This first lesson in the series establishes the historical and religious context for the writing of this book.
The first Christians were Jewish. The first congregation of the Lord’s church was made up of Jewish people. The first Scriptures used to prove Christ as the Messiah were the Jewish Scriptures which we refer to as the Old Testament. It took approximately ten years for the Apostles to preach the gospel to non-Jews (Cornelius and his household – Acts 10). In the first 30 years of Christianity you could be a Hebrew Christian and still practice your Jewish faith and traditions because the two religions were seen as different forms of the same thing. Eventually, however, this became more difficult for a variety of reasons:
- The Jewish religion became more hostile towards Christianity (Saul’s persecution, Acts 9:1ff).
- Conservative Jewish Christians wanted to keep Christianity within the context and control of the Jewish religion (Judaizers, Acts 9:1ff).
- The Roman government began making a distinction between the two religions (they had seen Christianity as a sect within Judaism). Only Judaism was a lawful religion within the Roman Empire, so Christianity along with other religions were banned by the government (Paul’s execution, II Timothy 4:6).
Because of these pressures, many Jewish Christians were faced with the decision to either return to their former religion or make a complete break with Judaism in order to fully embrace Christianity. They could no longer have it both ways. The letter to the Hebrews, therefore, was written to convince them that in becoming Christians they had made the right choice and they were to persevere in that choice (Hebrews 6:11).
The full title of this epistle is, “To the Hebrews.” It was not written as a general epistle to all Jews, but it could have been used in this way if necessary. This letter, therefore, was addressed to a specific group that the author knew and was planning to visit (Hebrews 13:23).
There is no definitive proof but there are several theories as to who wrote this epistle:
- An unknown writer who knew Paul’s writings and wrote this letter using these as source material.
- Barnabas – He was a Levite (Acts 4:36), so was familiar with Jewish ritual and Old Testament customs. He wrote Greek since he came from Cyprus. He was not known for his scholarity but rather as a man of action, and yet this epistle was written using an educated form of the Greek language.
- Apollos – He was a Greek scholar and orator from Alexandria, well versed in the Old Testament as well as Paul’s writings. He was well known and respected in the church, however none of his other writings exist and he doesn’t name himself in the text.
- Paul – This Apostle was familiar with the Old Testament and the Gospel. He may have first written it as a sermon (many references suggest an oral presentation, Hebrews 1:1). All early church fathers (Clement 156 AD-211 AD; Origin 185 AD-254 AD; Jerome 347 AD-420 AD) concluded that it was written by Paul. The best guess or theory is that it was originally written by Paul as a sermon, and later translated into Greek by Luke during or after Paul’s death in Rome (67 AD).
What we know for sure is that the writer knew his readers and their circumstances; knew Timothy; was well versed in the Old Testament and temple ritual; fully grasped the knowledge of who Christ was; and was an excellent writer. But as Origen said after his study of the question, “But who wrote the epistle only God knows certainly.”
- 96 AD – Clement, Bishop of Rome, quotes from Hebrews so it’s definitely before 96 AD.
- 70 AD – The city of Jerusalem and the Temple are destroyed by the Roman army. Since the book of Hebrews deals with temple ritual at length, the fact that this event is not mentioned in the epistle strongly suggests that it was written before 70 AD. Also, the work of the priests is referred to in present tense.
- 33-60 AD – Hebrews 2:3-4; 13:7 speak of leaders in the church and those who have given leadership examples, and have since passed on. This suggests that at least a generation or two have taken place since the initial establishment of the church in Jerusalem.
Most scholars put the writing between 63-69 AD because the temple is still standing and functioning, and there has been time for several generations of Christian leaders to have been raised up in the church.
Purpose and Approach of Hebrews
But I urge you brethren, bear with this word of exhortation, for I have written to you briefly.
– Hebrews 13:22
The purpose of this epistle was to encourage Jewish Christians who were wavering in their faith and contemplating a return to Judaism to remain faithful to Christ.
- They were discouraged by persecution and being forced to choose.
- They began to neglect the assembly, which is usually a first sign of spiritual illness.
- Many had already returned to Judaism (Hebrews 6:4-6).
- It was becoming clear that the Jewish nation was not going to embrace Christianity.
