HEBREWS: A STUDY IN COVENANTAL TRANSITION
CONTEXT FOR THIS LETTER:
The letter to the Hebrews provides a profound overview of the dynamics that led to the anticipated first century return of Christ in the power and glory of the Father to facilitate the destruction of the temple through the vehicle of the Roman armies. This destruction brought an end to facilitation of the Old Covenant system and confirmed establishment of the New Covenant. As will be seen in this two part series, Jesus, along with the leadership of the developing Christian community, clearly taught an imminent occurrence of end time events which included Christ returning to facilitate deliverance from persecution and the bringing to frution the promised salvation and inheritance of the everlasting kingdom.
Jesus made it clear that He was going to return during the lifetime of those He was addressing during His ministry. In speaking of the persecutions His disciples would experience in taking His message to the masses, Jesus said they would not finish going through the cities of Israel before "the Son of Man comes." At another point during His ministry He said some He was addressing at the time would not taste death before He returned.
Matthew 10:23: When you are persecuted in one place, flee to another. I tell you the truth, you will not finish going through the cities of Israel before the Son of Man comes.
Matthew 16;28: I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom."
For a comprehensive and detailed discussion of the issue of Christ's return, see my fourteen part series entitled "When Does Christ Return."
The context for the letter to the Hebrews is the first century A.D. shortly before the destruction of the temple and the city of Jerusalem. The Jews knew from their knowledge of Daniel’s prophecies that the time was at hand for the promised Messiah to appear. They expected the Messiah to appear as a conquering king that would deliver them from Roman oppression and reestablish the Davidic Kingdom. Even though Christ demonstrated He was the promised Messiah through signs and wonders, the Messiah who appeared was not the Messiah they were expecting. Jesus didn’t meet their paradigm of a conquering King who would destroy the Romans. Because of this, and the threat Christ presented to their positions of authority, the Jewish religious leadership, by and large, rejected Him.
A great deal of tension had developed between Rome and Judea. The political climate was tense. Many references to a coming judgement against Israel are seen in the New Testament documents. John the Baptist warned of the coming wrath. So did Apostle Paul.
Matthew 3:7: Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?
1 Thessalonians 1:9b: They tell how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead--Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath.
Paul shows how they were waiting for Christ to return in their lifetime to rescue them from an imminent to them coming wrath. This clearly places the return of Christ and all related events into a first century context. Many other New Testament passages could be cited that reveal the first century context of the anticipated return of Christ.
In the Olivet Discourse, Christ showed what series of events would occur, leading to the destruction of the Temple. Christ made many other references to coming judgement. For example, we have His statement shortly before the crucifixion:
Luke 19:41-44: As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, "If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace--but now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God's coming to you."
Just as Christ had prophesied, the Roman armies built an embankment around Jerusalem during the war. This embankment prevented escape from the city and led to the death of multiple thousands who tried to escape, or who remained entrapped in the city.
In a work entitled, The Early Days of Christianity, written in 1882 by F.F. Farrar, the author wrote the following about the embankment that Christ had prophesied would be built during the war between Rome and the Jews: The word circumvallation in this quote means to “surround with a rampart, to build a wall.”
Fanatically relying on the visible manifestation of Jehovah, while they were infamously violating all His laws, the Zealots rejected with insult every offer of terms. At last Titus drew a line of circumvallation around the doomed city, and began to crucify all the deserters who fled from him. The incidents of famine, which then fell on the besieged, are among the most horrible in human literature. The corpses bred pestilence. Whole houses were filled with unburied families of the dead. Mothers slew and devoured their own children. Hunger, rage, despair, and madness seized the city. It became a cage of furious madmen, a city of howling wild beasts, and of cannibals,—a hell. Disease and slaughter ruthlessly accomplished their work. At last, amid shrieks and flames, and suicide and massacre, the temple was taken and reduced to ashes. The great altar of sacrifice was heaped with the slain. Six thousand miserable women and children sank with a wild cry of terror amid the blazing ruins of the cloisters. Romans adorned the insignia of their legions on the place where the holiest had stood.
