaketh better things than that of Abel” (ch. 12:24); on the rest that remains for the children of God (ch. 4:9; on the blessed hope that is “as an anchor of the soul, both sure and stedfast, and which entereth into that within the veil”ch. 6:19).
4. Theme. The book of Hebrews consists essentially of a comparison with, and contrast between, the symbols by which God presented the plan of salvation to His chosen people in OT times and the reality of Christ’s ministry on behalf of sinners since the cross. The experiences of ancient Israel under the typical system are set forth as a lesson and warning to Christians. Through the typical system and Israel’s experiences under it, Paul seeks to develop a more complete understanding and appreciation of the ministry of Christ in heaven above. The following analysis of the comparisons and contrasts he draws between various aspects of the earthly and heavenly sanctuaries and priesthoods outlines the way in which the apostle develops this theme.
The Earthly and Heavenly Sanctuaries and Priesthoods Compared
I. Moses and Christ Compared as Leaders of God’s Chosen People
“God, who . . . spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets,
Hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son” (1:1, 2).
“That first covenant,”“the covenant that I made with their fathers,”“my covenant” (8:7, 9)
“A new covenant . . . : not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers,”“a better covenant,”“the everlasting covenant” (8:8, 9, 6; 13:20).
“Because they continued not in my covenant, and I regarded them not,”“find -ing fault with them,”“he hath made the first old. Now that which decayeth and waxeth old is ready to vanish away” (8:9, 8, 13).
“Behold, the days come saith the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel,”“the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days” (8:8, 10).
“If that first covenant had been faultless,
then should no place have been sought for the second” (8:7).
III. The Earthly and Heavenly Sanctuaries
“The first covenant had . . . a worldly sanctuary. For there was a tabernacle made.”“Make all things according to the pattern shewed to thee in the mount” (9:1, 2; 8:5).
“The sanctuary, . . . the true tabernacle, which the Lord pitched, and not man” (8:2).
“Christ is not entered into the holy places made with hands, which are the figures of the true;
but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us” (9:24). “Having therefore, brethren, boldness to en- ter into the holiest by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way, which he hath conse- crated for us, through the veil, that is to say, his flesh; and having an high priest over the house of God; let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith” (10:19, 22).
IV. The Earthy and Heavenly Priesthoods
“If he were on earth, he should not be a priest, seeing that there are priests that offer gifts according to the law: who serve unto the example and shadow of heavenly things,”“many priests” (8:4, 5; 7:23).
“The priesthood being changed,”“Jesus, made an high priest for ever after the order of Melchisedec.”“Now hath he obtained a more excellent ministry, by how much also he is the mediator of a better covenant, which was es- tablished upon better promises” (7:12; 6:20;8:6).
“Every high priest taken from among men is ordained for men in things pertaining to God” (5:1).
“So also Christ glorified not himself to be made an high priest; but he that said unto him, Thou art my Son, to day have I begotten thee” (5:5).
“Those priests were made without an oath [they were born to the office];
but this with an oath . . . : by so much was Jesus made a surety of a better testament” (7:21, 22).
“The law maketh men high priests which have infirmity;”
but the word of the oath, which was since the law, maketh the Son, who is consecrated for evermore” (7:28).
“They truly were many priests, because they were not suffered to continue by reason of death:
But this man, because he continueth ever, hath an unchangeable priesthood” (7:23, 24).
“If therefore perfection were by the Levitical priesthood, . . .
what further need was there that another priest should rise after the order of Melchis- edec, and not . . . Aaron?” (7:11).
“The law maketh men high priests,”“priests that offer gifts according to the law,”“the law having a shadow of good things to come” (7:28; 8:4; 10:1).
“The priesthood being changed, there is made of necessity a change also of the law. . . . There is verily a disannulling of the com-mandment going before for the weakness and unprofitableness thereof” (7:12-18).
“Every high priest is ordained to offer gifts and sacrifices:
wherefore it is of necessity that this man have somewhat also to offer” (8:3).