- Jewish Christians were going to be isolated (didn’t fit with Gentiles, rejected by their Jewish families).
The writer compares the two religions and challenges his readers to choose, once and for all, which is superior. In the epistle he compares Christ to various important features of the Jewish religion: the prophets, the angels, Moses, Joshua and Aaron, all who represented in one way or another the Jewish religion and its worship. Once he finishes his series of comparisons and arguments, the author lists a number of heroes who were persecuted and suffered for their faith, but persevered; this done as an encouragement for them to emulate. He completes the epistle with practical teaching about how to live faithfully from day to day as a Christian, and then finishes with greetings and exhortations.
Hebrews is divided into two major parts:
- The Glory of Christ (Hebrews 1:1-10:18)
- The Jewish people were used to the concept that God revealed Himself through various ways, people, angels and religious rites (temple worship, sacrificial system). God glorified Himself and His people through these ways, and the people took confidence in and gave praise to God for this interaction throughout their history. In this first part of Hebrews the writer demonstrates that no matter how glorious these things were, the revelation (uncovering) we receive from God through Jesus Christ is far superior. Therefore, in the first ten chapters the writer demonstrates how Jesus is more glorious than prophets, angels, Moses, etc. and thus superior and worthy to be followed and obeyed.
- The Glory of the Church (Hebrews 10:19-13:25)
- Once he has established the supremacy of Christ by demonstrating His greater glory, the author encourages the church to glorify its head, Jesus, by faithfulness to Him and holiness in Him. The conclusion, left unsaid, is that if Jesus is more glorious than the Jewish religion (including its prophets, rituals, etc.), then His church shares that glory and is therefore superior also. (The argument being: don’t abandon the greater for the lesser.)
Jesus: Greater than the Prophets – Hebrews 1:1-3
1 God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways,
“God spoke” – He was speaking, it was a personal and a conscious communication. “Fathers” were the various people, leaders, kings to whom God spoke throughout the history of Jewish people. “In the prophets” – God was speaking when they spoke. They (meaning the contents of the Old Testament) were the greatest single source of revelation. “Portions and ways” – Spoke through them in different ways: dreams, visions, writings – they sometimes gave immediate warnings, other times far off prophecy, and they performed miracles to authenticate their divine inspiration.
2a in these last days has spoken to us in His Son
“These last days” refers to the last phase of human history according to biblical chronology. There are three historical phases:
- Antedeluvian – From the creation to the flood (Genesis 1:1-8:22).
- Postdeluvian – From the first rainbow after the flood to the ascension of Jesus (Genesis 9:1–Acts 1:26). Both begin and end with men’s eyes looking toward the sky in hope.
- Last days – Pentecost Sunday to the Second Coming of Jesus (Acts 2:1–Revelation 22:21). The time that the church has been given to prepare the world for the return of Christ. In this “last time” God has spoken through His Son, not the prophets or in other “various ways.” This is the communication method from God in the last times. The revelation that He makes through His Son in these last times is greater than anything that had ever come from the prophets. Therefore, Jesus is greater than the prophets. Note that the writer isn’t saying that God didn’t speak through the prophets, He did, but Jesus was the person that they were speaking about. The writer goes on to list three things about the Son that demonstrates His superiority over the prophets.
1. His Pre-eminence in History
2 in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world.
An heir is one who inherits something left to him by someone else; usually the thing left has been gathered or built by one person and left to another to inherit. The writer here notes that Jesus is the inheritor of all things because through Him all things were created. This is not a new idea in the New Testament. Many passages refer to this idea of Christ’s exalted position (Matthew 28:18, John 11:3, I Corinthians 8:6, Colossians 1:16-17, Revelation 1:8; “I Am the Alpha and Omega”).
Jesus has a preeminent place in history because He is both at the beginning of history as the agent of creation, and at the end of creation as its inheritor (the rightful owner in place of Satan who tried to displace Him by seducing mankind). The prophets reminded the Jews of their past and spoke of the future, but Jesus is greater than they because He is at both the beginning and end of time, and the prophets lived only in between the beginning and the end of time.
2. His Person
3a And He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature, and upholds all things by the word of His power.
In discussing the personhood of Jesus, the author says three things about Jesus which no one could ever say about any of the prophets.
