HEBREWS: Running a Better Race

Hebrews will be another book that is tricky to deal with correctly within the scope of this series. We could go through it in its entirety like we did Galatians or Romans, but it might be slightly overdone. I’m tempted personally, because it’s one of my favorite books, but I think I may actually hurt my own purposes for this series if I do. Instead, I will point you in a few directions if you’d like to do more work on this book.

First, the context of Hebrews is debated, but recent scholarship is changing our assumptions. We used to believe that Hebrews was written before the destruction of the Temple (in AD 70); most of the reasoning for this was the way the book discusses the Temple and Levitical priesthood in the present tense. However, as we learn more and more about first-century Judaism, this is starting to be questioned. One of my favorite theories is that the “book” is actually a sermon written after the destruction of the Temple to be circulated among the synagogues as a homily addressing a Judaism without the Temple. One scholar has even suggested this homily was read as the holiday reading during the solemn assembly that remembered the destitution of the Temple.

Second, the author of Hebrews is unknown and still debated. While ancient church tradition credited Paul with the writing of Hebrews, that has all but been rejected by modern scholarship for the last couple of centuries. Whoever the author is, they are incredibly fluent in Greek, Alexandrian in their thought, and a second-generation believer. Paul fits none of these criteria. However other options emerge as great possibilities: Barnabas, Apollos, or even Clement are good ideas. My favorite opinion is that the letter is written by Priscilla, and the fact that it is a woman is why the author doesn’t name herself. This can be argued by using some Greek analytical thought, but I digress.

Third, the overarching theme of Hebrews seems to be that Jesus offers a clearer version of everything the Jewish people understand. It’s not that Jesus came and did something new at all — it’s the same story from Genesis on — but Jesus is a better version of everything they held dear in the Levitical system. The Torah was great and a wonderful gift from God, but Jesus takes Torah and makes it even better and more clear, interpreting it through his life. Moses was an amazing leader, but Jesus was everything that Moses was and then some. The High Priest is an incredible thing to have, but Jesus is the best High Priest you could serve. Time and time again, the author says that what they have experienced in God’s Levitical way was a wonderful thing, but now that it has been destroyed, they need not fret, for Jesus has given them something better.

I should point out that we did an eleven-week exegetical Lenten series through the book of Hebrews here at Real Life on the Palouse. You can get to the series by clicking here and enjoying the discussion about the context of Hebrews.

Fourth, speaking of overarching themes, the book of Hebrews contains an incredible use of an ancient Greek literary tool. The book of Hebrews uses something known as an inclusio, a type of literary “bracketing” to identify an argument within a piece of Greek literature. In some ways, it functions similarly to a chiasm (a Hebrew literary tool, which is also seen in Hebrews in addition to the inclusio), only without all the elements of an inverted parallelism. You can see a visual representation of the inclusio of Hebrews that was made by my friend Paule Patterson below, as well as listen to Paule explain the infographic in the teaching here.

Finally, the last dominant theme that seems to serve as the thrust of the exhortation of Hebrews is the idea of perseverance. All throughout the homily, the author insists that Jesus knew what it meant to suffer, was glorified in his suffering, and showed us how to suffer so God could also bring “many sons to glory” through our perseverance. The call repeats itself numerous times throughout the book, finally culminating in the passage of Hebrews 11 (sometimes referred to as “The Hall of Faith”), where the author lists these great heroes of the faith who show us what it means to follow God faithfully. The author will say that since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses (those great heroes of the faith, as well as those great heroes of your faith who have gone before you), we need to run the race with perseverance. It’s one of my favorite passage of Scripture, and you can also see me teach on the idea here.

Now there’s one last seed I want to plant before we move beyond the book of Hebrews. We’ve given you a lot of leads to follow from here if you so desire, so I hope you can enjoy that. But what about this idea of sacrifice?


PHILEMON: Faith Works

This brings us to the last of what are traditionally considered Paul’s letters. Paul writes a short letter to Philemon about a runaway slave named Onesimus. This short, often under-appreciated letter has actually become one of my favorites. It really helps us fill in some gaps in history and it’s neat to read such a personal correspondence.

First, there are so many things to speculate about (for the enjoyment of Bible study). Church tradition holds that Paul’s parents were manumitted slaves. To be manumitted meant you had won such favor with your master that he purchased your freedom. The honor was so great that Roman citizenship was given to your children (although never to you). This would certainly explain how Paul was “born a citizen,” as he describes in the book of Acts.

I also love to speculate about the background of Onesimus. In the ancient Roman empire, there was a profession of people who wandered about in the fields of exposed babies (a horrid practice, otherwise known as sublatus) and looked for children who were physically able and could be raised to be sold as slaves. There was a Greek physician named Soranos who wrote a work titled How to Recognize a Child Worth Raising that instructed people in this profession. I find it interesting that Onesimus has a Greek name that means “useful.” It strikes me as a name that might be given to such a child who was raised to be a slave. Much could be written about this, but I digress.

