Introduction to Hebrews

Well, this morning, we’re beginning our study in the book of Hebrews. And as we begin our study, of the book of Hebrews, some intriguing questions will come immediately to mind. Questions that are unique to this book, and that are different than any set of questions that we address in any other book in the New Testament. There are peculiarities about the book of Hebrews that immediately come to our mind when we ask some basic questions about: for whom it was written, who were the first readers, who wrote it, when exactly was it written, and what was the context of its writing? When you read the letters of the apostle Paul, for example, there’s a unique context. There’s a discerned audience. There is a clear understanding of how this letter came to be in the life and ministry of the apostle Paul.

When we read the gospels, similarly, there is a context. There are Authorial issues. There is the issue of the original audience. We understand this, in the book of Acts, similarly. Certainly, the book of Revelation is used in such a powerful way by John, the apostle, and the vision that he received on the island of Patmos. But in the book of Hebrews, we encounter a book that is so rich with necessary theological biblical data for us, a book that gives us so much of our understanding of the gospel. And we know very little about the book, we know very little about who wrote it or to whom it was first written, or the context of its writing in order to get into those questions. I want us actually to read from the text. This morning, as we begin our study in the book of Hebrews, we’re going to do something a bit unusual, and that is we’re going to begin and end it in the compress of just a few moments.

Actually, I’m sure there are many Sundays out before us in the book of Hebrews. But I want us both to look at the beginning and the end of this book together. So, we’ll begin in Hebrews 1:1-4. “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.”

Those of course are just the first four verses of chapter one of the book of Hebrews. And what we notice immediately is that in the book of Hebrews, we dove right into the deep end of the doctrinal pool. Whereas with Paul’s letters we have, in general, as the norm, a greeting, a salutation, some words of encouragement and exhortation, perhaps even an early word of correction. But in the book of Hebrews, we have this immediacy of going into the deepest issues of the Christian faith.

As a matter of fact, we are given a clue about the importance of the book of Hebrews in terms of how it begins. We read, “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers.” There’s an immediate recognition here that the church has fathers. There is a patrimony here. There is ancestry to the Christian faith. That ancestry is Jewish.

We have to look back to Israel and we look back to the Old Testament in order to understand the necessary context for the gospel of the Lord, Jesus Christ. And yet one of the greatest difficulties for the church, one of the greatest difficulties for Christians throughout the ages has been to look to the entirety of scripture. From the Old Testament to the New Testament, Christians look to discover an adequate and faithful understanding of how they are to read and understand the Old Testament.

Now, the book is entitled Hebrews, or to the Hebrews. It is identified as a letter in the subscript to the title as is found in the most ancient documents. So, it is an epistle or a letter. It’s a letter much like what we would find from the apostle Paul. Although, as we said, it doesn’t have the same kind of structure.

Well, at least it doesn’t have the same kind of structure at the beginning. It does have a very similar structure as we shall see at the end. But at the beginning, there is this dive into the deep, into the pool. When I read the opening verses to the book of Hebrews, my mind immediately goes to two very different books. The first of these is Genesis. We have a chronological reference in Hebrews, “Long ago and many times, and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers.” It’s the kind of declaration we find in the very first verse of scripture. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” Did you ever notice that the Bible doesn’t have a lengthy preface or introduction? That in the book of Genesis we’re right into it immediately? Here’s the entirety of the truth claim of theism, right here at the very beginning, Genesis 1:1 establishes the truth claims. And the very first few words of the scriptures, that there is a God and that He has created all. That idea is similar to the Prologue of John’s Gospel. My mind goes there immediately. John is in many ways, the New Testament twin verse to Genesis 1:1. When we come to John 1:1, we are told, “In the beginning was the Word, and the word was with God, and the word was God.”

We are also told that he was the Creator, the agent of creation. “All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.”

Now we come to Hebrews 1:1. “Long ago, at many times. And in many ways, God spoke to our fathers.” What are we to do with the Old Testament? Christians have struggled with this. We know that there are at least two disastrously wrong ways of understanding how Christians are to read the Old Testament.

