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New Testament: Hebrews

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Summary

Saint PaulThe book of Hebrews brings a word of encouragement to discouraged Christians. The intended readers once had a vivid sense of God's presence and later showed bold support for others during an outburst of persecution. Yet as time dragged on, some began drifting away. The author emboldens them by telling of the way Jesus the pioneer went through suffering into glory, making a way for others to follow. As high priest, Christ offered himself as the atoning sacrifice, bringing others into a new covenant relationship with God. People are therefore called to persevere in faith, knowing that God will be faithful.

So What?

Hebrews speaks to people who find that daily life seems to be far removed from the kingdom of God. The author recognizes that the gospel's message may be glorious, yet life in the Christian community and the wider society is often discouraging. Through vivid images of Israel in the wilderness, the sanctuary and its worship, and a panoramic view of the whole history of Israel, the author shows how the message of hope can continue to motivate people to lives of faith and service.

Where Do I Find It?

The Letter to the Hebrews is the nineteenth book in the New Testament. It stands between the two sections typically called the "Pauline corpus" (Romans through Philemon) and the "Catholic Letters" (James through Jude).

Who Wrote It?

Hebrews was once thought to have been written either by Paul or a companion of Paul, since the author was a friend of Timothy, the friend of Paul (13:23). Nevertheless, the author is never named in the book and most acknowledge that the identity of the writer remains unknown.

When Was It Written?

Hebrews was probably written between 60 and 90 C.E. The intended readers were not eyewitnesses to the ministry of Jesus and lived in a community that had been founded some years before. The book addresses a situation of malaise experienced by Christians some decades after the ministry of Jesus ended.

What's It About?

Hebrews encourages dispirited Christians to persevere in faith, since Christ has brought them into a new covenant relationship and God will be faithful to them.

How Do I Read It?

Hebrews calls itself "a word of exhortation," which means that it is a sermon (Hebrews 13:22; Acts 13:15). Exhortation is strong encouragement, and the vivid images used throughout the book are designed to embolden people in faith. The book takes people on several journeys: through the wilderness following Jesus the pioneer (2:10; 4:9-11), then into the sanctuary following Jesus the high priest (4:14-16; 10:19-25), and finally to a celebration on the heavenly Mount Zion (12:22-24). If faith is the assurance of things unseen (11:1), Hebrews makes the promises of God seem tangible through the power of its imagery.

AUTHOR: Craig R. Koester, Professor of New Testament

I. Introduction (Hebrews 1:1-2:9)
The author engages readers with a vivid depiction of Christ in glory, notes how different this is from the readers' ordinary lives, then points to the story of Jesus, who moved through suffering into glory.

A. Introductory Description of the Exalted Christ (Hebrews 1:1-2:4)
The book begins with a vivid depiction of the Son of God enthroned in heaven, worshiped by the company of angels.

B. The Theme (Hebrews 2:5-9)
God promised people glory and honor, yet daily life often seems far from the kingdom of God. Readers must therefore find hope by looking to Jesus, who suffered on earth but was brought to glory in heaven.


II. Journey into God's Sabbath (Hebrews 2:10-6:20)
As followers of Jesus the pioneer, readers are taken on a journey like that of Israel through the wilderness, looking ahead to rest in the presence of God, before being reminded of God's faithfulness.

A. Jesus the Pioneer of Salvation (Hebrews 2:9-18)
Jesus suffered in order to make a way to glory for others, to whom he is a brother, savior, and merciful high priest.

B. The Faithfulness of Jesus and Moses (Hebrews 3:1-6)
Moses was faithful as a servant of God, and Jesus is faithful as God's Son, offering encouragement to all who belong to God's household.

C. The Promise of Rest (Hebrews 3:7-4:13)
People of Moses' time were promised rest in the land of Canaan, but they did not trust the promise and perished in the wilderness. This gives readers incentive not to follow the example of the people of Moses and to trust that God will truly bring them to eternal rest.

D. Jesus as Compassionate High Priest (Hebrews 4:14-5:10)

A high priest like Aaron had to show compassion for weak human beings, offering sacrifices on their behalf, and Jesus the high priest shows extraordinary compassion by undergoing severe testing and sacrificing himself.

E. Exhortation to Persevere (Hebrews 5:11-6:20)
The author warns readers about the danger of giving up on the message they received, while encouraging them to persevere in the confidence that they will receive the salvation God has promised.