Second, there is certainly an air of humor in the letter to Philemon. Almost every scholar I’m aware of and every Bible teacher I’ve heard teach on Philemon seems to recognize that the letter is drenched in Greek, “over-the-top” sarcasm. Paul is writing this tongue-in-cheek letter to Philemon and laying it on really thick that he “owes [Paul] his very life” and that even though he could command him to do the right thing, Paul is confident Philemon will go above and beyond the call of faith. Not to mention that this letter is addressed to the entire congregation at Colossae, therefore forcing Philemon to read the correspondence publicly and give his answer to everyone listening. This leads to my third observation:

There is a very Jewish conversation lying behind the plea of Paul’s letter to Philemon. In the Jewish world of the first century, there was a larger argument about why a person obeys the law; it was an argument between what was called “law works” and “faith works.”

One of the best ways to understand this argument in our culture is to consider the speed limit. Some people may obey the speed limit because they would rather not get a ticket. If they don’t speed, they are not punished. This understanding would be called “law works.”

Of course, there might be others who follow the speed limit because they believe that ultimately it's just the right thing to do. It keeps everybody safe, maintains order, and is more efficient for your car. They would argue that things simply go better when you follow the rule. This understanding was called “faith works.”

It’s worth pausing for a moment to ask ourselves how we “New Testament believers” approach the idea of obedience.


Because Paul is quite a believer in “faith works” — so much so that he would jokingly reference the idea to a fellow brother.
Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the Lord’s people.
Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, yet I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love. It is as none other than Paul—an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus—that I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me.
Paul appeals to Philemon on the basis of love to do the right thing. Sarcastically laying on “good-humored guilt and shame,” Paul brings to mind his old age and his fondness of Onesimus.

I have always found my understanding of this letter a grand reminder of the lightness that we should carry in our walk of faith. The way we should be committed to the right things is so much so that we are able to smile and elbow our neighbor about why we do what we do, always having a profound belief that the way of Jesus truly is the best way to live. Whether or not we set people free from their debts and mistakes shouldn’t really be an argument for people who follow Jesus. And helping people see they are a true member of God’s household is always a privilege and a joy.



We don’t know a whole lot about the story of Titus, but what we can glean from the Text, history, and tradition seems to stand in contrast to Timothy. Titus is a gentile, an uncircumcised convert from Antioch who is stationed on the small island of Crete. Paul also opens his letter to Titus by calling him a true son of their common faith, and then speaks of this assignment on Crete.
The reason I left you in Crete was that you might put in order what was left unfinished and appoint elders in every town, as I directed you. An elder must be blameless, faithful to his wife, a man whose children believe and are not open to the charge of being wild and disobedient. Since an overseer manages God’s household, he must be blameless—not overbearing, not quick-tempered, not given to drunkenness, not violent, not pursuing dishonest gain. Rather, he must be hospitable, one who loves what is good, who is self-controlled, upright, holy and disciplined. He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it.
Titus has a tough job on Crete. Consider the next words from Paul in the letter:
For there are many rebellious people, full of meaningless talk and deception, especially those of the circumcision group. They must be silenced, because they are disrupting whole households by teaching things they ought not to teach—and that for the sake of dishonest gain. One of Crete’s own prophets has said it: “Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons.” This saying is true. Therefore rebuke them sharply, so that they will be sound in the faith and will pay no attention to Jewish myths or to the merely human commands of those who reject the truth.
The striking lesson for me is Paul’s actions in the assignments of his disciples. According to our study, Paul has raised up two (among others) disciples. I have always called these two Tough Titus and Timid Timothy. Remember, it was Timothy who was told not to let anyone look down on him because he was young. Paul also writes to Timothy:
For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands. For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline. So do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner. Rather, join with me in suffering for the gospel, by the power of God.
It sure seems to me that Timothy struggles, on some level, with timidity and confidence. Paul will need to station pastors at two different churches: Crete and Ephesus. He has two candidates: Tough Titus and Timid Timothy. Who do you post where? I understand some might say, “Put Tough Titus on Crete! They are a rough crowd!” Fine, but please don’t forget about Ephesus.

Ephesus will be the headquarters for the early church in Asia and Asia Minor. It’s considered to be the largest church in the first century. Depending on which scholar you are asking, the estimates for the population of first-century Ephesus will range from half a million to a million and a half people. This is the second largest city in the Roman empire, second only to Rome itself.

Crete is a tiny island. It’s a low risk, moderate reward situation. But Ephesus is a huge risk, high reward situation. At least by our standards.

But I am reminded that my standards aren’t always the measuring stick used in the Kingdom. While Timothy would have never been given the green light by many of our great church planting organizations, he was by Paul.