The first, disastrously wrong way for Christians to read the Old Testament, is to read it as if it’s someone else’s book. There is the temptation that comes to the church. And as a matter of fact, it sometimes reflects the way we describe ourselves when we describe a Baptist church. When we say, “What are you?” We seek to be a New Testament church. What we mean by that of course, is that we are grounded upon the gospel of Jesus Christ as is revealed in the New Testament. It also means that we’re seeking to be a church that is ordered in accordance with the pattern for the church, for our ecclesiology that is set forth in the New Testament. But there’s a danger. Anytime we say, “We’re a new Testament church,” that can insinuate, that our Bible is the New Testament. It begins with Matthew. But our Bible is not just the New Testament. It begins with Genesis.

At the end of the book of Romans in the final chapters, Paul tells us that the Old Testament was given to the church for our encouragement. In our knowledge, there is no way you can understand the gospel of Jesus Christ if you don’t understand the Old Testament. There is no way we can come to understand the new covenant unless we understand the old covenant. The first disastrously wrong way, the church has looked at the Old Testament is to dismiss it. To say, “It’s not for us. It’s not to us. It’s not binding upon us. This is a book, a collection of books that is Jewish.”

Marcian, one of the most famous heretics of the church said that the God of the Old Testament is not the God of the New Testament. Very early on in the Christian Church, there arose the heresy that the Old Testament isn’t addressed to us. That is, it’s not our story. And the suggestion is even that there is a severe theological distinction in the presentation of God between the Old Testament and the New Testament. The early church very quickly came to smell the sniff of heresy. This is the aroma of deadly error. But that very idea has come back.

You will find theologians today, routinely on the liberal side, dismiss the Old Testament as presenting a crude and rudimentary understanding of God and theology. That’s disastrous. Equally disastrous, although less ideological, as the approach taken by many Christians who simply say, “I don’t understand the Old Testament. It seems alien to me. I don’t know what to do with the old Testament. So, I’ll just lean into the New Testament.” That is the first disastrous way Christians look to the Old Testament.

There is a Second disastrous way that Christians look to the Old Testament and it’s equal and opposite. That is, we assume that we find our primary grounding in the Old Testament. And that is not. So that is the sense in which it’s healthy to say, we’re a new Testament church. We are New Testament people. We are a new covenant people, but when we look back to the covenant of old, we do not look back with resentment or with a dismissive attitude, but rather we are to look back with gratitude to the realization that the old covenant was a necessary context for the new. As Jesus himself made very clear, our Lord did not repudiate the Old Testament nor the old covenant. Rather he, by his perfect obedience, perfectly fulfilled the old covenant. He perfectly fulfilled the Old Testament and it still speaks to us.

So, who were the original recipients of this letter? It’s addressed to Hebrews. So, our first thought is it’d be addressed to Jewish people. That doesn’t exactly fit the letter. This assumption doesn’t exactly fit for a couple of reasons that I will demonstrate as we’ll go verse by verse through the book.

Early in the church, the suggestion that this might be a letter addressed to those who formerly had been Jewish priests. The audience may have converted as priests from Judaism to Christianity. There were those who were of the tribe of Levi. They were priests. They had their identity and their function in the time of the old covenant as the priests of Israel. So how are they to understand the gospel? Well, what we have in the book of Hebrew is a massive, symphonic display of the fulfillment of the Levitical priesthood in and by Christ. But, you know, as tempting as it is to think, maybe in terms of some of the technicalities, what we have here is a letter to Jewish priests who have now become believers. That’s just too unique, and particularly for the audience to fit the totality of this book.

There are some interesting clues in this book. It’s written obviously to people who have a knowledge of the Old Testament. Not just a little bit of knowledge, but a great deal of knowledge of the Old Testament. These persons have a knowledge of what is called “Hellenistic Judaism”. The references within the book of Hebrews are to the Septuagint, rather than to the Hebrew Old Testament. So, it’s likely that this was written to a cosmopolitan audience made up, at least in part, of Jews who were Hellenized, when they were Hellenized. That meant that they had become a part of their Greco-Roman empire. Indeed, Greek was their primary language. And there are only two cities that fit that category. Those two cities are Alexandria in Egypt and Rome.

