Where the world comes to study the Bible

Why Study Hebrews?

Related Media

Introduction1

I confess; I’m a coward. I’ve been preaching for nearly 40 years, and I’ve somehow avoided preaching on the Book of Hebrews. I’m not sure that it was always a conscious thing, but for whatever reasons, it has taken me all these years to get to this point.

I’m not alone in this. I know of other preachers who have also avoided Hebrews. Of course, there are many preachers who don’t teach any book of the Bible in an expository way – chapter by chapter and book by book. And even those who have been so bold as to take on the monumental task of preaching through Hebrews have not necessarily proven to be an encouragement to me. I’ve read or listened to their teaching, and in the end, I’m just as perplexed as I was beforehand. I also know that some who have taught through Hebrews have not even convinced themselves and have changed their minds as to its interpretation.

Having said this, the elders and I have concluded that it is finally time for us to commence a study of Hebrews. In this lesson, I will seek to answer several questions:

Why should we study Hebrews?

How will I approach Hebrews?

Why do people avoid Hebrews?

We will spend the majority of our time on this third question, hoping to put some problem areas into perspective. Having done so, we will conclude by suggesting some areas of application.

Why Should We Study Hebrews?

There are a great number of reasons why I believe it is time for us to study the Book of Hebrews. Let me suggest a few of them.

1. I believe that a study of the Book of Hebrews may be the next step for us as a church as we seek to grow in our desire for greater intimacy with Christ, greater faith, and bolder acts of service.Last week, we were challenged to think of our Lord in much greater terms – greater in power, in majesty, in love and mercy and grace. We were exhorted to exercise much greater faith in what He can and will do in us, in our church, and in our community (in addition to what He is doing abroad). Today, one of our men stood in our prayer time and prayed that we would thirst for God as the deer pants for water (Psalm 42:1). I believe Hebrews is just the book God’s Spirit may employ to move us in this direction.

2. More than any other New Testament book, Hebrews connects the dots between the Old Testament and the New. George H. Guthrie points out how the Book of Hebrews refers to the Old Testament:

“Of all the writings of the New Testament, none is more saturated with overt references to the Old Testament. The author so filled his discourse with Old Testament thoughts and passages that they permeate every chapter. Thirty-five quotations from a Greek translation of the Old Testament and thirty-four allusions work to support the development of Hebrews’ argument. In addition, the writer offers nineteen summaries of Old Testament material, and thirteen times he mentions an Old Testament name or topic, often without reference to a specific context.”2

In Colossians, the Apostle Paul writes,

16 Therefore do not let anyone judge you with respect to food or drink, or in the matter of a feast, new moon, or Sabbath days – 17 these are only the shadow of the things to come, but the reality is Christ! (Colossians 2:16-17).3

It is the Book of Hebrews that takes up this theme and explains it in greater detail (see Hebrews 8:5; 10:1). The Old Testament foreshadowed the New, and Hebrews is the place to go if we wish to understand this as we should.

3. The Book of Hebrews helps us to understand the relationship between Jewish and Gentile believers, and between Israel and the church. In Acts 15, the Judaisers prompted the “Jerusalem Council” by insisting that Gentile believers be baptized and keep the law. In other words, they insisted that Gentiles become Jewish proselytes. This issue was taken up in great detail in the Book of Galatians. In my opinion, the underlying issue in the Book of Romans is the relationship between Israel and the church (and thus the relationship of Jewish and Gentile believers in the church). I am tempted to think that this highly emotional and divisive issue was dealt with on two levels: The Epistle to the Romans was the “western” explanation; the Epistle to the Hebrews was the “eastern” resolution.4 And both come to the same conclusions.

4. Hebrews exalts the person and work of Jesus Christ, prompting us to draw near to Him. When you stop to think about it, the whole Bible is about Jesus, although this becomes more and more clear as we work our way into the New Testament. But among the epistles, no book places the spotlight more directly on Jesus than Hebrews. As the author himself puts it, “keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2). Thus, we are to draw near:

19 Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, 20 by the fresh and living way that he inaugurated for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near with a sincere heart in the assurance that faith brings, because we have had our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed in pure water (Hebrews 10:19-22).