III. Journey into the Heavenly Sanctuary (Hebrews 7:1-10:39)

Christ is the high priest, whose death makes full atonement for sin and inaugurates the new covenant, making it possible for people to enter God's heavenly sanctuary.

A. Jesus as High Priest after the Order of Melchizedek (Hebrews 7:1-28)

God promised that the one exalted to his right hand would serve as a high priest after the order of Melchizedek (Psalm 110:1, 4). Through his resurrection and ascension Jesus has fulfilled this promise, now interceding for others in heaven.

B. High Priest and Heavenly Sanctuary (Hebrews 8:1-6)
Earthly priests make sacrifices in an earthly sanctuary, but Jesus the high priest ministers in a heavenly sanctuary.

C. Mediator of the New Covenant (Hebrews 8:7-13)
Jeremiah promised that God would make a new covenant, and through the work of Jesus the high priest, God brings this promise to fulfillment.

D. Earthly and Heavenly Tabernacles (Hebrews 9:1-14)

Priests ministering in the tabernacle that was built under the first covenant offered sacrifices of atonement each year, but Christ has now entered into the heavenly tabernacle, having offered himself once for all as atoning sacrifice.

E. Eternal Inheritance (Hebrews 9:15-28)

The new covenant is like a last will and testament in that it provides inheritance as a gift. Like the covenant under Moses, this covenant is established with blood, though here it is Christ's own blood.

F. Jesus' Sacrifice Is Once for All (Hebrews 10:1-18)
Animal sacrifices were offered in an ongoing cycle, but Jesus offered himself once for all as the definitive sacrifice of atonement.

G. Exhortation to Draw Near to God (Hebrews 10:19-39)

Given what Christ has done, readers are called to draw near to God in faith, not shrinking back but persevering in hope.



IV. Journey to the Heavenly Zion (Hebrews 11:1-12:27)
Tracing the story of faith, the author leads people through the history of Israel to a vision of God's heavenly city, where the purposes of God are made complete.

A. The Faith of Israel's Ancestors (Hebrews 11:1-22)

Faith is called into being by the word of God and brings assurance of life with God, as can be seen in the examples of Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, and their descendants.

B. The Faith of Moses and Later Generations (Hebrews 11:23-40)

Moses, Rahab, the judges, prophets, and martyrs showed steadfast faith in the face of severe challenges, offering vivid examples of faith's power.

C. Running the Race of Faith (Hebrews 12:1-17)
Readers are pictured as runners on a race track, called now to run their own race of faith with the kind of perseverance shown by earlier generations, confident that in Jesus they too have a future with God.

D. Mount Sinai and Mount Zion (Hebrews 12:18-27)
At Mount Sinai people trembled at the darkness and gloom, but the heavenly Mount Zion is where hope for the future lies, for there the company of the faithful will gather in the presence of God.


V. Conclusion (Hebrews 12:28-13:25)

Hebrews concludes with comments about ways in which service of God takes shape in daily life and with final greetings.

A. Acceptable Worship of God (Hebrews 12:28-13:19)

Since readers have the hope of a place in God's unshakable kingdom, they can serve God with lives of service to others here and now.

B. Final Remarks (Hebrews 13:20-25)
Prayers for the well-being of the readers and final greetings bring the book to a close.

AUTHOR: Craig R. Koester, Professor of New Testament

Hebrews was written for a Christian community that had gone through several phases of development. First, the community had been established through the proclamation of the gospel by some Christian evangelists. Their message had been confirmed by miracles and a vivid sense of God's Spirit working (2:3-4). Second, the community had experienced conflict with others, who verbally abused them, took property, and placed some Christians in prison. Despite the challenges, the members of the community supported each other well (10:32-34). Third, time passed and members of the community seemed dispirited. The intensity of persecution and resistance gave way to a sense of dullness and malaise, and some were drifting away from the community (2:1; 5:11; 6:12; 10:25).

The traditional assumption is that Hebrews was addressed to Jewish Christians who were leaving the church and returning to the synagogue. Many, however, have observed that the book could just as easily address Christians of any background. The author never says that the readers were specifically Jewish. Hebrews often refers to the Old Testament, but the Old Testament was widely used by all Christians, both Jewish and Gentile. The readers were drifting away from the Christian community, but the author never refers to problems with local synagogues. What is clear is that the readers were discouraged and in need of encouragement to remain faithful.

