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Bible Commentaries

Barclay's Daily Study Bible


- Hebrews

by William Barclay



God Fulfils Himself In Many Ways

Religion has never been the same thing to all men. "God," as Tennyson said, "fulfils himself in many ways." George Russell said: "There are as many ways of climbing to the stars as there are people to climb." There is a well-known saying which tells us very truly and very beautifully that "God has his own secret stairway into every heart." Broadly speaking, there have been four great conceptions of religion.

(i) To some men it is inward fellowship with God. It is a union with Christ so close and so intimate that the Christian can be said to live in Christ and Christ to live in him. That was Paul's conception of religion. To him it was something which mystically united him with God.

(ii) To some religion is what gives a man a standard for life and a power to reach that standard. On the whole that is what religion was to James and to Peter. It was something which showed them what life ought to be and which enabled them to attain it.

(iii) To some men religion is the highest satisfaction of their minds. Their minds seek and seek until they find that they can rest in God. It was Plato who said that "the unexamined life is the life not worth living." There are some men who must understand or perish. On the whole that is what religion was to John. The first chapter of his gospel is one of the greatest attempts in the world to state religion in a way that really satisfies the mind.

(iv) To some men religion is access to God. It is that which removes the barriers and opens the door to his living presence. That is what religion was to the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews. With that idea his mind was dominated. He found in Christ the one person who could take him into the very presence of God. His whole idea of religion is summed up in the great passage in Hebrews 10:19-23.

"Therefore, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way which he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith."

If the writer to the Hebrews had one text it was: "Let us draw near."

The Double Background

The writer to the Hebrews had a double background into both of which this idea came. He had a Greek background. Ever since the time of Plato, five hundred years before, the Greeks had been haunted by the contrast between the real and the unreal, the seen and the unseen, the temporal and the eternal. It was the Greek idea that somewhere there was a real world of which this was only a shadowy and imperfect copy. Plato had the idea that somewhere there was a world of perfect forms or ideas or patterns, of which everything in this world was an imperfect copy. To take a simple instance, somewhere there was laid up the pattern of a perfect chair of which all the chairs in this world were inadequate copies. Plato said: "The Creator of the world had designed and carried out his work according to an unchangeable and eternal pattern of which the world is but a copy." Philo, who took his ideas from Plato, said: "God knew from the beginning that a fair copy could never come into being apart from a fair pattern; and that none of the objects perceivable by sense could be flawless which was not modelled after an archetype and spiritual idea, and thus, when he prepared to create this visible world, he shaped beforehand the ideal world in order to constitute the corporeal after the incorporeal and godlike pattern." When Cicero was talking of the laws men know and use on earth, he said: "We have no real and life-like likeness of real law and genuine justice; all we enjoy is a shadow and a sketch."

The thinkers of the ancient world all had this idea that somewhere there is a real world of which this one is only a kind of imperfect copy. Here we can only guess and grope; here we can work only with copies and imperfect things. But in the unseen world there are the real and perfect things. When Newman died they erected a statue to him, and on the pedestal of it are the Latin words: Ab umbris et imaginibus ad veritatem, "Away from the shadows and the semblances to the truth." If that be so, clearly the great task of this life is to get away from the shadows and the imperfections and to reach reality. This is exactly what the writer to the Hebrews claims that Jesus Christ can enable us to do. To the Greek the writer to the Hebrews said: "All your lives you have been trying to get from the shadows to the truth. That is just what Jesus Christ can enable you to do."

The Hebrew Background

But the writer to the Hebrews also had a Jewish background. To the Jew it was always dangerous to come too near to God. "Man," said God to Moses, "shall not see me and live" ( Exodus 33:20). It was Jacob's astonished exclamation at Peniel: "I have seen god face to face and yet my life is preserved" ( Genesis 32:30). When Manoah realised who his visitor had been, he said in terror to his wife: "We shall surely die, for we have seen God." The great day of Jewish worship was the Day of Atonement. That was the one day of all the year when the High Priest entered the Holy of Holies where the very presence of God was held to dwell. No man ever entered in except the High Priest, and he only on that day. When he did, the law laid it down that he must not linger in the Holy Place for long "lest he put Israel in terror." It was dangerous to enter the presence of God and if a man waited too long he might be struck dead.

In view of this there entered into Jewish thought the idea of a covenant. God, in his grace and in a way that was quite unmerited, approached the nation of Israel and offered them a special relationship with himself. But this unique access to God was conditional on the observance by the people of the law that he gave to them. We can see this relationship being entered into and this law being accepted in the dramatic scene in Exodus 24:3-8.

