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  • AN EXPOSITION OF THE EPISTLE TO THE HEBREWS


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    INTRODUCTION VOLUME This Edition of THE WORKS OF JOHN OWEN first published by Johnstone & Hunter, 1855 CONTENTS GENERAL PREFACE BY THE EDITOR THE EPISTLE DEDICATORY PREFATORY NOTICES PRELIMINARY EXERCITATIONS PART 1 — CONCERNING THE EPISTLE TO THE HEBREWS 1. The canonical authority of the Epistle to the Hebrews, Subsidiary Note by the Editor 2. Of the penman of the Epistle to the Hebrews, Subsidiary Note by the Editor 3. The time (and occasion) of the writing of the Epistle to the Hebrews Subsidiary Note by the Editor 4. The language wherein the Epistle to the Hebrews was originally written Subsidiary Note by the Editor 5. Testimonies cited by the apostle out of the Old Testament Subsidiary Note by the Editor Supplementary Note by the Editor, on the question to whom the Epistle was written 6. Oneness of the church 7. Of the Judaical distribution of the Old Testament PART 2 — CONCERNING THE MESSIAH 8. The first dissertation concerning the Messiah, proving him to be promised of old 9. Promises of the Messiah vindicated 10. Appearances of the Son of God under the Old Testament 11. Faith of the ancient church of the Jews concerning the Messiah 12. (Second dissertation) The promised Messiah long since come 13. Other testimonies proving the Messiah to be come 14. Daniel’s prophecy vindicated 15. Computation of Daniel’s weeks 16. Jewish traditions about the coming of the Messiah 17. The third general dissertation, proving Jesus of Nazareth to be the only true and promised Messiah 18. Jews’ objections against Christian religion answered PART 3 — CONCERNING THE INSTITUTIONS OF THE JEWISH CHURCH REFERRED TO IN THE EPISTLE 19. State and ordinances of the church before the giving of the law 20. The law and precepts thereof 21. The sanction of the law in promises and threatening 22. Of the tabernacle and ark 23. Of the office of the priesthood 24. Sacrifices of the old law GENERAL PREFACE It has been matter of thankfulness for many generations of the Christian church, that Dr Owen was led to concentrate all his rare endowments and vast resources on the exposition of the Epistle to the Hebrews. Wisdom and prudence of the highest order were required for the task, besides no common measure of learning and ability. The Epistle proves the higher glory of the new dispensation, from the superiority of Christ its founder, in virtue of his divine nature, to angels, to Moses, and to Aaron, — sheds light upon all the offices of Christ, as prophet, and priest, and king, — is designed to conciliate the Jewish mind to the abrogation of the Mosaic ritual, by detailing the superior privileges of the present dispensation, — supplies fuller evidence of the typical and temporary nature of the former than is elsewhere to be found in the word of God, — affords a key to passages in Scripture which are indeed “hard to be understood,” as when the 8th Psalm is made unexpectedly radiant with prophetic allusion to the Messiah, and Melchizedek is summoned from the obscurity of ages to illustrate the honors of his priesthood, — and partially withdraws even the curtain which screens from us the scenes of heaven, by its description of the official functions of our great High Priest within the veil. Of an Epistle bearing such characteristics, and having such objects in view, the highest principles of the Christian system necessarily form the chief contents; while its practical warnings against the sin and danger of apostasy from the church of Christ, under any lingering prejudice in favor of an effete and lifeless Judaism, as they derive a peculiar energy from the fearful doom which the apostate is represented as incurring, from the thrilling recital of the triumphs achieved by faith in all ages of the world, and from the sublime reference to the joys and glories of the heavenly Zion in the closing portion of it, present a befitting conclusion to an argument as lofty and momentous as the entire compass of revelation exhibits. The very language of the Epistle rises, in the original, to a corresponding elevation with the themes which it is employed to discuss; and the weightiest argument against its Pauline origin rests upon its purity of style and dignity of tone, which are held to be superior to the ordinary composition of the apostle of the Gentiles.

