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by John Dummelow
1. Authorship. The Epistle to the Hebrews is an anonymous work. It is ascribed to St. Paul in our English Bibles—even in the Revised Version unfortunately; but this is only in the title, which was not a part of the original autograph. All St. Paul’s acknowledged Epistles have his name as part of the opening salutation according to the usual custom with ancient letters; but that is not the case with this Epistle, which begins without any salutation. Therefore, if we do not ascribe it to the Apostle that is not to charge the author with ’forgery,’ nor in the milder modern phrase with ’pseudepigraphy’ There is no evidence that he ever intended to have St. Paul’s name associated with it. The title in the oldest MSS is simply ’To the Hebrews.’ How, then, does the Epistle come to bear St. Paul’s name in our English Bibles? The reason is that the fuller title is found in the later Gk. MSS, from some of which it passed into the Latin Bible, the Vulgate. We can easily understand how this came about. There was a tendency in the early Church to inscribe great names on anonymous works in order to further their currency. No greater name than that of the Apostle to the Gentiles could be found for this letter to the Hebrews, which might well be accounted worthy of no less a personage. And if it was to be brought within the circle of the chief inspired teachings of the apostolic age, this narrowed the possibilities of authorship to a comparatively small group. Then, like St. Paul, the writer is emancipated from the Jewish Law; he exalts Christ specifically as the ’Son of God,’ St. Paul’s most significant name for our Lord; he elaborates the thought of the Atonement by the death of Christ; he glorifies faith. On the other hand, his style and diction are quite unlike St. Paul’s; instead of the Apostle’s simple, direct, rugged speech, we have here rhetorical phraseology in rounded periods. Of more importance is the theological attitude of the writer, which is very different from that of St. Paul. The Apostle combats legalism, but in the interest of justification—a legal condition; our author is concerned with the Tabernacle ritual of the Old Testament, and his aim is to show the way of approach to God through purification, so that while St. Paul treats of the gospel in opposition to the Pharisees and their casuistry, the unknown author of Hebrews is interested in its relation to the priests and their sacrifices.
The authorship of this Epistle was much discussed in early ages; but Origen, the most learned of the early teachers, concluded his examination of the question with the words, ’Who wrote the Epistle God only knows.’ About the same time another Church father, Tertullian, referred to it as ’the Epistle of Barnabas,’ taking for granted that Barnabas was its author. It is a significant fact that this is the oldest positive and definite ascription of any name to it that has reached us; and there is much in the character and position of Barnabas to agree with it. Others have suggested Apollos, Clement of Rome, St. Luke. The latest proposal is the brilliant suggestion of Harnack that the author was Priscilla. If it were written by a woman it might have been thought in that unenlightened age not wise to give her name. Priscilla was the chief teacher of Apollos, an Alexandrian, and there is evidence of Alexandrian influences in the contents of the Epistle. But the question cannot be definitely determined.
2. Alexandrian Influences. This point is of great interest for our right understanding of the Epistle, as well as with regard to the problem of its authorship. There can be no question that the author was more or less imbued with the literary and theological methods pursued by Jewish scholars at Alexandria. Those methods included a highly allegorical treatment of the Old Testament, and it is quite Alexandrian for our author to regard the Levitical dispensation as a shadow of the spiritual realities that are to be found in the heavenly tabernacle and its ordinances. The very forms of introduction in which passages from the Old Testament are quoted are precisely those used by Philo, the famous Alexandrian Jewish philosopher, but quite unlike the forms employed by St. Paul or any other New Testament writer. Elsewhere we meet with such expressions as, ’it is written,’ ’the Scripture says,’ ’David says,’ ’Moses says,’ ’Isaiah says.’ These expressions are never met with in Hebrews, where, as in Philo, no human authors are named—although in a single instance we have the periphrasis’ one hath somewhere testified’ (Hebrews 2:6); but the utterances cited are attributed immediately to God or the Holy Spirit, in such terms as, ’He saith’.