From the very beginning, the church’s encounter with the book of Hebrews, the suggestions have come that this was written to Christians living in Alexandria, or in Rome. And one of the clues internally to Alexandria, is that the most famous Hellenized Jew of Alexandria, was a man by the name of Philo. There are unsighted references to Philo within the book of Hebrews. But there are equally valid arguments for why it may well be this addressed to Hellenized Jews who were part of the Christian Church in Rome. The bottom line, however, is that it’s given to the church of the Lord Jesus Christ. It’s addressed to all of us.

It’s not just written in order that those who had been Jewish priests can now find their understanding of how the political priesthood is fulfilled, in Christ and by Christ. It’s not even just to early Christians who may have had the background of Hellenistic Judaism. Hebrews is given to all of us because it is incumbent upon all of us as Christians to come to an understanding of how we are to read the Old Testament; To understand the Old Testament and the old covenant, and who wrote it.

Well, we don’t know biblical author. The inerrancy of scripture requires that we affirm the authorship of every book as is attributed within the scriptures. So, we’re right to contend for the fact that, for instance, Peter wrote second Peter. The claim is made within the text itself. Similarly, evidence we find in the epistles of the apostle Paul. We see him as the author. Or we find very good reason to understand from the text that it was Luke who wrote both Luke and Acts. We could go book by book. The only book that would lead us to this particular quandary in the entire New Testament, the book of Hebrews, because there is absolutely no claim of authorship.

Now, when I am teaching and preaching the book of Hebrews, that there is an inclination, it’s kind of just right there. It happened to me before. I know it, I will often accidentally say, “As Paul says here,” but there is no reference to Paul being the author of this letter. As a matter of fact, the Greek structure of grammar and syntax and the expression that’s found in the book of Hebrews is not really characteristic of Paul. And I’ll tell you, what is characteristic of Paul? Every time Paul wrote something, he made it clear that he wrote it. I is because he was writing on apostolic authority. There’s another reason to believe that, almost certainly, Paul is not the writer of the book of Hebrews. That is because the writer of the book of Hebrews assumes second-hand knowledge.

In other words, this is what was revealed to the church that the author of Hebrews now affirms as true. The apostle Paul spoke of direct revelation, something very different. The apostle Paul spoke of his apostolic authority. He cites his apostolic authority. He bases his authority to instruct the church on that apostolic authority, which is completely missing here.

Other suggestions as to who wrote the book and the history of the church have included Apollos or Barnabas. Now those two men are interesting proposals. Luke also has been offered as a potential author of the books of Hebrews and Luke. However, he comes from a Gentile background. That’s a key to understanding both the Gospel of Luke and the book of acts. And so, it doesn’t seem natural that Luke would be the author of Hebrews. At the end of the book, there is a reference to Timothy. Which could well be that Luke was one of the reasons why we often, in the history of the church, see references, if not to Paul, then to Barnabas or Apollos or Luke.

So clearly, there are links to the Pauline circle, and whoever wrote this knew Timothy intimately and makes reference to him. But, you know, this is where we need to limit our imagination and trust that the Holy Spirit has given us all that we need.

Let me give you, a contrasting example. It’s important to understand that Paul wrote the book of Romans. It’s key to understanding some passages in the book of Romans because it is tied so closely to Paul’s spiritual autobiography. If you take Paul out of the book of Romans, it’s far more difficult to understand some of what the Holy spirit has revealed to us in the book. Since the Holy Spirit inspired Paul to write that letter to the church in Rome, and Paul wrote it with references to his own experience, his authorship provides necessary background.

It follows a certain chronology. Paul refers in the opening chapter of the book of Romans that he has been delayed. He has been prevented from arriving in Rome, even though he intended to go there. This explains the reference to the Macedonian vision in the book of Acts. It all fits together. We understand the context that helps us to understand the book of Romans. We do not have that here. We do not know the original date, although it’s clear we believe before the destruction of the temple in 70 AD since there is no reference to it.

We don’t know the author. We don’t know specifically, or for sure, the original recipients, evidently because we are not meant to know. We are not given that data in this book, because if we had that data, presumably we might read the book differently than the Holy Spirit intends for us to read it. The Holy Spirit intends for us to read this book as written to the church. As written to all of us with no general reference to any specific time, any specific author, or any specific context. And that’s how we are to read the book of Hebrews; understanding that it is our responsibility to come to terms and to come to a knowledge of how we as Christians are to read the Old Testament.

