Monday, October 11, 2010

The Epistle to the Hebrews - An Introduction

The Epistle to the Hebrews


The epistle to the Hebrews was written to Jewish believers, who in the words of Luke were still “zealous of the law”. Luke informs us in Acts 6:7 “a great company of the priests were obedient to the faith.” Did these zealous Jews and priests continue in the Law even after becoming ‘disciples’ of the Lord Jesus Christ? Did they continue to offer the sacrifices prescribed in the Old Testament, after accepting and owning the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ their Messiah, the Lamb of God?

Acts 15 records for us the first Church council held at Jerusalem. The chapter opens “and certain men who came down from Judea taught the brethren, ‘Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved.’” Furthermore “certain of the sect of the Pharisees, who believed” said “that it was needful to circumcise them (gentile converts), and to command them to keep the Law of Moses.”  Verse two tells us “Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and disputation with them”. It seems rather strange that men such as Paul and Barnabas had to dispute this matter. When we today look back and read of such a situation, we might be tempted to wonder as to why it was that there really had to be any discussion at all! Wasn’t it clear that in Christ the Law was done away, and that once for all time? Wasn’t it clear that the Lord Jesus Christ brought an end to the Law, being the fulfilment of the demands and requirements of the Law? It seems also from what we read of from the rest of Acts 15, that only the Gentiles who turned to God were not required to keep the whole Law. All that the Jerusalem council decided to ‘impose’ on these Gentile converts to Christ was that they “abstain from things offered to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication”. And that’s it. They needn’t yield to circumcision to be saved. Nor were they required to ‘keep’ the law.

All of this is rather clear and apparent from a plain reading of Acts 15. However, a more serious question we believe this chapter raises is – Did the Jewish believers themselves continue in the Law? The fact of the matter seems to be that they did. If they themselves didn’t keep the Law after coming to Christ, there really would have been no occasion or even a reason for ‘certain men’ to teach ‘the brethren’ circumcision and connect it with salvation. The words ‘the brethren’ here seems to be indicative of not Jewish believers necessarily, but, in the context gentile converts. Besides, we know from the way in which the Jerusalem council concluded the matter in writing to the gentiles who had “turned to God”, that the point of discussion really was whether the Gentiles need to be circumcised and whether they needed to keep the Law.

If the Jewish believers themselves did not continue in the Law, it is rather strange that any of them would even want to impose such practises as circumcision and the keeping of the Law of Moses upon gentile converts. No, it seems rather obvious that they themselves did indeed continue in the Law of Moses. And for that very reason some of them felt the need to bring in the gentiles, who had now turned to God through the Lord Jesus Christ, under the ‘yoke’ of the Law of Moses. There really would have been no need for any discussion or dissension between Paul and Barnabas and those certain men who wished to bring gentile converts to keep the Law of Moses, if such was not the case.

Furthermore, in Acts 21, James, who was a recognised leader and pillar of the Church at Jerusalem, informs the apostle Paul of how many “thousands of Jews there are who believe, and they are all zealous of the Law”. Even more interesting is the fact here pointed out by James that these devout and zealous Jewish believers were informed about Paul that he taught “all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, saying that they ought not to circumcise their children, neither to walk after the customs.” It is rather strange that when James utters these sentiments, Paul does not offer any corrections! Nor does he try to explain his actual teaching or practise among Jewish believers who believed in the Lord Jesus as their Messiah.  So did Paul actually teach the Jews who were among the gentiles that they really needn’t circumcise their children? Did Paul actually teach these Jewish believers that they needn’t ‘walk after the customs’? Did Paul actually teach these Jewish believers to forsake Moses, ie., that they needn’t keep the Law of Moses?  It seems to be that all such rumours were really just that – rumours.  In other words, Paul acknowledged that these were all false charges against himself, and James too believed them to be so! Can we not therefore safely conclude that Paul indeed taught no such things? Therefore we are forced to conclude that, even if Paul didn’t actually teach so, he nevertheless believed just the opposite; at least he doesn’t seem to indicate that he would teach otherwise!

So it definitely seems that the Jews who accepted the Lord Jesus Christ as their Messiah, having become disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ, nevertheless continued circumcising their children and continued in the Law of Moses. It was unthinkable for them to make a clean break with the old covenant; having received it from God through Moses. For centuries they had handed down the sacred writings, now the Old Testament, from generation to generation. And for them to now break away from these very oracles that were committed to them was simply unthinkable. We present day believers from among the nations cannot possibly image just how difficult it must have been for these pious Jews, for whom to worship and serve God was equivalent to holding on to the Word that was committed to their keeping. Indeed it was even more so, seeing it was these very scriptures properly interpreted by the Spirit that pointed them to Jesus of Nazareth as their promised Messiah and deliverer, the Saviour of all men. And now to tell them that God was about to set aside Israel the very nation, who for centuries had been the custodians of God’s revelation and the only channel for ushering in the Messiah, the Promised Seed of the woman, was tantamount to blasphemy. This mystery of course is more fully taken up by the apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans chapters 9 to 11.

