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Bible Commentaries

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
Hebrews

Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4
Chapter 5 Chapter 6 Chapter 7 Chapter 8
Chapter 9 Chapter 10 Chapter 11 Chapter 12
Chapter 13

Book Overview - Hebrews

by Charles John Ellicott

THE EPISTLE OF PAUL THE APOSTLE TO THE HEBREWS.

The Epistle to the Hebrews.

BY

THE REV. W. F. MOULTON, D.D.

INTRODUCTION

TO

THE EPISTLE OF PAUL THE APOSTLE TO THE HEBREWS.

As the Epistle to the Hebrews is presented to the reader in our English Bibles, various questions which beset many other books of the New Testament appear to have no place. It is entitled “The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews”; and from the subscription we learn that it was written in Italy and sent to its readers by the hand of Timothy. It is hardly necessary to say that, whether these statements have or have not a foundation in fact, they are wholly destitute of authority here; for no ancient manuscript adds to the Epistle anything beyond the simple words “To the Hebrews,” and even this inscription can scarcely have been affixed by the writer himself. Within the few pages at our disposal we can do little more than present a summary of the ancient evidence on the points in question and the chief results of modern investigation.

I. Ancient Testimonies. Canonicity.—That the Epistle was known and read before the close of the first century is beyond doubt. The earliest Christian writing beyond the limits of the New Testament is the Epistle addressed to the Church of Corinth (about A.D. 95), by Clement, writing in the name of the Roman Church. This Letter contains no express quotation from any Book of the New Testament, and one only (the First Epistle of St. Paul to the same Church) is mentioned by name. In several places, however, words from some of St. Paul’s Epistles are interwoven with the text without formal introduction. In exactly the same manner, but to a greater extent, does Clement make use of the Epistle to the Hebrews, as the following quotation (from chap. 36) will show: “Through Him the Lord willed that we should taste the immortal knowledge; who, being the brightness (or, effulgence) of His majesty, is so much greater than angels as He hath inherited a more excellent name. For it is thus written: He who maketh His angels winds (or, spirits), and His ministers a flame of fire. But in regard to His Son thus said the Lord: Thou art My Son, I have this day begotten Thee. Ask of Me, and I will give Thee nations as Thine inheritance, and as Thy possession the ends of the earth. And again He saith unto Him: Sit at My right hand, until I have made Thine enemies a footstool of Thy feet.”

This passage does not stand alone; but of itself it is sufficient to prove that the Epistle was well known to the Roman Church at this early date. The traces of the Epistle in the second century are clear, but not numerous until we reach its closing years. Quotations present themselves in the Homily which is commonly called Clement’s Second Epistle, written at Corinth or Rome about A.D. 140; in writings of Justin Martyr (A.D. 145), Pinytus of Crete (A.D. 170), Theophilus, Bishop of Antioch (A.D. 180). It is also important to note that the Epistle was one of the twenty-two books included in the Syriac version of the New Testament, the date of which is probably not later than A.D. 150. That Marcion should have rejected the Epistle, and that it is passed over in the Muratorian Fragment (probably written at Rome about A.D. 170) are points of little consequence; for Marcion is known to have rejected whatever conflicted with his system of doctrine, and the Latin document has not come down to us complete.

One testimony belonging to the close of the second or the beginning of the third century is of great interest and importance. It is found in one of the works of Clement, who succeeded Pantænus as head of the catechetical school of Alexandria, about A.D. 190. The work itself survives in fragments only; but the following passage is preserved by Eusebius (Eccles. History, ): “And in his Outlines to speak generally, he (Clement) has given brief expositions of all canonical Scripture, not even passing by the disputed books—I mean the Epistle of Jude and the rest of the Catholic Epistles, the Epistle of Barnabas and the so-called Apocalypse of Peter. And moreover, he says that the Epistle to the Hebrews was Paul’s, but had been written to the Hebrews in the Hebrew language, and that Luke, having with great care translated it, published it for the Greeks; hence this Epistle and the Acts are found to have the same colouring of style and diction. He remarks that the Epistle does not begin with ‘Paul an Apostle,’ and with reason; for (he says), writing to Hebrews, men who had become prejudiced against him and were suspicious of him, he acted very wisely in not repelling them at the outset by giving his name. Then a little below he adds: And as the blessed presbyter before now used to say, since the Lord, as Apostle of the Almighty, was sent to Hebrews, Paul through modesty, as having been sent to Gentiles, does not inscribe himself Apostle of Hebrews, because of the honour belonging to the Lord, and also because he went beyond his bounds in addressing Hebrews also, when he was herald and Apostle of Gentiles.”