The affirmation we find here at the very beginning of the introduction is poetic. It’s beautiful. It’s soaring. It gets right to the incredibly high Christology the book of Hebrews contains. We encounter what we do not find in this form elsewhere in the New Testament. This is the symphonic, comprehensive presentation of what it means for Jesus to be the mediator of a new covenant. For Jesus to be our great high priest. Earlier this summer, in the hottest place— I’ll say on the record, I think I have ever been to— Palm Springs, California, I spoke to a large Resolved conference. This conference of college students, several thousand of them. It was so hot; my eyeballs were hot.

And these college students that come from all over the country to be here for hours and hours and hours of expository preaching, that defies the wisdom of the age. I preached one of my messages on Jesus, the great high priest. I began by saying it to these college students. “I know what you think and what you’re thinking is partly right, but it’s also very wrong. You think you don’t need a priest. When, if we do not have a priest, we are not saved. The reality is we do not believe in an ongoing human priesthood. But, if Jesus is not our great high priest, we have not been cleansed of our sins. The Old Testament has not been fulfilled. The old covenant has not been fulfilled and our sin is still upon us. Oh, we need a priest. And we need a priest, not only because of what Christ did on the cross, but we also need a priest who intercedes for us, right now; who intercedes for us at the right hand of God, the Father Almighty. We need, we are desperately dependent at every single moment in our lives on Jesus. Our great high priest, who is for us, right now. The mediator of a new and better covenant as the writer of the book of Hebrews will make very clear. This is our priest who in the incarnation became so much like us, that he understands us. He was tempted in every way as we are, yet, without sin. The writer of the Hebrews will make clear. This is a priest. Yes, a priest who fulfilled the Levitical priesthood because he entered a tabernacle, not made with human hands. But rather, on the cross he entered the heavenly tabernacle. And when our great high priest performed atonement for us, he did atone as the priests of old, with the blood of a heifer or a lamb. Rather, he shed his blood.”

Thus, he has become for us the mediator of a new covenant. Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers,” right here at the beginning of Hebrews. We had this absolute affirmation that God did speak through the Old Testament. That was his revelation that he spoke through the prophets that he spoke through the entirety of the Old Testament that he spoke through the sacrifices of old. That he spoke through the priestly ritual of Israel. That he spoke in the tabernacle. That he spoke in the temple. He did speak. He spoke it many times. He spoke in many ways, even a passing familiarity. The Old Testament reminds us of many times and many ways that God spoke.

My book on preaching is entitled He is not silent, a title I borrowed from Francis Schaeffer. That is the crucial fact for us; God is, and he speaks. Schaeffer’s book was entitled He is there, and He is Not Silent, and it had a such a massive impact on my life, back in the 1970s. I was a teenager. He said, “You see, if there were a God, a silent God, we wouldn’t know him. We have no ability to seek him out. We have no ability to come to terms with him. The only way we can know God is because he speaks to us. And this is grace and mercy.” Carl Henry, in so many ways, my theological mentor, a man not given to expression, was an absolute poet when it came to defining revelation. When he defined it this way, he said “That revelation is God’s gracious act whereby he forfeits his personal privacy so that his sinful creatures might know him.” Time and time again, various times, and in various ways, the one true and living God forfeited his privacy, that his sinful creatures might know him.

He spoke through a bush that burned. It was not consumed. He spoke through prophets. He spoke on a mountain that shook with fire. He spoke through tablets of stone inscribed with these 10 words. He spoke through the graphe, through the writings, the scriptures of the Old Testament. At one point he spoke through Balaam’s donkey. He’s a speaking God. He spoke to him many times and in many ways, “but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son…”

So the writer of the book of Hebrews, at the very beginning tells, us that the definitive revelation of the speaking God is in his Son. Now, again, we go immediately back to John 1:1. “In the beginning, was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God, Logos. Then, the Son is the Logos who created the world. And through the Logos, whom we come to know. Now we are told that God, having spoken to our fathers by the prophets many times, and in many ways in these last days, here’s the conclusion. In other words, there is not something else that is coming. That will become very clear through the book of Hebrews, as it lays out symphonically and comprehensively, the deep truths of the gospel. This is it. It is finished.

