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Bible Commentaries

Expository Notes of Dr. Thomas Constable

Hebrews

- Hebrews

by Thomas Constable

Introduction

DATE

The writer said that he and those to whom he wrote had come to faith in Jesus Christ through the preaching of others who had heard Jesus (Heb_2:3-4). Apparently those preachers had since died (Heb_13:7). The original readers had been Christians for an extended period of time (Heb_5:12). So probably the earliest possible date of composition was about A.D. 60.

Some scholars believe that the book must have been written before A.D. 70 since the writer spoke of the sacrifices as being offered when he wrote (Heb_7:27-28; Heb_8:3-5; Heb_9:7-8; Heb_9:25; Heb_10:1-3; Heb_10:8; Heb_13:10-11). However, the writer showed no interest in the temple but spoke of the sacrifices as the Israelites offered them when the tabernacle stood. He evidently used the present tense to give these references a timeless quality rather than indicating that temple worship was still in practice. Nevertheless a date of composition before A.D. 70 seems probable. [Note: William L. Lane, Hebrews 1-8, pp. lxii-lxvi; Andrew H. Trotter Jr., Interpreting the Epistle to the Hebrews, pp. 27-38.]

"The best argument for the supersession of the old covenant would have been the destruction of the Temple." [Note: H. W. Montefiore, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, p. 3.]

The reference to Timothy’s release from imprisonment (Heb_13:23) appears to date the book later in the life of that outstanding man. Almost all scholars believe that the Timothy referred to in Hebrews is the same one named elsewhere in the New Testament. No other New Testament writer mentioned Timothy’s imprisonment. The imprisonment of Christians seems to have been a well-known fact of life (Heb_10:34; Heb_13:3). This was true after Nero launched an empire-wide persecution in A.D. 64. All of these factors when taken together seem to point to a writing date near A.D. 68-69.

WRITER

As to authorship, most students of this subject are not dogmatic or even certain, for good reason. [Note: See Trotter, pp. 39-57, for a good discussion.; or Donald A. Carson and Douglas J. Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament, pp. 600-4; for good discussions.] As early as Origen, the Alexandrian church father who died about A.D. 255, no one knew who the writer was for sure. After careful study of the authorship of Hebrews, Origen wrote, "But who it was that really wrote the epistle, God only knows." [Note: Eusebius, The Ecclesiastical History of Eusebius Pamphilus, p. 247.]

"The language of the Epistle is both in vocabulary and style purer and more vigorous than that of any other book of the New Testament.

". . . The vocabulary is singularly copious. It includes a large number of words which are not found elsewhere in the apostolic writings, very many of which occur in this book only among the Greek Scriptures . . ." [Note: Brooke Foss Westcott, The Epistle to the Hebrews, p. xliv. See Trotter, pp. 117-43.]

"All that can be said with certainty is that Hebrews was composed by a creative theologian who was well trained in the exposition of the Greek Scriptures. . . . He was surely a hellenistic Jewish-Christian." [Note: Lane, p. xlix.]

Commentators have made cases for the writer being Paul, Apollos, Barnabas, Luke, Peter, Jude, Stephen, Silvanus (Silas), Epaphras (Epaphroditus), Philip the Evangelist, Priscilla, Mary the mother of Jesus, Clement of Rome, Aristion, and others. However the masculine participle diegoumenon ("to tell"), which refers to the writer in Heb_11:32, would seem to rule out a female writer. Ancient testimony mentioned only four possibilities: Paul, Luke, Barnabas, and Clement. None of these suggestions has found enthusiastic general reception for various reasons. Probably we should be content to share Origen’s agnosticism on this question and look forward to getting the answer in heaven. [Note: See Paul Ellingworth, The Epistle to the Hebrews: A Commentary on the Greek Text, pp. 3-21.]

The early Christians originally accepted all the New Testament books as inspired by God because they contained teaching from an official apostle. For this reason the writer was probably either an apostle or a close associate of at least one of the apostles (cf. Heb_13:23).

RECIPIENTS

The original recipients of the epistle are also unknown. The title "The Epistle to the Hebrews" implies that they were Jewish Christians. This title is ancient and is probably a safe guide to the identity of the first readers. References in the epistle also suggest that the original readers were mainly Jewish. The writer assumed that they were very familiar with the institutions of Judaism. The warnings against turning away from Jesus Christ back to the Old Covenant also imply this identity. Other indications are the emphasis on the superior priesthood of Jesus and the many appeals to the authority of the Hebrew Scriptures. However the brand of Judaism in view seems to have been Hellenistic rather than Palestinian.

The reference to the generosity of the readers and their helping other believers (Heb_6:10) suggests that the original audience did not live in Palestine. The Palestinian churches had a reputation for needing material assistance rather than for giving it to other Christians (cf. Rom_15:25-31; 1Co_16:3). Probably they were Jews of the Diaspora therefore. This conclusion has support in the writer’s consistent use of the Septuagint Old Testament version. Hellenistic Jews used this translation widely, but Palestinian Jews did not use it as much. Arguments for the recipients being Palestinian Jews include their intimate knowledge of the temple ritual and the opportunity they had to escape suffering by returning to the observance of Jewish practices and feasts. [Note: See J. Dwight Pentecost, A Faith That Endures, pp. 12-13.] I think the arguments for their living outside Palestine are stronger.