5.Hebrews provides us with the most extensive exposition on the high priestly ministry of our Lord Jesus.We read our Lord’s “high priestly prayer” in John 17, and we find brief references to His high priestly ministry for us elsewhere in the New Testament. But it is the Book of Hebrews that contains the fullest exposition of our Lord’s ministry as our Great High Priest. It is this ministry which we most need in times of difficulty and adversity.

6. Hebrews emphasizes the authority of the Word of God and urges us to heed its warnings and exhortations:

1 After God spoke long ago in various portions and in various ways to our ancestors through the prophets, 2 in these last days he has spoken to us in a son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he created the world. 3 The Son is the radiance of his glory and the representation of his essence, and he sustains all things by his powerful word, and so when he had accomplished cleansing for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high (Hebrews 1:1-3).

1 Therefore we must pay closer attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away. 2 For if the message spoken through angels proved to be so firm that every violation or disobedience received its just penalty, 3 how will we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? It was first communicated through the Lord and was confirmed to us by those who heard him, 4 while God confirmed their witness with signs and wonders and various miracles and gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will (Hebrews 2:1-4).

11 Thus we must make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by following the same pattern of disobedience. 12 For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any double-edged sword, piercing even to the point of dividing soul from spirit, and joints from marrow; it is able to judge the desires and thoughts of the heart. 13 And no creature is hidden from God, but everything is naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must render an account (Hebrews 4:11-13).

11 On this topic we have much to say and it is difficult to explain, since you have become sluggish in hearing. 12 For though you should in fact be teachers by this time, you need someone to teach you the beginning elements of God’s utterances. You have gone back to needing milk, not solid food. 13 For everyone who lives on milk is inexperienced in the message of righteousness, because he is an infant. 14 But solid food is for the mature, whose perceptions are trained by practice to discern both good and evil (Hebrews 5:11-14).

No New Testament epistle more strongly emphasizes the authority of Scripture and its importance in our daily lives.

7. Hebrews not only challenges us to live by faith; it provides us with many practical examples of how this is done.We think first of the eleventh chapter, where we see many examples of living by faith. But the instructions and exhortations of the rest of the book also thrust us in the direction of living out our faith.

8. Hebrews has many words of hope and encouragement, but it also has some very sobering words of warning for those who disregard God’s Word and draw back from intimate fellowship with our Lord. Let’s face it, the warnings are so sobering many choose to keep this epistle a closed book. But when the writer warns us, he also encourages us as well:

4 For it is impossible in the case of those who have once been enlightened, tasted the heavenly gift, become partakers of the Holy Spirit, 5 tasted the good word of God and the miracles of the coming age, 6 and then have committed apostasy, to renew them again to repentance, since they are crucifying the Son of God for themselves all over again and holding him up to contempt. 7 For the ground that has soaked up the rain that frequently falls on it and yields useful vegetation for those who tend it receives a blessing from God. 8 But if it produces thorns and thistles, it is useless and about to be cursed; its fate is to be burned. 9 But in your case, dear friends, even though we speak like this, we are convinced of better things relating to salvation. 10 For God is not unjust so as to forget your work and the love you have demonstrated for his name, in having served and continuing to serve the saints. 11 But we passionately want each of you to demonstrate the same eagerness for the fulfillment of your hope until the end, 12 so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and perseverance inherit the promises (Hebrews 6:4-12, emphasis mine).

9. Hebrews will not hear of us living lives of complacency, lives which neglect God’s Word, intimacy with Christ, and fellowship of His people. Hebrews urges us to press on to maturity and warns us of the danger of complacency.

Thus we must make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by following the same pattern of disobedience (Hebrews 4:11).

11 Now all discipline seems painful at the time, not joyful. But later it produces the fruit of peace and righteousness for those trained by it. 12 Therefore, strengthen your listless hands and your weak knees (Hebrews 12:11-12).