In the early church, Hebrews was identified as a letter written by the Apostle Paul. Currently, however, most agree that Paul did not write it. Paul's name is never mentioned and the style is different from Paul's letters. Moreover, many now consider Hebrews to be a sermon rather than a letter. The book lacks the kind of opening salutation that appears in all of Paul's letters (compare Hebrews 1:1-4 and 1 Corinthians 1:1-3). The book calls itself "a word of exhortation," and this was a common way to refer to sermons (Hebrews 13:22; Acts 13:15). Since the author includes greetings from Italians, who are apparently away from home, it seems likely that the book was sent to Christians in Italy and perhaps specifically to Rome.

AUTHOR: Craig R. Koester, Professor of New Testament

Angels. Hebrews begins by showing Christ's superiority to the angels as a way of focusing the readers' attention on the importance of the Christian message (1:1-2:4). Some have wondered whether the author assumed that the intended readers were confused about the status of angels, making it necessary to show that Christ was superior. This seems unlikely since there is no evidence elsewhere in the book that angels were a theological problem. The primary reason for speaking of angels is simply to show the majesty of Christ, the Son of God. Another reason is to heighten the sense of urgency in listening to the Christian message. Readers understood that the law of Moses had been given through angels and that there were grave consequences for those who ignored it. Therefore, the author could point out that there would be even graver consequences for those who ignored the message about Christ, who was actually worshiped by the angels (2:1-2). Finally, however, mentioning angels at the beginning of the book anticipates the conclusion of the book, where the author speaks of the company of the redeemed in the heavenly Jerusalem, worshiping God in the presence of angels (12:22-24).

Introductory lines. Hebrews is often called a letter, but it lacks the kind of opening that appears in other New Testament letters. The standard letter format has a three-part opening: identification of the sender, identification of the recipients, and greetings (for example, 1 Corinthians 1:1-3). By way of contrast, Hebrews begins with a lofty summary of the way God has spoken in the past through the prophets and again in Jesus the Son. Many interpreters compare the opening of Hebrews to the openings in ancient speeches. Speakers understood that when addressing a group of listeners, it was important to engage their attention and to make them ready to hear what the speaker had to say. Hebrews does this by summing up the work of God and Christ in an almost poetic fashion that catches the ear and excites the imagination (1:1-4). A lengthy series of quotations from the Psalms and other Old Testament writings helps to create a vivid sense of the glorious power of the Son of God (1:5-13). After a short exhortation to pay attention (2:1-4), the author is ready to focus on the main topic of the book, namely, the way the story of Jesus' suffering, death, and exaltation gives hope to discouraged readers.

Jesus' life. The author of Hebrews portrays Jesus primarily in terms of Old Testament imagery. Very little is said about Jesus' life and teachings. The author knows that Jesus was descended from the tribe of Judah (7:14) but does not say more about the circumstances of his birth. The author also knows that Jesus experienced anguish before his death (5:7), was crucified outside the city (13:12), and was exalted to heavenly glory (1:3). Few details of Jesus' ministry are mentioned, however. It is interesting that when the author reports sayings of Jesus, all the words come from the Old Testament. In Hebrews 2:12-13 Jesus' words come from Psalm 22:22 and Isaiah 8:17-18, and in Hebrews 10:5-7 the words of Jesus are from Psalm 40:6-8. There are no references to Jesus' parables or sayings, and it is not clear how much the author of Hebrews knew about Jesus' teachings. For the argument of Hebrews it is essential that Jesus lived, died, and rose, but the details of these events are not the focus of attention.

Melchizedek. The attention given to the figure of Melchizedek in Hebrews has puzzled many interpreters. Melchizedek is an obscure figure, who is mentioned in connection with Abraham (Genesis 14:17-20) and again in Psalm 110:4, yet the author sees in Melchizedek many of the traits of Jesus, the eternal Son of God (Hebrews 7:1-3). Some have wondered whether the readers might have been familiar with speculations about Melchizedek's exalted or angelic status. There is evidence that the name Melchizedek was given to heavenly figures in a few ancient Jewish sources. Nevertheless, the way Hebrews describes Melchizedek does not follow any other source very closely. A more likely interpretation is that the argument of Hebrews is based on a reading of the Old Testament. Early Christians frequently quoted Psalm 110:1: "The Lord says to my lord, 'Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool.'" They also understood that this verse applied to the risen and exalted Christ (Matthew 22:44; Mark 12:36; Luke 20:42-43; Acts 2:34-35; 1 Corinthians 15:25; Hebrews 1:13). Therefore, if Psalm 110:1 refers to Christ, the author assumes that the promise of a priest like Melchizedek in Psalm 110:4 must also refer to Christ. The author finds in the story of Melchizedek a foreshadowing of an eternal priesthood that will be fulfilled by the risen and exalted Jesus.

