Saturday, November 23, 2019

Lecture One: General Epistles - Hebrews

General Epistles: Hebrews



The text does not mention the name of its author, but was traditionally attributed to Paul the Apostle. However, doubt on Pauline authorship is seen very early on in the Roman Church as reported by Eusebius. Modern biblical scholarship considers its authorship unknown, perhaps written in deliberate imitation of the style of Paul. Although the writer's style reflects some characteristics of Paul's writing, there are some differences. 


Scholars believe it was written for Jewish Christians who lived in Jerusalem.


Its purpose was to exhort Christians to persevere in the face of persecution. At this time, certain believers were considering turning back to Judaism (the Jewish system of law) to escape being persecuted for accepting Christ as their savior, now following this system of grace (saved by Jesus' sacrifice on the cross).


The theme of the epistle is the doctrine of the person of Christ and his role as mediator between God and humanity. 

Chapter 1 

We start with an introduction about God's final revelation ('word') through his son and how the son is superior to angels. 

The writer attests that God spoke decisively to Israel through the prophets and that he finally and fully revealed his character and will by his son, with the greatness and absolute superiority over the angels, the supernatural beings considered by Israel to be closest to God. 

The writer says, “God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, has in these last days spoken to us by His Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the worlds.” 

While the Old Testament revelation in time past came at many times throughout the history of Israel and in various ways such as 'dreams, visions and angelic messages', the ultimate revelation in these last days of human history came through Jesus Christ as the Son of God, who was with God from the beginning and through whom God made the universe (basically 'the whole universe of space and time'. The Son is also appointed as the heir of all things to possess and rule over 'all that was created through him'. 

The writer says of Jesus: “who being the brightness of His glory and the express image of His person, and upholding all things by the word of His power, when He had by Himself purged our sins, sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become so much better than the angels, as He has by inheritance obtained a more excellent name than they.”

The Son reveals in his person what God is really like.

When the writer says that Jesus "Sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high" he is referencing the language of Psalm 110 and describing an image of the heavenly enthronement of the Son of God which is the sequel of his atoning work. 

The writer than discusses the Son's Superiority to Angels. The reference to the heavenly enthronement of the Son in the previous part is followed by the explanation of his position to the angelic world, using Psalm 110 as the framework to understand various other Old Testament texts. 

He asks: 

“For to which of the angels did He ever say:
‘You are My Son,
Today I have begotten You’?

And again:

‘I will be to Him a Father,
And He shall be to Me a Son’?” 

The writer also references Psalm 2 because of the prophecy pertaining to the Messiah as the Son of David, as well as 2 Samuel 7 which he understands as the theological basis of God's special promise to David and his dynasty. 

He refers to Psalm 97, saying: 

“And again, when He brings the firstborn into the world, He says:
‘Let all the angels of God worship Him.’” 

And he refers to Psalm 104 as well: 

“And of the angels He says:
‘Who makes His angels spirits
And His ministers a flame of fire.’” 

And he adds: 

“But to the Son He says:
‘Your throne, O God, lasts forever and ever;
a scepter of righteousness is the scepter of Your kingdom.
You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness;
therefore God, Your God, has anointed You
with the oil of gladness more than Your companions.’” 

And he refers to Psalm 110 again, asking: 

“But to which of the angels has He ever said:
‘Sit at My right hand,
Till I make Your enemies Your footstool’?” 

Jesus also quoted Psalm 110 in Matthew’s Gospel and applied it to the Messiah, who is greater than angels, because “the angels do not exercise the authority and rule of the Son”. 

Chapter 2 

This chapter begins with the implications for responding to God's Son. 

The first paragraph, the first of several warning passages, gives the direct practical consequences of the previous chapter, which can be a positive encouragement (pay more careful attention to what we have heard) or a negative attitude (drift away). The writer and readers were not part of the first generation of Christians when the gospel of salvation was first “announced by the Lord – that is, Jesus Christ – and was confirmed by those who heard him”, but they certainly received it from those who had obtained it from Jesus with the affirmation from God by “signs, wonders and various miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will.” 

The writer then discusses the subjection and glorification of the Son. The writer says, “For He has not put the world to come, of which we speak, in subjection to angels.”

"The world to come" recalls Israel's hope for "a glorious age to come", with the renewal of creation through the establishment of 'new heavens and new earth' (see Isaiah 65) which is sometimes specifically associated with the work of the Messiah (see Isaiah 11). 

