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Before taking up the study of this important Epistle let writer and reader humbly bow before its Divine Inspirer, and earnestly seek from Him that preparation of heart which is needed to bring us into fellowship with that One whose person, offices, and glories are here so sublimely displayed. Let us personally and definitely seek the help of that blessed Spirit who has been given to the saints of God for the purpose of guiding them into all truth, and taking of the things of Christ to show unto them. In Luke 24:45 we learn that Christ opened the understanding of the disciples “that they might understand the Scriptures.” May He graciously do so with us, then the entrance of His words will “give light” ( <19B9130> Psalm 119:130), and in His light we shall “see light.”
In this opening article we shall confine ourselves to things of an introductory character, things which it is necessary to weigh ere we take up the details of the Epistle. We shall consider its addressees, its purpose, its theme, its divisions, its characteristics, its value, and its writer. Before doing so, let us say that we expect to quote freely from other expositors, and where possible name them. In some cases we shall not be able to do so owing to the fact that extensive and long-distance traveling has obliged the writer to break up five libraries during the last twenty years. During those years he has read (and owned most of them) between thirty and forty commentaries on Hebrews, from which he has made notes in his Bible and taken helpful extracts for his own use when lecturing on this Epistle. As most of these commentaries have been disposed of, we can now do no more than make a general acknowledgement of help received from those written by Drs. John Owen, John Gill, Moses Stewart, Andrew Bonar, Griffith-Thomas, and Messrs. Pridham, Ridout, and Tucker. Let us now consider: — 1. ITS ADDRESSEES.
In our English Bibles we find the words “The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews” as the address. Perhaps some of our readers are not aware that the titles found at the head of the different books of the Bible are not Divinely inspired, and therefore are not accounted canonical as are the contents. No doubt these titles were originated by the early scribes, when making copies of the original manuscripts — manuscripts, all traces of which have long since disappeared. In some instances these titles are unsatisfactory; in a few, grossly erroneous. As an example of the latter, we may refer to the final book of Scripture. Here the title is “The Revelation of St. John the Divine,” whereas the opening sentence of the book itself designates it “The Revelation of Jesus Christ!”
While treating in general with the titles of the books of Scripture, we may note that in almost all of the Epistles there is a Divinely-named addressee in the opening verses. But we may add, the contents of each Epistle are not to be restricted to those immediately and locally addressed. It is important that the young Christian should grasp this firmly, so that he may be fortified against ultra-dispensational teaching. There are some, claiming to have great light, who would rob the saints today of the Epistle of James because it is addressed to “the Twelve Tribes which are scattered abroad.”
With equal propriety they might take from us the Epistles to the Philippians and Colossians because they were addressed only to the saints in those cities! The truth is that what Christ said to the apostles in Mark 13:17 — “What I say unto you, I say unto all ” — may well be applied to the whole of the Bible. All Scripture is needed by us ( 2 Timothy 3:16,17), and all Scripture is God’s word to us. Note carefully that while at the beginning of his Epistle to Titus Paul only addresses Titus himself ( Titus 1:4), yet at the close of this letter he expressly says, “Grace be with you all! ” ( Titus 3:15) Ignoring then the man-made title at the head of our Epistle, we are at once struck by the absence of any Divinely-given one in the opening verses.
Nevertheless, its first sentence enables us to identify at once those to whom the Epistle was originally sent: see Hebrews 1:1,2. They to whom God spake through the prophets were the children of Israel, and it was also unto them He had spoken through His Son. In Hebrews 3:1, we find a word which, however, narrows the circle to which this Epistle was first sent. It was not the Jewish nation at large which was addressed, but the “holy brethren, partakers of the heavenly calling” among them.
Clear confirmation of this is supplied in the Epistles of Peter. His first was addressed, locally, to “the elect sojourners of the Dispersion ( Hebrews 1:1 — Gk., “eklektois parepidenois diasporas”). His second Epistle (see Hebrews 3:1) was addressed, locally and immediately, to the same company. Now in 2 Peter 3:15 the apostle makes specific reference to “our beloved brother Paul also according to the wisdom given unto him hath written unto you.” Thus all doubt is removed as to whom our Epistle was first sent.
The Epistle itself contains further details which serve to identify the addressees. That it was written to saints who were by no means young in the faith is clear from Hebrews 5:12. That it was sent to those who had suffered severe persecutions (cf. Acts 8:1) is plain from what we read in Hebrews 10:32. That it was addressed to a Christian community of considerable size is evident from Hebrews 13:24. From this last reference we are inclined to conclude that this Epistle was first delivered to the church in Jerusalem ( Acts 11:22), or to the churches in Judea ( Acts 9:31), copies of which would be made and forwarded to Jewish Christians in foreign lands. Thus, our Epistle was first addressed to those descendants of Abraham who, by grace, had believed on their Savior- Messiah. 2. ITS PURPOSE.