We can hardly doubt that by “the blessed presbyter” is meant Pantænus, whom Clement held in the highest esteem. “Thus” (as Dr. Westcott observes) “the tradition is carried up almost to the Apostolic age.” It will be seen that with a strong affirmation of the Pauline authorship of the Epistle is joined a distinct recognition of its unlikeness to the other writings of the Apostle. Of much greater importance is the testimony of Origen. Many passages from his writings might be quoted in which he speaks of the Epistle as St. Paul’s, and many more in which he appeals to it as to other portions of the New Testament, without any reference to authorship. In one of his latest works, however, Homilies on the Hebrews (written between A.D. 245 and 253), we have the complete expression of his views. The Homilies are not preserved to us, but the passage is given by Eusebius in his Eccles. History (vi. 25), and is as follows: “That the style of the Epistle which bears the superscription To the Hebrews does not exhibit the Apostle’s plainness in speech (though he confessed himself to be plain in his speech, that is, in his diction), but that the Epistle is more Grecian in its composition, every one who knows how to judge of differences of diction would acknowledge. And again, that the thoughts of the Epistle are wonderful, and not inferior to the acknowledged writings of the Apostle, this, too, every one who gives attention to the reading of the Apostle’s words would allow to be true.” To this, after other remarks, he adds: “But if I were to give my own opinion, I should say that the thoughts belong to the Apostle, but the diction and the composition to some one who wrote from memory the Apostle’s teaching, and who, as it were, commented on that which had been said by his teacher. If then any church holds this Epistle to be Paul’s, let it be approved even for this. For not without reason have the men of olden time handed it down as Paul’s. But as to the question who wrote the Epistle, the truth is known by God (only); but the account which has reached us is a statement by some that Clement who became Bishop of Rome was the writer, by others that it was Luke, who wrote the Gospel and the Acts.”

The influence of Origen would naturally be great in removing doubts as to the acceptance of the Epistle. Whilst the more thoughtful would learn from him to distinguish between directly apostolic authorship and canonicity, the effect of his opinion and example on the many would be to strengthen the belief that the Epistle should be accounted St. Paul’s. From this time onwards the Church of Alexandria, as represented by a succession of writers, seems to have held the Pauline authorship as a matter free from doubt.

It is otherwise with the Latin writers of North Africa. Tertullian (about A.D. 200), indeed, once quotes some verses of chapter 6, but assigns them to the Epistle of Barnabas to the Hebrews; an Epistle which, he says, deserves more respect than the Shepherd of Hermas, as being written by a man who learnt from Apostles and taught with Apostles. No other certain quotation from the Epistle presents itself in Latin writers for many years. At the close of the third century it would seem, as far as we may judge from extant Christian literature, that the Epistle was known and received by the Churches of Alexandria, Syria, Rome, and Asia Minor, and that in Alexandria and Syria it was regarded as a work of St. Paul. Writing before A.D. 326, Eusebius expressly mentions the Church of Rome as rejecting the Pauline authorship of the Epistle. It is not necessary to give any express quotations from writers of the fourth century. By this time the doubts respecting the Epistle are confined to the Western Churches: in Syria, Palestine, Asia Minor, Alexandria, Constantinople, the Pauline authorship appears to have been universally admitted. The influence of Jerome and Augustine ultimately prevailed in the West: neither of these eminent Fathers appears really to have regarded the Epistle as St. Paul’s, but they agree in the expression of a strong conviction of its canonical authority.

The object of this summary of ancient evidence has been to show how the Epistle won its way to universal acknowledgment as a part of sacred Scripture, and at the same time to present the chief testimonies of the early Church on the other important questions which concern the Book. It cannot be thought surprising that for a time many should evince hesitation in regard to such a document as this—anonymous, peculiar in character, and addressed to a special and limited circle of readers. The doubts have in later times had little power. Their effect may, for the most part, be traced in a varying estimate of the importance of the Book as compared with the undoubted writings of St. Paul.