On His way to being crucified, in anticipation of what was coming upon Israel, Jesus made this statement to the women weeping for him: “do not weep for me; weep for yourselves and for your children” (Luke 23:28). Peter in his Pentecost sermon said: "Save yourselves from this corrupt generation" (Acts 3:40).
The first century historian Josephus wrote: “I shall therefore speak my mind here at once briefly, that neither did any other city suffer such miseries, nor did any age ever breed a generation more fruitful in wickedness than this was, from the beginning of the world.”
During his ministry, Jesus consistently spoke of the generation he was living in as perverse, wicked and adulterous (Matthew 12:39, 16:16, 17:17, Mark 8:38, Luke 9:42). Paul said the same thing (Philippians 2:15). New Testament scripture clearly shows it would be upon the generation Jesus was addressing during his ministry that judgement would come. The nature of this judgement is defined in the Olivet Discourse as found recorded in Matthew 24, Mark 13 and Luke 21.
After the resurrection, with the powerful preaching of Peter and other of the apostles, a number of Jews, including religious leaders, accepted Christ as Messiah. They began to realize that Jesus was the promised Messiah and by placing their faith in Him, they would be saved from their sins and protected from the coming judgement upon Israel. Accepting Christ as Messiah, however, did not automatically result in an abandonment of the Old Covenant Old Covenant system. Even though Christ made the Old Covenant obsolete at the Cross, this system continued to be adhered to by Jewish Christian converts for another 40 years after the ascension of Christ. This is seen in the following history presented by Luke:
Acts: 21:17: When we arrived at Jerusalem, the brothers received us warmly. The next day Paul and the rest of us went to see James, and all the elders were present. Paul greeted them and reported in detail what God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry. When they heard this, they praised God. Then they said to Paul: "You see, brother, how many thousands of Jews have believed, and all of them are zealous for the law. They have been informed that you teach all the Jews who live among the Gentiles to turn away from Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or live according to our customs. What shall we do? They will certainly hear that you have come, so do what we tell you. There are four men with us who have made a vow. Take these men, join in their purification rites and pay their expenses, so that they can have their heads shaved. Then everybody will know there is no truth in these reports about you, but that you yourself are living in obedience to the law. As for the Gentile believers, we have written to them our decision that they should abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality.
Even though the leadership of the Church instructed the Gentile Christians that they were not required to keep the regulations of the Old Covenant, many Jewish converts to Christianity felt that the Gentiles turning to Christ were obligated to keep these regulations just as much as they felt they should. Therefore, the Gentile Christians were being pressured by the Jewish Christians and Jewish non-Christians to keep Old Covenant regulations, including the Sabbath and the annual Holy Days. The evidence for this is seen in the letters of Apostle Paul to the Gentile Churches where he has to constantly deal with the problem of Jews pressuring the Gentiles into embracing Old Covenant regulations.
It must be understood that adherence to the Old Covenant was a way of life for first century Israelites. Even though many had accepted Christ as the promised Messiah, it would take some time and some catastrophic events to bring them to the point of abandoning the Old Covenant. The Jews were firm in their commitment to the Mosaic regulations.
The early Church was largely made up of Christian Jews who by and large still clung to and observed the Mosaic regulations. There were Gentiles who had become converts to Judaism and who had converted to Christianity but still felt they should continue to keep Old Covenant regulations. There were the Gentile converts to Christianity who had not previously kept the Old Covenant but were being pressured by Jewish Christians to do so. There was constant friction between the Jewish Christians and the Gentile Christians over this issue. Finally, there was the large non-Christian Jewish community who refused to acknowledge Christ as Messiah. They were fighting the developing Christian community tooth and nail. They saw the developing Christian Church as a threat to Judaism.
There was much persecution going on by Jewish Christians toward Gentile Christians, by non-Christian Jews toward all Christians and, several years before the war began, from the Roman government toward the Christians. Once the Roman government realized that Christianity was not just a sect of Judaism, but a new religious system, they came down hard on the Christians. It was a time of much tribulation for the developing Christian community. These were the conditions extant when Hebrews was written and any exegesis of this letter must be done with these conditions in mind.