He is the “radiance of His glory.” Radiance = light or brightness. Glory = source/essence of God. Jesus is light from the source, not reflected light (like the moon). He is like “sunlight.” Moses’ face shone as the radiance of God reflected off of him. Jesus’ radiance in relationship to God is what flames are to fire, what sunlight is to the sun. We see this radiance in practical ways in His teaching, miracles, pure life; we see it in supernatural ways: His transfiguration and ascension. The prophets saw and spoke of this radiance, but Jesus was the radiance. Without Jesus the world is in complete darkness when it comes to God and salvation (“I am the light of the world” John 8:12).
He is the “exact representation of His nature.” Some translations say “stamp” or “imprint” of God’s nature. The idea here is that Jesus isn’t a copy of God, He has the same nature as God. The clearest example of this “different but the same” idea is seen in the difference between male and female. Men and women are different in gender but have the same nature. In the same way, when we see Jesus, we see a person separate from God the Father, but one that has the same nature as God. The prophets did supernatural things by the power of God, but they only possessed a human nature. Jesus did supernatural things because He had both a human and a divine nature.
“He upholds all things by the word of His power.” Upholds here doesn’t mean “carrying” like the picture of Atlas holding the world on his shoulders. It means that His power holds everything together so that nothing is allowed to totally destroy the world.
He also guides the world to its end according to His purpose, and He cannot be overtaken in this. All of this is done by the power of His word or His expressed will uttered. For example, in the beginning God expressed His will by saying, “…let there be light” and light appeared. Converting God’s expressed word into reality was Christ’s role in creation. When in the boat during the storm, Jesus calmed the sea simply by expressing His will through His word (the power to convert His expressed will into object reality), and the stormy sea became a calm sea.
To the crippled man in the temple He offered forgiveness with just His word and then to prove that He had power even over unseen things like forgiveness of sins, He healed him, again with just His word. The prophets did many great things, but the words they spoke were His words and the things they did were done through His will. Jesus was greater than the prophets because He was before them and after them; His personhood reflected God’s image, will and power; and finally, His position was greater than theirs.
3. His Position
3b When He had made purification of sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high,
The author describes the two positions that Jesus took that no prophet ever could.
1. As sacrifice for sin – the lowest position.
Jesus could have expressed His preeminence and personhood without leaving heaven, but He did so in order to deal with man’s sin.
who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
– Philippians 2:6-8
This reference to purification from sin is explained further on as the author goes into more detail about the manner and reasons why this had to be done. Here he merely mentions that Jesus did it.
2. Right hand of God – the highest position (authority).
Philippians 2:8 explains that Jesus returned to reclaim the position of authority He occupied before His humiliation on the cross. It is interesting to note that Jesus is first and last in a horizontal time frame, and occupies the top and bottom roles in the vertical positions of honor, the top being His throne in heaven and the bottom being the cross He suffered. So horizontally He is at the beginning and at the end, and vertically He is at the top and the bottom as well.
The prophets offered sacrifices for sin, but never offered themselves as sacrifice. None of the prophets had authority save what they received from God. Most tried to run from God. Jesus, however, gives authority from His position of power at the right hand of God.
The author begins his letter by exalting Jesus. He says that He is greater than the prophets because:
- He is first and last in history – prophets lived in between history.
- He is divine in nature – prophets are only human.
- He is supreme in authority – prophets have no authority.
No prophet could or ever did claim such things.
There’s really only one main lesson or application based on our study of the first three verses of Hebrews chapter one: listen to Jesus Christ! At the transfiguration the voice in the cloud said,
this is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to Him!
– Matthew 17:5b
He is greater than the prophets of Israel, and they were greater than any of the prophets of their day or ours because what they said came true. Jesus, by His position historically (first and last) and spiritually (lowest and highest) has the right and authority to speak as and for God. When our faith is weak, when we are searching for answers, when we are troubled or discouraged, what we need is not more time alone, a vacation or a break from church; we need to listen to Jesus Christ!
To a church on the brink of collapse, the author, without introduction or preamble, gives them the life sustaining words about the glorious Jesus Christ. We should remember this when we find ourselves in this position or are trying to encourage others to persevere in their faith.