In most of the New Testament churches there was a mixture of Jewish and Gentile believers. The appeal of this epistle would certainly have been great to Gentiles tempted to return to paganism as it would have been to Jews facing temptation to return to Judaism. However the writer’s primary concern appears to have been that his Jewish readers were failing to appreciate that Christianity is the divinely revealed successor to Judaism. He did not want them to abandon Christianity and return to Judaism.

Probably the letter originally went to a house-church outside Palestine that had a strong Hellenistic Jewish population. This church may have been in or near Galatia in view of conditions that existed there that the Epistle to the Galatians reflects. However they may very well have lived in another area. Many scholars believe that the letter went first to a church in or near Rome. [Note: See Lane, pp. lviii-lx; Ellingworth, p. 29; and Donald Guthrie, The Letter to the Hebrews: An Introduction and Commentary, pp. 25-27.] Evidently knowledge of where the original recipients lived disappeared about the same time as knowledge of who the writer was. [Note: James Moffatt, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, p. xvii.]

PROVENANCE

In view of Heb_13:24 b it has seemed to some scholars that the writer was in Italy when he sent this epistle, perhaps in Rome. However the expression "from Italy" in that verse probably refers to those living outside Italy, such as Priscilla and Aquila, who were Jews forced to leave Rome by Emperor Claudius’ edict in A.D. 49 (Act_18:2). [Note: See Merrill C. Tenney, "A New Approach to the Book of Hebrews," Bibliotheca Sacra 123:491 (July-September 1966):234-35.] This expression suggests that the writer was not in Italy when he wrote.

GENRE

Many students of the book have observed that Hebrews is more of a sermon in written form than an epistle in the traditional New Testament sense. [Note: See Lane, pp. lxix-lxxxiv, for an extended discussion of the genre, or Trotter, especially pp. 59-80.] The writer even described it as a "word of exhortation" (Heb_13:22). Hebrews is like a sermon reduced to writing (cf. James; Jude). Indications of this fact are the writer’s references to speaking and hearing (cf. Heb_2:5; Heb_5:11; Heb_8:1; Heb_9:5; Heb_11:32). His epistle is more typical of speech than of writing.

". . . Hebrews is a sermon rooted in actual life. It is addressed to a local gathering of men and women who discovered that they could be penetrated by adverse circumstances over which they exercised no control. It throbs with an awareness of the privilege and the cost of discipleship. It is a sensitive pastoral response to the sagging faith of older and tired individuals who were in danger of relinquishing their Christian commitment. It seeks to strengthen them in the face of a new crisis so that they may stand firm in their faith. It warns them of the judgment of God they would incur if they were to waver in their commitment. Exhortations to covenant fidelity and perseverance are grounded in a fresh understanding of the significance of Jesus and his sacrifice." [Note: Lane, p. xlvi. See also Ellingworth, pp. 78-80.]

There is an alternation in the genre of this epistle from exposition to exhortation to exposition to exhortation and so forth. Noting these major changes makes interpreting the book much easier. The blocks of material by genre are as follows. I shall note the changes in the notes that follow as well.

ExpositionExhortation
ch. 1Heb_2:1-4
Heb_2:5-18Heb_3:1 to Heb_4:14
Heb_4:15 to Heb_5:10Heb_5:11 to Heb_6:12
Heb_6:13 to Heb_10:18Heb_10:19-39
ch. 11chs. 12-13

Within the two parts of chapter 12 there is also alternation of exhortation and exposition, though the main genre there is exhortation: exhortation (Heb_12:1-2), exposition (Heb_12:3-11), exhortation (Heb_12:12-13); and exhortation (Heb_12:14-17), exposition (Heb_12:18-24), exhortation (Heb_12:25-29).

PURPOSE

The writer urged the original readers to persevere in their faith rather than turning from Christianity and returning to Judaism. A note of urgency and pastoral concern permeates the whole letter. This tone comes through especially strongly in the five warning passages and in the encouragements that follow these warnings.

". . . the purpose of the writer to the Hebrews is not to give us an interpretation of Old Testament prophecy. . . . Using material not from the prophets but primarily from the Psalms, with other materials added to elaborate the argument, the writer’s goal was to establish the superiority of the gospel in contrast to all that went before, particularly the levitical system. The primary evidence of the supremacy of Christianity is presented in its finality. Coming to Christ means final access to God without any barrier." [Note: Robert L. Saucy, The Case for Progressive Dispensationalism, p. 56.]

STYLE

Various stylistic devices enable the student of this book to identify the sections of the writer’s thought. These devices include inclusio, linking words, the repetition of key terms, alternation between exposition and admonition, and others, which I shall point out where appropriate. These rhetorical devices were common in the writer’s culture, and his use of them indicated to the original readers where his thoughts were moving.