Old and new covenants. Hebrews contrasts the Sinai covenant and Levitical priesthood with the new covenant inaugurated through the sacrifice of Christ. The author considers the new covenant to be better than the old one, which he says has become obsolete (8:6, 13). Some have wondered whether this contrast downplays the importance of the Jewish tradition. In response, it is important to note that much of the book's argument assumes a strong sense of continuity between the Old Testament and the work of Christ. Hebrews expresses the significance of Christ using language and imagery from Israel's Scriptures. The great chapter on faith, chapter 11, tells the story of faith from Israel's earliest ancestors down to the time of the readers. The sharp contrasts are made when speaking about the Levitical priesthood and animal sacrifice. The author argues that Christ's death is the definitive means of atonement for sin and that the older practices of animal sacrifice are no longer needed. The book has a strong sense of connection to Israel's heritage, as well as a sense that in Christ God has done something new.

Repentance. There are several points at which Hebrews warns that people who have fallen away might not be restored to repentance but will suffer eternal punishment (6:4-8; 10:26-31; 12:16-17). These warnings are severe and have disturbed many readers, but they follow a certain logic. The author speaks of a situation in which people have been blessed by God with the message of salvation but then repudiate what they have been given. Since grace and salvation are what they have rejected, the author points out that it makes no sense to think of them simply being given grace all over again. Grace is what they have rejected. The author likens the situation to a field that has been blessed with abundant rain only to produce thorns and thistles. Pouring more rain on the thistles will not change the situation but will only encourage the thistles to grow more abundantly. In a similar way, giving grace to people who have rejected it will simply make sin grow more abundantly. Therefore, the author warns that God will bring fiery judgment on those who have turned away from God. These passages present sharp warnings, and it is essential to understand how these warnings work. Warnings are given not to make people utterly despair but to make them grasp God's promises of salvation more firmly. For a warning to make sense, two things need to be in place: (1) danger is real and (2) danger can be averted. If there is no danger, no warning need be given. Yet if there is no hope, then a warning need not be given either, since disaster is inevitable. The author gives sharp warnings in order to alert people to the danger of divine judgment, yet promptly encourages them with the message that it is not too late. God remains committed to promises to bring blessing (6:9-20).

Shadow and reality. Hebrews sometimes contrasts true heavenly things with their earthly representations or shadows. For example, the true sanctuary is located in heaven, where Christ ministers, and its shadow is the earthly sanctuary in which ordinary priests serve (8:1-6). Similarly, the law is considered a shadow of the true sacrifice that Christ offered (10:1). Some interpreters liken this to Platonic philosophy, which contrasts the eternal archetypes with their earthly copies or shadows. There are similarities between the language used in Hebrews and in certain philosophical writings, but there are also many differences. Hebrews, for example, never uses the standard philosophical words archetype or paradigm. The way Hebrews communicates the message of Christ would have resonated with some currents in Greek thought, yet the author has unique forms of speech that do not exactly mirror the categories of any one philosophical tradition.

Use of the Old Testament. Hebrews frequently quotes, paraphrases, and alludes to the Old Testament. The author does not use the Hebrew form of the Old Testament, but relies on the Greek translation known as the Septuagint. The Septuagint sometimes reads a bit differently from the Hebrew texts on which our modern English translations are based. For example, the Hebrew form of Psalm 8:5 speaks of one being made a little lower than God or the gods, but the Septuagint version of that verse refers to one being lower than the angels. This is the version used in Hebrews 2:7. Hebrews interprets the Old Testament in light of Christ and understands Christ in light of the Old Testament. It is clear that the author understands many promises of God to be fulfilled in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus, for example, is the one who establishes the new covenant promised in Jeremiah 31:31-34 (Hebrews 10:14-18). At the same time, the Old Testament provides the perspective from which Jesus' actions can be understood. The biblical descriptions of atonement, for example, give the author ways to speak about Jesus' crucifixion as a sacrifice. Throughout the book, readers find the author discerning new insights into the old texts by relating them to Christ and discovering new insights into the Christian message by relating Jesus to Israel's Scriptures.