(Hebrews 1:7), ’the Holy Ghost saith’(Hebrews 3:7). Further, there are certain phrases and images found nowhere else in the Bible which Hebrews shares with Alexandrian writers. Thus the rare form rendered ’at sundry times’ (Hebrews 1:1), or, better, as in the Revised Version, ’in divers portions,’ is also in the book of Wisdom (Hebrews 7:22)—an Alexandrian work. Then the peculiar expression ’effulgence,’ applied to God’s glory in Hebrews (Hebrews 1:8), is referred to Wisdom in the book of that name (Wisdom of Solomon 7:26), and it is quite a favourite word with Philo. Again, the word rendered ’substance’ in the same v. of Hebrews is also found in Wisdom of Solomon 16:21, probably in the same sense, though here the reading, and therefore the rendering, is doubtful. Lastly, the rare expression for death rendered ’the issue of their life’ in Hebrews (Hebrews 13:7) can be traced to Wisdom of Solomon 2:17. But we are not left to depend on such comparisons of words and phrases. The whole spirit and atmosphere of Hebrews is Alexandrian rather than Palestinian.
3. Recipients and probable Date. Brushing aside less probable conjectures—as that the Alexandrianism of the Epistle implies that it was destined for Alexandria, a curious inversion of ideas—we have two contending theories of its destination—one pointing to a Palestinian Church, the other claiming Rome as the residence of the recipients. We should expect an Epistle to Hebrews to go to the district where Hebrew (or, rather, Aramaic) speaking Jews lived, and the whole argument on the Levitical system would seem to indicate this region. Jerusalem could not be the place, because the readers were not the first gospel converts (Hebrews 2:3), and perhaps, too, because Jerusalem was a poor Church needing help from the more prosperous Churches, whereas the Church here addressed is praised for its bountifulness (Hebrews 10:34). Cffisarea and Antioch have been suggested as possible places for the Epistle to have been directed to. But there is a strong inclination to locate the Church addressed at Rome, where there was a large Jewish community, and where Clement (95 a.d.) was familiar with it. Some think the sufferings referred to in Hebrews 10:32-35 were those of Nero’s persecution. Rome would be interested in a salutation from Italians (Hebrews 13:24). A more serious question is as to the nationality of the recipients. It has been denied that they were Jews, chiefly because their apostasy is described as departure from ’the living God’—not merely from Christ. But the author might well think that to abandon the faith of Christ was for Christians to give up everything—God and all. On the other hand, the minute discussion of the tabernacle ritual points most probably to Jews. The date cannot be fixed with certainty. But since the writer, while arguing for the temporary character of the Levitical system, makes no reference to the destruction of Jerusalem—the vast cataclysm in which that system was swept away—it is to be inferred that an event which would so immensely have strengthened his position if he had appealed to it could not have happened before he was writing. Perhaps we may assign the Epistle to about 68 a.d., when Jewish zealots would be urging all men of Hebrew blood to make common cause with the defenders of the ancient faith against the Roman enemy.
4. Aim and Object. It must be clear to every careful reader that this Epistle was written with one definite end in view. There is a unity in its composition that we do not recognise in any other NT. book. The author makes straight for his goal from start to finish. Even the exhortations that are so characteristic of the work, while they break the thread of the argument, are not digressions from the main object, but rather direct means for attaining it. They are applications of each stage of the discussion to the one great aim that is kept steadily in view throughout. It is in these exhortations that we see most clearly what that aim is. The Christians addressed are evidently in danger of falling away from their faith and apostatising altogether. So desperate does their condition appear to the author, that he feels it necessary to expostulate in the gravest terms. It is no fascination of the world luring them away from their original consecration that occasions this danger. The Hebrews are discouraged to almost the extent of despair, because they do not see how the gospel can offer them anything like compensation for what they have lost in being cast out of the synagogue on account of their confession of the Nazarene. This is the condition that the Epistle has to face. The method of meeting it is to boldly challenge the vaunted, venerable Judaism in its very citadel, the Levitical Law. The author institutes a comparison between Christianity and Judaism, or rather between Christ and the chief personages of Judaism—for with him ’Christianity is Christ’—in order to show that Christ is their superior in their very points of excellency, and that the gospel gives us the very things that the Law professed to give, but much more effectually. It has all that Judaism had; and it has this in a higher form, in a larger measure; nay, it alone really has this, for Judaism failed—Judaism could not do what it was relied upon to accomplish. The reason for this failure was that it had no substance. It was only the earthly shadow of those heavenly realities that Jesus Christ came to establish and bring within our reach. This position being proved all along the line, point by point, the conclusion is that it would be fatal folly to return from Christ to Judaism, and thus the readers are urged to be loyal to the New Covenant with its paramount privileges.