AUTHORSHIP OF HEBREWS:
The author does not identify himself. The Eastern Church attributed the Book to Paul from the beginning but the Western Church didn’t accept this until the 4th century. The church historian Eusebius (A.D. 263-339) believed Paul to be the author but Origen (A.D. 185-254) was not convinced. Clement of Alexandria proposed that Paul originally wrote it in Hebrew and that it was later translated into Greek by Luke. Tertullian (A.D. 150-230) felt that Barnabas wrote Hebrews. Martin Luther suggested that Apollos wrote the letter. Many current day scholars believe it could not have been Paul because the writing style and thought patterns are different from his other letters. Some scholars believe that because the greeting found at the beginning of Paul's letters is missing in Hebrews, this indicates Paul did not write this letter. Origen, as quoted from Eusebius Ecclesiastical History, said: “Who wrote the Epistle?, God only knows the truth.”
It is instructive that when the writer to the Hebrews quotes from the Hebrew Scriptures it is from the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures) that the quotes are made. In the letters that are clearly Pauline, Paul quotes from the Hebrew text of the OT. Some believe Paul gave a sermon to a Jewish Christian group in the Hebrew language and the contents of this sermon were later translated into Greek by his traveling companion Luke.
There does appear to be some internal scriptural evidence for a Pauline authorship. In Hebrews 13:19, the author speaks of hoping to be restored to his readers soon. This epistle was written about the time Paul would have been in prison. In Hebrews 13:23, the writer speaks of Timothy being released and the writer hoping to come with Timothy. Paul and Timothy appear to have been good friends as other scriptures show.
In 1 Corinthians 9:24-27, Paul speaks of striving to successfully run the race that will result in salvation. The writer to the Hebrews says something very similar in Hebrews 12:1-2.
The letter to the Hebrews concludes with “Grace be with you all.” Near the end of Paul's letter to the Romans he says, "The grace of our Lord Jesus be with you" (Romans 16:20)."Paul concludes his letter to Titus with “Grace be with you all.” Paul concludes his second letter to the Thessalonians with “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.” You will fine similar endings in 1 Corinthians 16;23, 2 Corinthians 13;14, Galatians 6:18 and other of Paul's letters. These similar endings suggest that Paul may have authored Hebrews as well.
Some believe Paul's exhortation to the Colossians to be patient in waiting to inherit the kingdom parallels well with the same kind of exhortation in Hebrews. In both cases the writer speaks of patiently awaiting an inheritance.
Colossians 1:11-12: being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, and joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light.
Hebrews 6:12: We do not want you to become lazy, but to imitate those who through faith and patience inherit what has been promised.
In Paul's first letter to the Corinthians, he speaks of giving them milk because they were not ready for solid meat. The writer to the Hebrews says something very similar. Some believe this demonstrates a Pauline authorship for Hebrews.
1 Corinthians 3:1-2: Brothers, I could not address you as spiritual but as worldly--mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready.
Hebrews 5:12-14. In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God's word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.
DATE OF WRITING:
Hebrews was written shortly before the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70. We know this because there are references to the temple still standing and the Levitical priesthood still offering sacrifices. There also are references to a near at hand judgement. Hebrews appears to be written primarily to Jewish converts to Christianity but may have been circulated among non-Christian Jews as well.
PURPOSE OF THIS LETTER:
Because of great persecution going on, a number of Jewish Christians were beginning to rethink their commitment to Christ and gravitate back to a full embrace of the Old Covenant way of living. It was this growing threat of Jewish converts turning their backs on Christ that compelled the writer to demonstrate the superiority of Christ over everything connected with the Old Covenant.
