A Survey of Hebrews

Lesson ▪ 2001
Tags: Hebrews; Faith


Purpose

The letter to the Hebrews was written to encourage the faith of a Christian community. Faith and related terms are used frequently in the book’s 13 chapters.

 pistis [faith]  32
 pisteuo [to believe]
 2
 pistos [faithful]
 5
 apistia [unbelief]
 2

Date

Hebrews was written by a second-generation Christian who had seen miraculous signs attesting to the truth of the gospel (2:3-4). The author and audience were acquainted with Timothy (13:23). Since the Temple’s sacrificial system appears to have been intact at the time of the writing (9:6-9; 10:11), it is quite likely that the letter was written prior to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. “The epistle seems to fit best the situation of the late sixties, when the church at Rome was fearing persecution and when the fall of the Jewish commonwealth was imminent.”1

Special Features

One of the remarkable features of Hebrews is its profuse use of the Old Testament. According to Leon Morris, the book contains 29 quotations from and 53 allusions to the Old Testament.2 It helps us to understand how the Law foreshadowed the grace that has come in Jesus Christ. In addition, it informs concerning the early church’s use of Old Testament teaching.

While Hebrews is usually referred to as a letter, it lacks typical epistolary features. Only a portion of the final chapter (vv. 18-25) is personal.

Authorship & Audience

Several mysteries shroud the book of Hebrews, not the least of which are its author and original audience. The letter itself does not identify its author. Numerous authors have been proposed through church history, including Paul (with Luke as translator), Barnabas, Apollos, and Priscilla. While each of these proposals has merit, a compelling case cannot be made for any.3

The letter’s original recipients are no less mysterious. While some have suggested a Gentile audience, the book’s content makes this unlikely. A Jewish audience seems much more fitting, perhaps in Rome or Palestine.4 While most of the letter seems to target readers who were already believers, its “warning passages” (see Structure & Outline below) were probably directed at Jews who had not trusted Christ for salvation but might have felt a false sense of security because of their religious heritage and their association with a Christian community.

Structure & Outline

The epistle is basically divided into two parts: The first (1:1-10:18) constitutes an argument or rationale for faith. The second (10:19-13:25) discusses the application of faith to daily life in precept and example.

An important aspect of the structure of Hebrews is that it contains a number of warning passages:5

2:1-4   “How shall we escape, if we neglect so great salvation . . . [?]” (v. 3).
3:7-4:13   “Take heed, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief, in departing from the living God. . . . Let us labor therefore to enter into that rest, lest any man fall after the same example of unbelief” (3:12; 4:11).
5:11-6:12   “For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted of the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Ghost, . . . If they shall fall away, to renew them again unto repentance; seeing they crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh, and put him to an open shame” (6:4, 6).
10:26-31  “For if we sin willfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins” (v. 26).
12:18-29   “See that ye refuse not him that speaketh. 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” (v. 25).

Putting these two elements together yields the following outline for the book:

1. The Argument for Faith (1:1-10:18)
a. Christ Is Greater Than Angels (1:1-2:18)
Warning (2:1-4)
b. Christ Is Greater Than Moses (3:1-4:13)
Warning (3:7-4:13)
c. Christ’s Priesthood Is Greater Than Aaron’s (4:14-7:28)
Warning (5:11-6:20)
d. Christ’s Ministry Is Greater Than the Old Covenant (8:1-10:18)
2. The Application of Faith (10:19-13:25)
a. Hold Fast the Profession of Faith (10:19-39)
Warning (10:26-31)
b. Follow the Examples of Faith (11:1-40)
c. Endure Chastening by Faith (12:1-29)
Warning (12:18-29)
d. Practice Faith in the Christian Community (13:1-17)
e. Personal Remarks (13:18-25)

Notes

1 Merrill C. Tenney, New Testament Survey, Revised, rev. Walter M. Dunnett (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans; Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1985), 359.
2 Leon Morris, “Hebrews,” in vol. 12 of The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981), 7.
3 Ibid., 6-7.
4 Homer A. Kent, Jr., The Epistle to the Hebrews: A Commentary (Winona Lake, Ind.: BMH Books, 1983), 22-25.
5 Commentators disagree on the number and precise location of the warnings (cf. Kent, Jr., and Tenney). The listing presented here reflects the author’s interpretation.


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