5. Theology. The author assumes the Jewish faith in God, but advances to the richer Christian ideas of the divine nature. The holiness of God is profoundly felt as the reason for a more effective cleansing before approaching Him than Judaism provided, and the gravity of apostasy is emphasised by the thought that we dare not trifle with God’s demands, since He is a ’consuming fire’ (Hebrews 12:29). On the other hand, it is also taken for granted that to come near to God is the one thing to be supremely sought after in religion (Hebrews 4:16). The Epistle reaches a climax in showing how this may be done through Christ as it could not be done by means of the Levitical system (Hebrews 10:19-22). Then the Fatherhood of God is expounded with a fulness and emphasis that we meet with nowhere else except in the teachings of Jesus Christ (Hebrews 12:5-10). There is a very lofty conception of our Lord as specifically ’the Son’ who as such is higher than all other beings, angels as well as men, and also expresses to us the character and the very being of God (Hebrews 1:2-3). Nevertheless the Incarnation was a reality, and our Epistle uses language of remarkable strength and clearness concerning the human experience of Christ (Hebrews 5:7-8). In His work He is chiefly regarded as the High Priest of the Heavenly Tabernacle (Hebrews 3:1). Hebrews is the only New Testament book that gives us a distinct conception of the priesthood of Christ. This is exercised after His Resurrection and Ascension. His sacrifice on the Cross is actually presented to God in heaven. To our author the whole present interest in Christ is in that later sphere of His heavenly life—in what He is now as our priest and intercessor, though that rests on what He was on earth in His obedience and sacrifice. The death of Christ is the one sacrifice for sin (Hebrews 9:12). This is not discussed under the figure of acquittal in a court of law, after the manner of St. Paul; it is treated with reference to the tabernacle worshipper who knows himself to be unfit to enter the presence of God owing to defilement (Hebrews 9:19). Christ’s sacrifice removes this defilement (Hebrews 10:22). The sacrifice consists in His offering Himself to God in death by ’the Eternal Spirit’ (Hebrews 9:14), i.e. apparently, in virtue of His divine spiritual nature, which being eternal confers eternal efficacy. The essence of the sacrifice consists in the attitude of Christ’s will, namely in His delighting to obey God’s will, even to the extent of dying when the course of obedience involves that extremity. It is not too much to say that we have the clearest New Testament exposition of the very heart and essence of the Atonement in the statement of this truth (Hebrews 10:8-10). Lastly, His great act of obedience in death was offered as the deed, not of a man, but of the leader and high priest of men, whereby He enables us to participate with Himself in doing the will of God, in which will our sanctification stands. Still, this is only to be enjoyed on condition of trust and fidelity; and the counterpart to Christ’s sacrifice is His people’s faith, the triumphs of which are celebrated as a conclusion of the whole argument (Hebrews 11). Thus the New Covenant predicted by Jeremiah is established by Christ.