II. Authorship.—In regard to the authorship of the Epistle, the most important ancient testimonies have been cited already; and in them we find more or less clearly stated almost all the possible solutions of the problem. The character of the Epistle is beyond all question Paul-like (if we may so speak, to avoid the ambiguity of “Pauline”). If then it is not to be ascribed directly to St. Paul, we must suppose either (1) that it is a translation from a Hebrew original written by him; or (2) that, whilst the substance of the Epistle is his, the diction and style belong to one of his companions, who, for some unexplained cause, put the Apostle’s thoughts into form; or (3) that the Epistle was written by a friend or disciple of St. Paul. Each of the four hypotheses may, as we have said, claim the evidence of early writers; but it is a matter of extreme difficulty rightly to estimate the value of this evidence. That the Epistle was directly written by St. Paul is an opinion of which we have no distinct evidence earlier than the third century. Even then the language used on the subject is not perfectly clear; for Origen’s example proves that the quotation of the Epistle under St. Paul’s name may mean nothing more than a recognition that its substance and teaching are his. If Origen had influence in producing the later consensus of opinion as to the authorship, that opinion may fairly be judged of (to a considerable extent) by reference to Origen’s own explanation of the sense in which he ascribed the Epistle to St. Paul. At all events, his plain statement of the case as it presented itself in his day seems distinctly to prove that there existed no such clear and authoritative tradition in favour of the Pauline authorship as might claim our submission, upon the ordinary principles of literary criticism. To internal evidence Origen makes appeal: to the same test of internal evidence we believe the case must now be brought. Similar observations apply to the other hypotheses. Each of these appears earlier in existing documents than that of which we have been speaking. The opinion expressed by Clement, that the Greek Epistle is a translation, was probably derived by him from Pantænus: the traditions mentioned by Origen cannot be of later date; and Tertullian’s reference to Barnabas carries back the last hypothesis to the close of the second century. But again it is impossible to say whether the ancient testimonies present independent evidence, or are no more than conjectures to explain the patent facts. At all events, the variance in the traditions may leave cur judgment free, especially as we can plainly perceive in what way the traditions might very possibly arise.

If we now proceed to test each of the hypotheses that have been mentioned by the testimony which the Epistle gives respecting itself, the first question to be decided is, Have we the Epistle in its original form? If the opinion quoted by Clement is correct—that the Greek document before us is a translation—our right to argue from its characteristics will be materially affected. This opinion has not lacked advocates, and has been recently maintained in an able but very disappointing work by Dr. Biesenthal. We have no space here for the discussion of such a question, and can only express in a word or two the results to which the evidence before us leads. We do not hesitate to say that the hypothesis appears absolutely untenable: for one difficulty which it removes, it introduces many more. Dr. Biesenthal’s own treatment of various passages is sufficient to show that those who regard the Epistle as translated from a Hebrew original must necessarily regard it as a translation that is often inaccurate, and needs the correction of the commentator. Few will be prepared to surrender the Epistle to such treatment, unless under constraint of argument immeasurably stronger than any yet adduced.

Our inquiry therefore is limited to the Greek Epistle as it stands. The questions at issue are very simple. What is there, either in the substance or in the diction of the Epistle, that may lead us to ascribe it to St. Paul? What peculiarities of thought or language separate it from his writings? In its general arrangement and plan the Epistle to the Hebrews cannot but remind us of St. Paul. It is true there is no opening salutation, or direct address, such as is found in all St. Paul’s Epistles. These Epistles, however, differ greatly amongst themselves in this respect. Thus, in writing to the Galatians, the Apostle is impatient of anything that may detain him from the great topics on which he is to speak; and it is possible to imagine reasons which might lead him to avoid all mention of the Church addressed, and even to keep back his own name. But, waiving this, we recognise at once the familiar plan: first the discussion of dogmatic truth; then the earnest exhortation based on the doctrine thus presented; and, lastly, the salutations, interwoven with personal notices, with doxology and prayer. The main outlines of theological teaching are in close accord with St. Paul’s Epistles: Hebrews 2, 5, for example, as strikingly recall Philippians 2 as does Hebrews 13, the closing chapter in the Epistle to the Romans. Other points of special resemblance will easily suggest themselves, such as the relation of the writer to those whom he addresses (Hebrews 13:18-19, &c.), the mode in which he refers to Timothy (Hebrews 13:23), his Pauline illustrations (see Notes on Hebrews 5:12-13; Hebrews 12:1-4), his choice of Old Testament passages. Under the last head may be specially mentioned the quotation of Psalms 8 (1 Corinthians 15:25-28) and Deut. 33:30 (Romans 12:19); see the Notes on Hebrews 2:6; Hebrews 10:30. It is not necessary to go into further detail in proof of a position allowed by all, that (as has been already said) the Epistle, whether by St. Paul or not, is Paul-like in the general character of its teaching and in many of its special features.