10. Hebrews holds us accountable, not only for our own Christian walk, but also for what happens to our struggling or straying brethren.

23 And let us hold unwaveringly to the hope that we confess, for the one who made the promise is trustworthy. 24 And let us take thought of how to spur one another on to love and good works, 25 not abandoning our own meetings, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging each other, and even more so because you see the day drawing near (Hebrews 10:23-25).

11. Hebrews challenges us to press on to deeper spiritual understanding and Christian maturity (Hebrews 5:11-13).

12. Hebrews summons us to endurance and perseverance, especially as days of greater persecution come upon us.

32 But remember the former days when you endured a harsh conflict of suffering after you were enlightened. 33 At times you were publicly exposed to abuse and afflictions, and at other times you came to share with others who were treated in that way. 34 For in fact you shared the sufferings of those in prison, and you accepted the confiscation of your belongings with joy, because you knew that you certainly had a better and lasting possession. 35 So do not throw away your confidence, because it has great reward. 36 For you need endurance in order to do God’s will and so receive what is promised (Hebrews 10:32-36).

3 Think of him who endured such opposition against himself by sinners, so that you may not grow weary in your souls and give up. 4 You have not yet resisted to the point of bloodshed in your struggle against sin (Hebrews 12:3-4).

13.Hebrews instructs us as to how we should “abide in Christ.”John 15 was the central text in our time at the Lord’s Table this Sunday morning. How important it is to abide in Christ. It occurred to me that while this term (meno, “to abide”) is not found in Hebrews, it is really what Hebrews is all about. Hebrews exalts the person of our Lord Jesus Christ and of His Word and exhorts us to abide in Him. What is more important than this? And if this is what Hebrews is all about – and I assure you that it is – then we had better become students of this book.

How Will We Approach This Series?

My goal is to help us all understand the message of Hebrews as a book. The book has several sections, so we will begin at the first section and work through the entire book. I will begin each section with an overview of the entire section, and then we’ll work our way through the smaller segments of that section. We will move at a fast enough pace so that the message of the whole book will not be lost in the details.

Let me give you an example of how this will work in the next few lessons. The first major section is Hebrews 1:1—2:18. In the next lesson, I will deal with the message of this entire section. This will be followed (in the next two or three weeks) with a study of these segments:

Hebrews 1:1-3

Hebrews 1:4—2:4

Hebrews 2:5-185

In this series, I will be inviting even greater participation on the part of the congregation. I have asked those in the Friday morning study group to each focus on a particular dimension, or a particular commentary. Because there are many different ways of interpreting some passages, I will attempt to give these points of view a hearing, and then I will seek to represent these positions fairly, especially if I disagree with them. I am also inviting you in the audience to send me e-mails when you have found helpful information, have gained a certain insight, or have some matter about which you disagree or which needs further investigation. I hope that this will make the teaching of this series more interactive.

Why Don’t We Study Hebrews?

Put more bluntly, why is it that so many Christians seek to avoid studying Hebrews? This gets to the heart of my purpose in this introductory lesson. I believe that we need to recognize why we shy away from Hebrews, and then get some perspective on these issues. So let’s get to it. Why do people (including me) tend to avoid Hebrews?

1.We’re cowards, especially me. As a preacher, I don’t want to get in over my head. I remember a time years ago when a preacher I know started a chapter-by-chapter study of the Book of Job. He quit, right in the middle of the series. In fact, he may have quit before he got to the middle of the book. It was tough sledding, and I can fully understand why he gave up. Others may doggedly press on, causing the audience to wish the preacher would quit.

2.One of the reasons preachers don’t want to tackle teaching through Hebrews is that congregations are not eager for them to do so.Hebrews is the Leviticus of the New Testament. I know that this is true with regard to its content, but I am speaking in terms of its popularity. If Leviticus is one of the least-read books of the Old Testament, Hebrews is one of the least-studied books in the New.