    It is on all hands admitted that the practical object for which the Epistle seems to have been written was, to preserve Jewish converts from relapsing into Judaism. Its divine origin, the imposing grandeur of its ritual, and the cherished associations connected with its whole history, might influence the mind of a Jew, in some moment of temptation and weakness, to betake himself afresh to a system respecting which even the Christian, who denied its continued obligation, was ready to admit that it was promulgated originally under the highest seals of divine authority. The argument by which the steadfastness of the primitive converts was secured, and the superior glory of the Christian dispensation vindicated, rests mainly upon two principles, — the divine glory of its Founder, and the typical character of the rites and sacrifices under the law. In regard to the former of these truths, it cannot be affirmed that there is any novel or peculiar disclosure in this Epistle beyond what may be obtained from other parts of revelation; but in no other inspired book is the typical character of the Mosaic ritual declared and elucidated with any degree of fullness, as the definite and formal object of the writer. It is a perilous experiment for any system, slowly evolved in the course of ages, when its separate parts, colored with the changeful hue of the different times and circumstances in which they came to light, are tested with the view of ascertaining if they possess the unity and coherence which truth, and truth only, can under such a trial evince. Any essential inconsistency would be fatal to the claims and pretensions of the system. But when a body of truths, having in themselves no abstract and necessary relationship, such as links the principles and axioms of geometry into the unity of a science, hazards its entire character and authority upon the assertion that some change, annulling the outward forms in which it had been previously embodied, has not only left its essential principles unimpaired, but stamped upon them a confirmation so important and so indispensable that without it they would be proved untenable and absurd, — it must be felt that a system which comes safely out of the testing ordeal of such a change is entitled to our implicit confidence. Accordingly, Christian scholarship and genius have labored with peculiar care to establish the connection between the old and new dispensations. The perfect symmetry in the temple of divine truth must ever constrain admiration; and when the disappearance of typical rites is seen to be tantamount to the removal of the scaffolding, so as to unveil the finished beauty of the edifice, the demonstration is complete that Christianity is indeed from God. If the Epistle to the Hebrews had not been given us, we would have had little direct and explicit ratification of the principle by which type and anti-type are connected. The correspondence between them exhibits and proves the unity of divine truth under a change of external rites and forms so complete, as, but for the identity of the principles embodied in them, might have seemed incompatible with the divine authority of either economy, and yet so indispensable that both economies shed on each other the luster of mutual confirmation. It is on this ground that we can vindicate fully the language of our author, to which needless exception has sometimes been taken as exaggerated, — that “this Epistle is as useful to the church as the sun is to the world.” It is the keystone which locks the arch of revealed truth into symmetry and strength.

    The degree to which Dr Owen has succeeded in his task is indicated in the graceful critique upon this Exposition, in the life of the author prefixed to his miscellaneous works, Vol. 1. p. 84. There is not much to be added in regard to the history of the work. In the year 1668, when his public ministrations as a preacher of the gospel were considerably interrupted by the seventy of the times, Owen seems to have prosecuted his literary labors with the more assiduity, giving to the world not merely his valuable treatises the Nature of Indwelling Sin, and on Psalm 130, but the first volume of his greatest work, the Exposition which follows, and which originally appeared in four folio volumes. It was the result of deep and earnest investigation, pursued for many years; and in subserviency to it, we learn, on his own authority, that the whole course of his previous studies had been regulated. In 1674, though he was reduced to such infirmity that we find him at Tunbridge Wells for the benefit of his health, and though he was involved in all the bitter distractions of the Communion controversy, he is able, amid growing years and weakness, to lay the church of Christ under increasing obligations to him, by the publication, not to refer to minor productions, of two massive folios, his “Discourse on the Holy Spirit,” and the second volume of the present work. He was quite as busy, vindicating Dissenters from unfounded charges, in 1680, when the third volume issued from the press. Death overtook him before the publication of the fourth, but not before he had brought it to completion; so that the whole work reaches us as his precious bequest to the church of Christ, and the utterance of his dying testimony for the truth; and by means of it, our author, to employ the language of the Epistle that proved the subject of his closing labors upon the earth, “being dead, yet speaketh.”