Hebrews 8:13 sums up the focus of this letter. “By calling this covenant ‘new,’ he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and aging will soon disappear (Greek: “Is near to passing away”). The writer shows the Old Covenant was still around but would soon pass away. This passing away took place when the means to facilitate the requirements of the Old Covenant were removed with the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70. This destruction and judgement ended the sacrificial system and priesthood. The author of Hebrews sees the Old Covenant scripture as all pointing to Jesus. In so doing, he sees Judaism not as being abrogated by Christianity, but brought to its climax because of what Christ did. This is the whole focus of this letter.
ESTABLISHING THE TIME FRAME:
The writer begins his letter by establishing the time frame in which the events and issues he is about to address are taking place.
Hebrews 1:1-3: In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last (Greek: eschatos) days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.
The Greek for “last” is eschatos. This word signifies the point of termination and that with which something closes or ceases. It describes what is absolutely final. Wuest, in his Word studies in the Greek New Testament, defines eschatos as “the outermost, the extreme, the last in time or in place." We see Peter associating events occurring in the first century as taking place in the “last days.” Therefore, the "last days" are identified as a time frame current to those Peter is addressing.
Acts 2:14: Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd: "Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say. These men are not drunk, as you suppose. It's only nine in the morning! No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel: "In the last (Greek.eschatos) days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams.
1 Peter 1:18-20: For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect. He was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last (eschatos) times for your sake.
Apostle Paul and the writer to the Hebrews see the advent of Christ as occurring in association with the time having fully come and it being at the end of the ages.
Galatians 4:3: So also, when we were children, we were in slavery under the basic principles of the world. But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons.
Hebrews 9:26: But now he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of Himself.
Peter shows events associated with the giving of the Spirit on Pentecost and the sacrifice of Christ as events that take place in the last days and last time. Paul associates the time having fully come with the coming of Christ. We know Christ appeared in the first century. Therefore, the time fully come occurred in the first century. The writer to the Hebrews makes the same association. These events took place 2000 years ago.
It would appear that the last days spoken of here were a specific "last days" time frame which pertained to the coming of Christ and the bringing to an end the Old Covenant system. Several commentaries show “These last days” to mean “In the last of these days,” meaning that God had been speaking in the past through the prophets, but now in the termination of those days, He has spoken by His very own Son.
As seen in Hebrews 1:1-3: the writer shows Christ to be superior to the prophets. Now the writer begins to emphasize Christ’s superiority to angels, (Hebrews 1:4-14). Angels played a big role in the history of Israel. The Hebrew word for angel is malak. The Greek is angelos. Both words have the basic meaning of messenger. These messengers often spoke on behalf of God and carried out his will. Angels prevented Abraham from sacrificing Isaac. An angel appeared to Moses in the burning bush (Genesis 22:15-18 and Exodus 3:2-5). Angels are seen over and over again as intervening on behalf of Israel in their escape from Egypt and their defeat of enemies that stood in the way of their entering the Promised Land. Stephen indicates it was an angel who spoke to Moses and put the law into effect.
Acts 7:37-38: This is that Moses who told the Israelites, `God will send you a prophet like me from your own people.' He was in the assembly in the desert, with the angel who spoke to him on Mount Sinai, and with our fathers; and he received living words to pass on to us.” Verse 53: “You who have received the law that was put into effect through angels but have not obeyed it.
The writer shows that despite all the things angels do and have done, Christ is far superior to them and they are merely sent to serve those who will inherit the salvation that Christ is bringing “So he became as much superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is superior to theirs. Are not all angels ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation?" (Hebrews 1:13-14).
The writer speaks in terms of “those who will inherit salvation?” The Greek for “who will inherit” is a present active participle of the Greek word mello. This phrase properly translated means, “those who are about to inherit salvation. Thayer’s Greek Lexicon defines mello as “to be about to do anything” and “to be on the point of doing or suffering something.” The Arndt, Gingrich, Bauer Greek-English Lexicon defines mello as “Be on the point of, be about to.”