Few preachers aspire to teach something that others don’t wish to hear (though this is our task). I certainly don’t want to start something that I’m afraid I might not finish. And so it is that you and I must commence this study by faith, rather than by sight. We must trust that because this is God’s Word (and that is surely something the author wants us to grasp – see Hebrews 1:1—2:4), God will grant us insight into this book, and He will make this study one that is profitable.

3. Hebrews may appear to be irrelevant to those of us who are Gentiles because the book has such a strong Jewish orientation.Let us remember that “salvation is from the Jews” (John 4:22). Gentile believers are “sons of Abraham” by faith (Romans 4; see Galatians 6:16). Gentile believers have been “grafted in” to Israel’s blessings (Romans 11:11-24). It was Israel’s unbelief that (in the sovereign purposes of God) was the means by which this grafting has taken place (Romans 11:25-33). It is Gentile belief that will provoke unbelieving Jews to jealousy, leading to salvation (Romans 11:11-16). All of this is to say that one cannot compartmentalize the Old Testament, isolating it from the New. Nor can one completely separate God’s dealings with His people, the Jews, from His dealings with those of us who are Gentiles.

There is another reason why Gentiles must grasp the relationship of the Old Covenant to the New. Much of the error being disseminated among Gentile churches had a distinctly Jewish flavor. The Judaisers were seeking to put the Gentiles under the Old Testament law (see Acts 15 and the whole Book of Galatians). Those who were causing trouble in the churches were Jewish (or so they represented themselves):

Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they descendants of Abraham? So am I (2 Corinthians 11:22).

6 Some have strayed from these and turned away to empty discussion. 7 They want to be teachers of the law, but they do not understand what they are saying or the things they insist on so confidently (1 Timothy 1:6-7).

10 For there are many rebellious people, idle talkers, and deceivers, especially those with Jewish connections, 11 who must be silenced because they mislead whole families by teaching for dishonest gain what ought not to be taught. 12 A certain one of them, in fact, one of their own prophets, said, “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.” 13 Such testimony is true. For this reason rebuke them sharply that they may be healthy in the faith 14 and not pay attention to Jewish myths and commands of people who reject the truth (Titus 1:10-14).

“‘I know the distress you are suffering and your poverty (but you are rich). I also know the slander against you by those who call themselves Jews and really are not, but are a synagogue of Satan’” (Revelation 2:9; see also 3:9).

It was necessary to understand the Old Testament and its relation to the New in order to understand the gospel of grace, and thus to avoid the false teaching of those Jews who were seeking to mislead Gentile believers.

One more thing needs to be said about those who would consider that these “Jewish matters” were of no interest or concern to Gentile believers:

No trial has overtaken you that is not faced by others. And God is faithful: He will not let you be tried beyond what you are able to bear, but with the trial will also provide a way out so that you may be able to endure it (1 Corinthians 10:13).

Our problems as Gentiles are not unique, nor are the problems faced by the Jews. That is why, in the verses leading up to verse 13,6 Paul used the failings of the Jews during their wilderness wanderings to instruct the predominantly Gentile church at Corinth (and beyond) about those fleshly temptations that are so deadly.

4.The main reason why we avoid Hebrews is that it is a difficult book to interpret and to apply.In short, we find it difficult to understand, and so we put it aside for something that is simple. If we find Hebrews hard to understand, we are certainly not alone:

“William Barclay once wrote, ‘When we come to read the Letter to the Hebrews we come to read what is, for the person of today, the most difficult book in the whole New Testament.’”7 (Guthrie, pp. 13-14)

“The young Charles Haddon Spurgeon found it difficult to understand. With typical humour he recalled his teenage feelings about the letter: ‘I have a very lively, or rather deadly, recollection of a certain series of discourses on the Hebrews, which made a deep impression on my mind of the most undesirable kind. I wished frequently that the Hebrews had kept the Epistle to themselves, for it sadly bored a poor Gentile lad.’”8

Let me be more specific about some of the ways people find Hebrews more perplexing than other books of the Bible.