This, in a word, was to instruct Jewish believers that Judaism had been superceded by Christianity. It must be borne in mind that a very considerable proportion of the earliest converts to Christ were Jews by natural birth, who continued to labor under Jewish prejudices. In his early Epistles the apostle had touched several times on this point, and sought to wean them from an undue and now untimely attachment to the Mosaic institutions. But only in this Epistle does he deal fully and systematically with the subject.
It is difficult for us to appreciate the position, at the time this Epistle was written, of those in Israel who had believed on the Lord Jesus. Unlike the Gentiles, who, for long centuries past, had lost all knowledge of the true God, and, in consequence, worshipped idols, the Jews had a Divine religion, and a Divinely-appointed place of worship. To be called upon to forsake these, which had been venerated by their fathers for over a thousand years, was to make a big demand upon them. It was natural that even those among them who had savingly believed on Christ should want to retain the forms and ceremonies amid which they had been brought up; the more so, seeing that the Temple still stood and the Levitical priesthood still functioned. An endeavor had been made to link Christianity on to Judaism, and as Acts 21:20 tells us there were many thousands of the early Jewish Christians who were “zealous of the law” — as the next verses clearly show, the ceremonial law. “Instead of perceiving that under the new economy of things, there was neither Jew nor Gentile, but, that, without reference to external distinctions, all believers in Christ Jesus were now to live together in the closest bonds of spiritual attachment in holy society, they dreamed of the Gentiles being admitted to the participation of the Jewish Church through means of the Messiah, and, that its external economy was to remain unaltered to the end of the world” (Dr. J.
In addition to their natural prejudices, the temporal circumstances of the believing Jews became increasingly discouraging, yea, presented a sore temptation for them to abandon the profession of Christianity. Following the persecution spoken of in Acts 8:1, that eminent scholar, Adolph Saphir — himself a converted Jew — tells us: “Then arose another persecution of the believers, especially directed against the apostle Paul.
Festus died about the year 63, and under the high priest Ananias, who favored the Sadducees, the Christian Hebrews were persecuted as transgressors of the law. Some of them were stoned to death; and though this extreme punishment could not be frequently inflicted by the Sanhedrim, they were able to subject their brethren to sufferings and reproaches which they felt keenly. It was a small thing that they confiscated their goods; but they banished them from the holy places. Hitherto they had enjoyed the privileges of devout Israelites: they could take part in the beautiful and God-appointed services of the sanctuary; but now they were treated as unclean and apostates. Unless they gave up faith in Jesus, and forsook the assembling of themselves together, they were not allowed to enter the Temple, they were banished from the altar, the sacrifice, the high priest, the house of Jehovah. “We can scarcely realize the piercing sword which thus wounded their inmost heart. That by clinging to the Messiah they were to be severed from Messiah’s people, was, indeed, a great and perplexing trial; that for the hope of Israel’s glory they were banished from the place which God had chosen, and where the divine Presence was revealed, and the symbols and ordinances had been the joy and strength of their fathers; that they were to be no longer children of the covenant and of the house, but worse than Gentiles, excluded from the outer court, cut off from the commonwealth of Israel. This was indeed a sore and mysterious trial. Cleaving to the promises made unto their fathers, cherishing the hope in constant prayer that their nation would yet accept the Messiah, it was the severest test to which their faith could be put, when their loyalty to Jesus involved separation from all the sacred rights and privileges of Jerusalem.”
Thus the need for an authoritative, lucid, and systematic setting forth of the real relation of Christianity to Judaism was a pressing one. Satan would not miss the opportunity of seeking to persuade these Hebrews that their faith in Jesus of Nazareth was a mistake, a delusion, a sin. Were they right, while the vast majority of their brethren, according to the flesh, among whom were almost all the respected members of the Sanhedrim and the priesthood, wrong? Had God prospered them since they had become followers of the crucified One? or, did not their temporal circumstances evidence that He was most displeased with them? Moreover, the believing remnant of Israel had looked for a speedy return of Christ to the earth, but thirty years had now passed and He had not come! Yes, their situation was critical, and there was an urgent need that their faith should be strengthened, their understanding enlightened, and a fuller explanation be given them of Christianity in the light of the Old Testament. It was to meet this need that God, in His tender mercy, moved His servant to write this Epistle to them. 3. ITS THEME.