It is of much greater moment to examine those passages of the Epistle and those peculiarities of teaching or language which have been adduced as inconsistent with the Pauline authorship. Resemblance may be accounted for more readily than points of difference; for a disciple of St. Paul would hardly fail to exhibit many of the traits characteristic of such a master. Here, it will be seen, the distinction between style and subject matter must be carefully observed. If this Epistle could be proved to differ in diction only from the acknowledged writings of St. Paul, some theory of mediate authorship (similar to that mentioned by Origen) would be very possible; if the discordances lie deeper, no such theory can be maintained.

When an argument must rest on characteristics of Greek diction and style, it is very probable that different conclusions may be reached by different readers. This question, again, cannot be examined here in any detail. The writer can only state the impression made upon his own mind by the original text, and especially by the careful study pursued for the purpose of this Commentary. From point to point the general likeness of the Epistle to St. Paul’s writings came out more and more plainly: on the other hand arose a continually increasing wonder that the Greek sentences and periods should ever have been attributed to that Apostle’s hand. We have before us Epistles belonging to every period during the last thirteen or fourteen years of St. Paul’s life, written under widely different circumstances,—some during the enforced leisure of imprisonment, others amid active labour. We can trace differences of style resulting both from the time of writing and from the circumstances which called forth the Epistles; but these differences lie within a comparatively narrow compass. At whatever date St. Paul might be supposed to have written this Epistle, we can compare it with some other of his writings belonging nearly to the same period; and the differences of language and style presented by the two documents are, we are persuaded, far greater than those presented by the most dissimilar of the thirteen Epistles. Stress has been laid on the unique character of this Epistle, as the only one addressed to Hebrews by the Apostle of the Gentiles: but it has been well asked why St. Paul should adopt a more finished Greek style in addressing Jews than when writing to the Greeks of Corinth. For ourselves we must express our decided conviction that, whatever may be the relation of the Epistle to St. Paul, the composition of the Greek was certainly not his.

The remaining points of difference which (it is alleged) separate this Epistle from St. Paul’s writings may be ranged under the following heads:—(1) statements of fact which we cannot suppose to have proceeded from the Apostle; (2) divergence in doctrinal view; (3) peculiarities in the use of the Old Testament; (4) the use made of Alexandrian writers.

(1) The most important passage is Hebrews 2:3 : “which (salvation) at the first began to be spoken by the Lord, and was confirmed unto us by them that heard.” In these words the writer appears distinctly to sever himself from those who had directly received the word from the Lord. It is urged that he is here associating himself with his readers, as when in Hebrews 4:1 he writes “Let us therefore fear;” see also Hebrews 10:24-26; Hebrews 12:1, et al. We will not venture to say that an Apostle could not have thus written; but, bearing in mind the necessity which lay upon St. Paul to defend his apostolic position, and the claim which he consistently makes to have received his teaching by direct revelation (Galatians 1:1; Galatians 1:11-12, et al.), we must hold it extremely improbable that he should use words that might even appear to represent him as only a disciple of the Apostles. On the other passages which have been brought into this controversy a very different judgment must be passed. It is alleged that in the description of the Temple furniture (Hebrews 9) the writer falls into mistakes, asserting that the altar of incense (or, the golden censer) was placed in the Holy of Holies, that the ark contained the pot of manna and Aaron’s rod, and that even in his own day the Most Holy Place into which the high priest entered year by year still contained the cherubim and the ark of the covenant. If the writer has indeed fallen into these mistakes we may safely say that he is not St. Paul. But, as the Notes on Hebrews 9:2-6 will show, we hold that there is no real reason for impugning the accuracy of his words. No part of his description relates to the Temple services or furniture: he is occupied throughout with the injunctions of the Mosaic law and the arrangements of the Tabernacle. Even the association of the altar of incense with the Most Holy Place may be very easily explained. If the view we have taken is correct, this argument against the Pauline authorship must fall to the ground. It is not necessary, therefore, to do more than mention the ingenious attempt of Wieseler to show that in the descriptions of Hebrews 9 the writer had in mind, not the Tabernacle or the Temple of Jerusalem, but the temple built by Onias at Leontopolis in Lower Egypt (about B.C. 170).