Canonicity9

Hebrews was one of the New Testament books which was recognized as being a part of the canon of Scripture later than others. It was not until late in the fourth century that Hebrews was officially accepted as part of the New Testament, and this was perhaps largely due to the fact that Pauline authorship was assumed at this point in time.10

Authorship

The author of Hebrews is not indicated in the epistle, and there is considerable debate as to who it might be. I find it interesting – and perhaps even troubling – that so much effort has been expended to determine the author of Hebrews when it seems apparent that God did not want us to know. Paul Ellingworth, in his commentary,11 deals with 13 proposed authors to the book. When I read all the pages in the commentaries devoted to this question of authorship, the words of Deuteronomy 29:29 come to mind:

Secret things belong to the Lord our God, but those that are revealed belong to us and our descendants forever, so that we might obey all the words of this law (Deuteronomy 29:29).

God is telling us here that He has revealed what we need to know, and that what He has concealed we should leave alone. Why then are we working so hard to identify the author?

I think I would go one step further. Why do we not consider it instructive that the name of the author is deliberately concealed? Several have noted that not only is the author’s name concealed, but that when the author cites Old Testament Scriptures – which he often does – he does not name the human author there, either.12 I used to think that the author of Hebrews simply had a bad memory, but I now am convinced that he purposed not to name the human authors, and I think that the author of Hebrews tells us why at the very outset of the epistle:

1 After God spoke long ago in various portions and in various ways to our ancestors through the prophets, 2 in these last days he has spoken to us in a son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he created the world. 3 The Son is the radiance of his glory and the representation of his essence, and he sustains all things by his powerful word, and so when he had accomplished cleansing for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high (Hebrews 1:1-3).

The author wants us to look at Scripture as having come from God. The words of Scripture are God’s revelation to us, a revelation to which we would do well to heed (Hebrews 2:1-4). No wonder human authorship is not emphasized in Hebrews (though it is certainly not denied). And so we find the absence of the author’s name to be instructive and completely consistent with the message of the book.

The Recipients of this Epistle

The recipients of this epistle are not identified, nor is the city in which they live. Neither is the city from which this epistle originated revealed to us. This does not mean that we know nothing about them or their circumstances. Here is some of what we do know:

The recipients were either Jewish, or they were Gentiles who were very familiar with Jewish practices and beliefs: they knew their Old Testament.13 The author assumes this, and thus he often cites Old Testament texts, or he refers to Old Testament personalities or institutions.

The author assumes that his readers (perhaps with a few exceptions) were believers (see Hebrews 3:1).

The recipients had been believers for some time. They had already endured some persecution for their faith (see Hebrews 5:12; 10:32-34).

These Hebrew saints had not yet suffered unto death for their faith, though the inference is that they will see more intense persecution in the not-too-distant future (Hebrews 12:1-13).

Those whose lives were characterized by spiritual neglect were considered especially vulnerable to failure if and when hard times fell upon the church.

In spite of being believers for some time, they were still immature in their knowledge of the Scriptures (Hebrews 5:11-14).

Some of them were negligent with regard to the Scriptures and also in their gathering with other believers. They had also drifted away from an intimate walk with the Lord Jesus (Hebrews 2:1-4; 10:19-25).

Thus, they were in danger of more blatant disobedience and rebellion – of falling away (Hebrews 3:12-17; 4:11; 10:26-31; 12:15-17, 25).

The Date of the Writing of Hebrews

We are not given clear indication as to when this epistle was written, though most conservative scholars tend to believe it was in the second half of the first century. Was the temple still standing and functional? If so, then the epistle would seem to have been written before 70 A. D.14

The “Warning Texts” of Hebrews

Many Christians are troubled by the “warning texts” of Hebrews, such as those found in Hebrews 6:4-8 and 10:26-31.Is Hebrews teaching that a Christian can lose his or her salvation, contrary to the clear teaching of other biblical texts? If not, what do these texts mean? I would simply point out to you what Don Curtis indicated to me: these warning texts are followed by words of assurance, rather than doubt.15 We must not avoid certain texts just because they are difficult to understand or because they appear to contradict other texts. We must be all the more diligent to study these texts and to find a biblical resolution to any apparent contradictions.