“Almost all things are by the law purged with blood; and without shedding of blood is no remission. It was therefore neces- sary that the patterns of things in the heavens should be purified with these;
but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these” (9:22, 23).
“If the blood of bulls and of goats, . . . sanctifieth to the purifying of the flesh:
How much more shall the blood of Christ, . . . purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?” (9:13, 14).
“The priests went always into the first tabernacle, accomplishing the service of God. But into the second went the high priest alone once every year . . . : the Holy Ghost this signifying, that the way into the holiest of all was not yet made manifest, while as the first tabernacle was yet standing: which was a figure for the time then present, . . . im- posed on them until the time of reformation” (9:6-10).
“But Christ being come an high priest of good things to come, by a greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this building; neither by the blood of goats and calves, but by his own blood he entered in once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us” (9:11, 12).
“ . . . daily, as those high priests, to offer up sacrifice,”“often, as the high priest entereth into the holy place every year with blood of others.”“Every priest standeth daily ministering and offering oftentimes the same sacrifices” (7:27; 9:25;10:11).
“Who needeth not daily, as those high priests, to offer up sacrifice . . . : for this he did once, when he offered up himself.”“But now once in the end of the world hath he appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself.”“But this man, after he had of- fered one sacrifice for sins for ever, sat down on the right hand of God” (7:27; 9:26; 10:12).
“The bodies of those beasts, whose blood is brought into the sanctuary by the high priest for sin, are burned without the camp.
Wherefore Jesus also, that he might sanctify the people with his own blood, suffered with- out the gate. Let us go forth therefore unto him without the camp, bearing his reproach” (13:11-13).
“For the law having a shadow of good things to come, and not the very image of the things, can never with those sacrifices which they offered year by year continually make the comers thereunto perfect. For then would they not have ceased to be offered? because that the worshippers once purged should have had no more conscience of sins. . . . For it is not pos- sible that the blood of bulls and of goats should take away sins,”“sacrifices, which can never take away sins,” sacrifices, that could not make him that did the service perfect, as pertaining to the conscience” (10:1-4, 11; 9:9).
“By one offering he hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified” (10:14).
“In burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin thou hast had no pleasure” (10:6).
“Wherefore when he cometh into the world, he saith, Sacrifice and offering thou wouldest not, but a body hast thou prepared me. . . Then said I, Lo, I come . . . to do thy will, O God” (10:5-7).
“He taketh away the first,
that he may establish the second. By the which will we are sanctified through the of- fering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (10:9, 10).
VI. Our Privileges and Responsibilities
“Ye are not come unto the mount that might be touched, and that burned with fire, . . .
but ye are come unto mount Sion, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenlyJeru- salem, . . . and to Jesus the mediator of the new covenant. . . . See that ye refuse not him that speaketh” (12:18-25).
“Whose voice then shook the earth:
but not he hath promised, saying, Yet once more I shake not the earth only, but also heaven,” “that those things which cannot be shaken may remain” (12:26, 27).
“God, who . . . spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets,
Hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son” (1:1, 2).
“Your fathers tempted me. . . . I was grieved with that generation, and said, They do alway err in their heart” (3:9, 10).
“Harden not your hearts. . . . Take heed, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief” (3:8-12).
“I sware in my wrath, They shall not enter into my rest. . . . They could not enter in because of unbelief.”“They to whom it was first preached entered not in. . . . If Jesus [Joshua] had given them rest, then would he not afterward have spoken of another day” (3:11-19; 4:6-8).
“There remaineth therefore a rest to the people of God.”“It remaineth that some must enter therein.”“Let us therefore fear, lest . . . any of you should seem to come short of it.”“Let us labour therefore to enter into that rest, lest any man fall after the same example of unbelief” (4:9, 6, 1, 11).
“If the word spoken by angels was sted- fast, and every transgression and disobedience received a just recompense of reward;
How shall we escape, if we neglect so great salvation; which at the first began to be spoken by the Lord?” (2:2, 3).
