Today we begin a series in the New Testament book of Hebrews. So today, we’re going to introduce the letter and look at some of the background issues. That means there’ll be a bit more nerd content today, but it’s important if we’re going to understand what Hebrews is trying to do.
And to be honest, we don’t know a lot about the book of Hebrews. In fact, we’re not entirely sure what it is. It’s not really a letter – like most of the New Testament books. Normally we get both the sender and the addressee identified at the start – but with Hebrews, there’s none of that. And the bulk of it doesn’t read like a letter at all. All we get are the last four verses, which sign off like a letter:
13:22-25 Brothers and sisters, I urge you to bear with my word of exhortation, for in fact I have written to you quite briefly. I want you to know that our brother Timothy has been released. If he arrives soon, I will come with him to see you. Greet all your leaders and all the Lord’s people. Those from Italy send you their greetings. Grace be with you all.
Notice that the writer himself doesn’t call it a letter – he calls it a ‘word of exhortation’. This term was used to describe the sermon in a synagogue. So what we probably have is a sermon that’s been sent from a distance. The person who hand-delivered the letter probably read it out; or better, performed it – in front of the congregation, as a sermon.
Now if we wanted to look at all of this ancient sermon, it’d probably take us several months at least. But we’re only doing it for a few weeks. So we’re going to focus on the last part of it. Why?
Well, like most sermons, there’s a lot of theology and explanation at the beginning. Then near the end comes the encouragement to live in light of that theology. It’s the bit where our behaviour is challenged, not just our thinking. So in this series I’ve decided to start from the middle of chapter 10, where the writer begins to recap his arguments, and urges us to live accordingly.
By the way, have you noticed how I’ve been referring to the author as ‘the writer’? I haven’t yet called the writer by their name. And I can’t, because Hebrews, as we have it in our Bibles, is anonymous. We’re not told who wrote it.
A few hundred years after it was written, for a brief while it was included in the letters of Paul. But you’d be hard pressed today to find any scholar claiming Paul wrote it. It simply sounds nothing like anything else Paul wrote. Now everyone’s got a theory. The two I like are Apollos, who was a gifted public speaker, well-trained in the art of rhetoric. Or Priscilla and Aquila, Paul’s fellow tent-makers in Corinth. But in the end, they’re just theories. We have to be comfortable with the fact that we don’t know who wrote it.
We also don’t know to whom, exactly, it was sent. The only real clue again is at the end. Where the writer says ‘Those from Italy send their greetings’. It might mean the writer’s in Italy at the time. But more likely it refers to people originally from Italy who are also travelling with him. Implying that the sermon’s being sent back to Italy, possibly to Rome itself.
But what we can work out about the recipients is significant. It seems that the sermon addresses (mostly) Jewish Christians (see notes at the end). Because the writer spends a lot of his time quoting the Old Testament, and reinterpreting it to apply to his audience. And they’re Jewish Christians living outside of Palestine. Because the writer quotes the Greek translation of the Old Testament, not the original Hebrew; it was the Bible used by Greek-speaking Jews throughout the Roman Empire.
It means, then, that this letter was written to a minority group within a minority group. To Jews – already a minority treated with suspicion by the rest of society. And Christian Jews at that – those who’d abandoned the faith of their family – who’d broken with their community – to follow Jesus.
And this had been costly. In fact, as we’ll see a little later when we look at chapter 10, in the recent past they’d suffered much: public insults and persecution, and attempts by their family and by the Jewish community to shame them back into conformity. Some had their property taken away from them. Others were even thrown into prison for their faith. And everyone in the church had suffered the day-to-day pressure of being different from their family; being different from the society around them. They lived by different values and worked for different goals.
This got to the point where, for some, it had become too hard. They’d started to long for their former life: a life where they were accepted by their community. Back when they were like everyone else.
And so they’d begun, little-by-little, to draw back from being identified with Jesus. Some had given up meeting together with their fellow believers. They were living again as Jews under the Old Covenant, forgetting the fact that the sacrifice of Jesus had rendered it obsolete. Subtly at first, some were tempted to give it all away. The price of following Jesus was too great. They just wanted to be normal again.
To think about
Later this week we’ll look at how our writer uses every available means of persuasion to plead with them not to do this. But for today, I want you to read Hebrews 10:19-39 and think about this question:
How is the situation of the original hearers of this sermon similar to our own? And how is it different? In other words: how might this ancient sermon be relevant for our own lives today?