So then Israel had access to God, but only if she kept the law. To break the law was sin, and sin put up a barrier which stopped the way to God. It was to take away that barrier that the system of the Levitical priesthood and sacrifices was constructed. The law was given; man sinned; the barrier was up; the sacrifice was made; and the sacrifice was designed to open the closed way to God. But the experience of life was that this was precisely what sacrifice could not do. It was proof of the ineffectiveness of the whole system that sacrifice had to go on and on and on. It was a losing and ineffective battle to remove the barrier that sin had erected between man and God.

The Perfect Priest And The Perfect Sacrifice

What men needed was a perfect priest and a perfect sacrifice, someone who was such that he could bring to God a sacrifice which once and for all opened the way of access to him. That, said the writer to the Hebrews, is exactly what Christ did. He is the perfect priest because he is at once perfectly man and perfectly God. In his manhood he can take man to God and in his Godhead he can take God to man. He has no sin. The perfect sacrifice he brings is the sacrifice of himself, a sacrifice so perfect that it never needs to be made again. To the Jew the writer to the Hebrews said: "All your lives you have been looking for the perfect priest who can bring the perfect sacrifice and give you access to God. You have him in Jesus Christ and in him alone."

To the Greek the writer to the Hebrews said: "You are looking for the way from the shadows to reality; you will find it in Jesus Christ." To the Jew the writer to the Hebrews said: "You are looking for that perfect sacrifice which will open the way to God which your sins have closed; you will find it in Jesus Christ." Jesus was the one person who gave access to reality and access to God. That is the key-thought of this letter.

The Riddle Of The New Testament

So much is clear but when we turn to the other questions of introduction Hebrews is wrapped in mystery. E. F. Scott wrote: "The Epistle to the Hebrews is in many respects the riddle of the New Testament." When it was written, to whom it was written, and who wrote it are questions at which we can only guess. The very history of the letter shows how its mystery is to be treated with a certain reserve and suspicion. It was a long time before it became an unquestioned New Testament book. The first list of New Testament books, The Muratorian Canon, compiled about A.D. 170, does not mention it at all. The great Alexandrian scholars. Clement and Origen, knew it and loved it but agreed that its place as scripture was disputed. Of the great African fathers, Cyprian never mentions it and Tertullian knows that its place was disputed. Eusebius, the great Church historian, says that it ranked among the disputed books. It was not until the time of Athanasius, in the middle of the fourth century, that Hebrews was definitely accepted as a New Testament book, and even Luther was not too sure about it. It is strange to think how long this great book had to wait for full recognition.

When Was It Written?

The only information we have comes from the letter itself. Clearly it is written for what we might call second generation Christians ( Hebrews 2:3). The story was transmitted to its recipients by those who had heard the Lord. The community to whom it was written were not new to the Christian faith; they ought to have been mature ( Hebrews 5:12). They must have had a long history for they are summoned to look back on the former days ( Hebrews 10:32). They had a great history behind them and heroic martyr figures on which they ought to look back for inspiration ( Hebrews 13:7).

The thing that will help us most in dating the letter is its references to persecution. It is clear that at one time their leaders had died for their faith ( Hebrews 13:7). It is clear that they themselves had not yet suffered persecution, for they had not yet resisted to the point of shedding their blood ( Hebrews 12:4). It is also clear that they have had ill-treatment to suffer for they have had to undergo the pillaging of their goods ( Hebrews 10:32-34). And it is clear from the outlook of the letter that there is a risk of persecution about to come. From all that it is safe to say that this letter must have been written between two persecutions, in days when Christians were not actually persecuted, but were none the less unpopular with their fellow-men. Now the first persecution was in the time of Nero in the year A.D. 64; and the next was in the time of Domitian about A.D. 85. Somewhere between these dates this letter was written, more likely nearer to Domitian. If we take the date as A.D. 80 we shall not be far wrong.

To Whom Was It Written?

Once again we have to be dependent on such hints as we get from the letter itself. One thing is certain--it cannot have been written to any of the great Churches or the name of the place could not have so completely vanished. Let us set down what we know. The letter was written to a long-established Church ( Hebrews 5:12). It was written to a Church which had at some time in the past suffered persecution ( Hebrews 10:32-34). It was written to a Church which had had great days and great teachers and leaders ( Hebrews 13:7). It was written to a Church which had not been directly founded by the apostles ( Hebrews 2:3). It was written to a Church which had been marked by generosity and liberality ( Hebrews 6:10).

We do have one direct hint. Amongst the closing greetings we find the sentence, as the Revised Standard Version translates it: "Those who come from Italy send you greetings" ( Hebrews 13:24). Taken by itself that phrase could mean either that the letter was written from Italy or that it was written to Italy, the greater likelihood is that it was written to Italy. Suppose I am in Glasgow and am writing to some place abroad. I would not be likely to say, "All the people from Glasgow greet you." I would be much more likely to say, "All the people in Glasgow greet you." But suppose I am somewhere abroad where there is a little colony of Glaswegians, I might well say, "All the people from Glasgow send you their greetings." So then we may say that the letter was written to Italy; and if it was written to Italy it was almost certainly written to Rome.

