The remaining epistles of the New Testament are not addressed as specifically to congregations or individuals as are Paul’s epistles. Therefore they are often called by the name “General Epistles.” The Epistle to the Hebrews is sometimes grouped among the General Epistles, although the term is also used to apply only to the epistles of James, Peter, John and Jude.
WHO WROTE HEBREWS?
The simple answer to this question is, “We don’t know.” The letter does not name its writer. Early traditions are not consistent in naming one author. Some have called Paul the author; but the words in 2:3 seem to rule out Paul. That verse indicates that the author learned the word about salvation only “second hand” through others who listened to Christ. But in Paul’s letters, he makes it clear that Christ met him directly and gave him the gospel directly. Other suggestions for who the author might be are Barnabas and Apollos. Both of these men are possibilities since it is clear that the author is one who knew Timothy (13:23). Luther preferred to think of Apollos as the author. Still other suggestions have been Luke, Aquila, and Priscilla. The early church father Origen sums up all the discussion on authorship the best when he says: “Who wrote the epistle God only knows certainly.” It is enough for us to say that the Holy Spirit chose a writer unknown to us to deliver His inspired message to the Hebrews and has preserved His message also for us today.
FIRST WRITTEN TO WHOM?
The words of the title, “To the Hebrews,” are not a part of the original inspired letter; they were added later. The letter does not have a greeting that names the people addressed. The only way we have to find out who the original readers might be is by studying the contents of the letter itself. The content clearly shows that the letter was first written to Jewish Christians. Where these Jewish Christians were living cannot be answered certainly. Perhaps they lived in Italy, in particular, Rome. Heb. 13:24 may suggest this; in this verse the author sends greetings to the people addressed from “those from Italy.” “Those from Italy” may be those who were friends and fellow citizens of those addressed in the letter, but people who had moved away and were now with the author. Or perhaps the Jewish Christians addressed lived in Palestine, as some have suggested.
WHEN AND WHERE WRITTEN?
The author does not mention the destruction of Jerusalem, which took place in 70 A.D. It seems that he would have mentioned this event if it had already taken place, since he speaks much about the priesthood and sacrifices carried on in Jerusalem. This leads us to think that Hebrews must have been written before 70 A.D. Much more than this we cannot say about the letter’s date. Suggestions for the place of writing have been Jerusalem (if the readers were in Rome) or Rome (if the readers were in Palestine). We are not told the place of writing.
THE OCCASION OF THE LETTER
The Jewish (or Hebrew) Christians addressed in the letter had once been strong in their faith and love and had been more than willing to undergo persecution for the sake of Christ (6:10; 10:32-34). But at the time the letter was written to them, their faith was weakening; they were losing heart for the cause of Christ (12:3-5; 12:12). Because of persecutions from other Jews, it seems that they were even tempted to go back toJudaism; after all, life would have been easier for them if they did.
THE PURPOSE OF THE LETTER
The author sent his letter to the Hebrew Christians: 1) to encourage them to hold on more firmly to their Christian faith (10:23; 13:22; 3:14); 2) to show them that in every way Christianity is far superior to the old Judaism that they were tempted to return to (7:22; 8:6; 9:23-24; etc.).
SPECIAL CHARACTERISTICS OF HEBREWS
1.Hebrews makes numerous references to the Old Testament; its characters, its special festivals and days, its priesthood, its sacrifices, its tabernacle, etc. 2.Hebrews centers on Jesus Christ. He is the one that the things of the Old Testament shadowed; he fulfilled them; he is superior to them in every way. He is greater than Moses, greater than all the old high priests; his sacrifice was “once for all,” unlike the inferior Old Testament sacrifices. He is also our example so that we endure during time of trouble. 3.Hebrews offers solid encouragement to Christians tempted “to grow weary and lose heart” (12:3).
A THEME, OUTLINE AND THE BASIC CONTENTS OF HEBREWS:
“CHRIST IS SUPERIOR TO EVERYTHING IN THE OLD COVENANT”
1. He is superior to the prophets and the angels. (1-2) Key passages: “In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe” (1:1-2). “So he became as much superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is superior to theirs” (1:4).
2. He is superior to Moses and Joshua. (3-4) Key passages: “Jesus has been found worthy of greater honor than Moses, just as the builder of a house has greater honor than the house itself” (3:3). “For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken later about another day” (4:8).
3. He is superior to the old priesthood. (5-7) Key passages: “Unlike the other high priests, he does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself” (7:27).
4. His New Covenant is superior to the Old. (8-10) Key passages: “For this reason Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance – now that he has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant” (9:15). “The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming – not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship” (10:1).
5. Faith in Christ is exhorted. (11-13) Key passages: “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see” (11-1). “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and Perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (12:2). “Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father” (12:7)?
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