If you’re interested in the scholarly debate about whether the recipients were Jewish Christians, Gentile Christians, or a mixture, here’s my take.
The ethnic background of the audience was traditionally viewed as Jewish—hence the second century title, “to the Hebrews.” This is largely due to the pervasive use of the Jewish Scriptures and rabbinic methods of argumentation. More recently, commentators have pointed out that this may say more about the author than the recipients.  They note Paul’s assumption in, for example, Galatians and Romans, that Gentile converts are familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures and have an interest in understanding how Gentile believers are part of the story of Israel. This makes it difficult to identify with any confidence whether the audience was of a Jewish or Gentile background.
However, this is not necessarily the same question as determining to which alternative to Christianity they were being attracted, if any. It is unlikely that pagan religion per se was the cause of their wavering, since there are no warnings against idolatry. More plausible is Judaism, given the frequent comparisons highlighting the superiority of Jesus and the new covenant over anything the old covenant had to offer. This could involve Jewish believers being tempted for both social and theological reasons to return to the faith of their community, or even Gentiles considering “taking shelter in the ‘camp’ of Judaism.” Yet Thompson correctly notes that the letter does not appear to be intended as a polemic against Judaism; there is no mention of any desire to return to it per se (merely to “shrink back” from following Jesus) and only once is there an explicit mention of the need to correct doctrine (13:9, and perhaps in 6:1). The lack of reference to specific threats “suggests that the author is more concerned with the community’s abandonment of the faith than with any alternative they might take.” It seems best, then, to agree with Johnson that it is more a case of the audience being tempted to abandon their loyalty to Jesus rather than the attraction of Judaism itself:Above all, can we determine whether the Christian hearers are being positively drawn to something else, or are reacting negatively to their own experience? The evidence tilts towards disaffection because of negative experience rather than apostasy because of a stronger attraction… It may well be, however, that the Jewish cult—either as a new attraction or as a return—gains in attraction because of the negative consequences of commitment to Jesus as Messiah.
This then leads to the question of why they were disaffected with following Jesus. It has already been argued that it is unlikely to have been because of an attraction to Judaism for theological or sociological reasons. Some have suggested a “moral lethargy” is the problem; whilst it may be a factor, this ignores the frequent references to suffering and social pressure (e.g. 12:4; 13:13). The looming threat of persecution hinted at in 12:4 (“you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood”) may well contribute, but is not pervasive enough to be the full explanation, especially since they have previously “endured in a great conflict full of suffering” (10:32). It is more likely the experience of marginalisation that provides the primary impetus away from remaining loyal to Christ, especially since the exemplars cited are those who embraced marginalisation in order to gain something of greater value (Abraham in 11:8-22; Moses in 11:24-26; Jesus in 12:2 and 13:12).
 William L. Lane, Hebrews 1-8, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas, TX: Word, 1991), liv. This is supported by Morrison’s more recent study of enthymemes in Hebrews, in which he demonstrates that their unstated but implied premises fit clearly within a Jewish worldview; see Michael Morrison, Enthymemes in Hebrews, Kindle Edition (2010), loc. 2187-95.
 However, it must say something about the recipients’ ability to understand Old Testament references and Jewish argumentation, otherwise the writer would be “a poor communicator” (Luke Timothy Johnson, Hebrews: A Commentary, 1st ed., The New Testament Library (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), 34.)
 David A. DeSilva, Perseverance in Gratitude: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on the Epistle “to the Hebrews” (Grand Rapids. MI: Eerdmans, 2000), 2-7.
 Craig R. Koester, Hebrews: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, 1st ed., The Anchor Bible (New York: Doubleday, 2001), 48.
 Koester, Hebrews, 72. See also F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews, Rev. ed., The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1990), 382.
 James Thompson, Hebrews, Paideia (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 20.
 Thompson, Hebrews, 8.
 Thompson, Hebrews, 10.
 Johnson, Hebrews, 36.
 T. Schmidt, “Moral Lethargy and the Epistle to the Hebrews,” WTJ 54(1992): 167.
 Gareth Lee Cockerill, The Epistle to the Hebrews, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012), 118 n.8.
 DeSilva, Perseverance in Gratitude, 18.