But quite certainly it was not written to the Church at Rome as a whole. If it had been it would never have lost its title. Furthermore, it gives the unmistakable impression that it was written to a small body of like-minded persons. Moreover, it was obviously written to a scholarly group. From Hebrews 5:12 we can see that they had long been under instruction and were preparing themselves to become teachers of the Christian faith. Still further, Hebrews demands such a knowledge of the Old Testament that it must always have been a book written by a scholar for scholars.

When we sum it all up, we can say that Hebrews is a letter written by a great teacher to a little group or college of Christians in Rome. He was their teacher; at the moment he was separated from them and was afraid that they were drifting away from the faith; and so he wrote this letter to them. It is not so much a letter as a talk. It does not begin like Paul's letters do, although it ends with greetings as a letter does. The writer himself calls it "a word of exhortation."

By Whom Was It Written?

Perhaps the most insoluble problem of all is the problem of its authorship. It was precisely that uncertainty which kept it so long on the fringes of the New Testament. The title in the earliest days was simply, "To the Hebrews." No author's name was given, no one connected it directly with the name of Paul. Clement of Alexandria used to think that Paul might have written it in Hebrew and that Luke translated it, for the style is quite different from that of Paul. Origen made a famous remark, "who wrote the Letter to the Hebrews only God knows for certain." Tertullian thought that Barnabas wrote it. Jerome said the Latin Church did not receive it as Paul's and speaking of the author said, "the writer to the Hebrews whoever he was." Augustine felt the same way about it. Luther declared that Paul could never have written it because the thought was not his. Calvin said that he could not bring himself to think that this letter was a letter of Paul.

At no time in the history of the Church did men ever really think that Paul wrote Hebrews. How then did it get attached to his name? It happened very simply. When the New Testament came into its final form there was of course argument about which books were to be included and which were not. To settle it one test was used. Was a book the work of an apostle or at least the work of one who had been in direct contact with the apostles? By this time Hebrews was known and loved throughout the Church. Most people felt like Origen that God alone knew who wrote it, but they wanted it. They felt it must go into the New Testament and the only way to ensure that was to include it with the thirteen letters of Paul. Hebrews won its way into the New Testament on the grounds of its own greatness, but to get in it had to be included with the letters of Paul and come under his name. People knew quite well that it was not Paul's but they included it among his letters because no man knew who wrote it and yet it must go in.

The Author Of Hebrews

Can we guess who the author was? Many candidates have been put forward. We can only glance at three of the many suggestions.

(i) Tertullian thought that Barnabas wrote it. Barnabas was a native of Cyprus; the people of Cyprus were famous for the excellence of the Greek they spoke; and Hebrews is written in the best Greek in the New Testament. He was a Levite ( Acts 4:36) and of all men in the New Testament he would have had the closest knowledge of the priestly and sacrificial system on which the whole thought of the letter is based. He is called a son of encouragement; the Greek word is paraklesis ( G3874) ; and Hebrews calls itself a word of paraklesis ( G3874) ( Hebrews 13:22). He was one of the few men acceptable to both Jews and Greeks and at home in both worlds of thought. It might be that Barnabas wrote this letter, but if so it is strange that his name should vanish in connection with it.

(ii) Luther was sure that Apollos was the author. Apollos, according to the New Testament mention of him, was a Jew, born at Alexandria, an eloquent man and mighty in the scriptures ( Acts 18:24 ff; 1 Corinthians 1:12; 1 Corinthians 3:4). The man who wrote this letter knew the scriptures; he was eloquent; and he thought and argued in the way that a cultured Alexandrian would. The man who wrote Hebrews was certainly a man like Apollos in thought and in background.

(iii) The most romantic of all conjectures is that of Harnack, the great German scholar. He thought that maybe Aquila and Priscilla wrote it between them. Aquila was a teacher ( Acts 18:26). Their house in Rome was a Church in itself ( Romans 16:5). Harnack thought that that is why the letter begins with no greetings and why the writer's name has vanished--because the main author of Hebrews was a woman and a woman was not allowed to teach.

But when we come to the end of conjecture, we are compelled to say as Origen said seventeen hundred years ago, that only God knows who wrote Hebrews. To us the author must remain a voice and nothing more; but we can be thankful to God for the work of this great nameless one who wrote with incomparable skill and beauty about the Jesus who is the way to reality and the way to God.

-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)