The writer then discusses the benefits of the believers. He says, “Therefore, in all things He had to be made like His brethren, that He might be a merciful and faithful High Priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.” This the first time the title "High Priest" is given to Jesus in this epistle, and this is going to be the theme of the next major division (3:1–5:10). Here it is linked closely with the teaching that he had to be “made like his brothers” in every way.

The writer says, “For in that He Himself has suffered, being tempted, He is able to aid those who are tempted.” We know that at the beginning of his public ministry and a little before his death, Jesus was tempted by Satan; also throughout his life he endured poverty, with slight from his own relatives, a general contempt among men, often tempted by the Jews with ensnaring questions, later was deserted by his followers, by his own disciples, even by his God and Father; enduring great pains of body, anguish of mind, then lastly death itself.

The writer says this was "to aid those who are tempted" and that only because he shared human nature, experienced human frailty and suffered when he was tempted, so Jesus is able to provide the appropriate help. 

Chapter 3 

This chapter contains the comparison of Moses to Jesus ('the Son'), as well as the application and warning for the congregation. The writer points to Moses and Jesus as examples of faith. The faithfulness of Jesus to God as the one who appointed him is paralleled with the faithfulness of Moses, inviting us to completely trust Jesus. 

The writer says, “Therefore, holy brethren, partakers of the heavenly calling, consider the Apostle and High Priest of our confession, Christ Jesus, who was faithful to Him who appointed Him, as Moses also was faithful in all His house.”

The phrase "holy brethren" or "holy brothers" suggests a family relationship between true believers, both men and women, as 'pilgrims' who share in the heavenly calling to reign with Jesus Christ in “the world to come”. 

The writer also discusses Moses' foundational role as the revealer of God's will to Israel. 

He writes, “For this One has been counted worthy of more glory than Moses, inasmuch as He who built the house has more honor than the house.” "The house" or "the temple", may refer to Zechariah 6:12-13 pointing to Christ who is the builder, foundation, and cornerstone of "the church", where he is glorified.

The writer then calls the readers to faithfulness. The Holy Spirit, who is acknowledged as the one spoken “through David” in Psalm 95, continues to speak to generations of Christians and warn them to “make each day a fresh ‘Today’ to hear his voice and live”.

Chapter 4 

This chapter contains the admonition to press on toward 'God's Rest' and a reflection on the power of God's Word. 

The writer continues to calls the readers to faithfulness. He quotes David, saying: 

"Today, if you will hear His voice,
Do not harden your hearts." 

David is explicitly named to have written these words from Psalm 95, which happened long after the Israelites already enjoyed rest and had been established in Canaan under the leadership of Joshua. Therefore, this day ("Today") is another day in the future for God's people to enter a heavenly rest, beyond the enjoyment of life in the land of Israel. 

The writer says, “For if Joshua had given them rest, then He would not afterward have spoken of another day.” The "rest" experienced by the Israelites in the time of Joshua was “an earthly anticipation of the ultimate, heavenly rest”, an old covenant promise that is fulfilled in a transformed way by Jesus Christ. 

He writes, “For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.”

He then talks about the compassion of Christ. The characteristic term of this section is 'High Priest', which links to the beginning of the previous section as an introduction to the new segment. 

He writes, “For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin.” 

Chapter 5 

This chapter contains an exposition about the merciful Christ and the High Priests, followed by an exhortation to challenge the readers beyond the elementary teachings. 

The verses 1–4 highlight certain qualifications for high-priesthood under the old covenant, as a basis for applying it to Jesus to be the high priest for the new covenant (verses 5–6), who can 'sympathise with our weaknesses' without ever having sinned (verses 7–8), and was 'made completely adequate' as the savior of his people (verses 9–10). 

He also points out that one must be called by God to the office of high-priesthood, because the honor of that office is given by God alone. The same is true for Jesus. 

And he quotes Psalm 2:

"You are My Son,
Today I have begotten You." 

And Psalm 110:

"You are a priest forever
According to the order of Melchizedek" 

The writer the gives an admonition on spiritual immaturity. Here he gives warnings to the readers in preparation for the serious arguments in chapters 7–10, because the subsequent teaching about the high-priestly work of Christ will not be comprehended or applied by those who are slow to learn or continue to avoid solid food, unwilling to study the deeper faith implications, and if so, they can never be mature Christians. 