There is no mediation in terms of atonement for sin that is left to be done. There is no sacrifice to be repeated. This is conclusive in these last days; he’s spoken to us of whom he appointed him heir of all things.

The next time we are together, we’ll be following through these verses and looking at the Christology of the book of Hebrews. At the very beginning, we’ll come to understand what it means for him to be the radiance of the glory of God, the exact imprint of his nature.

God did not send the son in order to show us what he’s like. God sent the son in order to show us himself. Jesus isn’t like God, he is God. He isn’t merely a picture of what God is like. He is the exact representation of his nature. Hebrews chapter one is so rich with Christology. And we will see, verse by verse, word by word, what the writer of the book of Hebrews, inspired by the Holy Spirit, is telling us that we are to know about Christ, before he actually goes back to the Old Testament. Which is another reminder to us that we have to get our Christology right before we can get our Old Testament theology right. And, obviously, it has to be in the conversation because much of what we come to know of who Christ is and what Christ has done for us is revealed against the backdrop of the Old Testament. Christ’s fulfillment of the Old Testament. But we come to understand that we now read the Old Testament as Christians. But, we do not read the Old Testament as if we do not have the New Testament. We’re not reading the Old Testament as if we do not know how Christ has fulfilled these things. We are reading the Old Testament as believers in the Lord, Jesus Christ. And without apology, we have a Christological interpretation of the scriptures.

That’s why it’s so appropriate that we are now in Hebrews. After having concluded Matthew, of the four gospels, it is Matthew’s Gospel, that makes much this same point: placing the life ministry of Jesus within the context of Old Testament prophecy. Matthew writes, “These things happened in order that the scriptures might be fulfilled,” over and over again. We have in the gospel of Matthew, pointed reminders and very clear displays of how Christ has fulfilled the law, the Old Testament, and the prophets. Now we find the same in the book of Hebrews. But as we begin our study, of the book of Hebrews, I want us to look not only at the first four verses but also to look at the last chapter.

The book of Hebrews begins with this incredible Christology. This testimony to who Christ is, as we’ve said. It begins by diving into the deep end of the pool. We’re completely wet. There’s no introduction to get us ready for the deep stuff. We’re in it. But notice how it ends. In particular, look at verses 20 and 21, the benediction to the letter. Thirteen chapters later reads, “Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the Great Shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.”

If that doesn’t stir your soul, you’re untirable. We have the testimony to God who brought from the dead, our Lord Jesus, the great Shepherd of the sheep.

So, we go from Christ, being the exact representation of the nature of God, to Christ being the great Shepherd of the sheep. We have a reference here to the blood of the eternal covenant by which we’ve been saved. But the prayer is that God through Christ will equip believers with everything good. Why? That we may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.

I think it’s important to begin at the beginning and then to move very quickly to the end. Remember, as we are beginning our study of the book of Hebrews, to be recognize that we are studying the book of Hebrews not merely that we would come to a deeper understanding of the things of God. Not merely so that we can have in our minds a better intellectual doctrinal and theological framework for understanding the New Testament and the fulfillment of the Old Testament in Christ. Not merely so that we would be better armed, better equipped to understand the gospel. But, our study book of Hebrews should be in the background of the prayer that God will use this study in order that we may be equipped for every good thing. To do his will, which is pleasing in his sight.

This is rich theological material; incredible biblical material. It’s exhilarating. The study of the book of Hebrews is like looking through lenses, a set of binoculars, and realize when you put it into focus, things are a lot clearer.

But the ultimate reason we study not only the book of Hebrews, but scripture is in order that the Holy Spirit will work within us. That which is pleasing to the Father, and to the great shepherd of the sheep. in order that we would work his will.

Let’s pray together. Our Father, we are so thankful that you have given us this book. We’re thankful that you have given it to us just as you’ve given it to us without reference to place, without reference to context, without reference to the author, without reference to date. Father, may the absence of those things remind us emphatically that this is for your whole church throughout all the ages. It is to be read as addressed to all of us from the beginning until now. And Father, we pray that by our study of this book, we will indeed be able in a way we otherwise would not be able, by your grace and to your glory, to do your will. That which is pleasing in your sight. And we pray this as we begin this study in the name of the great Shepherd of the sheep, even Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.