The Way Old Testament Texts are Used in Hebrews

Another reason why people find Hebrews a hard book to study is the way in which the author uses the Old Testament Scriptures in his epistle. We in the West, and those who have been trained to interpret Old Testament citations in a very narrow way, need to recognize that the New Testament authors used Old Testament texts in a variety of ways. I would strongly urge you to look at Don Curtis’ work on this subject.16

Conflict over the Interpretation of Hebrews

Some people do not enjoy Hebrews because there seems to be so much disagreement among the scholars regarding the interpretation of this epistle. “If the scholars can’t agree on what it means, how am I to know?” And sometimes the disagreements can get heated. For this reason, some chose to avoid Hebrews altogether.

It is Hard to Trace the Argument of Hebrews

I must confess that this is the main reason why I’ve tended to avoid preaching Hebrews for a number of years. Not only have I failed to trace the argument of the book, but others whom I trust and respect have not produced convincing17 arguments either.

So how do we come to terms with the fact that there seems to be no general agreement concerning the argument of the Book of Hebrews? I greatly appreciate George H. Guthrie’s commentary18 on this point. First, Guthrie reminds us that this epistle is more in the form of a sermon, perhaps like that which would have been preached in a synagogue:

“Although the author chooses to address the pressing problem facing this community in the form of a sermon, the development and structure of this sermon’s argument have baffled commentators through the centuries. A quick look at the introductions to several commentaries demonstrates the lack of consensus on this matter among those who have attempted to outline the book.”19

Second, Guthrie proposes that Hebrews intertwines exposition and exhortation:

“However this [superiority] approach fails to take seriously the two distinct types of literature found in Hebrews, namely, exposition, in which the author expounds the person and work of Christ, and exhortation, in which he seeks to motivate the congregation to a positive response. Hebrews does not develop in a neat outline from point A to point Z. Rather, the author switches back and forth between exposition and exhortation. Although the two work together powerfully, weaving a tapestry of concepts toward the accomplishment of his purpose, they contribute to that purpose in different manners.”20

We’ve gotten used to books like Romans and Ephesians, where the author (Paul) first establishes his doctrinal foundation (exposition), and then moves on to application (exhortation). Thus, Romans establishes doctrine in chapters 1-11, and then applies it in chapters 12-16. In Ephesians, the exposition is found in chapters 1-3, and the exhortation comes in chapters 4-6. This is not so with Hebrews. Exhortation is interspersed with exposition.

But there is yet further reason why we find the argument of Hebrews difficult to trace. The author is distant from us in time and in culture. Because of this, we must work harder to interpret and apply this great epistle. I love the way Guthrie illustrates the need for greater effort on our part.21

Guthrie uses two excellent illustrations to demonstrate the need for increased effort on our part when we approach our study of Hebrews. First, he uses the analogy of friendship. He drove to seminary with a college friend (both of them were apparently from Tennessee). From their common background, they both understood that “barbeque” was shredded pork, “Paris” was a town in Western Tennessee, and “to carry someone to church” meant that you would give them a ride to church in your car.

When Guthrie arrived at seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, he discovered that Texans saw things a little bit differently. “Barbeque” was not shredded pork, but beef brisket, “Paris” was a town in northeast Texas, and a “tank” was a small body of water which you used to water your cattle, or perhaps to fish or swim in.

But Guthrie also met and befriended a number of international students. One in particular was from Korea. For this friend, “barbeque” was a strange substance called pulgoki, and other food included things like fermented cabbage. Cultural and language differences required a great deal more effort for meaningful communication to take place. The greater the cultural and linguistic distance, the greater the effort required.

Guthrie used a second analogy of three bridges. The first is near his home. It crosses a thirty-some-foot expanse over the Forked Deer River (or creek – crick as we would say it where I grew up). It took a certain amount of resources and effort to build. Some fifty miles away, there is another river and another bridge. The river is the Mississippi, and the bridge is a mile long. It took a lot more resources and a great deal more effort to build – because the gap to span was greater. Then he mentioned a third bridge, which crosses the Atchafalaya Swamp. This bridge is seventeen miles long, and it had to be built over a swamp teaming with snakes and alligators. The greater the gap, the greater the effort required. Needless to say, the Book of Hebrews is the “Atchafalaya Swamp” of the New Testament. If we wish to bridge the gap from here and now to then and there, we will have to work at it.