6. Analysis of the Epistle.
Hebrews 1:1-3. The Two Methods of Revelation contrasted
Judaism rested on the OT. as its authority; Christianity rests on the revelation in Christ. The earlier revelation was fragmentary, and limited by the limited human nature of the prophets through whom it came; the later revelation is a unity coming through that one Person in whom Sonship to God has been perfected, and who therefore most adequately represents the divine nature..
Hebrews 1:4 to Hebrews 4:13. The Supremacy of Christ
The OT itself testifies to His supremacy as God’s Son over its chief personages—first, the angels, through whom the Jews believed that creation had been effected and the law given (Hebrews 1:4 to Hebrews 2:4); nevertheless Jesus, though thus really superior to the angels by nature, is temporarily in a lower state that He may learn sympathy with us, taking our nature upon Him in order to become our adequate High Priest (Hebrews 2:5-18). Jesus is also superior to Moses, the founder of the national religion, yet only a servant, while He is the Son (Hebrews 3:1-6); Christ has a rest to give which we are warned not to miss by unfaithfulness as Israel missed its rest by provoking God in the wilderness (Hebrews 3:7 to Hebrews 4:7). This promised rest which Joshua, the Jesus of the OT., could not give remains for another to confer. We therefore must labour to enter into it, considering how penetrating is God’s word which promises the rest but also threatens punishment for unfaithfulness (Hebrews 4:8-13). Again turning to the high-priesthood of Christ, who is Jesus the Saviour indeed, the author prepares for his full discussion of it by a reference to the privilege it confers on us (Hebrews 4:14-16).
Hebrews 5:1 to Hebrews 7:10. The High Priesthood of Christ
The introduction of the High Priest ends the historical survey which had been brought down from the creation, through Moses and then Joshua. At this point the argument resolves itself into a discussion of Christ’s priesthood in comparison with the Levitical priesthood, which is developed as the dominant theme of the Epistle. First we have Christ’s resemblance to Aaron briefly stated, so as to show that He is at least as true a priest. Christ fulfilled the two requisite conditions that were seen in the case of Aaron—human brotherhood, essential to the representative character of priesthood (Hebrews 5:1-3), and divine appointment, essential to its authority (Hebrews 5:4-5). A quotation from Psalms 110 referred to as proof of God’s appointment of Christ to the priesthood introduces the name of Melchizedek (Hebrews 5:6). This starts a fruitful line of suggestions. In His humanity Jesus suffered grievously, but, by teaching Him obedience, that awful suffering perfected Him as a priest ’after the order of Melchizedek,’ so that He became the author of eternal salvation to those who obey Him (Hebrews 5:7-10). Realising that his discussion is becoming difficult, the author breaks off to deplore the dulness of his readers and their infantile backwardness. They can only take milk; they are not yet fit for strong men’s meat (Hebrews 5:11-14). But he feels that not to advance is to be in danger of going back, and therefore while encouraging diligent progress he points out the dreadful condition to which apostasy reduces men (Hebrews 6:1-12), over against which he sets the encouragement of God’s promise to Abraham, confirmed by oath (Hebrews 6:13-20). This brings us back to Melchizedek, who is now more minutely studied as he appears in the Genesis narrative. In his high titles and his uniqueness of kingly priesthood, independent of priestly descent as in the case of the Levitical priesthood, he is like Christ (Hebrews 7:1-3). He must be reckoned greater than the Levitical priests because he took tithes—the priests’ privilege under the Law—from no less a personage than their ancestor Abraham. The conclusion to which all this points is that since Melchizedek is so superior to the Levitical priests, Christ, who is of the order of Melchizedek, must also be superior in His high-priesthood (Hebrews 7:4-10).
Hebrews 7:11 to Hebrews 8:13. The New Covenant
The argument now takes a further step forward. Since God promised a new priesthood (in Psalms 100), this must supersede and abolish the old priesthood, which had failed through not effecting its purpose, which was to secure perfection; but that implies that the conditions of the old covenant, from which the Levitical priesthood derived its authority, are also annulled, and that conditions of a new covenant are introduced to take its place, with Jesus as its surety. This covenant and its priesthood will never in its turn be superseded by yet another; because the eternity of the priest, indicated by Psalms 110:4, secured the eternity of the covenant, rich privileges on which the author enthusiastically enlarges (Hebrews 7:11-28).