This is, the super-abounding excellence of Christianity over Judaism. The sum and substance, the center and circumference, the light and life of Christianity, is Christ. Therefore, the method followed by the Holy Spirit in this Epistle, in developing its dominant theme, is to show the immeasurable superiority of Christ over all that had gone before. One by one the various objects in which the Jews boasted are taken up, and in the presence of the superlative glory of the Son of God they pale into utter insignificance. We are shown First , His superiority over the prophets, Hebrews 1:1-3.
Seventh , His superiority over each and all of the Old Testament saints, in Hebrews 11:1 to Hebrews 12:3. In the Lord Jesus, Christians have the substance and reality, of which Judaism contained but the shadows and figures.
If the Lord permits us to go through this Epistle — Oh that He may come for us before — many illustrations and exemplifications of our definition of its theme will come before us. At the moment, we may note how frequently the comparative term “better” is used, thus showing the superiority of what we have in Christianity over what the saints of old had in Judaism. In Hebrews 1:4, Christ is “better than angels;” in Hebrews 7:19, mention is made of a “better hope;” in Hebrews 7:22, of a “better testament” or “covenant; in Hebrews 8:6, of “better promises;” in Hebrews 9:23, of “better sacrifices;” in Hebrews 10:34 of a “better substance;” in Hebrews 11:16, of a “better country;” in Hebrews 11:35, of a “better resurrection,” and in Hebrews 11:40, of the “better thing.” So, too, we may observe the seven great things mentioned therein, namely: the “great salvation” ( Hebrews 2:3), the “great High Priest” ( Hebrews 4:14), the “great Tabernacle” ( Hebrews 9:11), the “great fight of afflictions” ( Hebrews 10:32), the “great recompense” ( Hebrews 10:35), the “great cloud of witnesses” ( Hebrews 12:1), the “great Shepherd of the sheep” ( Hebrews 13:20).
Again; in contrast from what the believing Hebrews were called upon to give up, they were reminded of what they had gained. Note how frequently occurs the “we have ” — a great High Priest ( Hebrews 4:14, 8:1), an anchor of the soul ( Hebrews 6:19), a better and enduring substance ( Hebrews 10:34), an altar ( Hebrews 13:10). Once more, we may note how these Hebrews were encouraged to forget the things which were behind and to press toward those which were before. All through this Epistle the forward look is prominent. In Hebrews 1:6 and Hebrews 2:5, mention is made of a “world (or ‘habitable earth’) to come;” in Hebrews 6:5, of an “age to come;” in Hebrews 8:10, of a “new covenant,” yet to be made with the house of Israel; in Hebrews 9:11 and Hebrews 10:1, of “good things” to come; in Hebrews 9:28, of a “salvation” to be revealed; in Hebrews 10:37, of the coming Redeemer, in Hebrews 11:14 and Hebrews 13:14, of a “city” yet to be manifested.
Throughout this Epistle great prominence is given to the Priesthood of Christ. The center of Judaism was its temple and the priesthood. Hence the Holy Spirit has here shown at length how that believers now have in Christ the substance of which these supplied but the shadows. The following passages should be carefully weighed: — Hebrews 2:17; 3:1; 4:14, 15; 5:6, 10; 6:20; 7:26; 8:1; 9:11; 10:21. “Though deprived of the temple, with its priesthood and altar and sacrifice, the apostle reminds the Hebrews, ‘we have’ the real and substantial temple, the great High Priest, the true altar, the one sacrifice, and with it all offerings, the true access into the very presence of the Most Holy” (Adolph Saphir). 4. ITS DIVISIONS.
These have been set forth so simply by Dr. J. Brown we cannot do better than quote from him: “The Epistle divides itself into two parts — the first, doctrinal; the second, practice — though the division is not so accurately (closely, A.W.P.) observed, that there are no duties enjoined or urged in the first part, and no doctrines stated in the second. The first is by far the larger division, reaching from the beginning of the Epistle down to the 18th verse of the 10th chapter. The second commences with the 19th verse of the 10th chapter, and extends to the end of the Epistle. The superiority of Christianity to Judaism is the great doctrine which the Epistle teaches; and constancy in the faith and profession of that religion, is the great duty which it enjoins.” 5. ITS CHARACTERISTICS.
