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?