“For if they escaped not who refused him that spake on earth,
much more shall not we escape, if we turn away from him that speaketh from heaven” (12:25).
“He that despised Moses’ law died with- out mercy under two or three witnesses:
Of how much sorer punishment, suppose ye, shall he be thought worthy, who hath trodden under foot the Son of God, . . . and hath done despite unto the Spirit of grace?” (10:28, 29).
“By it [faith] the elders obtained a good report.”“And these all, having obtained a good report through faith, received not the promise:
God having provided some better thing for us, that they without us should not be made perfect” (11:2, 39, 40).
“Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses,
“let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus.”“Seeing then that we have a great high priest, that is passed into the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our profession. . . . Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need” (12:1, 2; 4:14, 16).
I. The Supreme Position and Authority of Jesus Christ, 1:1 to 2:18. A. His equality with the Father,1:1-3. B. His superiority over angels,1:4-14. C. The importance of accepting salvation provided in Christ,2:1-4. D. The purpose of the incarnation of Christ, 2:5-18.
1. The exalted destiny of the human race, 2:5-8.
2. Salvation possible as a result of the incarnation, 2:9-18.
II. The “Rest” That Remains to the People of God, 3:1 to 4:16. A. The faithfulness of Christ, our Apostle and High Priest,3:1-6. B. The failure of ancient Israel to enter into God’s “rest,” 3:7-19.
1. An appeal to faithfulness on our part, 3:7-15.
2. Unbelief the cause of Israel’s failure, 3:16-19. C. An appeal to enter into God’s “rest” through faith in Christ, 4:1-16.
1. Evidence that the promise of “rest” remains valid, 4:1-11.
2. An admonition to find this “rest” by coming to Christ, 4:12-16.
III. The Exalted Status of Christ as High Priest, 5:1 to 8:13. A. Christ appointed high priest by the Father, 5:1-10.
1. The function of a high priest, 5:1-3.
2. The appointment of Christ, 5:4-6.
3. Christ’s preparation to serve as high priest, 5:7-10. B. An admonition to acceptance of Christ as high priest, 5:11 to 6:20.
1. The slowness of many to understand Christ’s role as high priest, 5:11-14.
2. The writer’s confidence that his readers will grow in understanding, 6:1-12.
3. The certainty of the Christian hope, 6:13-20. C. Christ as high priest after the order of Melchisedec, 7:1-28.
1. The exalted position of Melchisedec, 7:1-4.
2. The Melchisedec priesthood prior and superior to the Aaronic priesthood, 7:5-11.
3. The Aaronic priesthood replaced by the priesthood of Christ, 7:12-24.
4. The efficacy and permanence of Christ’s priesthood, 7:25-28. D. Christ as high priest of the heavenly sanctuary,8:1-5. E. The new covenant, under which Christ serves as high priest,8:6-13.
IV. The High-priestly Ministry of Christ, 9:1 to 10:22. A. A description of the earthly sanctuary and its services,9:1-7. B. The typical significance of the earthly sanctuary,9:8-14. C. Christ as mediator of the new covenant, 9:15-28.
1. Ratification of the old covenant and dedication of its sanctuary by blood, 9:15-22.
2. The blood of Christ makes the new covenant effective, 9:23-28. D. Christ’s sacrifice superior to animal sacrifices, 10:1-22.
1. The ineffectiveness of animal sacrifices, 10:1-4.
2. The efficacy and permanence of Christ’s sacrifice, 10:5-18.
3. An appeal to accept Christ’s priestly ministry, 10:19-22.
V. An Appeal to Faithfulness and Godly Living, 10:23 to 13:17. A. In view of the day of judgment and the coming of Christ,10:23-39. B. In view of the faithful example of the ancient worthies,11:1 to 12:2. C. In spite of trials and persecutions,12:3-13. D. In spite of temptation,12:14-29. E. With respect to specific situations in daily life,13:1-17.
VI. Apostolic Benediction and Personal Salutation,13:18-25.