    Considering the full explanation given by Dr Owen himself, in his various prefaces, of the plan which he adopted and the objects which he had in view throughout his commentary, we need not obtrude upon the reader any further remarks on these points. The nature of the Exposition is threefold; — partly critical, in the brief comment sometimes made on the text and language of the Epistle; partly doctrinal, in the ample and thorough discussion of the great truths of which the language is the vehicle; and partly practical, in the observations immediately bearing on life and duty with which these discussions are generally followed up. That so much of the Exercitations, and of the earlier portion of the Exposition, should be occupied with a refutation of Socinian and Jewish errors, is a circumstance admitting of explanation, from the progress which Socinianism was making in the times of Owen, and from the lingering deference that was paid to the notions of the Jews on all matters of Hebrew literature and learning. The space occupied with these controversial discussions may sometimes lead the reader away from the direct consideration of the Epistle, but it was professedly to meet these errors that the work was undertaken; and the Epistle itself gives prominence to the very doctrines on which a Christian author comes most directly into collision with those who impugn the divinity of Christ, or deny that he was the promised Messiah.

    The Exercitations, though they have been in some measure overlooked, will be found of singular and permanent value when they are carefully examined. They are by no means detached, desultory productions; they proceed in a systematic and orderly course. The first part of them relates to such general questions as the canonicity, the authorship, and the date of the Epistle, and the language in which it was written, together with the occasion which mainly rendered it necessary, namely, the mistakes of the Jews, in denying the oneness of the church in all ages, and in adhering to the oral law or mere tradition. The second part, in a series of dissertations, embraces the illustration and defense of three great principles upon which the reasoning in the Epistle proceeds, — namely, that a Messiah had been promised, that before the Epistle was written he had already come in the flesh, and that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah. The third part discusses the institutions of the ancient Jewish church. The fourth part unfolds at great length the sacerdotal office of Christ. And the fifth, originally published as a separate treatise in 1671, enters largely on the whole question of the Sabbath. This last, as it was designed to be included in the preliminary Exercitations to this commentary, and indeed so forestalls it that without them the exposition of the fourth chapter would be very defective, was appended by Dr. Wright to the other Exercitations, — an arrangement so obviously proper that we have not deviated from it in the present edition. The mere summary of their contents, however, must fail to give an adequate impression of their merits. They contain the ripest thoughts of the author on the subjects to which they relate, while they will be found a repertory of much curious and interesting matter, — such as the arguments of the Jews against Christianity, the passages in the Targums which allude to the Messiah, and the digest of the law into precepts by the celebrated Maimonides.

    The Exposition was favorably received both on the Continent and in this country. Mr. Simon Commenicq, a merchant in Rotterdam, translated it into Dutch. Under his care it was printed in seven quarto volumes at Amsterdam, 1733-40; and he distributed most of the impression gratuitously. According to Le Long, a proposal was made at Amsterdam in 1700 to translate it into Latin. Dr. Williams of Rotherham published, in 1790, an abridgment of it in four octavo volumes; and of this abridgment a second edition appeared in 1815, with material corrections and improvements, under the superintendence of Ingram Cobbin, A.M. In 1812, a complete edition, in seven octavo volumes, was published under the editorial care of Dr. Wright. A reprint of this last edition, in four bulky octavo volumes, was published by Mr. Tegg in 1840.

    It is a singular feature in the criticisms which have been passed on the works of our author, that each critic generally evinces peculiar admiration for some one of his works, in decided preference to all the rest. Dr. M’Crie coveted the honor of having written his treatise on the Person of Christ; Ryland pronounced his Latin work on the Origin and Progress of Theology “incomparable,” — “the greatest work ever written by a British divine;” Dr. Lindsayn Alexander speaks of his work on the Holy Spirit as his “masterwork;” Mr. Wilberforce especially recommended his treatise on the Mortification of Sin. There is reason to believe, however, that Owen himself regarded the Exposition as the production by which he had rendered the most service to the cause of divine truth, and on which his reputation as a theological author would chiefly depend. On finishing it he laid down his pen, exclaiming, “Now my work is done; it is time for me to die!”

    It is impossible to embrace all the testimonies which have been given to the preeminent value of this great work, — a value not in the least degree abated by all which has been subsequently published in exposition of this Epistle; for though in verbal exegesis subsequent scholarship has greatly distanced Owen, there is scarcely any theological truth of the least importance, embodied in the Epistle to the Hebrews, the discovery and illustration of which have not been anticipated by his sagacious research.