And Paul knows it won’t be easy; but he believes in Timothy.
I thank God, whom I serve, as my ancestors did, with a clear conscience, as night and day I constantly remember you in my prayers. Recalling your tears, I long to see you, so that I may be filled with joy. I am reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and, I am persuaded, now lives in you also.
For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands. For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline. So do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner. Rather, join with me in suffering for the gospel, by the power of God. He has saved us and called us to a holy life—not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace. This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time, but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior, Christ Jesus, who has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. And of this gospel I was appointed a herald and an apostle and a teacher. That is why I am suffering as I am. Yet this is no cause for shame, because I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him until that day.
Later Paul will say:
You, however, know all about my teaching, my way of life, my purpose, faith, patience, love, endurance, persecutions, sufferings—what kinds of things happened to me in Antioch, Iconium and Lystra, the persecutions I endured. Yet the Lord rescued me from all of them. In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evildoers and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.
In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry.

I find myself inspired again and again by Paul’s call to Timothy. Leaving him in the largest church, struggling with confidence, Paul insists on his belief in Timid Timothy — a redeemed mumzer in Christ Jesus — and leaves him with this charge: Preach the Word.

May we be as bold to follow the instructions and actions of the Rabbi that came before us and his early followers.


PASTORAL EPISTLES: Timothy the Mumzer

** I find myself completely indebted to Ray VanderLaan for this post, which I learned during my time with him. You can find his own lesson in Volume 7 (Faith Lesson #3) of the "That the World May Know" teaching series produced by Focus on the Family.

The next three letters of Paul are what we often call “pastoral epistles” — letters written from Paul to two pastors he discipled and left at their respective posts. These letters are far more personal in nature (compared to the letters penned to churches), but this doesn’t mean they weren’t to be shared. Paul writes these correspondences in such a way that they would be shared with the elders, and then the churches at large.

These letters are particularly useful because they speak of ecclesiological matters and address issues of church order and what we might call polity. This is also what makes addressing these books more difficult. In a similar fashion to Leviticus, we can either address the book verse by verse or at a “macro” level. I will again choose the latter for the sake of the scope of this series. This will also serve us well because of the rampant disagreement within the church on the more specific issues of church polity. I have no desire to dodge the tough conversations, but I also have even less desire to miss some of the greater, more poetic, and compelling points of the stories that lie behind these letters.

A great case in point will be the story of Timothy.

We don’t actually meet Timothy in the letters that are penned to him personally; we meet him in the book of Acts as a young boy. We’re told that when Paul visits Lystra, he meets Timothy, a young boy whose mother is a Jew, but whose father is a Greek. This is included because of its incredible relevance to Timothy’s situation. In the first century, this situation makes Timothy a “mumzer” (or “mamzer”), a term used to refer to a child of illegitimate birth. The Torah proclaimed that a mumzer was not allowed to enter the assembly of God’s people. He was not allowed to be circumcised (hence his circumcision by Paul later in Acts) and not allowed to be a part of the community of the faith — especially in a town like Lystra, which sits on the edge of the same region and province we spoke of in the context of Galatians.

The unexcavated tel of Lystra
What’s interesting is that Paul is continually drawn back to Lystra. We mentioned before that Paul greatly diverted his course after the conversion of Sergius Paullus. He went north into the region of Galatia and made the same circuit more than once. The ruins of Lystra are incredibly reminiscent of the tel at Colossae; the small mound that sits in the middle of Turkey would be unidentified if it weren’t for a local farmer who plowed up a stone by the ruins that said, in essence, “Welcome to Lystra.” Like Colossae, the tel sits unexcavated and houses the ruins of a small, unimpressive town. Why is Paul being drawn back here?

Paul will eventually find his first disciple in Lystra. Paul will begin planting fewer churches and start making more disciples. Paul is beginning to look more and more like Jesus. Not only this, but just like his Rabbi Yeshua (Jesus), Paul will call those whom the world rejects to be his disciples. His first student will be a mumzer from Lystra named Timothy.

This story is one of the most moving in the New Testament. While it’s very difficult to capture the emotion this story packs, it’s heart wrenching to consider that this rejected loner of a child is approached by a student of the great Rabbi Gamaliel — now a student of Yeshua haMashiach — and hears the words lecha charai“Come, follow me.”

The words of Paul will find all kinds of new meaning as you read his letters to Timothy.
Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the command of God our Savior and of Christ Jesus our hope, 
To Timothy my true son in the faith: 
Grace, mercy and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord. 
Timothy, my son, I am giving you this command in keeping with the prophecies once made about you, so that by recalling them you may fight the battle well, holding on to faith and a good conscience, which some have rejected and so have suffered shipwreck with regard to the faith. 
Command and teach these things. Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity. Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching. Do not neglect your gift, which was given you through prophecy when the body of elders laid their hands on you.
Be diligent in these matters; give yourself wholly to them, so that everyone may see your progress. Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers.
But you, man of God, flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made your good confession in the presence of many witnesses.

But before we draw conclusions about Timothy, it’s helpful to become acquainted with Titus.