Another thing that makes it hard to trace the argument of Hebrews is that this epistle is really a lengthy sermon. This was a sermon that would likely have been preached in a synagogue. The author speaks of the epistle as a “message of exhortation”:

Now I urge you, brothers and sisters, bear with my message of exhortation, for in fact I have written to you briefly (Hebrews 13:22, emphasis mine).

The kind of message one would preach in the synagogue would also be called an “exhortation.”

14 Moving on from Perga, they arrived at Pisidian Antioch, and on the Sabbath day they went into the synagogue and sat down. 15 After the reading from the law and the prophets, the leaders of the synagogue sent them a message, saying, “Brothers, if you have any message of exhortation for the people, speak it” (Acts 13:14-15, emphasis mine).

We thus must approach Hebrews as a sermon.

Conclusion

I have attempted to demonstrate that our excuses for avoiding Hebrews are invalid and that it is time for us to devote ourselves to a serious study of this epistle. As I conclude this lesson, let me do a little exhorting.

Granting that this book is difficult, I (echoing George Guthrie and others) have urged that we commit ourselves to the labor it will take, confident that it will be worth our while. But let’s not assume that this book was ever easy for anyone to grasp. If we suppose that this book was not difficult for its original readers, we are wrong. Granted, the content and style of this epistle were not nearly as foreign to the original readers as they are to us, but it was not an easy message for them to grasp either. The writer makes this abundantly clear to us:

11 On this topic we have much to say and it is difficult to explain, since you have become sluggish in hearing. 12 For though you should in fact be teachers by this time, you need someone to teach you the beginning elements of God’s utterances. You have gone back to needing milk, not solid food. 13 For everyone who lives on milk is inexperienced in the message of righteousness, because he is an infant. 14 But solid food is for the mature, whose perceptions are trained by practice to discern both good and evil (Hebrews 5:11-14, emphasis mine).

When I allow the Book of Hebrews to shape my thinking about the difficulties with this book, I come to the somewhat shocking realization that the problem is not with Hebrews; it is with me (May I be so bold as to say that the problem is with us?) The situation, whether we like it or not, is that we have not chosen to move from milk to meat. We (along with the first recipients of Hebrews) are much like the Corinthians:

1 So, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but instead as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. 2 I fed you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready. In fact, you are still not ready, 3 for you are still influenced by the flesh. For since there is still jealousy and dissension among you, are you not influenced by the flesh and behaving like unregenerate people? (1 Corinthians 3:1-3)

The writer to the Hebrews recognizes this same immaturity. But he refuses to “dumb down” his writing. He turns to “meat” and writes of things that are difficult to grasp. He seizes his readers by the hand, so to speak, and pulls them along into much deeper truth:

11 On this topic we have much to say and it is difficult to explain, since you have become sluggish in hearing. 12 For though you should in fact be teachers by this time, you need someone to teach you the beginning elements of God’s utterances. You have gone back to needing milk, not solid food. 13 For everyone who lives on milk is inexperienced in the message of righteousness, because he is an infant. 14 But solid food is for the mature, whose perceptions are trained by practice to discern both good and evil. 1 Therefore we must progress beyond the elementary instructions about Christ and move on to maturity, not laying this foundation again: repentance from dead works and faith in God, 2 teaching about baptisms, laying on of hands, resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. 3 And this is what we intend to do, if God permits (Hebrews 5:11—6:3).

Hebrews is what all of us should be studying. In his brief introduction to Guthrie’s commentary on Hebrews, Terry Muck22 made some very challenging comments. Greatly paraphrased, Muck observed that Christians today are very much like the first readers of Hebrews. We are lazy in our Bible study, somewhat cold and indifferent in our walk with Christ, and less than faithful in our church attendance. The approach today has been somewhat sociological. We conduct polls and surveys, seeking to learn what will attract people to a personal faith and to church. Then we change (aka “dumb down”) our message and our methods so that we appeal to slothful saints.