OUTLINE [NOTE: FOR AN EVALUATION OF THREE VIEWS OF THE STRUCTURE OF HEBREWS, THE TRADITIONAL (DOCTRINAL FOLLOWED BY PRACTICAL SECTIONS), THAT OF ALBERT VANHOYE (CHIASTIC STRUCTURE), AND "PATCHWORK," SEE DAVID ALAN BLACK, "THE PROBLEM OF THE LITERARY STRUCTURE OF HEBREWS: AN EVALUATION AND A PROPOSAL," GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL 7:2 (FALL 1986):163-77. SEE ALSO LANE, PP. LXXXV-CXV; TROTTER, PP. 81-94; AND ELLINGWORTH, PP. 50-62.]

I.    The culminating revelation of God chs. 1-2

A.    The agent of God’s final revelation_Heb_1:1-4

B.    The superiority of the Son_Heb_1:5-14

C.    The danger of negligence (the first warning) Heb_2:1-4

D.    The humiliation and glory of God’s Son_Heb_2:5-9

E.    The Son’s solidarity with humanity Heb_2:10-18

II.    The high priestly character of the Son Heb_3:1 to Heb_5:10

A.    The faithfulness of the Son Heb_3:1-6

B.    The danger of disbelief (the second warning) Heb_3:7-19

C.    The possibility of rest for God’s people Heb_4:1-14

D.    The compassion of the Son Heb_4:15 to Heb_5:10

III.    The high priestly office of the Son Heb_5:11 to Heb_10:39

A.    The danger of immaturity (the third warning) Heb_5:11 to Heb_6:12

1.    The readers’ condition Heb_5:11-14

2.    The needed remedy Heb_6:1-3

3.    The dreadful alternative Heb_6:4-8

4.    The encouraging prospect Heb_6:9-12

B.    The basis for confidence and steadfastness Heb_6:13-20

C.    The Son’s high priestly ministry Heb_7:1 to Heb_10:18

1.    The person of our high priest ch. 7

2.    The work of our high priest chs. 8-9

3.    The accomplishment of our high priest Heb_10:1-18

D.    The danger of willful sinning (the fourth warning) Heb_10:19-39

1.    The threefold admonition Heb_10:19-25

2.    The warning of judgment Heb_10:26-31

3.    The encouragement to persevere Heb_10:32-39

IV.    The proper response Heb_11:1 to Heb_12:13

A.    Perseverance in faith ch. 11

1.    Faith in the antediluvian era Heb_11:1-7

2.    Faith in the patriarchal era Heb_11:8-22

3.    Faith in the Mosaic era Heb_11:23-31

4.    Faith in subsequent eras Heb_11:32-40

B.    Demonstrating necessary endurance Heb_12:1-13

1.    The example of Jesus Heb_12:1-3

2.    The proper view of trials Heb_12:4-11

3.    The need for greater strength Heb_12:12-13

V.    Life in a hostile world Heb_12:14 to Heb_13:25

A.    The danger of unresponsiveness (the fifth warning) Heb_12:14-29

1.    The goal of peace Heb_12:14-17

2.    The superiority of the New Covenant Heb_12:18-24

3.    The consequences of apostasy Heb_12:25-29

B.    Life within the church ch. 13

1.    Pastoral reminders Heb_13:1-21

2.    Personal explanations Heb_13:22-25

Appendix

Believers’ Future Inheritance
What all believers will inheritWhat faithful believers will additionally inherit
Entrance into God’s kingdom
Joh_3:3; Joh_3:5; 1Co_6:9; Gal_5:21; Eph_5:5
Abundant eternal life
Jam_1:12; Rev_2:10
Eternal life
Joh_3:16; Joh_3:36; et al.
Reigning with Christ
Luk_19:17; Luk_19:19; 2Ti_2:12; Rev_2:26-27
Acceptance by God
Rom_5:1; Rom_8:31-39
Praise from God
Mat_25:21; Mat_25:23; Luk_19:17; Joh_12:26; 2Ti_4:8; 1Pe_1:7; 1Pe_5:4
No condemnation
Rom_5:9; Rom_8:1; 1Th_1:10
Intimacy with Christ
Joh_15:14
Resurrection or translation
1Co_15:53-57; 1Th_4:13-17Glorification
1Pe_1:9
Various rewards
Mat_5:12; Mat_5:46; Mat_6:1-2; Mat_6:4-6; Mat_6:16; Mat_6:18; Mat_10:41-42; Mat_16:27; Mar_9:41; Luk_6:23; Luk_6:35; 1Co_3:8; 1Co_3:14; 1Co_9:16-18; 1Co_9:25; 1Co_9:27; 2Co_5:9-11; Php_4:1; Col_3:24; 1Th_2:19; 1Ti_4:14; 1Ti_5:18; 2Ti_2:5; 2Ti_4:8; Heb_11:6; 1Pe_5:4; 2Jn_1:8; Rev_2:7; Rev_2:11; Rev_2:17; Rev_2:28; Rev_3:5; Rev_3:11-12; Rev_3:21; Rev_11:18; Rev_22:12

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