(2) The alleged differences of doctrinal statement are of three kinds. Of St. Paul’s favourite topics some are absent from this Epistle, some are treated in a different manner: and, again, certain themes here brought into prominence are not noticed in the Epistles of St. Paul. Thus we find only one passage in this Epistle in which the Resurrection of our Lord, ever a prominent topic with St. Paul, is mentioned (see Hebrews 13:20); the law, faith, righteousness, are looked at from a different point of view; the prominence here given to the High-priesthood of Jesus is foreign to St. Paul’s Epistles. It would require a volume duly to examine the various particulars adduced under this head; for the real question is not whether the teaching is opposed to St. Paul’s, but whether the various themes are treated in the manner characteristic of the Apostle. We do not believe that the most careful examination will detect any real discord between the dogmatic teaching of this Epistle and that of St. Paul; but the peculiarities in selection of topics and in mode of treatment are sufficient (even when all allowance has been made for the special position and aim of the Epistle) to suggest that, if St. Paul “laid the foundation,” it is another who “buildeth thereon,” “according to the grace of God which is given unto” him (1 Corinthians 3:10). The resemblances in teaching may show the presence of the Apostle, but the new colouring and arrangement prove that he is present only in the person of a disciple on whom his master’s mantle has fallen, and who is taught by the same Spirit.

(4) One distinguishing peculiarity of this Epistle is found in the many remarkable coincidences both of thought and of expression with the writings of Philo of Alexandria. One or two examples are quoted in the notes; but nothing short of a collection of all the points of similarity, as presented in the Greek text, will show this characteristic of the Epistle in its proper light. Both St. Paul and St. John exhibit acquaintance with the Alexandrian philosophy, but it has left comparatively slight traces in their writings. The resemblance in language in many passages of this Epistle is all the more remarkable because of the fundamental differences in doctrine between the Christian teacher and the Alexandrian philosopher. Another point of interest can only be briefly mentioned,—the many words and phrases common to this Epistle and the Book of Wisdom. The reader is referred to the remarkably interesting papers by Professor Plumptre in vol. i. of The Expositor, on “The Writings of Apollos.”

On a review of the whole case, there is only one conclusion that appears possible—that the Epistle was written by one who had stood in a close relation with St. Paul, but not by St. Paul himself. It will be readily understood that the arguments given above are not adduced as being of equal weight: some are only confirmatory, and might not have very much force if they stood alone; but all point with more or less distinctness to the conclusion which has been stated. Farther than this we cannot go with certainty; and it is perhaps wisest to rest satisfied with this negative result. If we turn to the positive side, we have little to guide our judgment. Three names only seem to be mentioned by early writers—those of Barnabas, Clement of Rome, and St. Luke. The Epistle is quoted by Tertullian, as we have seen, as a work of Barnabas; and two later Latin writers, Philastrius and Jerome, mention the same tradition. In one passage Jerome says that very many (perhaps meaning many of the Greek ecclesiastical writers) assign the Epistle to Barnabas or Clement; in another he mentions Tertullian alone as an authority for this, and seems to attach no special importance to the opinion. It would seem that the tradition was very limited: it is especially noteworthy that the name of Barnabas is not found in the passages quoted from Origen. We know too little of Barnabas to judge for ourselves of the intrinsic probability of the hypothesis: the so-called internal arguments which have been adduced by some are of no worth. The Epistle which bears the name of Barnabas belongs, in all probability, to the beginning of the second century, and has no connection with the companion of St. Paul. That Epistle, therefore (which presents a remarkable contrast to the teaching of the Epistle to the Hebrews; see Westcott On the Canon, pp. 43-45) yields no evidence in the present inquiry.