It is under the new covenant that Jesus appears as a priest, for He could claim no priesthood under the old law. This covenant is superior to and supersedes that of the Levitical system, because it concerns priesthood in the heavenly tabernacle, which was the pattern for the merely earthly tabernacle that Moses saw on the Mount (Hebrews 8:1-7). It is confirmed by Jeremiah’s great prophecy (Hebrews 8:8-13).
Hebrews 9:1 to Hebrews 10:39. The Sacrifice of Christ
We now approach the very heart of the Epistle and its most profound teachings. Under the first covenant there was a variety of Temple furniture and an elaborate ceremonial, with a continual series of sacrifices. This reached a climax in the annual visit of the high priest to the inner chamber of the tabernacle with sacrificial blood. The very ceremony of reconciliation signified God’s separation from the people. All these ceremonies were unable to make the worshipper ’perfect,’ i.e. like a fully initiated person fit to participate in the mysteries (Hebrews 9:1-10). But now, what those mere animal sacrifices, so often repeated, could never effect, Jesus accomplished when He entered the heavenly tabernacle with His own blood, i.e. when He presented Himself in the presence of God after His crucifixion. A covenant is designated in the Bible by a Gk. word (diathekç) which in the classics means a ’will.’ Now, a will only comes into effect through the death of the testator. Similarly, the new covenant is like Christ’s will; its validity is due to His death. This death being by voluntary surrender of His life, as a free act of His spirit, is of real value in the sight of God (Hebrews 9:11-22). It is enough for such a sacrifice to be offered once for all (Hebrews 9:23-28). Thus over against the failure of the old, proved by the necessity of repetition, is the success of the new. This is illustrated by a passage from Psalms 40, which shows us that the essence of sacrifice is obedience to the will of God (Hebrews 10:1-18). On the ground of the cleansing thus accomplished by Christ follow exhortations (Hebrews 10:19-25), admonitions (Hebrews 10:26-31) and encouragements (Hebrews 10:32-39).
Hebrews 11. The Achievements of Faith
These are illustrated from the annals of Israel, begining with the patriarchs and coming down to the martyrs.
The recital is introduced by a description of faith as giving assurance for hope and proving the reality of the unseen, and so accounting for the success of the ancients of Israel (Hebrews 11:1-2). It enables us to see the divine source of creation (Hebrews 11:3). Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sara, all succeeded through faith (Hebrews 11:4-12). The reason was their pilgrim attitude in seeking for a better country (Hebrews 11:13-16). Resuming the survey we see faith in Abraham offering Isaac, in Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and the conduct of the exodus; in the fall of Jericho, and the conduct of Rahab; in the heroism of the judges, and the endurance of the martyrs (Hebrews 11:17-40).
Hebrews 12:1 -end. Further Encouragement and Warnings
The heroes of faith are witnesses of our race, the thought of whom should stimulate us, while we look to our leader, Jesus, for the beginning and ending of our faith (Hebrews 12:1-3).
Suffering should be borne patiently, since it is God’s fatherly discipline. If we did not have it this would be a sign that we were not true sons (Hebrews 12:4-13); care must be taken not to fall like Esau (Hebrews 12:14-17); our greater privileges entail greater responsibilities than those of the Israelites at Sinai (Hebrews 12:18-28), Therefore, brotherly love and pure living should be cultivated (Hebrews 13:1-6); respect for the rulers of the Church is enjoined, and courage to break away from even the dearest ties for Christ’s sake and in union with Him (Hebrews 13:7-17). Final exhortations, benedictions, and salutations bring the Epistle—which did not open as such—to the usual conclusion of a letter.
the Week of Christ the King / Proper 29 / Ordinary 34