The writer to the Hebrews does just the opposite. He elevates and exalts Christ to His rightful place. Then he exposes our weaknesses and spiritual immaturity. Rather than cater to our weakness, the author lovingly rebukes us, letting us know that much more is expected of us. And then he presses on to deal with material that is, at the moment, way over our heads. He challenges us to acknowledge our spiritual lethargy and presses us to sink our teeth into some real meat. That meat is the Book of Hebrews, and it is about time that all of us took a large bite.

We, like the Corinthians and the recipients of Hebrews, are spiritually weak. Many of us have been saved for some time. We may once have been zealous about our faith, but many have become cool (luke warm?), resting on our laurels. As such, we have become too occupied with our self-indulgent impulses and are thus ripe for trouble when real trouble comes our way. Hebrews is not just for those first readers, my friends; it is for us. We desperately need to study it and to take the corrective action that is prescribed. In essence, we need to see Christ exalted in His power, love, and grace. We need to heed His Word and to draw near to Him in intimate fellowship. As we do, we will also draw nearer to our fellow saints, and we will re-discover that “first love” which we experienced at the time of our conversion.

So let’s take the challenge of the Book of Hebrews, for it is God speaking to us, and not just a man. Let’s step up to the plate and partake of the feast which God has placed before us, looking to Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith (Hebrews 12:2).


1 Copyright © 2008 by Robert L. Deffinbaugh. This is the edited manuscript of Lesson 1 in the series, Near to the Heart of God – A Study of the Book of Hebrews, prepared by Robert L. Deffinbaugh on July 13, 2008. Anyone is at liberty to use this lesson for educational purposes only, with or without credit.

2 George H. Guthrie, Hebrews – The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1998), p. 19.

3 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the NET Bible. The NEW ENGLISH TRANSLATION, also known as THE NET BIBLE, is a completely new translation of the Bible, not a revision or an update of a previous English version. It was completed by more than twenty biblical scholars who worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. The translation project originally started as an attempt to provide an electronic version of a modern translation for electronic distribution over the Internet and on CD (compact disk). Anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection will be able to use and print out the NET Bible without cost for personal study. In addition, anyone who wants to share the Bible with others can print unlimited copies and give them away free to others. It is available on the Internet at: www.netbible.org.

4 This would be particularly interesting if both Romans and Hebrews were addressed to believers in Rome, something we will not know for certain this side of heaven.

5 This section may require two lessons.

6 1 Corinthians 10:1-12.

7 George H. Guthrie, Hebrews – The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1998), pp. 13-14.

8 C. H. Spurgeon, The Early Years (Banner of Truth, 1962), p. 48, as cited by Raymond Brown, Christ Above All: The Message of Hebrews (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1982), pp. 20-21.

9 Meaning, “Is Hebrews a part of the inspired Scriptures?”

10 See F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews, revised edition (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1990), pp. 17, 22-25.

11 Paul Ellingworth, The Epistle to the Hebrews (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1993), pp. 3-21.

12 One rare exception would be found in Hebrews 4:7.

13 Most likely there was a mixture of Jewish and Gentile believers.

14 “Although dating most of the New Testament literature is a difficult endeavor, with any propositions considered tentative, the situation indicated by the data above suggests Hebrews was written in the mid-60s A.D., just prior to the extreme persecution of the Roman church under Nero.” Guthrie, p. 22.

15 See Hebrews 6:9-12 and 10:32-39.

16http://www.bible.org/node/545

17 Convincing to me, that is.

18 George H. Guthrie, Hebrews – The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1998). See especially pp. 27-38.

19 Guthrie, p. 37.

20 Guthrie, pp. 27-28.

21 Guthrie, pp. 31-35.

22 Guthrie, pp. 11-12.


Related Topics: Introductions, Arguments, Outlines