In regard to Clement we can speak with more confidence, as we possess one Epistle which is certainly from his hand. That document contains passages belonging to our Epistle, but they are no doubt quotations from it, and the general style and character of Clement’s Letter forbid us to ascribe the two works to the same writer. Much more favour has in recent times been shown to the other tradition which Origen records—that the Epistle was written by St. Luke The resemblances of language between this Epistle and St. Luke’s writings are numerous and striking; but with all this there is great dissimilarity of style. The difference between a Letter such as this and historical or biographical memoirs must indeed be taken into account; but even when allowance has been made for this, it is difficult to receive the writer of the Acts as the author of our Epistle. Another consideration also is of weight. We can hardly doubt that we have before us here the work of a Jew; but St. Paul’s words in Colossians 4:11; Colossians 4:14, imply that St. Luke was of Gentile birth.

The subject is not one for confident assertion; but we strongly doubt whether the Epistle can be ascribed to any of those suggested by ancient writers. One other hypothesis must be mentioned, which has commanded the adhesion of many of the ablest writers of recent times. Luther was the first to express (in his Commentary on Genesis) an opinion that the Epistle to the Hebrews was the work of Apollos. Some will maintain that conjecture is inadmissible, but certainly all the conditions of the problem appear to be satisfied by this conjecture. The record of St. Luke in Acts 18:24-28; Acts 19:1, supplemented by St. Paul’s references in 1 Corinthians, might seem to have been expressly designed to show the special fitness of Apollos for writing such an Epistle as this. Our limits will not allow us to enter into further detail, but the reader will find all the particulars admirably stated in the Notes on the verses in the Acts. If it be not unbecoming to go beyond the words of Origen on such a subject as this, and to favour an hypothesis for which no express evidence can be adduced from ancient times, we can have no hesitation in joining those who hold that it is the Jew of Alexandria, “mighty in the Scriptures,” “fervent in spirit,” the honoured associate of St. Paul, who here carries on the work which he began in Achaia, when “he mightily convinced the Jews, showing by the Scriptures that Jesus was Christ.”

III. Readers.—The inquiry as to the original readers of the Epistle is even more difficult. It may be assumed with confidence that the present title of the Epistle is not that which it originally bore. There has sometimes been a disposition to deny the propriety of the name Epistle; and it has been thought that the peculiarity of the opening verses, containing, as they do, neither address nor author’s name, may be most easily explained on the supposition that the work is a homily or general treatise. But a very slight examination will prove that such a theory has no foundation. The closing verses show that a particular community is directly addressed, a community well known to the writer, whose affection the writer knew himself to possess, though some individuals may have distrusted him and misjudged his acts and motives. He complains of their declension in Christian knowledge, and points out its cause (Hebrews 5); thankfully recognises their generous love to the brethren (Hebrews 6, 10); and urges them to be true to their own past history (Hebrews 10). He cannot but have known that the trials and necessities of many other communities were very similar; but, like St. Paul, he addresses the wider only through the narrower circle. The immediate impulse was given by the news he had received respecting brethren for whom he himself had laboured, and over whose welfare he was bound diligently to watch. The Epistle needed no express inscription to make the first readers understand from whom it came and to whom it was sent; and it is not impossible that (as Ewald suggests) the watchfulness of enemies may have rendered some concealment a matter of prudence. The absence of the writer’s name has been considered confirmatory of the belief that Apollos wrote the Epistle. In one church, as we know, rival factions had arisen, some saying, “I am of Paul,” others “I am of Apollos;” and the incident recorded in 1 Corinthians 16:12 seems to point to the regret of Apollos that his name should have been so used. Such a feeling may have continued to operate, and have led to this partial withdrawal of himself from view. (See Alford’s Gk. Test., vol. iv. pp. 60, 61.)

IV. Date.—There is very little to guide us as to the time when the Epistle was written. The present tenses of Hebrews 9:2-9 are often understood as implying that the Temple service still continued; but there is strong reason for explaining the verses otherwise (see Notes). On the other hand, the general complexion of the Epistle is such as to convince us that it was written before the destruction of Jerusalem. Of the imprisonment of Timothy (Hebrews 13:23) we know nothing from any other source. It has often been supposed that he shared St. Paul’s imprisonment in Rome (see the Introduction to 2 Timothy). The date of the martyrdom of St. Paul is, however, uncertain; and it does not seem possible to say more than that our Epistle was probably written some three or four years before Jerusalem fell—in other words, about A.D. 60.