He says, “For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the first principles of the oracles of God; and you have come to need milk and not solid food.”

One sign of the slackness in the faith development is the unwillingness (or inability) to be teachers, that is, to explain the faith they learned to other people. Here, "milk" is equated with "the first principles of the oracles of God" (Greek: ta stoicheia tēs archēs tōn logiōn tou Theou), which could mean 'the guidelines' for interpreting the sayings of God (from a Christian point-of-view).

Chapter 6 

This chapter contains an admonition to progress and persistence in faithfulness.

He says, “For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, if they fall away, to be renewed once more to repentance, since they again crucify to themselves the Son of God and subject Him to public shame.”

According to this epistle, there are four things found to be 'impossible'; the first one is about the impossibility to restore apostates, resembling other early Christian expressions of 'the unforgivable sin' or the 'mortal sin'. In rejecting the one whose death brings salvation, the apostates join those who disgracefully executed Jesus, whose solemn designation as “Son of God” reinforces “the heinousness of apostasy”. 

He then encourages them to persevere. He says, “For God is not unjust to forget your work and labor of love which you have shown toward His name, in that you have ministered to the saints, and continue to minister.”

The point is not to focus on the reward for services, because God knows the real situation of people's spiritual lives and he can motivate the expressions of 'genuine Christianity' anytime, just like in the past, and also again in the future.

He then talks about the steadfastness of God's promise. He says, “For when God made a promise to Abraham, because He could swear by no one greater, He swore by Himself, so that by two immutable things, in which it was impossible for God to lie, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us.” 

Christian hope is based not on wishful thinking but on the 'solemn promise of God', that the 'foundation of God's saving activity in the world was the particular promise made to Abraham in Genesis 12 and repeated at different times and forms to the forefathers of Israel. These verses also contain one of the four things found to be 'impossible' in this epistle – God cannot lie. 

He writes, “This hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and steadfast, and which enters the Presence behind the veil…” This verse and the next should be read in the light of Hebrews 7:20-22, that because Jesus is the promised high priest in the order of Melchizedek, he has become “the guarantee” of the blessings of the new covenant, so those who rely on Jesus can actually enter the inner sanctuary behind the curtain ("the Presence behind the veil"), where “he has gone before them and has entered on their behalf” ("the forerunner has entered for us"). 

Chapter 7 

This chapter contains an exposition about the superiority of Christ's priesthood through the Priest-King Melchizedek to the Levitical priesthood.

He writes, “For this Melchizedek, king of Salem, priest of the Most High God, who met Abraham returning from the slaughter of the kings and blessed him, to whom also Abraham gave a tenth part of all, first being translated "king of righteousness,” and then also king of Salem, meaning “king of peace," [For this Melchizedek] without father, without mother, without genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but made like the Son of God, remains a priest continually.”

He then goes on to describe the greatness of Melchizedek and the imperfection of the Aaronic priesthood, saying, “Now consider how great this man was, to whom even the patriarch Abraham gave a tenth of the spoils. Even Levi, who receives tithes, paid tithes through Abraham, so to speak, for it is evident that our Lord arose from Judah, of which tribe Moses spoke nothing concerning priesthood.

But he says that Jesus is superior because of the divine oath as he “has become a surety of a better covenant.”

Further aspects of Jesus' priesthood are introduced here and will be explored in the next chapters, that is, Jesus' role as a "guarantor" of a better covenant, superior to the old covenant as much as his priesthood is superior to that of Aaron. The author emphasizes the superior dignity of Jesus by arranging the weight of argument to fall on the word "Jesus" as the last word of this verse in the original Greek text. 

The "covenant" or "testament", for the Greek word may signify both (a testament, because it is established in the good will of God, and includes an inheritance bequeathed by God the Father to his children, confirmed and given to them by the death of Christ the testator; and a covenant, because it is a compact or agreement made by the Father with Christ, as the representative of all the elect) is called in Scripture a "covenant of life and peace", and is also commonly called the "covenant of grace", because it springs from the grace of God, and the end of it is the glory of God's grace.

The writer says it is superior because of its permanence. He says, “But He, because He continues forever, has an unchangeable priesthood. Therefore He is also able to save to the uttermost those who come to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them.