There are 110 places where “mello” is used in the Greek New Testament. In many places, by context, it can be seen to mean something about to take place. We find in Acts 11:28, that the prophet Agabus signified that a great famine would (mello) come upon the Roman world. The scriptures show that this famine happened during the reign of Claudius. Here we find the writer using mello in an obvious context of something that was about to take place and did take place as the scriptures report and as secular history confirms. In Acts 20:3; it’s recorded that because the Jews made a plot against him (Paul) just as he was about to (mello) sail for Syria, he decided to go back through Macedonia. Again we see mello used by the writer to describe an about to occur event.
In Acts 27:10, Paul is quoted as saying, “ Men, I can see that our voyage is going (mello) to be disastrous and bring great loss to ship and cargo, and to our own lives also." Here again we see mello used in the context of something about to occur. We see mello used several dozen times in the book of Acts. A review of the context wherein this word is used will over and over again show an event that was about to take place and subsequently did take place. It is apparent the writer is looking at salvation as a yet uncompleted process at the time he wrote this letter to the Hebrew Christians. Yet he sees salvation as about to be inherited. Since the focus of his letter is the superiority of Christ over the Old Covenant and the process of transition to the New Covenant, it would appear that the full inheritance of salvation is tied to the completion of this process, an event that was about to take place.
CHRIST BROUGHT SALVATION TO LIGHT:
In chapter two, the writer begins to warn his readers of the consequences of ignoring what Christ did. He writes, “how shall we escape if we ignore such a great salvation?” The Greek pronoun we is very emphatic and refers to the first century readers of this letter. The writer speaks of the world to come (Hebrews: 2:5). The Greek “to come” is mello and signifies a world about to come. The physical earth is not under consideration here. The Greek word for “world” here is oikoumene, which refers to the world as inhabited. The habitation of the NC world is what the writer is pointing to.
In verse Hebrews 2:14, Satan is seen as holding the power of death. The death of Christ is shown to destroy Satan and free humanity from their fear of death.. The word “destroy” is from the Greek katargeo, which means: “to make ineffective, powerless, abolish, wipe out” (Arndt, Gingrich, Bauer, Greek-English Lexicon). Apostle John wrote that the reason for Christ’s coming was to destroy the Devil’s work.
1 John 3:8: He who does what is sinful is of the devil, because the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy (Greek: Lue, which means to loose, breakup, demolish and destroy.) the devil's work.
Paul shows that the sting of death is sin and the power of sin is the law. (1 Corinthians 15:56-57). The law defines what behavior is sin. Satan being the instigator of sin held the power of death because sin leads to death. Christ came to free man from the power of Satan and thus facilitate freedom from death. Paul wrote to the Romans that “The God of peace will soon (“soon” is the Greek takos which means something imminent) crush Satan under your feet” (Romans 16:20). Remember, this was written 2000 years ago and directed to first century Christians who are being told that Satan is about to meet his doom.
EXHORTATION TO FOCUS ON CHRIST:
In chapter three, the writer continues to exhort his readers to focus on Christ. “Therefore, holy brothers, who share in the heavenly calling, fix your thoughts on Jesus, the apostle and high priest whom we confess” (Hebrews 3:1). Moses in God’s house is compared with Christ over God’s house. The writer shows how those Israelites who initially left Egypt failed to enter the physical rest of the Promised Land. Since these Israelites were unfaithful, they were made to wander in the desert for 40 years. It was a 40-year time frame between the ascension of Christ and the termination of the Old Covenant system in A.D. 70, when the temple was destroyed. It was during this time frame that much of first century Israel rejected Christ and failed to enter the spiritual rest of the New Covenant.
The writer uses the example of ancient Israel’s lack of faith to motivate first century Christian Jews to be responsive to the truth of Christ and tells them “We have come to share in Christ if we hold firmly till the end the confidence we had at first” (Hebrews 3:14). What “end” is the writer talking about? “End” is the Greek telos which means termination, cessation. In Greek writing, the word means, “always of the end of some act or state, not of a period of time (Thayer’s Greek Lexicon). I submit that the end being spoken of is the termination of the Old Covenant system which was to take place in association with the A.D. 70 judgement upon Israel. The writer is exhorting the Jewish Christians not to harden their hearts, but to remain faithful to Christ so that they will not repeat the mistake of ancient Israel.