V. Object and Contents.—The discussion of the very important external questions which connect themselves with this Epistle has left us but little space for a notice of its internal character. In the Notes, however, on account of the peculiar difficulties which this Epistle presents, we have sacrificed all other considerations to the desire of exhibiting, as exactly as possible, the connection and course of thought. It is, therefore, less necessary to attempt a complete analysis here. The Christians addressed were in imminent danger of apostasy. The danger was occasioned partly by seductions from without, partly by weakness within. Even when the fabric of Jewish power was falling, the influence of its past history, its glorious treasure of promise, its unique associations, retained a wonderful power. As we look back on the years preceding the fall of Jerusalem the case of the people may seem to us hopeless; but the confidence of the nation was unbroken, and even at that period we note outbursts of national pride and enthusiastic hope. Bitter hate and contempt for Christianity on the one hand, and the attraction of their ancestral worship and ritual on the other, had apparently won a victory over the constancy of some Christians belonging to this Hebrew community. Where open opposition had not prevailed, the tone of Christian faith had been lowered. The special temptation of these Christians seems to have been towards a loss of interest in the higher Christian truths, and a union of elementary Christian teaching with that to which they had been accustomed as Jews. The arguments of the first and other chapters show that they held the foundation truths; the expostulation of the fifth and sixth chapters proves that the full significance of the doctrine they held was not understood, and that the doctrine was near to losing its power. In no Epistle, perhaps, do we find a more carefully sustained argument; of none can be said as truly that the whole Epistle is a “word of exhortation.”

The design of the writer is to show the superiority of Christianity to Judaism. He in whom God has in these last days revealed Himself to man is His Son, to whom the Scriptures themselves bear witness as exalted above the highest of created beings, the angels, who are but ministers of God (Hebrews 1). The law was given through angels: salvation has now come through the Son, who, though Lord of the world to come, the Heir and Fulfiller of God’s highest promises to man, submitted to suffering and death—not of necessity, but that He might by His atonement deliver man from sin and death, and might become a true High Priest for man (Hebrews 2). As the faithful Apostle and High Priest He is exalted above God’s most favoured servants upon earth, even above Moses (Hebrews 3:1-6).

This is the first division of the argument, designed to establish the supremacy of the revelation given through the Son of God, and to remove “the offence of the cross.” Next follows a powerful section of exhortation and warning. Do not imitate the unfaithfulness through which Israel failed to enter into the true rest of God (Hebrews 3:7 to Hebrews 4:16).

The second portion of the Epistle (extending to Hebrews 10:18) is occupied with the Priesthood of Christ. Once only is the current of the argument interrupted. After the first introduction of a prophecy which will form the theme of later chapters, the writer pauses to bring into relief the carelessness which his readers have shown, and the peril they have incurred; the result is to give most powerful effect to the argument for which he is preparing them (Hebrews 5:11 to Hebrews 6:20). Jesus made perfect through suffering (Hebrews 5:1-10) has been declared by God High Priest after the order of Melchizedek; by this declaration the Aaronic priesthood is abolished, giving place to a priesthood which abides continually, through which all that the former priesthood sought in vain to attain is made sure to man for ever (Hebrews 7). This High Priest, seated at God’s right hand, is Minister in the heavenly sanctuary, Mediator of the New Covenant (Hebrews 8); and in Him all the types of the first covenant are fulfilled, for by His one offering of Himself He has put away sin, and established the new covenant in which sin is pardoned and man sanctified (Hebrews 9; Hebrews 10:1-18).

The remainder of the Epistle is in the main directly hortatory. These being our privileges, let us not by unfaithfulness fall short of them, for terrible is the doom of the unfaithful, and glorious the reward of Faith (Hebrews 10:19-39), which from the beginning has led God’s servants on to victory, and of which Jesus is the Author and the Perfecter (Hebrews 11:1 to Hebrews 12:4). Hebrews 12, 13 continue the exhortations of the earlier chapters, but in a higher strain.

We cannot conceive of any argument by which the end contemplated could be more effectually accomplished, and men more powerfully turned from “the offence of the cross” to glorying in Christ Jesus. The value which the Epistle has for us and the extent of its influence on our theology it would be hard to overestimate. Its peculiar importance lies in the exposition which it gives of the earlier revelation, showing the meaning of the types and arrangements of the former dispensation, and their perfect fulfilment in our Lord, and in its witness to the power and abiding significance of the divine word.

Lectionary Calendar
Wednesday, June 3rd, 2020
the Week of Proper 4 / Ordinary 9
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