The writer says it is superior because of the character of Jesus. He says, “For such a High Priest was fitting for us, who is holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners, and has become higher than the heavens; who does not need daily, as those high priests, to offer up sacrifices, first for His own sins and then for the people’s, for this He did once for all when He offered up Himself.”

There is no explicit ordinance for a high priest to offer daily sacrifices for his own sins, but 'inadvertent sinning' (such as described in Leviticus 4) could be a 'daily hazard' and, in his position, if not taken care of, it could bring guilt on the people. Therefore, it becomes a custom to for the high priest to first offer sacrifices on his own account, before performing his task for the people, as also attested by the first-century Jewish writer, Philo. 

He continues, “For the law appoints as high priests men who have weakness, but the word of the oath, which came after the law, appoints the Son who has been perfected forever.”

The 'new and perpetual priesthood after Melchizedek's order', given under oath by the Divine acclamation, was designed to supersede the previous priesthood under the ancient law, which was beset by frailty and required sin offerings for the high priest as well as the people. The supersession became effective once the Messiah ("the Son") “vindicated his high-priestly title on the basis of a perfect sacrifice”, so his “high-priesthood is absolutely efficacious and eternally suited to meet the need of his people”. 

Chapter 8 

This chapter contains an exposition about the better ministry of the New Covenant.

First, the writer discusses the work of the heavenly High Priest. This section serves as an introduction to the homily about the New Covenant based on Jeremiah 31. 

He writes, “Now this is the main point of the things we are saying: We have such a High Priest, who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens, minister of the sanctuary and of the true tabernacle which the Lord erected, and not man, who serve the copy and shadow of the heavenly things, as Moses was divinely instructed when he was about to make the tabernacle. For He said, ‘See that you make all things according to the pattern shown you on the mountain.’” 

Following the introduction to the homily, the oracle in Jeremiah 31 is discussed as the word of God. 

He writes, “In that He says, ‘A new covenant,’ He has made the first obsolete. Now what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.”

Chapter 9 

This chapter contains an exposition about the ministry of the first covenant and Christ's effective sacrifice. The chapter opens with a contrast between “the old and new covenants by reviewing the structure and rituals of the tabernacle”. 

He writes:

“Then indeed, even the first covenant had ordinances of divine service and the earthly sanctuary. For a tabernacle was prepared: the first part, in which was the lampstand, the table, and the showbread, which is called the sanctuary; and behind the second veil, the part of the tabernacle which is called the Holiest of All, which had the golden censer and the ark of the covenant overlaid on all sides with gold, in which were the golden pot that had the manna, Aaron’s rod that budded, and the tablets of the covenant; and above it were the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat. Of these things we cannot now speak in detail.” 

"Mercy seat" is translated from the Greek word hilasterion, which specifically means the lid of the Ark of the Covenant. The only other occurrence of hilasterion in the New Testament is in Romans 3:25 where it is often translated as "propitiation". 

The defining moment in the current situation is when “Christ came” as High Priest to fulfill the symbolized act of yearly ritual. The Greek word diathēkē used here has a range of meaning from “contract” or “treaty” to “will” or “testament”, which is elaborated in legal language in this section. 

He writes, “And for this reason He is the Mediator of the new covenant, by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions under the first covenant, that those who are called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance.”

The promise of an “inheritance” in “ordinary legal usage” implies “the death of a testator”, who in this case then “redeems” "the heirs from their transgressions".

He writes, “And according to the law almost all things are purified with blood, and without shedding of blood there is no remission.” He says “almost all things” because "some things were cleansed by water, and others purged by fire". 

The then discusses the new heavenly sacrifice. The new description of Christ's “heavenly” action in this part is balanced by the incorporation of the “image of ritual purification” from the previous verses. 

He writes, “And as it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment, so Christ was offered once to bear the sins of many. To those who eagerly wait for Him He will appear a second time, apart from sin, for salvation.”

Chapter 10 

This chapter contains an exposition about Christ's effective sacrifice and the exhortation to continue in faithfulness and expectancy. As foreshadowed in Jeremiah 31, the Messiah “inaugurated the new and interior covenant by an act of conformity to God's will". 

The writer says, “For it is not possible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. By that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” These verses contain one of the four things to be “impossible” according to this epistle. It is the will of God that the believers be sanctified and Christ's act of obedience made God's will his own, because Christ's death conformed to God's will and Christ's obedience—attested in the Gethsemane story and John’s Gospel—is decisive for establishing the new covenant. This is also the first time in the epistle that the composite name “Jesus Christ” appears. 