Be that as it may, Jewish believers found it extremely difficult to make this very necessary break with Judaism, as God had given it. What they were required to do was no mean thing – to leave all that they, along with their forefathers, had heretofore faithfully stood for, to leave behind the imposing and tangible temple along with its ordained sacrifices, to go forth ‘outside the camp’ of Israel, as it were and this in the light of all hostile opposition – all of this and nothing less was most earnestly pressed and urged upon these Hebrew believers.


The epistle itself does not state its author explicitly, nor does it give any direct hint as to it author.  Whoever the author was, he was acquainted with Timothy and he calls him a ‘brother’ and says that he would be travelling with him (Heb 13:23). That the author was not one who was an immediate disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ in the days of his flesh is clear from Hebrews 2:3 where the author makes this distinction between “them that heard” our Lord Jesus Christ during His earthly ministry and himself. He obviously was not one among ‘them that heard’ the Lord Jesus Christ during His earthly ministry.  The author was probably familiar with the believers in Italy and hence writing from here or from Rome (Heb 13:24).

Presently, based upon an early Christian tradition that the apostle Paul was the author of this epistle to the Hebrews, New Testament scholars continue to debate this issue. For many conservatives the evidence, both external and internal, seem to strongly indicate Paul as the author. Many others are equally certain, based upon the rich and lucid style of writing, that although Paul may have been the original author, the actual writing is by someone else. The thoughts are definitely Paul’s and yet the style is of another; and who the ‘other’ person is continues to be a subject of much debate. Many names have been suggested, and among others, Luke and Barnabas seem to be more highly favoured. For those interested in pursuing this rather interesting piece of information, we would refer the readers to J. Barmby’s introduction to the Epistle of Paul to the Hebrews in the Pulpit Commentary. After a rather detailed examination and consideration of both, the external and the internal evidences, Barmby ably concludes and defends the Pauline authorship of this epistle. We quote a statement from his conclusion of his excellent introduction to the epistle.
“It is evident from the above review how entirely an Epistle with such a drift, and written with such a purpose, reflects the mind and spirit of St. Paul, whatever may be said of the language and the treatment of the subject handled.”

Although Origen’s oft-quoted words “in truth God alone knows who the author is” regarding the authorship of the epistle to the Hebrews, is held on to as rather definitive, we shouldn’t forget his own words that also inform us of Origen’s personal views on the authorship of this epistle. Here are Origen’s words as quoted in Dr. W. Gary Crampton’s article ‘Hebrews: Who is the Author?’

“But as for myself, if I were to state my own opinion, I should say that the thoughts are those of the apostle [Paul], but that the diction and phraseology are those of someone who wrote down at his leisure what had been said by his teacher. Therefore, if any church holds that this epistle is by Paul, let it be commended for this. For not without reason have the ancients handed it down as Paul’s. But who wrote the epistle, in truth, God knows.”

And in conclusion, Dr Crampton says:

“The conclusion of the matter is this: It seems clear from both the external and the internal evidence that the apostle Paul is the most likely candidate to be the author of the Book of Hebrews. With little question this has been the classical view of the church, even though this is not the case in our day. Moses Stuart correctly asserted that “there is a peculiarity of representation so distinctly marked here, so exclusively Pauline in manner, that if Paul himself did not write the epistle to the Hebrews, it must have been some one, who had drunk in so deeply of his instructions, as to become the very image of the fountain whence he drew” (Stuart, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, 128).  We do not, however, need to end up here.  A reasonable examination of all of the issues should bring us to the conclusion reached by the nineteenth century scholar John Brown: “After considering with some care the evidence on both sides of this question, I am disposed to think that, though by no means absolutely certain, it is in a high degree probable, that this epistle was written by the apostle Paul” (Brown, Hebrews, 8). The present author is of the opinion that the Epistle to the Hebrews was penned by the apostle Paul to the Hebrew church of Palestine, during (or immediately subsequent to his release from) his first imprisonment in Rome in A.D. 62 or 63.”

For myself, I’m more than convinced that it was indeed the apostle Paul who authored the epistle. However, I’m open to the suggestion that it was actually Luke who might have written at Paul’s direction. The more than casual resemblance to Luke’s writings seems to strongly suggest this line of reasoning. In any case, I wish to leave the subject at that, open though it be to many a criticism from those who differ.

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