Wrath of God. Hebrews includes sharp warnings about the wrath of God. The story of the wilderness generation is a vivid example of how divine wrath works. God redeemed the people from Egypt and promised to bring them to rest in the land of Canaan, yet the people rebelled and refused to go, saying they would rather die. Therefore, God did not compel them to go any farther, but allowed their rejection to stand, and they died in the wilderness. God let their rejection take its course (3:12-19). Similarly, Hebrews warns Christian readers not to drift away from the message of salvation. God does not act arbitrarily but will let sinners experience the consequences of their own actions.

AUTHOR: Craig R. Koester, Professor of New Testament

Atonement. Atonement is the restoration of a relationship with God that has been broken by sin. According to the Old Testament, atonement was made when the high priest offered the blood of a bull and goat on the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:1-34). Hebrews says that now Jesus the high priest has made atonement once for all by his sacrificial death and exaltation to heaven, where he intercedes on behalf of sinners (2:17-18; 4:14-5:10; 9:1-10:18).

Confession. Hebrews exhorts readers to hold fast to their confession of faith in Jesus, who is their hope for life now and in the future (3:1; 4:14; 10:23). A confession is a statement of faith that is shared by a community. By calling upon readers to hold on to the confession, the author also builds community, directing them to the faith that binds them to God and to each other.

Faith. For the author of Hebrews, faith has two dimensions: first, it means trust in the promises of God; second, it means faithfulness to God. Together, these two dimensions show what it means to live in authentic relationship to God.

New covenant. In Jeremiah 31:31-34, God promises to make a new covenant with people. Unlike the previous covenant, which people broke, the new covenant puts God's law into people's hearts and minds, promising that God will show mercy toward sinners. Hebrews announces that Jesus inaugurates the new covenant by sacrificing himself and being raised to God's right hand (Hebrews 8:6-13; 10:14-18).

Perfection. When speaking of "perfection," the author of Hebrews does not imply that Christians must live a perfect life. Rather, the term points to the "completion" of God's purposes. Jesus was made perfect by moving through suffering to glory at God's right hand (2:10). Those who follow him move toward perfection by persevering in faith, knowing that they can be confident that God will bring promises of salvation to their full completion (10:14; 12:23).

Priesthood. Hebrews is unique among New Testament writings in its portrayal of Jesus as high priest. As a priest, Jesus makes a sacrifice of atonement for sin, shows compassion toward the weak, and intercedes for people with God (2:17-18; 4:14-5:10; 7:25). Jesus has some similarities to priests such as Aaron and Melchizedek, but Jesus is unique in that he alone serves forever through the power of his resurrection.

Promises. The promises of God express a commitment to bless God's people. God promised Abraham a homeland and many descendants, but Abraham did not live to see the full realization of these promises (6:13-20; 11:8-16). The blessings that God promised to Abraham and his descendants--including the followers of Jesus--will be completely fulfilled in the heavenly Jerusalem, the homeland where the vast company of the redeemed celebrates in God's presence (4:1; 12:22-24).

Sacrifice. The sacrifices prescribed by the Old Testament involved the slaying of an animal and the offering of the animal's blood to God. Hebrews compares Jesus' death by crucifixion and his subsequent ascension into heaven as the two parts of this sacrificial process. Hebrews also argues that Jesus' sacrifice is superior because it was his own self-sacrifice and it was done once for all time, instead of repeatedly, as was the case with animal sacrifices (4:14-5:10; 9:1-10:18).

Wandering. Hebrews compares the Christian community to the generation that traveled through the wilderness on the way to the promised land (3:6-4:11). Christians are also like Abraham and Sarah, who lived in the promised land as if they were foreigners or temporary residents (11:8-16). Christians have received the promise of salvation through the gospel of Jesus Christ, yet live by faith in a world where they are not entirely at home, confident that God has a future for them in God's heavenly city (13:14).

Word of God. People know God because God has communicated through Israel's prophets and again through the Son (1:1-4). Just as God's creative word brought the world into being (11:3), God's word of promise brings faith into being. The word is like a sword that penetrates the depths of human life and confronts people with the reality of divine judgment (4:12-13), yet the word also draws people forward in hope for the complete realization of God's saving purposes.

AUTHOR: Craig R. Koester, Professor of New Testament