The next section summarizes and weaves together the themes of the previous few chapters. He writes, “For by one offering He has perfected forever those who are being sanctified.” By his one sacrifice Jesus Christ did what the law of Moses, and all its sacrifices, could not do. 

The writer then encourages the readers to hold fast to faith. This part contains an exhortation to live as members of the "new covenant" which stresses faith, hope, and love. 

He also gives a warning with his encouragement.

He writes:

"For yet a little while,
And He who is coming will come and will not tarry." 

This verse combines the quote “a little while” from Isaiah 26:20 with the quote “will not tarry” from Habakkuk 2:3 in its Greek form, rendering it as a prediction of one “who is coming” that points to the imminence of Christ's second coming.

He continues:

"Now the just shall live by faith;
But if anyone draws back, My soul has no pleasure in him." 

This comes from the Septuagint version of Habakkuk 2:4 which reads:

“If he shrinks back, my soul has no pleasure in him, but the righteous one will live by faith.” Here "he shrinks back" is not applied to the "coming one" but to "those who await God's deliverance." Paul also cites Habakkuk 2:4 in Galatians 3:11 and Romans 1:17 to contrast "faith" and "works of the law". 

He continues, “But we are not of those who draw back to destruction, but of those who believe to the saving of the soul.”

Chapter 11

This chapter contains an exposition about the examples of faith's effective expression. It opens with three allusive verses to describe the complexity of faith.

He writes:

“Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. For by it the elders obtained a good testimony. By faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that the things which are seen were not made of things which are visible.”

This formal definition of faith is in the style of Plato's definition of medicine or Plutarch's definition of curiosity. The accounts of exemplary people were often used to motivate people, either to imitate noble attitudes or to avoid the pattern of ignoble behaviors. Some examples include Ben Sira (a teacher of wisdom from Jerusalem in the 2nd century BC) who used a long hymn to praise notable Jewish ancestors, as well as the author of 4th Maccabees, and Seneca. The list of examples starts appropriately with the creation, indicating that "faith" produces "understanding". The first manifestation of "trust" is connected to how a person of "faith" understands the visible creation in relation to "things unseen".

The writer goes through a list of exemplary people of faith, starting with the primordial heroes. The first character, Abel, performed an “acceptable sacrifice”, and died as a martyr. Abel's choice of superior quality of offering compared to Cain's second rate one is related to the presence of "faith", which attests Abel to be "righteous" or "just".

Enoch “walked with God” until God took him, indicating that having faith in God leads to the transcendence of death.

Noah believed in the “unseen” event of divine judgment, and “condemned” the world that didn't believe his preaching of repentance.

He writes, “But without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him.” This verse contains one of the four things found to be 'impossible' according to this epistle.

The writer then goes through a list of exemplary people of faith among the Patriarchs. Abraham is a foremost example of faith in Jewish and early Christian literature. Sarah's faith is related to the conception and birth of Isaac, Isaac's to the blessings on Jacob and Esau, Jacob's to the blessings on Ephraim and Manasseh, and Joseph's to the prophecy concerning the transfer of his bones to hint a hope for the future of the family.

He then talks about the faith of Moses who is called a faithful servant of God in both Jewish and Christian writings.

He then goes on to discuss the faith of prophets and martyrs, giving a quick rundown of several different biblical characters.

He also writes, “Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection.” This is a reference to events recorded in 2nd Maccabees.

Chapter 12

This chapter contains a call to respond gratefully and nobly to God's invitation.

He writes, “Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”

And he says, “Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us have grace, by which we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear.”

Chapter 13

This closing chapter contains the author's concluding exhortations, final benediction and a postscript.

He says to “let love continue” and that “marriage should be honored.”

He writes, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. Therefore Jesus also, that He might sanctify the people with His own blood, suffered outside the gate. Let us bear the reproach Christ endured.”

He then tells them to submit to their leaders, and also mentions that Timothy has been set free and he will bring him along to see them if he arrives back in time. Timothy was Paul's companion and is mentioned multiple times in the New Testament, and is obviously known by the recipients of this letter. "Set free" can also be translated as "set at liberty" or "dismissed" either from his current duty (sent by the apostle Paul), or released from prison.

The letter ends with a blessing: “Grace be with you.”