In several noticeable respects Hebrews differs from all the other Epistles of the New Testament. The name of the writer is omitted, there is no opening salutation, the ones to whom it was first specifically and locally sent are not mentioned. On the positive side we may note, that the typical teachings of the Old Testament are expounded here at greater length than elsewhere; the priesthood of Christ is opened up, fully, only in this Epistle; the warnings against apostasy are more frequent and more solemn, and the calls to steadfastness and perseverance are more emphatic and numerous than in any other New Testament book. All of these things are accounted for by the fleshly nationality of those addressed, and the circumstances they were then in. Unless we keep these features steadily in mind, not a little in this Epistle will necessarily remain obscure and dark. Much of the language used, the figures employed, the references made, are only intelligible in the light of the Old Testament Scriptures, on which Judaism was based. Except this be kept before us, such expressions as “purged our sins” ( Hebrews 1:3), “there remaineth therefore a Sabbath-keeping to the people of God” ( Hebrews 4:9), “leaving the principles of the doctrine of Christ, let us go on unto perfection” ( Hebrews 6:1), “our bodies washed with pure water” ( Hebrews 10:22), “we have an altar” ( Hebrews 13:10), etc., will remain unintelligible.
The first time that Christ is referred to in this Epistle it is as seated at “the right hand of the Majesty on high” ( Hebrews 1:3), for it is with a heavenly Christ that Christianity has to ‘do: note the other reference in this Epistle to the same fact — Hebrews 1:13, 8:1, 10:12, 12:2. In perfect accord with Hebrews 1:3, which strikes the keynote of the Epistle, in addition to the heavenly Christ, reference is made to “the heavenly calling” ( Hebrews 3:1), to “the heavenly gift” ( Hebrews 6:4), to “heavenly things” ( Hebrews 8:5), to “the heavenly Country” ( Hebrews 11:16), to the “heavenly Jerusalem” ( Hebrews 12:22), and to “the church of the First-born, whose names are written in Heaven” ( Hebrews 12:23). This emphasis is easily understood when we remember that our Epistle is addressed to those whose inheritance, religious relationships, and hopes, had been all earthly.
In Hebrews 13:22 there is a striking word which defines the character of this Epistle: “And I beseech you, brethren, suffer the word of exhortation, for I have written a letter unto you in few words.” Upon this verse Saphir has well said, “The central idea of the Epistle is the glory of the New Covenant, contrasted with and excelling the glory of the old covenant; and while this idea is developed in a systematic manner, yet the aim of the writer throughout is eminently and directly practical.
Everywhere his object is exhortation. He never loses sight of the dangers and wants of his brethren. The application to conscience and life is never forgotten. It is rather a sermon than an exposition.... In all his arguments, in every doctrine, in every illustration, the central aim of the Epistle is kept prominent — the exhortation to steadfastness.” This is, indeed, a peculiarity about Hebrews. In his other Epistles, the apostle rarely breaks in on an argument to utter an admonition or exhortation; instead, his wellnigh uniform method was to open with doctrinal exposition, and then base upon this a series of practical exhortations. But the unusual situation which the Hebrews were in, and the peculiar love that the writer bore to them (cf. Romans 9:3) explains this exception.
What has just been said above accounts for what we find in Hebrews 11.
Nowhere else in the Bible do we find such a lengthy and complete description of the life of faith. But here a whole chapter, the longest in the Epistle, is devoted to it. The reason for this is not far to seek. Brought up in a system with an elaborate ritual, whose worship was primarily a matter of outward symbols and ceremonies; tempted as few ever have been to walk by sight, there was a special and most pressing need for a clear and detailed analysis and description of what it means to “walk by faith.”
Inasmuch as “example is better than precept,” better because more easily grasped and because making a more powerful appeal to the heart, the Holy Spirit saw well to develop this important theme by an appeal to the history of saints recorded in the Scriptures of the Hebrews.
But it is most important that we recognize the fullness of the term faith. As Saphir well said, “Throughout Scripture faith means more than trust in Jesus for personal safety. This is the central point, but we must take care that we understand it in a true and deep manner. Faith, as the apostle explains in the Epistle to the Corinthians, is looking at the things which are not seen and temporal: it is preferring spiritual and eternal realities to the things of time, sense, and sin; it is leaning on God and realizing His Word; it is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.
Thus every doctrine and illustration of this Epistle goes straight to the heart and conscience, appeals to life, addresses itself to faith. It is one continued and sustained fervent and intense appeal to cleave to Jesus, the High Priest; to the substantial, true, and real worship. A most urgent and loving exhortation to be steadfast, patient, hopeful, in the presence of God, in the love and sympathy of the Lord Jesus, in the fellowship of the great cloud of witnesses.”
Another prominent characteristic, concerning which there is no need for us now to enlarge upon, is the repeated warnings in this Epistle against apostasy. The most solemn and searching exhortations against the danger of falling away to be found anywhere in Holy Writ were given to these, Hebrews 2:1-3, most of the third and fourth chapters, Hebrews 6:4-6, 10:26-29, 12:15-17, will at once occur to all who are familiar with the contents of this Epistle. The occasion for and the need of them has already been pointed out: the disappointing of the hopes the Hebrews had cherished, the persecutions they were then enduring, and the Divine judgment which was on the very eve of falling on Jerusalem (in AD 70) made them imperative. 6. ITS VALUE.