    In accordance with the course adopted in the prefatory notes to his miscellaneous writings, we may record a few opinions which have been expressed by eminent authorities in approbation of Owen’s labors as an expositor. Walch thus speaks of it: “Egregium est opus hoc, locuples testis de auctoris singulari eruditione, atque industria quam ad illud conficiendum adhibuit.” According to Tholuck, “It gives evidence of the learning and theological insight of its truly pious author.” Mr. Bridges describes it as “probably the most elaborate and instructive comment on a detached portion of Scripture.” Dr. Chalmers pronounces it “the greatest work of John Owen,” — “a work of gigantic strength as well as gigantic size; and he who hath mastered it is very little short, both in respect to the doctrinal and practical of Christianity, of being an erudite and accomplished theologian.” Bogue and Bennett, in their “History of Dissenters” (vol. 2. 236), give warm expression to their feelings of admiration: “If the theological student should part with his coat or his bed to procure the works of Howe, he that would not sell his shirt to procure those of John Owen, and especially his Exposition, of which every sentence is precious, shows too much regard to his body, and too little for his immortal mind.”

    Certain characteristics will be noticed in this edition which, it is hoped, will be regarded as improvements. As in the original edition, all the prefaces are given at length. In the edition of Dr. Wright, and in the reprint of Mr. Tegg, a preface is given which is made up of all the different prefaces by Owen, and which omits some interesting statements, by no means deserving to be consigned to oblivion. The Italics of the original edition are partially restored; and, by a variety of type, criticism on the language and text of the original is discriminated from the doctrinal and practical expositions. Notes are appended to the purely critical discussions, embracing the substance of modern criticism on the more important passages. The Greek text is carefully revised. Subsidiary notes are inserted among the Exercitations, on the topics commonly included under what is termed “Introduction.” More especially, the language of the author is left untouched and unmodified. The attempt has been made in former editions to modernize the composition; but while it has thus been rendered in some respects more smooth and less obscure, serious damage has been done, although most unintentionally, to the meaning of Owen in several instances, while manifest errata, such as “foregoing” instead of “following,” and “possibly” instead of “positively,” have been left uncorrected. In the edition by Dr. Wright, in which this attempt to improve the style of Owen was chiefly made, no great amount of care seems to have been taken to correct the Hebrew, the Greek, the Latin, the quotations from various authors, and the Scripture references. In regard to all these particulars very decided improvement will be found in the present edition.

    The portrait engraved for this volume is from an old engraving by Vertue, prefixed to the collection of our author’s sermons and tracts published in 1721.

    An acknowledgment is due of the valuable help received by the Editor in his labors from the Rev. John Edmondston of Ashkirk, without whose friendly counsel and active cooperation volumes of such number and extent as are contained in the present work could not have been brought out in the limited time allotted for the preparation of them, with the accuracy which, it is believed, they possess.

    Dr. Owen in all his works, and nowhere more than in the following Exercitations and Exposition, while he seems absolutely to riot in a prodigality of massive thought and learned illustration, manifests a constant zeal, and a desire that all his readers share with him in his zeal, for the glory of Christ and the advancement of personal godliness. He had no ambition merely to acquire fame by rustling amid the dead leaves of controversy and criticism; his hand is ever dropping into the mind of his reader the precious seeds of quickening truth. The same sky that dispenses its thunder against every heretical assault on the paramount dignity of the Savior, is ever distilling its showers of gentler influence for the refreshment of many a weary heart. That this work, in its present form, — a work to which Owen consecrated the best energies of his life, — may be subservient to this holy result, — may promote higher views of the glory of Him who is “the brightness of his Father’s glory,” may deepen in every Christian reader his sense of responsibility for the enjoyment of Christian privilege, may recall the truant from the school of Christ to the feet of the great Teacher, and rouse many a sinner to flee from the wrath to come to the covert of that atoning blood which speaketh better things than that of Abel, — is the prayer of him who edits, as he is sure would have been the prayer of him who was honored of God to indite the following Exposition. W. H. G., EDINBURGH March 1854.

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