Let us mention first its evidential value. The Epistle is particularly rich in proofs of the verbal inspiration of Scripture. This is seen in the way the apostle refers to the Old Testament, and the use he makes of it. Mark how in Hebrews 1:5-9 when quoting from the Psalms, 2nd Samuel, Deuteronomy, he refers these utterances to God Himself — “He saith,” Hebrews 10:6-8. So in Hebrews 3:7 “the Holy Spirit saith.” Observe how when quoting from the Old Testament the apostle attentively weighs every word, and often builds a fundamental truth on a single expression.
Let us cite a few from the many examples of this:
See how in Hebrews 2:8 the apostle argues from the authority of the word “all.” In Hebrews 2:11, when quoting from Psalm 22, he deduces the conclusion from the expression “My brethren” that the Son of God took to Himself human nature. Observe that in Hebrews 3:7-19 and Hebrews 4:2-11, when quoting from Psalm 95, he builds on the words “Today,” “I have sworn.” and “My rest;” also in Hebrews 3:2-6 how his conclusions there are drawn from the words “servant,” and “My house” in Numbers 12:7. His whole argument in chapter 8 is based on the word “new” found in Jeremiah 31:31. How blessedly he makes use of the words “My son” from Proverbs 3:11 in Hebrews 12:5-9! How emphatically he appeals in Hebrews 12:26,27 to the words “once more” in Haggai 2:6,7. Is it not abundantly clear that in the judgment of the apostle Paul the Scriptures were Divinely inspired even to the most minute expression?
The evangelical value of this Epistle has been recognized by Christians of all schools of thought. Here is set forth with sunlight clearness the preciousness, design, efficacy and effects of the great Sacrifice offered once and for all. Christ has Himself purged our sins ( Hebrews 1:3); He is able to save “to the uttermost” ( Hebrews 7:25); by His one offering He has “perfected forever the sanctified” ( Hebrews 10:14); by His blood a new and living way has been opened for His people into the Holiest ( Hebrews 10:19,20): such are some of its wondrous declarations. Emphasizing the inestimable worth of His redemptive work, it is here that we read of an “eternal salvation” ( Hebrews 5:9), “eternal redemption” ( Hebrews 9:12), and of the “eternal inheritance” ( Hebrews 9:15).
The doctrinal importance of this book is exceeded by none, not even by the Roman Epistle. Where its teachings are believed, understood, and embodied in the life, ritualism and legalism (the two chief enemies of Christianity) receive their death blow. In no other book of Scripture are the sophistries and deceptions of Romanism so clearly and systematically exposed. So fully and pointedly are the errors of Popery refuted, it might well have been written since that satanic system became established. Well did one of the Puritans say, “God foreseeing what poisonous heresies would be hatched by the Papacy, prepared this antidote against them.”
But perhaps its chief distinctive value lies in its exposition of the Old Testament types. It is here we are taught that the Tabernacle and its furniture, the priesthood and their service, the various sacrifices and offerings, all pointed to the person, offices, and glories of the Lord Jesus.
Of Israel’s priests it is said, “who served unto the example and shadow of heavenly things” ( Hebrews 8:5); the first tabernacle was “a figure for the time then present” ( Hebrews 9:9); the ceremonial law had “a shadow of good things to come” ( Hebrews 10:1). Melchizedec was a type of Christ ( Hebrews 7:15), Isaac was a figure of Him ( Hebrews 11:9), and so on. The details of these will be considered, D.V., in due course. 7. ITS WRITER.
This, we are fully assured, was the apostle Paul. Though he was distinctively and essentially the “apostle of the Gentiles” ( Romans 11:13), yet his ministry was by no means confined to them, as the book of Acts clearly shows. At the time of his apprehension the Lord said, “He is a chosen vessel unto Me, to bear My Name before the Gentiles, and kings, and the children of Israel” ( Acts 9:15).
It is significant that Israel is there mentioned last, in harmony with the fact that his Epistle to the Hebrews was written after most of his others to Gentile saints. That this Epistle was written by Paul is clear from Peter 3:15. Peter was writing to saved Jews as the opening verses of his first Epistle intimates; 2 Peter 3:1 informs us that this letter was addressed to the same people as his former one had been. Then, in Hebrews 10:15, he declares that his beloved brother Paul “also according to the wisdom given unto him hath written unto you.” If the Epistle to the Hebrews be not that writing, where is it?